The Way Of The Two Spirited People

Native American concepts of gender and sexual orientation

By Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn

The two-spirited person is a native tradition that researchers have identified in some of the earliest discoveries of Native artifacts. Much evidence indicates that Native people, prior to colonization, believed in the existence of cross-gender roles, the male-female, the female-male, what we now call the two-spirited person.

In Native American culture, before the Europeans came to the America's, "two-spirit" referred to an ancient teaching. This type of cross-gender identity has been documented in over 155 tribes across Native North America (Roscoe 1988).

Our Elders tell us of people who were gifted among all beings because they carried two spirits, that of male and female. It is told that women engaged in tribal warfare and married other women, as there were men who married other men. These individuals were looked upon as a third and fourth gender in many cases and in almost all cultures they were honoured and revered. Two-spirit people were often the visionaries, the healers, the medicine people, the nannies of orphans, the care givers (Roscoe 1988). They were respected as fundamental components of our ancient culture and societies. This is our guiding force as well as our source of strength. This is the heart of Two-Spirited People of the 1st Nations (2 Spirit Nation of Ontario) This paper explores what we know of the past of two-spirit people, compares that to the present experience and looks forward to the role that two-spirit people could play in the future of First Nation's people in Canada and across North America.

Before beginning our discussion on two-spirit people and their roles, it is necessary to take a moment to discuss the terminology used here. Native and Native American are used to refer to the peoples who inhabited North America before European contact. Certain quotations also use the term First Nation's to refer to the same. These terms are in common usage among First Nation's people in Canada to refer to themselves. In addition, the term two-spirit refers to the concepts of gender variant people in Native America traditions. Early explorers of North America refered to this concept as berdache. Two-spirit is preferred as it emerged from Native American people whereas berdache was imposed upon Native American's by the colonial explorers.

The Past - Uncommon gender identity integrated into society

Most tribes were aware of the existence of two-spirit people, and many still have a name in their traditional language for them.

For example, The Din éh (Navaho)refer to them as nàdleehé or one who is 'transformed', the Lakota (Sioux) as winkte, the Mohave as alyha, the Zuni as lhamana, the Omaha as mexoga, the Aleut and Kodiak as achnucek, the Zapotec as ira' muxe, the Cheyenne as he man eh, etc. (Roscoe, 1988).Some tribes had different names for two-spirited men and women. Other tribes, though, did not have such a concept.

The abundance of terms that we find as we study various tribes testifies to the familiarity of Native Americans with gender-variant people. It is important to note that this is different than sexual orientation as such words did not exist in Native languages. Concern for appropriate terminology should always be on one's mind because 'Gender' is an obligatory grammatical category in the English/French and Latin languages. It is a linguistic term and has no connection with biological sex or social identity of an individual. This issue comes to a head in the area where 'gender' intersects with the Native people of North America. Many non-natives have misinterpreted two-spirit as referring to people with homosexual tendencies, when in fact, the ceremonies and practices were based on different genders being manifested, and not on sexual preferences or practices.

Many tribes had rituals for children to go through if they were recognized as acting different from their birth gender. These rituals ensured the child was truly two-spirit. If parents noticed that a son was disinterested in boyish play or manly work, they would set up a ceremony to determine which way the boy would be brought up. They would make an enclosure of brush, and place in the center both a man's bow and a woman's basket. The boy was told to go inside the circle of brush and to bring something out, and as he entered the brush would be set on fire. The tribe watched what he took with him as he ran out, and if it was the basketry materials they reconciled themselves to his being a 'berdache'. (Roscoe, 1988)

In another ritual, usually carried out when the child is between the ages of nine and twelve, that helped identify a child's two-spirit nature, a singing circle would be prepared, unbeknownst to the boy, involving the whole community as well as distant friends and relatives. On the day of the ceremony everyone gathered around and the boy was led into the middle of the circle. If he remained in the centre, the singer, hidden in the crowd, began to sing the ritual songs and the boy, if he was destined to follow the two-spirit road, starts to dance in the fashion of a woman. After the fourth song the boy was declared a two-spirit person and was raised from then on in the appropriate manner (Two Spirit Tradition - internet citation).

These rituals determined if the person was two-spirited and taught young boys to do women's work in addition to that reserved for men. Similar rituals applied to woman. Children of both genders would also spend time with healers, often two-spirit people themselves. Above all, their childhood was marked by acceptance and understanding by the whole tribe. Multi-gendered adult people were usually presumed to be people of power. Because they have both maleness and femaleness totally entwined in one body, they were known to be able to 'see' with the eyes of both biological men and biological women. They were often called upon to be healers, mediators, interpreters of dreams, or expected to become singers or others whose lives were devoted to the welfare of the group. If they did extraordinary things in any aspect of life, it was assumed that they had the license and power to do so, and therefore, they were not questioned.

In everyday life the two-spirit male typically would wear women's clothes and do women's work. He might take a husband from among the men of the tribe, or might have affairs with several, depending on the role of the gender the two-spirit man in his tribe. This is very different from homosexuality as we know it today. Two-spirit individuals were expected to behave within the two-spirit gender norms of his or her tribe. Roscoe reports that early ethnographers observed a Mojave two-spirit man who was also faking a woman's menstruation by scratching his inner thighs until he bled thus faking menstrual bleeding. When the partner threaten to leave the two-spirit male even mimicked pregnancy by adding clothes inside his upper shirt and stop the menstruation cycle. He would then eat foods that would give indigestion and stomach cramps thus faking some of the symptoms of pregnancy. When time came to give birth he went into the woods and came back childless under the pretence of still birth. Generally two-spirit males were not expected to have sexual relations with women. All of these rules, however, were culture specific and even within any given Native culture, there was often room for various expressions of gender variance. Throughout historical documents, we see that type of variation from the norm, change, transformation, and fluidity of roles for those who felt called to that path and yet most often they were welcome and appreciated.

Besides their spiritual abilities, their capacity for work also figured into the high status of two-spirit people. Even though a two-spirit male would have taken on the gender identity of a woman, he would still have the endurance and strength of a man. Thus his productivity was greater than that of most women, and for that reason he would have been valued as a marriage partner. Other characteristics that Natives associate with two-spirit people which help explain their desirability as partners were their highly developed ability to relate to and teach children, a generous nature, and exceptional intellectual and artistic skills.

As we begin to understand the great diversity of genders in Native America cultures, and the ways in which sexuality influenced the performance of gender roles, we are drawn back to the original pre-colonial rituals. The inner calling of contemporary two-spirited people, however, is often mixed in with modern understandings of sexuality, thus creating a perception that homosexuality was well accepted in pre-colonization instead of recognizing that these homosexual behaviours were accepted under the role of gender identity. Arguably culture is not static and thus evolves and incorporates all the experiences of life. Therefore today the modern movement of reclaiming Two-Spirit Traditions incorporates sexual orientation and sexual identity.

The Present - Colonialization takes its toll

Since European colonization, the existence of the two-spirit community has been systematically denied and alienated from their Aboriginal identity. As a result, two-spirit people are often viewed as perverted, untraditional or untrustworthy and two-spirit people have lost their place in society and their dignity. Persecution began by the church and an attempt to eradicate these individuals, often the spiritual leaders and healers of the tribes, and their behaviours based on the church's moralistic code.

The attempt to exterminate Native Americans and their rituals by both the church and the government resulted in a loss of many rituals including those who identified and honour cross-gender individuals. With very few exceptions, there is no longer a place in Native cultures for a man-woman or a woman-man. The tribes have forgotten the two-spirit teachings and many of the ancient two-spirit ways are no longer being practiced. Instead, this role appears as a ghost of the past or a dirty secret. Elders who may know the stories and teachings are often afraid to talk about them because of their experiences in Residential Schools and other forms of colonialization.

Because so many Native American cultures were disrupted (or had disappeared) before they were studied by researchers, it is not possible to know how frequently these spiritual ceremonies happened or the roles ascribed to those people. These alternative gender roles that have been documented, however, occur in every region of the continent, lending credibility to the claim that acceptance of two-spirit people was relatively common among Native American cultures. Today we have to confront a very real problem - it is impossible to define precisely what two-spirit experience was. Although most people now agree that such individuals existed, the particulars of that identity remain for most part a ghost of history. Nonetheless, like many Native American rituals and traditions the two-spirit peoples are experiencing a re-awakening to the validity of their cultural and spiritual roots.

Native American Queer Communities have to deal with unique issues as a result of our history, cultural status, and perceptions as Natives. We come out of a history of genocide, our people have been persecuted, killed, kidnapped, forced into residential schools and assimilated for hundreds of years, and we still face lingering aspects of genocide. We face homophobia and sexism from our own people, racism from lesbians and gays, and racism, homophobia, and sexism from the dominant society, not to mention the classism many Native Americans have to deal with. It is important to remember that we Natives today are not the same as the Natives that lived before the arrival of the white man.

Interaction with whites and the cultural genocide perpetrated on Natives has changed Native Americans' perception of gender and sexuality. Though it is interesting to speculate about how two-spirits were treated in traditional Native American cultures, a focus on such speculation can hide the lives and realities of Native American Queer communities today. Despite the encouraging things written about the acceptance and honour of the 'Two-Spirited' of the past, Queer Natives today face homophobia in their own communities.

I remember a member of one of the agencies that I co-founded and ran for a few years, was HIV+ and living in a cross-gender role, wanting to go home and die with dignity surrounded with family members and love, so she went home and she would communicate with us letting us know that all is well and she had been well received home. When she finally passed away we found out that the tribe had rented a house outside the reserve as they did not want her on the reserve and she was not respected in the cross-gender role she had chosen. This type of behaviour is endemic of remote communities that are still healing from centuries of cultural genocide behaviours from the government policies.

In 1990 in Winnipeg, at a meeting of the members of the 2-Spirit Nation of Ontario, the Canadian Aboriginal Aids network and other Gay Native people, a consensus was reached to adopt the term 'two-spirited people' to refer to all Canadian Aboriginal gender variant people to honour our ancestral past and reclaim our Aboriginal identity. This marked the beginning of the modern movement of two-spirit people in Canada. It was also where the Aboriginal community began incorporating the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and transvestite for multi-gendered Natives and various sexual orientations.

The re-emergence of two-spirit people in modern context while engaging in century old ceremonial rituals has created a lot of friction between the traditionalists and those who do not see culture has being static. This has resulted in many two-spirited people facing expulsion from their tribes with no or very little communication with their families or communities. This makes the queer Indian lifestyle a difficult road to walk.

The Future - Reclaiming our place among the leaders and healers of our cultures

So, what comes next for the two-spirit community? I believe there are several things we need to be conscious of and work to address as we move forward.

Our two-spirited community is unique and is starting to reclaiming our cultural roots. We also recognize that much has been lost and much has changed. Although some of our issues and concerns overlap with those of all Native Americans, there are others that are unique to our community. We are members of a group of people whose way of life has been drastically altered by historical circumstance. However like many other Aboriginal rituals and way of life, we see a strong re-emergence of the two-spirited people. We need to continue this trend to celebrate our roots while acknowledging our unique challenges in today's world.

Although the modern two-spirit movement has been very important for queer Native Americans, it leaves out members of the heterosexual community who would have been identified as two-spirited in the past. These individuals often expressed their gender through dress and work roles, however, they were celibate and so did not express it through their sexual practices. The modern two-spirit movement needs to find a way to acknowledge and incorporate these people into our movement.

While some of the Elders may speak of such acceptance of Two-Spirit individuals in the past the reality is that it is not without controversy. Although there is a rekindling of two-spirit traditional practices, the effort is not without the slings and arrows of controversy. Not only is there a rift between Native and Non-Native two-spirit people, many 'straight' Native Americans take a familiar post-colonialism posture and wish the two-spirits would shut up and go away altogether. We have come a long way to reclaim our past but need to work harder to gain acceptance and recognition today.

Native American cultures have proved to be very resilient and adaptable. As our culture and society evolved so did our warriors. Today instead of warring in battlefields, some of our warriors became political activists, fighting in the court system for the advancement of the rights of their tribal members. It is my hope that we will see a similar resilience among our two-spirited brother/sisters and sister/brothers. We must work with those spiritual leaders and healers within the Native communities that deny our existence or our place in our cultures to reclaim our place. We must also work with non-Native leaders to ensure our rights in the wider Canadian culture within which we now live. We must be more determined, in touch with our feelings and our power now then ever before!