This fall, Southeast Alaska’s largest tribal organization hosted its first ever drag show, “Besties for Breasties,” a fundraiser for Northwest Coast artist Mary Foletti’s breast cancer treatment. Organized by Juneau Chilkat weaver and drag queen Ricky Tagaban, the event helped promote inclusivity and acceptance of two-spirit community and may be the first of its kind.
Language teacher Mary Folletti met Ricky Tagaban through a Tlingit immersion program at Sitka’s Dog Point Fish Camp in the mid-2000s.
Over the years the two artists have grown closer.
“We just developed from there,” Folletti said.
“I’d call you for rides to dance practice,” Tagaban said.
The two have collaborated on jewelry, and Tagaban has even helped raise Folletti’s children, weaving a prized Chilkat dance robe for her daughter Enza.
In 2010, Tagaban was asked by the late master weaver Clarissa Rizal to study Chilkat weaving, a tradition practiced solely by women. It’s unusual, but because of his gender identity he’s invited to participate. He’s “two-spirit,” a term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe a third gender containing both male and female spirits.
One way he expresses this side of himself, is through drag — where performers blur the lines of gender by donning clothing and embodying characteristics of the opposite sex. Tagaban has been exploring this connection of his indigenous and queer identities through his feminine persona, Lituya Hart, named after the ancestral grounds of his clan at Lituya Bay.
“Because with the name ‘Lituya,’ I always brought my Tlingit self with me,” Tagaban said. “Like that’s always just there.”
“Even if I don’t look Native to people, even if I’m not doing something fiercely traditional all the time, you know, I could be doing a pop song, but I’m still Tlingit,” Tagaban said.
Last year, Folletti was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer following the birth of her son Carver. Her family set up an online crowdfunding campaign and hosted events to help with the cost of treatment. But the idea to raise money with a drag show came from Folletti’s wife, Roz Cruise. She knew her coworkers at Tlingit & Haida wanted to host an event, so she suggested it to the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Southeast Alaska’s tribal government.
The proposal came to the desk of council President Richard Peterson.
“Well, you know, usually we stick to auctions and Indian tacos, so this is a little different,” Peterson said. “I’ve never been to a drag show, so this will be new for me.”
Peterson believes two-spirit people have always existed and played an important spiritual role in Tlingit culture.
“There’s enough that divides us, and so, you know, I always think about people who already feel marginalized and then you have something that maybe differentiates them more. Instead of putting that down, let’s celebrate what makes us different and unique,” Peterson said.
But Peterson said the council isn’t trying to make a statement or be the first tribe to host a drag show. It’s about upholding a family and supporting all of its tribal citizens.
“You know, Mary’s dedicated her life to our culture, to (our) language. She’s a part of that ‘language warrior’ group that’s revitalizing our languages,” Peterson said. “I think sometimes we gotta ‘warrior up’ for our warriors. We gotta hold her up right now.”
The all-ages drag show, “Besties for Breasties,” took place in Juneau’s Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall with an audience of tribal members, elders and non-Native community supporters.
“I had this denim cape that’s shaped like a Chilkat blanket, and I sprayed kind of graffiti formline on it,” Tagaban said. “So it has a lot of elements of a Chilkat blanket, like the border but with rhinestones, and all the fringe is that plastic tubing that’s really pretty with a rainbow pattern.”
Tagaban floated along the catwalk, gracefully dancing in the traditional style, before stepping out of his heels and thrashing across stage. In a blinged-out Shakee.át headdress, Tagaban released feathers onto the crowd like snowflakes, leaving to give hugs and collect dollar bills from the audience.
“I couldn’t see much from the crowd, but people have told me that people around them just started crying. Like, crying was like the first response,” Tagaban said. “A lot of men stormed the stage and were dumping money into the buckets. Which I don’t know if that’s their version of crying or approving, but I thought it was well-received.”
The fundraiser raised nearly $8,000 for Foletti’s family.
“In my mind, everyone should do something like this,” Tagaban said. “Like in 20 years we see Yup’ik drag queens, Yup’ik dancing in drag and Iñupiat and Deniana and Gwich’in and Sugpiaq, and Unangan.”
This spring, Tagaban won a Rasmuson individual artist award for his work and hopes that this is just the beginning. And that one day, this kind of expression will just be normal.