Two-Spirit refers to a strictly Native identity that describes a person who identifies as having both a masculine and feminine spirit. It is an umbrella term used by some Indigenous people as a way to describe their sexual, gender, and/or spiritual identity. Two-Spirit is all-encompassing of LGBTQIA+ identities.
While some use the term specifically as it relates to the cultural roles of individuals who embody both spirits, Two-Spirit is also used to describe Aboriginal LGBTQIA+ people. It reflects traditionally Aboriginal gender diversity, including the fluid nature of gender, sexual identity, and other identities and how it connects with spirituality.
Two-Spirit is also an ancient teaching among Indigenous people. According to Elders' teachings, some people were gifted by carrying two spirits; that of a male and female. These members had roles in their community that were not traditionally that of their assigned gender. For example, women engaged in tribal warfare, women married women, and men married other men. Two-Spirited people were revered in the community and respected as fundamental components of these cultures and societies.
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The term Two-Spirit was proposed during the third annual international LGBT Native American gathering in 1990 in Winnipeg, Canada, by Elder Myra Laramee. It was proposed as an Indigenously defined pan-Native North American term referring to the diversity of Aboriginal LGBTQIA+ identities as well as culturally-specific non-binary gender identities. The term does not diminish the tribal-specific names, roles, and traditions that specific nations have for Two-Spirit tribal members. The Lakota name is winkte while the Navajo name is nadleeh.
Sometime in the late twentieth century, non-Native anthropologists used the term berdache to identify the individuals living outside the gender role of their biological sex. It derived from the French word bardache meaning "passive homosexual" or even "male prostitutes". Bardache, in turn, derived from the Persian barda meaning "captive", "prisoner of war", or "slave". The term berdache is now considered outdated and offensive in its use.
If the sun is male and the moon is female, then Two-Spirits are the dusk, Two-Spirits are the dawn, and Two-Spirits are the time in which the sun and moon occupy the sky at the same time.Geo Neptune's elemental description of the term
Other nations view the term Two-Spirit as the English translation for an Ojibwe word (niizh manidoowag) that, at its most rudimentary, means "embodies both the masculine and feminine spirit". However, Two-Spirit as an umbrella term for a concept is more complex.
According to German anthropologist Dr. Sabine Lang, male-bodied Two-Spirits sometimes held specific roles:
- Conveyors of oral traditions and song (Yuki)
- Foretellers of the future (Winnebago, Oglala Lakota)
- Conferrers of lucky names on children or adults (Oglala Lakota, Tohono O'oodham)
- Potters (Zuni, Navajo, Tohono O'oodham)
- Matchmakers (Cheyenne, Omhaha, Oglala Lakota)
- Makers of feather regalia for dances (Maidu)
- Special role players in the Sun Dance (Crow, Hidasta, Oglala Lakota)
Prior to colonization, from a broad viewpoint, Indigenous views accounted for diverse sexual practices and identities. For this reason, practices were not rooted in heteronormativity, as same sex or gender relationships were not deemed as being deviant.
Two-Spirit people have existed far longer than the conceptualizations of the LGBTQIA+ identities. Research indicates that over 150 different pre-colonial Native American tribes had a role for third genders in their communities. Interpretations of the role, standing of the Two-Spirit, and names for these individuals varied by tribe. Rather than a focus on physical body, many tribes emphasized a person's spirit or character. Gender and sexuality was more fluid in Native American society than in the European societies that colonized. Christian European colonizers condemned many of these practices, with punishments varying from penalizing to imprisonment, and even death.
Similar traditions spanned among the native peoples of Siberia and parts of Central and Southeast Asia. Moreover, partners or spouses of Two-Spirit people are never referred to as being "homosexual"[note 1], but just typical members of the tribe. These relationships were often with members of the same biological sex as a way to "keep the spiritual balance". Two-Spirit couples would adopt the tribe's orphaned children as their own and begin families.
Non-native scholars and anthropologists used the term berdache to frame the lives of Two-Spirit people, often romanticizing or pathologizing discourses. It was primarily used to identify feminine Native men. The usage of the word is now considered, at best outdated, and worst, potentially offensive. Spanish explorers called the Two-Spirits of the Chumash people "joyas", the Spanish term for "jewels". The use of berdache fell out of use, especially after the coining of "Two-Spirit".
In the First Nation, before Europeans came to North America, the "Two-Spirit" referred to an ancient teaching given by the Elders. They described people gifted by the spirit of both a man and female. These individuals were looked upon as a third gender, and in almost all cultures, were honored and revered. They held role of visionaries, healers, and medicine people, respected as fundamental members of the culture and societies.
- For the purpose of this section, the she/her pronouns are used when referring to the two-spirit individual Osh-Tisch. Various recordings show Osh-Tisch using female pronouns. The LGBTQIA+ wiki determined the use of "she/her" to be most appropriate.
In the Crow nation during the 1800s, Two-Spirited people were called baté, which referred to a tribal member who was born male but identified as a woman. The Crow people viewed the baté as a bridge between the two genders, as baté excelled in both traditionally male and female roles. A significant baté woman was Osh-Tisch, a leader of the baté in the Crow nation. Osh-Tisch was an esteemed member of their society. She was a revered member of the tribe and considered a leader. Her skills in sewing led her to make the Crow Chief Iron Bull's buffalo skin lodge, but she was most known for her ferocity in battle. Her strength as a warrior earned her the name "Osh-Tisch", which when translated means, "finds them and kills them." She fought valiantly in the Battle of Rosebud and flourished with the support of her community.
During the European invasion in the 1890s, colonizers imposed European beliefs regarding their gender and sexuality onto the Indigenous peoples using "The Code of Religious Offenses". This moral directive forbade non-Christian spiritual practices. Those that did not obey were persecuted, either through financial penalty or imprisonment, for their dating or marital traditions. The colonizers tried to force the Crow nation to conform to their beliefs. When they learned of the baté, missionaries, such as Federal Agent Briskow, were sent to force people to live, not only as a gender they were born, but also into gender roles that were wholly European. He forced the baté to wear and act as he desired, which were wholly European ideologies. The community supported Osh-Tisch, and the Crow chiefs and warriors spoke in support for the values of Two-Spirit people, ultimately gaining the release of Osh-Tisch and the other imprisoned Two-Spirits. Chief Pretty Eagle later forced the agent into resignation. Despite Osh-Tisch's best efforts to support the baté, her death allowed European societal beliefs to all but take over. Osh-Tisch was known as the last baté for a long time.
- For the purpose of this section, we will be using they/them pronouns when referring to the two-spirit individual We'Wha. Various recordings show We'wha using both male and female pronouns. The LGBTQIA+ wiki determined the use of "they" to be most appropriate.
We'wha was a very well-known and documented Two-Spirit from the Zuni people. We'wha was born into the Zuni tribe around 1849 and their mother was a member of the donashi:kwe clan (Badger People) while their father was part of the bichi:kwe clan (Dogwood People). We'wha was an orphan from infancy and both they and their brother were adopted by their aunt, an influential and wealthy member of the Zuni. We'wha was a member of their mother's clan but held ceremonial ties to their father's clan. We'wha was born a male-bodied person, they demonstrated traits associated with the Lhamana.
In the Zuni culture, Lhamana is a term that described male-bodied people who were identified by the tribal members at an early age. They blended both male and female characteristics, and combined gender roles and clothing. We'wha was identified as Lhamana around the age of three or four. The males of the tribe welcomed We'wha with manhood ceremonies around age twelve, while the women taught We'wha female tasks such as ceremonial pottery, cooking, and grinding corn. Their skills reached non-indigenous people, and they were commissioned to make pots for the Smithsonian Institution of Washington. An American expert called their weaving "expert" and "highly collectible". We'wha was among the first Zuni to produce products for sale to non-indigenous people. This process became a traditional Indigenous art, with the community's creations considered fine arts.
In 1877, We'wha offered their services as domestic help to Minster Mr. Ealy's wife. They also worked as a laundress. Matilda Cox Stevenson introduced We'wha to American society as an Indian princess. They met President Grover Cleveland during a trip to Washington, D.C. They presented Cleveand and his wife with a wedding gift - handcrafted by them. In the same trip, they led a charity ball. Sadly, the accord between the Zuni and Americans fell apart and when the Zuni revolted, We'wha and other leaders spent a month in prison for witchcraft. The Zuni asked for the eventual release of their Lhamana. We'wha walked 40 miles to the reservation to return to their former life of leading ceremonies, weaving with women, hunting with men, and making pottery. We'wha died of heart failure in 1896 at a festival at the age of 47.
- For the purpose of this section, we will be using he/him pronouns when referring to the two-spirit individual Hastiin. Various recordings show Hastiin using male pronouns. The LGBTQIA+ wiki determined the use of "he" to be most appropriate.
The Navajos believed him to be honored by the gods and to possess unusual mental capacity combining both male and female attributes. He was expected to master all the knowledge, skill, and leadership of a man and also all of the skills, ability, and intuition of a woman. Klah during his lifetime lived up to these expectations in every way.Newcomb about Klah
In the Diné tradition of the Navajo people, Hastiin Klah (also spelled Hosteen Klah) was one of the more renowned two-spirit individuals. He was born in 1867 at a time when most Navajo people were held prisoners by the US government, forced to conform to Christianity and other Western beliefs. He became a weaver, a traditionally female role, and medicine man. By the age of ten he had mastered his first ceremony. In his teens, Klah suffered a serious horse-riding accident. In the long rehabilitation, his status as a nádleeh or nadle was confirmed. According to his close friend Gladys Reichard, the Navajo called him "one-who-has-been-changed" because he wove blankets and was not interested in women. Moreover, the nadle usually wore either male or female clothing. Some have documented that nadle dress solely as women, which was not the case for Klah who only dressed in men's clothing.
In the 1930s and '40s, authors cited white ridicule as the reason why nadle no longer cross-dressed. In the absence of cross-dressing, nadle are described as "bachelors" or "not interested" in women. In the 20th century, Klah did not have to cross-dress to signify his status, as his combined traits of both genders in his character, occupation, religious practice, and philosophical outlook considered a nadle by himself and other Navajos.
Within the Navajo, he was considered a nádleeh which is translated to mean "one who is changed"/"changing one" or "one who is transformed." According to many historical texts, Hastiin is considered to have been an intersex person, while others believe that he simply lived as both a man and a woman. Once confirmed as a nadle, Klah was "expected to assist" his mother and sister in weaving, an important source of income for their family. He mastered the skills in the 1880s, learning to weave smooth, finely patterned rugs.
He was a remarkable individual and mastered a total of eight chants, with the norm being one or two, became recognized for being an important medicine man by 1917, studying for over 24 years to perform a nine-day ceremony perfectly. He was gifted in creating sand paintings. He traveled across the U.S. to showcase these skills at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Territory of New Mexico planned an exhibit featuring Navajo artists, however, they only wanted a male weaver. They were unaware that the role was traditionally held by women. They were referred to Klah, whose blanket he made in Chicago was the first he completely entirely on his own.
Klah's career as a weaver came at a time of great change in Navajo crafts production, as an artistic and technical peak in the mid-nineteenth century had created a decline in Navajo weaving. The railroad in 1882 brought traders, who Klah's family and others continued to weave for. He participated in the movement to revive and commercialize Navajo weaving, working with Richard Wetherill, a trader East of the Chuska Mountains, to develop the commercial potential of Native textiles. He began weaving sandpainting designs after he completed the final initiation of his training as a medicine man in 1917 at the age of 49. He also made permanent images of sand paintings from chants he knew, something which was not accepted policy for Navajos.
In 1916 he caused a stir when he wove a blanket with yeibichai dancers which portrayed sacred masks. The Navajo medicine men, singers, and people felt this was sacrilegious and demanded Klah ceremoniously expel the evil and destroy the weaving. He instead sold it to Ed Davies at Two Grey Hills in Washington. Their fury only calmed when the rug left the reservation. Instead, Klah sent the weaving to Washington but experienced no negative effects.
In 1919, Hastiin began to weave sacred images. He was not the first to do so but was the most successful. He wove a blanket of yeibichai dancers which portrayed sacred masks. The Navajo singers felt this was sacrilegious and demanded Klah ceremoniously expel the evil and destroy the weaving. Instead, Klah sent the weaving to Washington but experienced no negative effects. For most Navajos, the portrayal of sandpainting designs in permanent media was, and still is, sacrilegious.
Over the years, he worked with many Non-Native peoples, allowing them to record his songs, ceremonies, and stories, and sandpaintings. His only Navajo student died suddenly, leaving no way for Klah to pass on his knowledge through traditional Navajo ways. Because he lacked apprentices to share his knowledge, he believed this was the only way to keep them from being lost. He did so with great caution, in fear it would upset the deities that would be evoked in the images.
Throughout the 1920s, he transformed Navajo weaving from a craft to a fine art. In 1921, he met heiress Mary Cabot Wheelwright and the two became friends. Klah had witnessed decades of efforts by the US government and missionaries to assimilate the Navajo people into "mainstream" society. With the history of the Navajo practice appearing bleak to Klah, he was appealed by the opportunity to collaborate with a sympathetic outsider.
They created a permanent record of Klah and other singers' ritual knowledge, and were joined by Frances Newbcomb. Klah dictated while Wheelwright recorded the Navajo Creation story and other narratives. Klah also participated in weaving, as his tapestries were also permanent records of sandpaintings. By the 1930s, the pair knew a museum would be needed to realize their goals. They worked together to form the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. William Penhallow Hendersan was chosen as an architect, basing his his design on the hooghan, the traditional Navajo home and ceremonial setting. Klah was integral in the museum's design, implementation and curation; he even blessed its grounds, though he died on February 27, 1937, only a few months before the project was complete. He is buried on the grounds of the Wheelwright Museum.
In his remembrance, Gladys Reichard considered Klah "one of the most remarkable persons [she] ever knew". Klah was a man of many facets. Franc Newcomb was a dear friend of Klah's as well, and later dedicated one of her books to him. She later wrote his biography. Klah is considered a pioneer of Navajo nationalism.
In the Chiricahua Apache community, two women stood out as being two-spirit warriors - Chiricahua woman Lozen and a Mescalero Apache woman named Dahteste. Lozen received vision and acquired the power to locate an enemy and heal wounds. She worked with Geronimo and served as a mediator, with Dahteste, in negotiations with the American military.
In modern times, Two-Spirited People are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, third or fourth gendered people, who are described as "walking carefully between the worlds and between the genders." Moreover, because of colonization and Native people's experiences, the role of Two-Spirit people has been lost "to consciousness", with many Native people adopting the homophobic attributes in today's society. Luckily, the Seventh Generation Two-Spirits are reclaiming their traditional roles and beliefs. The new generations of Crow nations are also reclaiming their Indigenous culture in an attempt to uncover and reconnect with it.
On October 11, 2016, a plaque was made to honor the Two-Spirit people on the Legacy Walk in Chicago. It reads "Two Spirit (Native American and Canadian First Nation LGBT People)", with a large paragraph describing the community. The Legacy Walk holds bronze biographical memorial markers for notable LGBTQ individuals who helped shape the world. Each year, on "National Coming-Out Day", October 11, new memorials are added. Full capacity was reached in 2018, so now, plaques are rotated in and out of use to showcase new additions or to remember icons. The Two-Spirit plaque is among those on rotation.
In 2016, the Two-Spirit nation at Oceti Sakowin camp built a Cannonball River prayer pier. It was used for water ceremonies. The Two-Spirit camp worked from the morning to nightfall, so their tribal women and Elders could have a place to pray. This event was part of the protest against the Dakota pipeline.
For some, the term "Two-Spirit" is controversial because it has a number attached to it. This causes two issues: firstly, that attaching a number to the word or identification label has remnants of slavery or imprisonment. It has been historically used to dehumanize people. Secondly, it seems to appeal to the colonial, binary system in where indigenous people who don't fit the binary are a mix of both binary genders, which also insinuates there are only three genders: male, female, and a mix of both or somehow, in between. Several tribes and indigenous communities celebrated four, five or more genders, so "two-spirit" people can also be not associated at all with the binary genders and stand alone. New terms are being discussed within indigenous communities including EnSpirit, used among Taino natives.[source?]
Perceptions and discrimination
Internationally, Indigenous health care is a blatant issue. Indigenous people experience a disproportionately lower socioeconomic status, increased rates of substance abuse, and incidents with the criminal justice system. It is likely that LGBTQIA+ Two-Spirit people face similar and additional factors, including sexual health care, accessible housing, drop-in centers, health care, counseling, and more due to outright discrimination. The determinants to Two-Spirit peoples' health receives minimal attention in health literature due to transphobia and homophobia, including other forms of structural power inequalities. An assessment of Two-Spirit and trans people in Manitoba showed that levels of STI and HIV infections were much higher in the general Aboriginal population, especially among male-born Aboriginal study participants. Proposals to correct these disproportionate rates included establishing a trans care center, information campaign for trans people throughout the Manitoba region, referral protocol and distribution of care throughout the health system, and a trans-competence training for first responders.
The health care system creates barriers for Two-Spirit people when they attempt to access health care. Many LGBTQ Indigenous Canadians have a fear of discrimination based on HIV status, sexual orientation, or that an Indigenous identity has at some point stopped them from accessing health services in the past. A lack of confidentiality within a small rural town or even on-reserve community health care centers was also a concern for some Two-Spirit people. The Trans PULSE Project held a study in which 64% of Aboriginal people had at least unmet healthcare need in the past year. In the US, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native respondents had been refused care due to anti-trans bias, and 65% postponed treatment out of fear. Moreover, research suggests that Indigenous LGBTQ and Two-Spirit people experience higher rates of HIV infections.
Mental health and non-ceremonial tobacco[note 2] use have been documented as one of the major concerns facing the two-spirit communities, especially in the United States. These concerns are largely voiced by individuals within the Indigenous and Two-Spirit community. There is a great need, identified both by Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Indigenous people and researchers, for HIV prevention, substance abuse help, mental health, and social support - all tailored for the unique aspects of these identities.
Despite the marginalization and discriminations in health care, Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Indigenous people utilize a number of coping and medicinal strategies to help themselves. They have been called extremely self-reliant.
In December 2017, Gabby Leon and Terri Jay discussed the lack of visibility and celebration of the Two-Spirit identities and wanted to have a festival that celebrated and honored Native American LBGTQ roles and traditions. Terri, who was very engaged in the Native American community, discussed the idea further with her friends - she wanted to celebrate Native American LGBTQ history and traditions. As they discussed how Indigenous identities had grown in visibility, they also acknowledged how far they still need to go. Ultimately, the group agreed that their proposed cultural event would "honor, and acknowledge all Indigenous peoples' plight, especially those who are Two Spirit and/or identified with the contemporary labels and terms of cisgender and transgender lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual, and intersex." This led to the creation of Indigenous Pride LA.
In February 2021, Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits held their tenth annual Pow-Wow.
- Yahima Maraokoti - Lovecraft Country
- Samantha Black Crow - American Gods
- Geo Neptune - Getting Curious with JVN
- Adam Red Eagle - The Miseducation of Cameron Post
- Two-Spirit Michif Local
- 2-Spirits of The 1st Nations
- Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board about Two Spirit and LGBTQ Health
- Indigenous Pride - Connecting Communities
- Homosexual is now considered an outdated term, however, the usage of the word in this context refers to the historical partners/spouses of the Two-Spirit people.
- Non-ceremonial tobacco use includes chewing tobacco or use of cigarettes. It is distinguished from ceremonial tobacco use, i.e. the burning of tobacco as a sacred medicine.
- In 2013, on the eve of National Aboriginal Day and World Pride Toronto, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust – Canada's only national charity promoting LGBTQ rights through research, education and community engagement – announced the launch of the Two Spirits, One Voice program.