A gay couple from Salt Lake City competed in a “Sweetheart Special” dance competition at the annual San Manuel Powwow in San Bernadino, Calif., the weekend of Oct. 13-15. While they were ultimately disqualified from the competition, which awarded a total of $34,500 to the top 10 couples, because contest rules require the couple to be male-female, the fact they were able to dance in the first round is considered a big move forward.
Adrian “AD” Matthias Stevens, who is San Carlos Apache, Northern Ute and Shoshone Bannock, was raised in Fort Duchesne, Utah on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. His fiance, Sean Snyder, is Navajo and Southern Ute, from Iowa City, Iowa. They refer to themselves as a Two-Spirit couple.
They’ve been together for five years.
“We’d known each other for quite some time before then,” Stevens said.
Both have been dancing at powwows since they were children. Both of Stevens’ parents are dancers and Snyder’s grandmother danced and encouraged his family to participate in powwows.
“I’ve been dancing since I could walk,” Snyder said.
“This powwow arena is what brought us together,” Stevens said. “This arena has so much love and it brought us together. We’ve also done international trips together. That’s where our [engagement] rings come from. I proposed to Sean at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and presented him with that ring.”
The couple decided this year to compete in the Sweetheart Special dance contest, working for months on their routine and outfits.
“The San Manuel Powwow is one of our favorites,” Stevens said. “This year, in particular, our big focus was the Sweetheart Special.”
Snyder said they looked forward to representing themselves and their tribal identities.
Once they got to the powwow and were registering to compete, however, they were confronted by three rules on the form:
• Team members must be married or in a long-term relationship with each other.
• Team members must be 18 years and older.
• A team is two people ONLY, one male & one female.
“I couldn’t believe after all the work we had put into wanting to showcase our routine and dancing ability, that this may not actually come to fruition,” Stevens told Charlie Ballard, author at PowWows.com.
But the couple was encouraged by friends and family to sign their names to the sheet, regardless. So, Stevens wrote his name under the “Male Contestant Name” heading and Snyder’s under “Female Contestant Name.”
The people at the registration desk specifically asked if “Sean” was a woman. Stevens lied.
“We knew that we would be breaking social norms for this special but we were excited to just go out there like any other couple and simply dance with each other,” Stevens said.
The Powwow committee and judges became aware of the couple, according to a statement later released by organizers, but allowed them to complete the dance “to honor them and their relationship.”
They were well received by the audience and people who have since commented on videos posted online.
“We have a lot of support within the powwow community and friends and family, and friends who are like family who have given us a lot of support in the beginning and throughout the whole weekend,” Stevens said.
While the current rules were against them, they still feel it was well worth it.
“We went to show our style, our athleticism, our talent,” Stevens said. “We made waves as two-spirit people in the powwow arena. Growing up in this arena, we want to make headway on a movement that’s equal for everyone.”
In a statement, powwow coordinator Tom Ramos pointed to tradition as the reason the dance competition is restricted to male-female couples.
“The Sweetheart Competition has been an ongoing event with the San Manuel Powwow for much of the powwow’s history. This competition has been guided by rules that were created by tribal elders who are involved in the broader Powwow circuit and are established with the utmost respect to the Traditional ways,” Ramos wrote. “We understand and acknowledge that same-sex couples are valuable members of the world community and harbor no negative thoughts or opinions against any same-sex couples whatsoever.”
“It’s often difficult when our Native Traditional ways intersect with modern issues to find equal ground,” Ramos continued. “The Creator gives each of us our own spirit, it is not for us to judge what the Creator has chosen for us.”
The statement ended on a hopeful note.
“The rules for the San Manuel Powwow are reviewed and updated based on the outcomes of past events. As such we strive to find balance between traditional ways and the realities of the present day. Our goal is to always find ways to include all of our Native peoples and not to exclude anyone.”
It is common knowledge, however, that many Native groups in North America had radically different views of gender than the simple male-female binary. Many recognized four genders — roughly described as feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man. Many groups had separate, non-derogatory term for people who fit in the feminine man/masculine woman spectrum, such as winkte among the Sioux, and nàdleehì among the Navajo.
“In many tribes, individuals who entered into same-sex relationships were considered holy and treated with utmost respect and acceptance,” wrote anthropologist Brian Gilley.
Gilley said that those traditions of gender and relationships changed when European settlers reshaped Native culture.
In a post on Facebook, Cherokee artist Aiden ShortCloud, who watched the couple compete at the powwow, noted that, “if you’re Two-Spirit then you’re both male and female. So how were they lying on that form?”
Stevens and Snyder are hopeful they have made a positive difference by participating.
“This arena doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s for all of us. We were gifted with the ability to dance and enjoy, so it felt good to come here and share our style and the routine we put together, and the time and effort that went into our outfits. Our families have contributed a lot to this.”
“Powwows have become more progressive and accepting toward Two-Spirit individuals,” Snyder said. “We have a lot of Two-Spirit friends who powwow across the country and Canada. Based on my experience I still see a lot of homophobia within the Powwow community, but just as greater society has grown so has our Powwow community. There is still a long way to go to understanding of Two-Spirit identities and how we can engage in our own cultural activities without prejudice.”
Stevens hopes that people not yet out were also affected by their participation.
“There were people in the audience who may be younger who are still finding themselves and how they fit in and their identity,” Stevens said. “Us going out there and being in the public eye and putting ourselves in that spotlight, we just want to give people the support and encouragement to say, ‘yeah, look, we’re out there doing it and living our lives.’ There’s so much love in this arena and so much love on the outside that we’re going to do this no matter what anybody may think.”
“We’re definitely not just doing it for us,” Snyder said. “This is for everybody.”
Watch them in the preliminary round:
Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits will be hosting a powwow in San Francisco Feb. 3. Organizers have invited Stevens and Snyder to participate. Information at https://www.facebook.com/events/101812070574564/
Photo and video by Amigo Kandu