Sage Chanell had always dreamed of playing the female role in her tribe's stomp dance.
It's a ceremony that women more or less run, using shells on their legs to keep time while men chant. Playing an opposite-gender role is not an option. As a not-yet-out transgender Shawnee woman in the 1990s, Chanell was too scared to challenge her tribe's rules. Instead, she discreetly held shells in her hands and chanted along with the boys.
But this May, on a makeshift stage at a retreat center in Nacogdoches, Texas, her worries melted away. Wearing a fall-colored Seminole patchwork skirt, ruffled shirt, and moccasins, the 30-year-old triumphantly stomped onto the stage at the Miss International Two Spirit competition, her legs covered in shells. In a headdress framed by ribbons, she moved her feet in an intricate pattern, in a rhythm she knows by heart.
Sage Chanell at the George M. Sutton Wilderness Park in Norman, Oklahoma | (Ashley Porton/Courtesy Narratively)
Later, during the modern talent portion, she sang "I Am Changing" from Dreamgirls in a gold and black checkered dress with hair teased so high she calls it her "Oprah look."
Chanell — who took home first prize — was one of four contestants at the competition, a yearly event that brings together the 14 "two-spirit" societies. These groups, sprinkled along the southwest and extending up to Canada, are made up of Native American individuals who identify as gay, bisexual, and transgender.
The term "two spirit" itself dates back to pre-colonial America, where homosexuals and transgender individuals were revered. In most tribes, Native Americans who identified as such were believed to possess both male and female spirits and acted as healers and leaders.
Each society contains people from various tribes and melds their traditions to host powwows and beauty pageants. Miss International is meant to be the biggest of them all, a time for two-spirit people to revel in a community where they're safe and loved.
As Miss International Two Spirit 2016, Chanell is the newest addition to what is known as "two spirit royalty" — the individuals who win the titles at beauty pageants and powwows each year. The job of the royalty, of which there are roughly a dozen each year, is to repair the damage that was done with the arrival of Christians in America, who rendered two spirit individuals freaks.
In most tribes, discrimination against LGBT individuals is still pervasive. As a child, Chanell heard people whispering about her early on. While her three younger brothers played Indian football outside, she would stay in and watch her grandmother bake bread — prompting some of her aunts to say that Chanell "shouldn't be acting like that."