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 thirty-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.
Sage Chanell at the George M. Sutton Wilderness Park in Norman, Oklahoma.

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 fourteen “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.”

Her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, never explicitly told her to be more like a boy. He spent most of his days making jewelry in a wooden shed that his grandkids nicknamed the “cook shack.” Situated deep in the forest of Oklahoma in a town called Little Axe, he’d sometimes emerge to ask them to practice the stomp dance. Wearing shorts and t-shirts, dirtied from playing in the yard, they’d happily obey. Since there was no girl to do the rhythm, he’d allow Chanell to gently shake shells in her hands. But taking on the full female role, which requires double stepping on two feet while keeping time, was never allowed.

Her grandfather, she’d later decide, was probably showing his acceptance of her identity by letting her shake the shells. But at the time, because of his role at the head of a tribe with strict rules, she didn’t feel free to be herself. “I was too afraid to be feminine,” she says today, while getting ready for her job at a casino in Oklahoma City. “But I don’t have a masculine bone in my body.”

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Despite her experience shaking shells, taking on the female role at the three-day stomp dance ceremonies each year was not an option. Instead, Chanell did what she had watched her grandmother do for years — cook. The first time her grandmother let her stir the stews, the women shot her looks. The activity, like shaking shells, is exclusively done by females. But over time, it became normal. No one ever told Chanell to leave the kitchen.

At school, classmates weren’t as accepting. Chanell’s brothers routinely fielded threatening statements about “what she was” from their peers. At football practice, teammates would taunt them, saying that Chanell was a “girl” and a “sissy.” When these comments got old, the bullies picked apart her brothers’ identities, calling them sissies and homosexuals, just for being related to her. One day, one of her brothers got fed up.

“He took it particularly hard. So he came up to me and said ‘I love you no matter what, but you need to come out and be who you are,’” Chanell remembers. “I told him I had nothing to hide, but he was tired of defending me.” So, inspired by his words, she decided to prove it.

At age fourteen, still unsure of her identity, she wore foundation to school. It was her grandmother’s, who — unlike her makeup-hating mom — “had the good stuff.” After years of trying it on in secret, she applied it flawlessly. Chanell liked the way it covered up her acne and smoothed out her face. She felt pretty and, exhilaratingly, herself.

No one noticed at first but over time she got braver, adding a subtle lip-gloss, and a faint touch of eyeliner. By junior year of high school, she began altering her clothes. “I let myself get into fashion. I started wearing gender-neutral things — tight jeans and fitted shirts,” she recalls. “I got a perm, tried out different asymmetrical haircuts, and joined show choir.”

Most people assumed the look to be confirmation that Chanell was gay, and suddenly taunting her became less exciting. Rather than being critical, her peers were now curious. “People were impressed,” she says. “They were always asking me how I learned to do my makeup, and who gave me that haircut. Even the boys. I told them I taught myself.”

Although she experimented with femininity in high school, it wasn’t until after she graduated that she stepped out in explicitly women’s clothing. She was nineteen at the time, getting ready for a Halloween party at a friend’s in Oklahoma City. Dressed in a white lace midriff, short shorts, and silver heels “fit for a prom,” she was about to head out the door when she got a call from her cousin. “She wanted me to take her kids out trick-or-treating with her,” says Chanell. “I told her, I’m in drag. My family had never seen me in it before, but she replied ‘I don’t care, come.’ So I thought, why not?”

In a town bordering her own, on a crisp October night, Chanell walked house to house collecting candy and feeling beautiful. “I thought I was hot shit, so I wasn’t nervous,” she says. “But my boyfriend at the time was with me and he said ‘You’re liking this too much.’” Confident in her look and euphoric about how it felt, she quickly broke it off with him.

She meddled in drag, but hadn’t yet committed when a few years later, she met her first transgender woman, an African-American with a beautiful face who instantly zeroed in on Chanell’s fascination with her new identity. “She asked me, ‘Do you ever feel like you’re more than [drag]? I said ‘Yes, I do,’” Chanell recalls. “I was hesitant to come out after that. I was scared. But thank God I found her. I don’t know where I’d be.”

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With an effusive personality, talent for makeup, and eye for fashion, Chanell quickly became a force on the two-spirit beauty pageant scene and, after winning some local competitions, decided to try for Miss International. Friends and other two-spirit people expressed concern about putting her identity on display in such a big way. While most harassment within the tribe is just verbal, since 2001 there have been at least six murders of two-spirit individuals within their communities. “People are scared of their own tribes not accepting them,” she says.

It’s this cycle of fear that Chanell hopes to change, inspired by the 2015 Miss International, Spirit Wildcat. A Native American drag queen and active member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Wildcat traveled cross country over the past two years to attend two-spirit powwows and gatherings held by other societies.

In February she attended the BAAITS (Bay Area American Indian Two- Spirits) Powwow in San Francisco. A clip of the “Grand Entry” — the opening dance for two-spirit powwow — shows her proudly dancing in her crown behind a man in a beaded feather headdress and buckskin pants.

Chanell believes her story is a testament to the fact that hate can be unlearned. “My brothers now tell me they love who I have grown into, that I seem more comfortable, more confident, and happy,” she says. “Back then I was shy — and there’s nothing shy about me.”

But winning doesn’t completely eliminate the stigma that still lingers around the two spirit identity .

While Chanell has performed the female role in a stomp dance in front of others, she still hasn’t done it in front of her own tribe. Doing so requires getting approval from the chief, which she has yet to bring herself to do. “It’s the fear of rejection,” she says.

At the ceremonies, she continues in her grandmother’s footsteps and cooks. Twice a year at the Shawnee’s weekend-long stomp dance ceremonies she not only spends her time in the kitchen, she runs it. It’s a process that begins with buying $300 worth of groceries and ends with tearing down the tarp on the makeshift outdoor kitchen she builds around a fire pit. The women have fun together, and talk while they cook. The work is rewarding but grueling, preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a snack in between. If they are short on cooks, which — owing to the fact that those on their menstrual cycles aren’t allowed to participate, happens — Chanell will cook for 24 hours straight.

Although she enjoys baking bread, roasting squirrel and boiling corn, she hopes to someday swap her culinary tasks with musical ones. As two-spirit royalty, she’s on her way. “Now with this platform the leaders of my tribe are taking me seriously,” says Chanell. “They know that this is who I am and this is how I am living. Everyone is starting to accept me.”

Abby Haglage

Abby Haglage is a writer who covers gender, drugs and race for Glamour, Marie Claire, Elle, Newsweek, and The Daily Beast. She takes refuge in laughter and great pride in the fact that her hometown of Cincinnati makes Oprah’s favorite ice cream.
Ashley Porton is a wedding and portrait photographer from Oklahoma.