The two spirit contingent marches at San Francisco Pride 2014.

Two Spirit (also two-spirit or twospirit) is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe certain spiritual people[1][2] - gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-variant individuals - in their communities.[3][4] The term was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering to encourage the replacement of the anthropological term berdache.[4][5][6]

"Two Spirit" is not interchangeable with "LGBT Native American" or "Gay Indian";[2] this title differs from most western, mainstream definitions of sexuality and gender identity in that it is not so much about whom one sleeps with, or how one personally identitfies; rather, it is a sacred, spiritual and ceremonial role that is recognized and confirmed by the Elders of the Two Spirit's ceremonial community.[1][2] While some have found the term a useful tool for intertribal organizing, not all Native cultures conceptualize gender or sexuality this way, and most tribes use names in their own languages.[5][7] While pan-Indian terms are not always appropriate or welcome, the term has generally received more acceptance and use than the term it replaced.[5]

Third and fourth gender roles traditionally embodied by two-spirit people include performing work and wearing clothing associated with both men and women. Not all tribes/nations have rigid gender roles, but, among those that do, some consider there to be at least four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man.[1]

Two-spirit societies

Among the goals of two spirit societies are group support; outreach, education, and activism; revival of their Indigenous cultural traditions, including preserving the old languages, skills and dances;[4] and otherwise working toward social change.[8]

Some two-spirit societies (past and present) include: 2Spirits of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario; the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (est. 1998) in San Francisco, California;[9] Central Oklahoma Two Spirit Natives in Oklahoma City; the East Coast Two Spirit Society and the NorthEast Two-Spirit Society in New York City; the Indiana Two-Spirit Society in Bloomington; Minnesota Two Spirits; the Montana Two-Spirit Society in Browning; the Northwest Two-Spirit Society in Seattle, Washington; the Ohio Valley Two Spirit Society of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Southern Illinois;[10][11] the Portland Two Spirit Society (est. May 2012) in Portland, Oregon;[12] the Regina Two-Spirited Society in Regina, Saskatchewan; the Texas Two Spirit Society in Dallas; the Tulsa Two-Spirit Society in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Two-Spirit Society of Denver in Denver, Colorado; and the Wichita Two-Spirit Society in Wichita, Kansas.[8][13][14][15]

Definition and societal role

Drawing by George Catlin (1796-1872) while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Nation; the image depicts a ceremonial dance. Non-Native artist George Catlin titled this painting, "Dance to the Berdache".
'The elders will tell you the difference between a gay Indian and a Two-Spirit,' [Joey Criddle] said, underscoring the idea that simply being gay and Indian does not make someone a Two-Spirit.[2]
Unfortunately, depending on an oral tradition to impart our ways to future generations opened the floodgates for early non-Native explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists to write books describing Native peoples and therefore bolstering their own role as experts. These writings were and still are entrenched in the perspective of the authors who were and are mostly white men.[16]

Historically, the presence of male-bodied two-spirits "was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples," according to Brian Gilley[17] and, according to non-Native anthropologist Will Roscoe, both male- and female-bodied two-spirits have been documented "in over 130 North American tribes, in every region of the continent."[18] However, Ojibwe journalist Mary Annette Pember argues that this depiction threatens to homogenizes diverse Indigenous cultures, painting over them with an overly broad brush, potentially disappearing, "distinct cultural and language differences that Native peoples hold crucial to their identity."[19]

According to German Anthropologist Sabine Lang, Cross dressing of two spirit people was not always an indicator of gender identity. Lang believes "the mere fact that a male wears women's clothing does not say something about his role behavior, his gender status, or even his choice of partner..."[20]

Male-bodied two spirit people, regardless of gender identification, can go to war and have access to male activities such as male-only sweat lodge ceremonies.[21] However, they may also take on "feminine" activities such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities.[22] According to Lang, female assigned at birth two-spirits usually have sexual relations or marriages with only females.[23]

Contemporary issues

The increasing visibility of the two spirit concept in mainstream culture has been seen as both empowering and as having some undesirable consequences, such as the spread of misinformation about the cultures of Indigenous people, pan-Indianism, and cultural appropriation of Indigenous identities and ceremonial ways among non-Natives who do not understand that two spirit is specifically a Native American and First Nations cultural identity, not to be taken up by non-Natives.[19][24]

These sort of simplified black-and-white depictions of Native culture and history perpetuate indiscriminate appropriation of Native peoples. Although the current new meme or legend surrounding the term two spirit is certainly laudable for helping LGBTQ people create their own more empowering terminology to describe themselves, it carries some questionable baggage.
My concern is not so much over the use of the words but over the social meme they have generated that has morphed into a cocktail of historical revisionism, wishful thinking, good intentions, and a soupçon of white, entitled appropriation.[19]

For First Nations two spirits whose lives have been impacted by the Residential Schools, and other Indigenous communities who have experienced severe cultural damage from colonization, the specific two spirit traditions in their communities may have been severely damaged, fragmented, or even lost.[24] In these cases there have been serious challenges to remembering and reviving their older traditional ways, and to overcoming the homophobia and other learned prejudices of forced assimilation.[24]

When Indigenous people from communities that are less-accepting of two spirits have sought community among non-Native LGBT communities, however, the tendency for non-Natives to tokenize and appropriate has at times led to rifts rather than unity, with two spirits feeling like they're just another tacked on initial rather than fully included.[24]

The term two-spirited was chosen to emphasize our difference in our experiences of multiple, interlocking oppressions as queer Aboriginal people. When non-Aboriginal people decide to "take up" the term two-spirit, it detracts from its original meaning and diffuses its power as a label of resistance for Aboriginal people. Already there is so much of First Nations culture that has been exploited and appropriated in this country; must our terms of resistance also be targeted for mainstream appropriation and consumption?
Two-spirited is a reclaimed term designed by Aboriginals to define our unique cultural context, histories, and legacy. When people do not see the harm in "sharing" the term, they are missing the point and refusing to recognize that by appropriating the term they will inevitably alter its cultural context.[24]


Most Indigenous communities have specific terms in their own languages for the gender-variant members of their communities and the social and spiritual roles these individuals fulfill; with over 500 surviving Native American cultures, attitudes about sex and gender can be very diverse. Even with the modern adoption of pan-Indian terms like Two Spirit, not all cultures will perceive Two Spirits the same way, or welcome a pan-Indian term to replace the terms already in use by their cultures.[19]

[In Ojibwe cultures] Sex usually determined one’s gender, and therefore one’s work, but the Ojibwe accepted variation. Men who chose to function as women were called ikwekaazo, meaning ‘one who endeavors to be like a woman. Women who functioned as men were called ininiikaazo, meaning, 'one who endeavors to be like a man.' The French called these people berdaches. Ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo could take spouses of their own sex. Their mates were not considered ikwekaazo or ininiikaazo, however, because their function in society was still in keeping with their sex. If widowed, the spouse of an ikwekaazo or ininiikaazo could remarry someone of the opposite sex or another ikwekaazo or ininiikaazo. The ikwekaazowag worked and dressed like women. The ininiikaazowag worked and dressed like men. Both were considered to be strong spiritually, and they were always honoured, especially during ceremonies.[26]

Before the late twentieth-century, non-Native (i.e. non-Native American/Canadian) anthropologists used the generic term berdache /bərˈdæʃ/ to identify an indigenous individual fulfilling one of many mixed gender roles in their tribe, but that term has now fallen out of favor. Anthropologists primarily used it to identify feminine Native men. Its etymology, however, has meant that it is now considered outdated and potentially offensive: it derives from the French bardache (English equivalent: "bardash") meaning "passive homosexual", "catamite"[27] or even "male prostitute". Bardache, in turn, derived from the Persian برده barda meaning "captive", "prisoner of war", "slave".[28][29][30][31] Spanish explorers who encountered two spirits among the Chumash people called them "joyas", the Spanish for "jewels".[32]

Use of berdache has generally been replaced by the self-chosen two spirit, which, in 1990, gained widespread popularity during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg.[33] The decision to adopt this new, pan-Indian term was deliberate, with a clear intention to distance themselves from non-Native gays and lesbians,[34] as well as from non-Native terminology like berdache, "gay", "lesbian", and "trans".[6][34][35] Cameron writes, "The term two-spirit is thus an Aboriginal-specific term of resistance to colonization and non-transferable to other cultures. There are several underlying reasons for two spirited Aboriginals' desire to distance themselves from the mainstream queer community."[24] Lang explains that for Aboriginal people, their sexual orientation or gender identity is secondary to their ethnic identity. She states, "at the core of contemporary two-spirit identities is ethnicity, an awareness of being Native American as opposed to being white or being a member of any other ethnic group."[34]

Historical and anthropological accounts

Don Pedro Fages was third in command of the 1769–70 Spanish Portolà expedition, the first European land exploration of what is now the U.S. state of California. At least three diaries were kept during the expedition, but Fages wrote his account later, in 1775. Fages gave more descriptive details about the native Californians than any of the others, and he alone reported the presence of homosexuality in the native culture. The English translation reads:

I have submitted substantial evidence that those 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 - pass as sodomites by profession.... They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.[36]

According to Lang, in most tribes a relationship between a two spirit and non-two-spirit has historically been seen for the most part as neither heterosexual nor homosexual (in modern-day terms) but more hetero-normative; early European colonists, however, saw such relationships as homosexual. Partners of two spirit have not historically viewed themselves as homosexual, and moreover drew a sharp conceptual line between themselves and two-spirits.[37]

Although two spirit have been both respected and feared in a number of tribes, the two spirit is not beyond being reproached or, by traditional law, even killed for bad deeds. In the Mojave tribe, for instance, two spirit frequently become medicine persons and, like all who deal with the supernatural, are at risk of suspicion of witchcraft, notable in cases of failed harvest or of death. There have been instances of murder in these cases the female-bodied two spirit named Sahaykwisā).[38] Another instance in the late 1840s was of a Crow male-bodied two spirit who was caught, possibly raiding horses, by the Lakota and was killed.[39]

Lang and Jacobs write that historically among the Apache, the Lipan, Chiricahua, Mescalero, and southern Dilzhe'e have alternative gender identities.[40][41] One tribe in particular, the Eyak, has a single report from 1938 that they did not have an alternative gender and they held such individuals in low esteem, although whether this sentiment is the result of acculturation or not is unknown.[42]

Among the Iroquois, there is a single report from Bacqueville de la Potherie in his book published in 1722, Histoire de l'Amérique septentrionale, that indicates that an alternative gender identity exists among them.[43]

Many, if not all, tribes have been influenced by European homophobia and misogyny.[44][45][46][47][48] Some sources have reported that the Aztecs and Incas had laws against such individuals,[49][50] though there are some authors who feel that this was exaggerated or the result of acculturation, because all of the documents indicating this are post-conquest and any that existed before had been destroyed by the Spanish.[47][51] The belief that these laws existed, at least for the Aztecs, comes from the Florentine Codex, and that evidence exists that indigenous peoples authored many codices, but the Spaniards destroyed most of them in their attempt to eradicate ancient beliefs.[52] Nowadays, some Zapotec natives from Mexico are born as males, but later cross dress as women and practice all activities associated to the female gender. Such people are known as Muxe.[53]

Media representation

The two spirit pride trolley at San Francisco Pride 2014.

The 2009 documentary film[54] Two Spirits, directed by Lydia Nibley, tells the story of the hate-murder of 16-year-old Navajo Fred Martinez. In the film, Nibley "affirms Martinez' Navajo sense of being a two spirit 'effeminate male', or nádleeh."[1]:168 Martinez' mother defined nádleeh as "half woman, half man".[1]:169


In 2012, a marker dedicated to two spirit people was included in the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago, Illinois that celebrates LGBT history and people.[55]

Self-identified two spirits

A traditional two spirit must be recognized as such by the Elders of their Indigenous community.[1][2] Inclusion in this list is not an indication of whether or not that is the case.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Estrada, Gabriel S. 2011. "Two Spirits, Nádleeh, and LGBTQ2 Navajo Gaze." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35(4):167-190.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "A Spirit of Belonging, Inside and Out". The New York Times. 8 Oct 2006. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 'The elders will tell you the difference between a gay Indian and a Two-Spirit,' [Criddle] said, underscoring the idea that simply being gay and Indian does not make someone a Two-Spirit.
  3. Medicine, Beatrice (August 2002). "Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories". Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. 3 (1): 7. doi:10.9707/2307-0919.1024. ISSN 2307-0919. Archived from the original on 2012-12-08. Retrieved 2016-06-25. At the Wenner Gren conference on gender held in Chicago, May, 1994... the gay American Indian and Alaska Native males agreed to use the term "Two Spirit" to replace the controversial "berdache" term. The stated objective was to purge the older term from anthropological literature as it was seen as demeaning and not reflective of Native categories. Unfortunately, the term "berdache" has also been incorporated in the psychology and women studies domains, so the task for the affected group to purge the term looms large and may be formidable.
  4. 1 2 3 "A Spirit of Belonging, Inside and Out". The New York Times. 8 Oct 2006. Retrieved 28 July 2016.
  5. 1 2 3 "Two Spirit 101" at NativeOut: "The Two Spirit term was adopted in 1990 at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering to encourage the replacement of the term berdache, which means, 'passive partner in sodomy, boy prostitute.'" Accessed 23 Sep 2015
  6. 1 2 Pember, Mary Annette (Oct 13, 2016). "'Two Spirit' Tradition Far From Ubiquitous Among Tribes". Rewire. Retrieved Oct 17, 2016. Non-Native anthropologist Will Roscoe gets much of the public credit for coining the term two spirit. However, according to Kristopher Kohl Miner of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Native people such as anthropologist Dr. Wesley Thomas of the Dine or Navajo tribe also contributed to its creation. (Thomas is a professor in the School of Dine and Law Studies.)
  7. "Two Spirit Terms in Tribal Languages" at NativeOut. Accessed 23 Sep 2015
  8. 1 2 Lipshultz, Hanna (2007). "Berdach to Two-Spirit: The Revival of Native American Traditions" (PDF). Discoveries. Ithaca: John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines (8): 31–32. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  9. Alpert, Emily (December 5, 2004). "Rainbow and red: Queer American Indians from New York to San Francisco are showing both their spirits.". In the Fray. New Hyde Park: In the Fray, Inc. Retrieved 2016-04-10.
  10. Thomas, Wesley K. (June 26, 2006). "Welcome!". Ohio Valley Two-Spirit Society (OVTSS). Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  11. Harrell, Helen; Fischer, Carol (August 9, 2009). "Out in Bloomington: Boy Scouts raise debate". The Bloomington Alternative. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  12. Rook, Erin (September 19, 2012). "Portland Two Spirit Society: Finding family and a connection to history in shared identities". PQ. Brilliant Media. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  13. "Two-Spirit Leaders Call on Washington to Include Native Women in Re-Authorization of VAWA". Indian Country Today Media Network. December 18, 2012. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  14. "Two-Spirit gathering at Portland State University, Wednesday, May 26, 2010". Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest. 2010. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  15. "New Mexico GSA: Resources § Native / First Nations". Santa Fe Mountain Center. New Mexico Gay–Straight Alliance Network. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  16. Pember, Mary Annette (Oct 13, 2016). "'Two Spirit' Tradition Far From Ubiquitous Among Tribes". Rewire. Retrieved Oct 17, 2016. Unfortunately, depending on an oral tradition to impart our ways to future generations opened the floodgates for early non-Native explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists to write books describing Native peoples and therefore bolstering their own role as experts. These writings were and still are entrenched in the perspective of the authors who were and are mostly white men.
  17. Gilley, Brian Joseph (2006: 8). Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. ISBN 0-8032-7126-3.
  18. Roscoe, Will (1991). The Zuni Man-Woman, p.5. ISBN 0-8263-1253-5.
  19. 1 2 3 4 Pember, Mary Annette (Oct 13, 2016). "'Two Spirit' Tradition Far From Ubiquitous Among Tribes". Rewire. Retrieved Oct 17, 2016.
  20. (Lang, 62)
  21. "Inventory of Aboriginal Services, Issues and Initiatives in Vancouver: Two Spirit – LGTB". Retrieved 2007-07-01.
  22. Page 72 -
  23. Lang, S. (1998), pp. 289–298.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Cameron, Michelle. (2005). Two-spirited Aboriginal people: Continuing cultural appropriation by non-Aboriginal society. Canadian Women Studies, 24 (2/3), 123–127.
  25. 1 2 3 4 Medicine, Beatrice (2002). "Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories by Beatrice Medicine". Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 3, Chapter 2). W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.). Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University. Archived from the original on 2003-03-30. Retrieved 2015-07-07.
  26. 1 2 3 Treuer, Anton (2011). "Women and Gender". The Assassination of Hole in the Day. Borealis Books. Retrieved 17 October 2016.
  27. "Definition of "bardash" - Collins English Dictionary". Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  28. Steingass, Francis Joseph. A Comprehensive Persian-English dictionary, including the Arabic words and phrases to be met with in Persian literature. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1892. p. 173
  29. Jacobs, S.; Thomas, W.; Lang, S. (Eds.): Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality, page 4. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  30. Roscoe, W.: Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in native North America, page 7. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
  31. vulnerable, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: March 24, 2007.
  32. Kent Flannery; Joyce Marcus (15 May 2012). "The Creation of Inequality". Harvard University Press: 70–71. ISBN 978-0-674-06469-0.
  33. de Vries, Kylan Mattias (2009). "Berdache (Two-Spirit)". In O'Brien, Jodi. Encyclopedia of gender and society. Los Angeles: SAGE. p. 64. ISBN 9781412909167. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  34. 1 2 3 Jacobs, S. (1997), pp. 2–3, 221.
  35. Lang, S.: Men as women, women as men: Changing gender in Native American cultures, page XIII. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1998.
  36. Fages, P., Priestley, H. I., & Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). (HathiTrust limited search only) A historical, political, and natural description of California Check |url= value (help). Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33.
  37. Lang, S. (1998), pp. 208-212.
  38. Lang, S. (1998), pp. 164, 288.
  39. Walker, James: Lakota Society, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, p. 147. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  40. Lang, S. (1998), pp. 291–93.
  41. Jacobs, S. (1997), pp. 236–251.
  42. Lang, S. (1998), pp. 202–203.
  43. Roscoe, W. (1998), pp. 250-251n.43. (vol. 3, p. 41)
  44. Jacobs, S. (1997), p. 206.
  45. Roscoe, W. (1998), p. 114.
  46. Lang, S. (1998), pp. 119, 311–313, 322.
  47. 1 2 Trexler, R. : Sex and conquest: Gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas, pp. 155–167. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
  48. Swidler, Arlene: Homosexuality and World Religions, pp. 17–19. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993.
  49. Lang, S. (1998), p. 324.
  50. Spencer, Colin: Homosexuality in History, p. 142. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.
  51. Greenberg, David: The Construction of Homosexuality, pp. 165–168. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  52. Fitch, Nancy: General Discussion of the Primary Sources Used in This Project, The Conquest of Mexico Annotated Bibliography. Accessed: June 14, 2008.
  53. Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika (2008). "Muxe: el tercer sexo" (PDF) (in Spanish). Goethe Institut. Retrieved March 13, 2016.
  54. "Two Spirits (2009)". IMDb. 21 June 2009. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  55. Victor Salvo // The Legacy Project. "2012 INDUCTEES". Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  56. Gloria Kim, "Why be just one sex?". Maclean's, September 8, 2005.
  57. Sorrel, Lorraine, "Not Vanishing," review in "Off Our Backs." Washington: Mar 31, 1989. Vol.19, Iss. 3.
  58. "Kent Monkman: Sexuality of Miss Chief". Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  59. "Aboriginal music awards host two-spirited performer". CBC News, September 11, 2014.

Archival resources

Look up two-spirit in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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