Bry Cordell Smiley is a 24-year-old student at Haskell Indian Nations University and is organizing the first-ever Two-Spirit powwow at the educational institution in Kansas on February 24-25, 2018. Courtesy photo

Navajo student hosts first-ever Two-Spirit powwow at Haskell University in Kansas

Bry Cordell Smiley: 'Haskell is a place of inclusion'

Two-Spirit Powwow takes place February 24-25
By Kevin Abourezk

Bry Cordell Smiley introduces himself in his traditional Navajo language.

He describes the clans to which he belongs, his birthright as a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

The 24-year-old is studying American Indian studies at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

He is learning his traditional language and culture, as well as the history of Native Americans.

His knowledge and love of his traditional tribal culture has guided him through the many challenges he’s faced as a nádleehí, or two-spirit person. Born a male, Smiley now considers himself both male and female.

In some traditional Native American cultures, two-spirit people were considered healers and were vital in maintaining the balance between men and women because they carried the spirit of both genders inside them.

Today, they would typically be gay people, though not all two-spirit people are gay.

Smiley said he wants to share his understanding of two-spirit people, past and present, with others.

On February 24 and 25 in 2018, the Haskell student plans to host a Two-Spirit powwow at the university. It will be Haskell’s first such powwow in its 133-year history, Smiley said.

“I just want the powwow to be a celebration of inclusiveness and diversity,” he said.

Two-spirit powwows have been held in other places, including in San Francisco and Montana.

A $5,000 grant from the American Indian College Fund will pay for the costs of the powwow. However, Smiley said, he doesn’t plan to have dance or drum contests.

Rather, he wants the focus to be on social dancing.

“When I dance, it’s a prayer in motion,” he said. “This is what I want the powwow to be.”

For the two weeks prior to the event, the college will host two-spirit awareness events, including a poetry slam, open mic night and speeches. A drag show will be held the Friday evening before the powwow begins.

Smiley said the powwow won’t seem much different than other powwows. However, because of the focus on two-spirit people, he’s hopeful those who attend will bring a more open attitude about sexual orientation.

“It’s just a different demographic,” he said.

Historic photo of a Navajo couple from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico, 1866. Photo: Bosque Redondo

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Smiley has always identified more with females than males, and he’s suffered because of that. Once, as a sophomore in high school, Smiley sent a letter to a boy who he liked who he thought was gay. In response, the boy called Smiley “queer” and "faggot," the latter considered an extremely derogatory term.

Since then, Smiley has been called both names so many times it’s become humorous to him and he’s usually quick to own those terms. He now challenges homophobic people who call him those names to come up with more creative insults.

Growing up in Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, Smiley’s parents taught him of the importance of culture and history and instilled in him a strong work ethic. Don’t expect to get anything for free and work hard for the things you want, they would tell him.

Fighting for his rights and his identity came natural to him, and he now wants to help others find the courage to embrace their identities.

Smiley said he’s talked to older teachers and staff at Haskell about how gay students were treated at the school in past years. They’ve told him attitudes about gay people were much different at the college 10 and 20 years ago, when most considered gay people abnormal.

But the gay students who’ve likely suffered the most were the school’s first students, Smiley said. Those students likely were punished if they expressed their true identities, he said.

“They couldn’t have a voice, like how I have,” he said. “I just want this to be more of a celebration of those who came through (the school) who were stripped of their identity.”

Even in later years, gay students lived in fear of having their true selves discovered, Smiley said. To compensate, gay students would drink a lot, and only then would they get the courage to hold hands in public, he said.

These days, gay students are much more accepted at Haskell, which has a significant population of gay students, he said. And other students have become much more informed about different types of sexual orientation, as well as more educated about the history of gay people in Native American cultures.

The Two-Spirit Powwow at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, takes place February 24-25, 2018. Image: Bry Cordell Smiley

Haskell President Venida Chenault has supported the idea for the powwow since she first learned of it, Smiley said.

When he was attending Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona, Smiley didn’t wear women’s clothes, but when he came to Haskell last year he immediately felt empowered to do so.

“It’s really nice to see that progress of people being more inclusive,” he said.

He said everyone is invited to the powwow, including heterosexual people and non-Indians.

“You don’t have to be Indian,” he said. “Just come from a place of love.”

Regi Black Elk, a 23-year-old Oglala Sioux student studying American Indian studies, said when he came to Haskell nearly three years ago, the school had a gay student club. However, the club ceased meeting not long after he arrived, and the school has been without such a club for nearly three years.

Black Elk, a two-spirit person, said he would like to see a gay student club once again established at Haskell.

He said he’s looking forward to seeing gay people dancing at the powwow, something they don’t always feel comfortable doing at other powwows.

“We are relevant in today’s society,” he said. “We will put ourselves out there in the spotlight.”

He’s hopeful the two-spirit powwow in February will help generate greater awareness and acceptance of gay people.

“Haskell is a place of inclusion,” he said. “Haskell is a safe environment, a traditional environment for our people to be who they always were.”

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