Indigenous Brilliance & Two-Spirit Identities: An Interview with Amelia Vigil

Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) is a community-based, all-volunteer organization whose mission is to “restore and recover the role of Two-Spirit people within the American Indian/First Nations community by creating a forum for the spiritual, cultural and artistic expression of Two-Spirit people.” Two-Spirit refers to the belief among many Native American tribes that some individuals naturally possess and manifest both female and male energies; American society commonly identifies Two-Spirit People as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender. BAAITS offers culturally relevant activities for Two-Spirit Indigenous Americans, and their families and friends, explore their rich heritage in a safe environment. BAAITS’ annual Two-Spirit powwow, the oldest of its kind, welcomes thousands of people to San Francisco each year.

Blue Heart had the honor of speaking with BAAITS Board Chair Amelia Vigil about the organization, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Interview edited for clarity.

Lindley Mease: I’d love to hear your own story, where you come from, and how you ended up where you are.

Amelia Vigil: I’ll start by saying that I was born and raised in San Francisco. I identify as a mixed race person: mixed Mexicana, Purépechan, Picuris, New Mexican, and Spanish, and actually I have some heritage of Sephardic Jews who were exiled during the Inquisition. I have indigenous heritage on my mother’s side and my father’s side. So that’s my essential heritage. But then I was raised in an urban context in San Francisco, away from those cultures.

I’m not tribally enrolled. I think it’s important and I want to name that. In some circles, tribal affiliation and tribal enrollment is a big deal and it’s controversial for me to be in this position.

I’m also an identical twin. Raised poor, indigenous identified, a multiple, a San Franciscan, a two-spirit identified person, a queer person. Part of what has contributed to me being able to have some clear thinking around multiplicity and multidimensional landscapes, is I’ve had the very rare life experience to be in all the identities that I hold.

I consider myself a survivor of grief, cultural dissociation, and internalized homophobia. I had a point in my life where I wanted to take my own life because it felt like too much. I started to seek other-than-human support and I found that in the spirit world of my ancestors and through nature. Through that process, I realized how vital it is to know who you are, to know where you come from, and to know it’s possible in the context of the Bay Area.

I was introduced to BAAITS via the drum group. I showed up to the community drum, for the medicine of the drum and the prayer of the drum, and got introduced to the organization and the various other cultural activities that we do. I joined the powwow planning committee and was volunteering with the organization and just showing up time and time again. I really believe that BAAITS saved my life and provided a space where I could remember who I am and where I belong. That was six to seven years ago. I was nominated to be on the board four years ago. I am deeply humbled and grateful that the organization is willing to entrust me with, at least for a short time, this position.

My motivations have always just been to serve the Bay Area community and my people, because this is not my central homeland. The bay area is not my central homeland; it’s homelands of Pomo, Coastal Miwok, Ohlone. These tribes are still alive and active today, so I’m not able to speak on that. My connection to my own heritage has been strained through silencing, assimilation, poverty, trauma. My commitment to other individuals who may be feeling alone is really what motivates me towards the future.

Lindley: Thank you. Could you provide the higher level story of BAAITS?

Amelia: “Two-spirit” is a contemporary term that was created in ’97 collectively for native and indigenous people. It is not a synonym for gay American Indian or gay Native American. It’s in addition to the LGBT alphabet. Two-spirit as an identity is for indigenous and Native American individuals, by indigenous and Native American individuals.

At the International Two-Spirit Gathering in the Bay Area 20 years ago, the founders of BAAITS — Gene Hightower, Sally Ramon, and other cofounders — said, we want to work more with community, to show visibility for two-spirit people in a sober space, in a prayerful space. And so they did that. The organization has been around for 20 years and we were the first to do a two-spirit powwow, based on an Oklahoma-style powwow because California natives hae another style celebration called a “Big Time”

There’s always two sides of this work. When you’re in LGBTQ spaces, you’re educating people about Native American or indigenous identity — “hey, genocide and erasure didn’t work, we’re still here!” — and then when we’re surrounded by our fellow Native Americans or indigenous relatives we’re constantly educating around two-spirit people and combatting homophobia.

There are so many labels for the work we’re trying to do here. I would just summarize it as multidisciplinary, filled with multiplicity, and recognizing the complexity of an individual in a larger system that is, to this day, actively oppressing and denying the existence of Native American livelihood and value.

Lindley: What does the day-to-day, week-to-week looks like in terms of what you’re creating?

Amelia: We are completely volunteer. Everyone, from the Board members, to the powwow committee, to the drum group, is a volunteer. We had an office at the LGBTQ Center and we were asked to leave when they did a remodel, and we have been without an office space ever since. That’s going on 3 years. So literally this organization is run out of everyone’s spare time, their garages, their closets.

The day-to-day is focused on community events, the main one being the powwow. Year after year it’s grown exponentially from, like, “is anyone going to show?” to maxing out the LGBTQ Center space. The powwow didn’t have a stable home venue for a while until we met the Fort Mason Center. We have other events throughout the year. Our staple events are always going to be drum (we have community drum and closed prayer drum), the powwow, marching in Pride, and also beading workshops, regalia making, dance classes, or even just coming together and eating food — we’re trying to support cultural practices being practiced. Something that is also common is that the BAAITS drum will go out and offer prayers to different events throughout the Bay Area. More recently, since this is our 20th anniversary, we’re trying to provide some workshops around BAAITS and BAAITS’ history, working collaboratively with LGBTQ historical societies. We had an exhibition that showcased two-spirit voices and BAAITS’ history. We’re also working with the Oakland Museum to do a mixed-media show of two-spirit-identified and Native/indigenous-identified artists. And this yer we will be having a gathering after the opening prayer of dyke march.

Lindley: What have you seen happen over the course of BAAITS? Do you think of yourselves as a movement, and if so, how? What have you seen emerge because of these spaces for creative expression, for safety, for community building, that you’ve been creating?

Amelia: There’s so many tribes, so many ways of practice, so many cultures, so many different ancestries that it’s important to realize I am one lens in a world of eyes. Every story is going to be different.

To answer if I believe we’re a movement, I wouldn’t centralize it. I would say yes, but I shy away from being overly political because of how easy it is to dismiss our message. There were so many years prior to me where people have been working, I very much see it as a legacy that I’d be honored to engage with, one that doesn’t belongs to me, it belongs to the future, it belongs to those who created the foundation of the past. What I see that comes out of carving out these spaces is that, in Canada, Winnepeg is going on its second year of a two-spirit powwow. The Gathering of All Nations, which is the largest powwow in New Mexico, last year made their first callout for two-spirit-identified dancers, and will be doing that again this year. The year before last, the Stanford powwow for the very first time actually placed the rainbow flag in the color guard at Grand Entry. Essentially, more and more visibility means more and more two-spirit societies and two-spirit-identified people are actively utilizing their self-determination within their own communities to show their brilliance and their beauty by being out and proud.

You have to remember that in urban contexts, it’s very different than rural contexts. In a rural context, we have reservation lifestyle, and I don’t have a connection to one within my own life. You’d have to talk to somebody who does, to discuss more of those details, but we’re realizing that the worlds of indigeneity become ever more complex when you enter sexuality, queer identity, and two-spirit identity.

Lindley: I’m curious to hear how your connection to land informs your work as well as how you see the two-spirit community informing or lifting current Native American struggles.

Amelia: Those are really big questions. Again, to over-emphasize, I cannot give you an answer because I can’t speak for so many people. It would be like if you were wearing the color blue and me saying, “Hey, can you speak on behalf of everyone who is wearing the color blue in this very moment right now?” That’s an impossible task.

The land is not for us to take; it’s for us to steward. We’re in a really interesting time where western science would like proof of what I call Indigenous brilliance and Indigenous self-determination and Indigenous sciences which people have always practiced. Stop treating these individuals as if these are practices of the past. These are practices that are for our future, medicine for the land that is known. Requiring that western stamp of approval is part of the problem.

The reason why our government today, and the pope for that matter, is upholding the Doctrine of Discovery is really around fear of allowing a different way of being and engaging with the earth, with our planet — not towards, not to, but with. If we were compensated for the land that was stolen and pillaged, the reparations would be immense. Which is why the rich are holding so tightly.

First Nation communities have ways that have worked for thousands of years that have been actively ignored, actively oppressed, actively denied, actively brutalized. All of that is still active today. I would hope that in people making connections to other-than-human spaces and other-than-human species, we can recognize that it’s not the othering that’s going to save us. It’s remembering who we are and our relationship to the land. First Nation people have a closer tie to that deep remembering. We know the legacy of our ancestry in a very visceral way, that colonized or western thinkers have cut themselves off of, by believing that a human lifetime is only 100 years, and that you don’t have to remember anything past, or into the future, at all.

Lindley: I have one more question, about solidarity. Where do you see solidarity go awry, and what kind of solidarity does BAAITS specifically, or you, seek from folks who are not in your community?

Amelia: I think there’s still so much collective consciousness that First Nation and Native American people are people of the past. That is a problem. When I hear people trying to engage in solidarity with indigenous self-determination, I often see people wanting to or trying to relate in a way that feels very tokenizing and or appropriative. The only way to dismantle that is, from my perspective, to do your personal work. What I mean by that is to learn about your ancestry and actually dive into your own heritage, your cultural practices that have been either estranged from or part of this quote-unquote melting pot that is the United States, to discern for yourself what your impact can be regardless of your positive intention. Have a critical lens as to any individual’s motivation, including my own. There are some lines of thinking where I am taking up too much space by not being tribally enrolled.

I want to bring in here that some of the most damage I have seen is through lateral violence, from those who are closer in experience to oppression than others, attacking each other for not being enough, whatever that may be. So there’s a few layers in this that make it really confusing. I would gently encourage anyone to open themselves up to the history that is in their genetic coding, whether that be oppressive horrific acts, or not. And then to remember that privilege plays out in many ways and sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge where you come from and step aside. I don’t see very many, regardless of identity, being able to do the work of humbling themselves, and just how incredibly challenging it is to discern between intent and impact.

So for anyone who would say, “I want to understand how to be a true ally,” I would say, “OK, how much of yourself do you know, how much of your shadow?” And then don’t assume anything. Always ask the questions: “Do you want my support here? Do you need it? Oh, you don’t? OK, I’m going to listen.” Because a lot that ends up happening is that people with very good intentions will still inadvertently take over because somebody isn’t doing something the way they think it should be done. Examining the way that they think it should be done, it’s completely colonized. Recognize what tools of oppression you’re working with, and which ones you’re working on dismantling. Even within yourself. And other people would just say, “Fuck the white people, and the colonizers, we need self-determination now.” Which is totally valid and people need to hear that, too.

Lindley: Many of the things that you’ve brought up are just so desperately needed in this world, so I’m thrilled to share some of your words with our community. Thank you so much. Is there anything else that you want to say?

Amelia: I would want to say that, again, I am one lens, and that I do not speak for all. If anybody has any issue with anything that I have said, approach me directly. I would love to stay engaged with it.

I do this work for the future, I do it for the individuals I will not meet. I am so incredibly humbled and grateful for this work every single day. I really hope that if someone who considers themselves to be a voice for Native American people wants to be involved in BAAITS, that they please come. We are here to keep doing the work and we do need more voices. BAAITS is in its 20th year and I hope that it reaches 40 years, and 60 years, and that we are building more and more toward visibility and bringing all of us back into the circle together.

Lindley: Thank you. I feel honored to speak with you.

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