Native American Two-Spirit

Two Spirit Pride in San Francisco
Two-spirited pride marchers at San Francisco Pride 2014.

Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0) / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In many Native American communities, the term Two Spirit—sometimes twospirited, depending on the source—is used to refer to indigenous members who fall outside of traditional gender roles. This term is not a substitute for homosexuality; instead, it applies to people who are considered to be a third gender, and typically hold a sacred ceremonial role within their culture.

Two Spirit Key Takeaways

  • Two Spirits are Native American or First Nations individuals who identify with both male and female genders.
  • There is some question about the historical context of Two Spirits, because there are hundreds of Native tribes, all of which have their own unique cultural traditions.
  • It is inappropriate for a non-Native individual to use the term Two Spirit to describe themselves.

Origins and Definition of the Term

Prior to the 1990s, Native people who identified as a third gender were known by the pejorative anthropological term berdache, which is a non-Native word typically associated with male prostitutes. However, at a Winnipeg conference for gay and lesbian Native Americans in 1990, the term Two Spirit was coined to refer to Natives who define themselves as having both masculine and feminine spirits. Since that time, according to John Leland of the New York Times, "Two-Spirit societies have formed in Montana as well as in Denver, Minnesota, New York State, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Tulsa, and elsewhere, organized around what members assert was once an honored status within nearly every tribe on the continent."

Male-bodied Two Spirit people are found in many Native American and First Nations communities. In the past, they fulfilled traditionally male roles, such as fighting in wars and going to historically male activities like sweat lodge ceremonies. However, at the same time, they took on traditionally "female" tasks as well—cooking, washing, and childcare, for example—and often wore female dress. Author Gabriel Estrada says in "Two SpiritsNádleeh, and LGBTQ2 Navajo Gaze" that while not all indigenous nations have rigid gender roles, among tribes that do, the range includes feminine woman, masculine man, feminine man, and masculine woman.

In many Native nations, the Two Spirit person found a role in their community as a shaman, visionary, keeper of oral traditions, matchmaker or marriage counselor, mediator in time of disputes, and caretaker of the vulnerable, such as children, the elderly, or injured warriors. They were often seen as sacred beings, whose dual genders were a gift from the Great Spirit.

Historical Accounts

Zuni Two Spirit, We Wha
We Wha (1849-1896), a Zuni, full length portrait. Photographer John K. Hillers / Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

During the colonization of North America, indigenous groups were still maintaining their traditions orally; there was no written history among the tribes. However, there was a fair amount of documentation among European invaders, many of whom kept journals of their travels. In California, Don Pedro Fages led a Spanish expedition into the territory during the late eighteenth century. He wrote in his diary of homosexual practices among the indigenous populations he encountered, describing "Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women—there being two or three such in each village."

In 1722, a French explorer, Claude-Charles Le Roy, also called Bacqueville de La Potherie, described that among the Iroquois, there was an awareness of a third gender in other tribal groups. He said, "Perhaps these male Iroquois are so horrified by [doing] women’s work because they have seen among the nations of the south some men who act like women, and give up men’s clothing for those of women. You see this very rarely among the Iroquois and they condemn this way of life by the light of Reason." It is likely that the group he referred to was the Cherokee Nation.

A fur trader named Edwin T. Denig spent two decades with the Crow Nation in the early 1800s, and wrote that "men who dressed as women and specialized in women's work were accepted and sometimes honored... Most civilized communities recognize but two genders, the masculine and feminine. But strange to say, these people have a neuter."

Denig also wrote of a woman who led men into battle and had four wives. It is likely he was referring to a warrior known as Woman Chief. She was adopted by the Crow at age ten, and by all accounts was a tomboy, and only interested in male pursuits. Her adoptive father, whose sons had all been killed, encouraged her, and when he died, she took over his lodge and led men into battle against the Blackfoot. Details of Woman Chief's exploits were chronicled by traders and other contemporaries, and it was generally acknowledged that she was a Two Spirit.

Although the term Two Spirit itself is relatively new, the concept is not. There are numerous tribal-specific names, traditions, and roles among the different Native nations. The Lakota winkte were viewed as people who were neither male nor female, and whose androgyny was an inborn character trait, or the result of a sacred vision. They often occupied a distinct spiritual role in the community, fulfilling ceremonial duties that could not be performed by individuals who were male or only female. The winkte took on roles as seers, medicine people, healers. During times of battle, the visions of a winkte could guide warriors into their fight, and help determine steps taken by war chiefs.

Among the Cheyenne, the Hēē măn ĕh held a similar position. They accompanied warriors into battle and treated wounds after the fighting had ended, and cured the sick during times of peace.

We'wha was a Zuni two-spirited person, or lhamana, who lived in the nineteenth century. She performed historically masculine spiritual and judicial roles, such as guiding religious ceremonies and serving as a mediator in disputes. However, she also spent time on traditionally feminine activities—sewing dresses, making pottery, weaving baskets, and other domestic pursuits.

Controversy Over Scholarship

There is some controversy in the Native community about Two Spirits—not about their existence, but about the modern notion "that Native peoples historically described LGBTQ folks as two-spirited and celebrated them as healers and shamans." Mary Annette Pember, who is a journalist and member of the Ojibwe Nation, says that while Two Spirit is some empowering terminology, it also comes with some questionable scholarship. Pember points out that Native culture is based upon oral tradition, and much of what has been decided by anthropologists is based upon the writings of European conquerers, painting all Native tribes with the same brush.

She says:

"[This] conveniently overlook[s] distinct cultural and language differences that Native peoples hold crucial to their identity... Years of colonization and appropriation by European invaders, as well as the well-intentioned religious hegemony that demonized our spirituality and way of life... has made Indian Country much like the rest of rural America in terms of enlightened treatment of LGBTQ folks. In fact, some tribes have created laws specifically banning same-sex marriage. Gender-variant individuals have a hard way to go, in and out of Indian Country."

Although not all indigenous tribes viewed Two Spirit people the same way, overall it does appear that they were accepted as a perfectly routine part of the community. In general, each individual was judged for their contributions to the tribe, rather than for conformity to rigid gender roles.

Two Spirits Today

Inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration - Los Angeles, CA
Jean Decay attends the Two-Spirit Pride Party at the Inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration. Chelsea Guglielmino / Getty Images

Today's Two Spirit community is actively taking both new and traditional spiritual roles in their various nations. Tony Enos, of Indian Country Today, points out that "Claiming the role of Two Spirit is to take up the spiritual responsibility that the role traditionally had. Walking the red road, being for the people and our children/youth, and being a guiding force in a good way with a good mind are just some of those responsibilities." He adds that service to the elders and youth of the community is an important part of maintaining the old cultural traditions.

Modern Two Spirits publicly embrace the mixture of masculine and feminine within them, and there are Two Spirit societies all over North America. Gatherings, including powwows which are open to the public, are held regularly as a way of not only building community, but also of educating non-Natives about the world of the Two Spirit. Today's Two Spirits are taking on the ceremonial roles of those who came before them, working to facilitate spiritual events in their communities. They also work as activists and healers, and have been instrumental in bringing GLBT health issues to the forefront among the hundreds of Native tribes. By bridging the gap between gender roles and indigenous spirituality, today's Two Spirits are continuing the sacred work of their ancestors.

Sources

  • Estrada, Gabriel. “Two Spirits, Nádleeh, and LGBTQ2 Navajo Gaze.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 2011, pp. 167–190., doi:10.17953/aicr.35.4.x500172017344j30.
  • Leland, John. “A Spirit of Belonging, Inside and Out.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/fashion/08SPIRIT.html?_r=0.
  • Medicine, Beatrice. “Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories.” Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, vol. 3, no. 1, 2002, doi:10.9707/2307-0919.1024.
  • Pember, Mary Annette. “'Two Spirit' Tradition Far From Ubiquitous Among Tribes.” Rewire.News, Rewire.News, 13 Oct. 2016, rewire.news/article/2016/10/13/two-spirit-tradition-far-ubiquitous-among-tribes/.
  • Smithers, Gregory D. “Cherokee ‘Two Spirits’: Gender, Ritual, and Spirituality in the Native South.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, 2014, pp. 626–651., doi:10.1353/eam.2014.0023.