Bry Cordell Smiley: 'Haskell is a place of inclusion'Two-Spirit Powwow takes place February 24-25
By Kevin Abourezk
@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.
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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.”