A same-sex couple who fell in love while performing on the pow wow dance circuit is hoping they can bring confidence to other young Native Americans grappling with their sexual identities.
Adrian Stevens (of the Northern Ute, Shoshone-Bannock and San Carlos Apache tribes) and Sean Snyder (of the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute tribes) met eight years ago at a pow wow, a celebratory event that brings Native Americans together to drum, dance, sing and celebrate their heritage. The event is an important part of their culture, Stevens says, and their shared passion for performance ultimately served as a foundation for a blossoming relationship.
“Our parents danced, it’s something we’ve always known,” Stevens, 29, tells PEOPLE. “It’s been a part of our families’ lives, and it’s one of the things that brought us together. Not only competitively, but spiritually and physically.”
Pow wows often have a competition component called the “Sweetheart’s Special,” where couples hit the stage to show off their routines for a prize. Though Stevens and Snyder, 25, both grew up with parents who routinely performed in the events and even performed in competitions themselves, the two didn’t feel comfortable competing together in public as a pair.
In Native American culture, people in a same-sex relationship are referred to as a “spirit couple,” or “two-spirited.” Though there are many spirit couples in the community, seeing them perform on the pow wow circuit isn’t commonplace, Stevens says. It wasn’t until three years into their relationship that Stevens and Snyder felt bold enough to perform, putting together a routine in just 20 minutes before a competition.
“At the time, we were really nervous, we even hesitated and waited for the song to start before stepping onto the dance floor,” Stevens says. “Pow wows are not normally something people do as a same-sex couple.”
Their on-the-fly routine was a hit, and smartphone footage of their dance resonated with many people over social media.
“It was great. The way it was perceived, it was phenomenal. It was almost overwhelming,” Stevens, who lives in Salt Lake City with Snyder, recalls. “There was so much support and love, and it meant a lot to us to know we were able to go there and showcase our style and show how we were just like any other couple.”
Since then, the couple hasn’t held back, and they’ve performed in pow wows across the country and overseas (even bringing them to France where Stevens proposed to Snyder outside of the Eiffel Tower in 2015). Together, they’re hoping they can help other LGBT youths and two-spirited couples feel comfortable within the community.
“There are quite a few two-spirit couples, but there’s definitely a generational gap, and there’s a variation about how they present themselves and want to be represented,” Stevens says. “For us, being that younger generation and the next generation, we have a duty—and with a high suicide rate among Native American youth—a lot of those suicides are related to them being members of the LGBT community.”
In October, the couple competed at the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians pow wow with thousands of dollars of prize money on the line, but when Stevens went to register, he came across a rule stating the two-person teams can only be made up of a man and a woman. Faced with the realization all of their hard work was for naught, Stevens wrote his name under the male contestant space, and Snyder’s under the female. While they were able to compete—and received praise—they were later disqualified for being two-spirited. It was the first time, Stevens notes, that any pow wow event took issue with their participation.
“Being disqualified just validated everything we have gone through,” he says. “It wasn’t on the ground that we had performed not at that level, it was definitely discrimination that stood in the way of us progressing into the final round.”
Stevens says the incident, along with some of the homophobia they experience from individuals along the circuit, gives them the motivation to keep dancing so they can inspire the younger generation to carry on the legacy.
“Growing up in the pow wow arena, you witness a lot of growth over a lifetime. You see people go through so many highs and so many lows, and for us, this is a huge hurdle to overcome and we just hope this continues to grow,” Stevens says. “We don’t just do this for ourselves, it’s for the youth that may still be finding their identity and what feels right and comfortable to them.”