Two Spirit, The Spiritual Concept Of Gender In Native Tribes

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In modern Euro-American societies, opposition against socially imposed gender roles, as well as trans and gender-non-conforming people, are often described, in different rhetorics – both conservative and not – as a rather new element of society, as newly-discovered or constructed identities that didn’t exist before Judith Butler or the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

To go a step further, advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ people is seen – since it is unfortunately only performed and answered in this way – as something radical, as if we are not human beings as valuable as cishet people.

Treating heteronormativity and the gender binary as the default system of an essentialist human condition, apart from being as scientifically and ontologically wrong as it is sociologically problematic and harmful, is also a view clearly blinded by a misleading colonialist American/Euro-centric view. Not all cultures used to view gender in the same way that we were taught it essentially exists as – a strict binary of male and female, where gender and the roles that are imposed by it align in a presupposed way with the biological sex.

Digging into the history of how tribes that were colonised by European countries viewed gender and sexuality is extremely important, not only to denaturalise harmful views that we have been taught to consider as given and essential, but it is also vital for Native American people who wish to decolonise their language and culture, in the process of claiming and reclaiming their gender and spiritual identities.

As Mahealani Joy, a kanaka maoli queer woman and activist explains in their article:

trying to decolonize something means critically examining it, seeing how colonization (aka everything since Christopher Columbus arrived) has influenced it, and then trying to realign things with our traditional community values and practices.”

This is something that many Native LGBTQ+ people do today by claiming, among other things, the term “Two Spirit” for themselves, in order to describe their gender identity, often giving meaning to the spiritual aspects of the word. Identifying as Two Spirit can be empowering for Native LGBTQ+ even though not all of them choose to identify as such, especially considering that Native communities vary greatly in their beliefs, values and traditions, so not all Native people think and feel the same way about different issues, including gender and sexuality. In the process of decolonising their language, for some Native people using the term “Two Spirit” can be a political statement, while some others might choose to use other tribal identities in their own language, since the phrase “Two Spirit” is technically still English.

When the European conquerors arrived at what they called “New World” they found that the Native Americans acknowledged different models of gendered life and distribution of gender roles. There were three-five genders acknowledged: female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgender.

In the same way that European colonisers exploited and systematically exterminated most aspects of the Native tribes that they conquered, they also destroyed the lives and extinguished the existences of Two Spirit people. The same people who were so deeply venerated by the members of their tribe, were described by the Jesuits and the French as merely sinful – and chased as such.

Christopher Columbus’ crew was extremely violent towards Two Spirit people. Euro-Americans forced Native people to conform to the standards and beliefs that European societies had established about gender.

According to Walter L. Williams, author of The Spirit and the Flesh and Two Spirits: A Story of Life with the Navajo, and Professor of Anthropology, History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, years later, during the 20th century, with the rise of homophobia and the spread of Christian influences, the respect that Two Spirit people held even among their tribes declined and Two Spirit people were forced either by the government or by the predominant Christian religion to conform to standard gender roles. Many indigenous people who couldn’t conform would have to go underground or even committed suicide.

A new era of heightened respect for Two Spirit identities seemed to emerge with the Native American “red power” cultural pride and the rise of gay and lesbian liberation movements in the second half of the 20th century, however Native Americans are still awfully marginalised in many aspects of their lives, and their identities are often not acknowledged as valid.

But what does Two Spirit mean? How did different tribes perceive the concept of gender in other ways than the Euro-American culture?

Two Spirit was referred at by people of the Navajo tribe as Nádleehí, which means “one who is transformed” and by the Lakota people as Winkté, which refers to a person thought to be male at birth but then behaving as a female.

The term also translated as Niizh Manidoowag (which meant Two Spirit) in Ojibwe and Hemaneh (which meant half man – half woman) in Cheyenne. The term doesn’t always translate in the “Two Spirit” phrase that is used universally in the English language. Such examples can be found in the Iroquois Cherokee language where such gender variations are acknowledged but there exist no such terms to describe them.

The term that was mostly used by European and American anthropologists until the 20th century was “Bardache”. It derives its origins by the French “Bardache” which means a male prostitute, and the Arabic “Bardaj” which means “captive” or “slave”. This term was considered to be offensive by Native LGBTQIA+ people who wished to distinguish sexuality and the connotations of it and the spiritual character of their identities. This is why many of them chose to claim the term Two Spirit as an answer against the colonization of their identities. The term started being used again mostly in 1990.

The way someone expresses and performs their gender and sexuality, for many Native tribes, was not something to be judged or interfered with morally. People were judged by their contributions to their tribe and by their character, while parents were supposed to let Nature run its course and thus did not interfere with the way their children would express their gender e.g. with the clothes they would wear, the gender they would choose and the according ceremonies they would follow.

According to Walter L. Williams, Native Americans don’t wish to “force every person in one box, but to allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities”.

The term “Two Spirit” refers at a body that is inhabited by both a masculine and a feminine spirit. It is today used as an umbrella term to describe gender-variant/gender-non-conforming or LGBTQIA+ members of some Native communities. Two Spirit people are born with both spirits and are able to express the roles of both genders. As it is believed by some Siouan tribes, a child can even choose its gender and have it granted by The Creator.

Two Spirit people were highly respected and thought to have been gifted by The Creator, as they were able to see the world simultaneously through the eyes of both genders. The families of Two Spirit people were considered extremely lucky. Two Spirit people usually held greatly revered positions within the tribe, and they were thought to be intellectually and emotionally gifted. Native people with all bodies and gender expressions could become hunters and warriors and be considered as equally brave and strong.

Two Spirit people could participate in all important social structures and perform all roles directed to a gender different than that of their birth. They could also get married to people of a different gender, without their biological characteristics limiting them. Their gender was to be respected, and it would be considered extremely disrespectful to expect a Two Spirit person to perform the traditional roles of the gender connected to their biological sex.

According to the Lakota actor, Native rights activist and American Indian Movement co-founder Russell Means: “In my culture we have people who dress half-man, half-woman. Winkté, we call them in our language. If you are Winkté, that is an honourable term and you are a special human being and among my nation and all Plains people, we consider you a teacher of our children and are proud of what and who you are.”

However, Walter L. Williams states that the biggest part of the evidence we have about Two Spirit traditions and identities, is focused on the native tribes of the Plains, the Great Lakes, the Southwest, and California, while numerous other tribes with different traditions exist as well, so we should avoid overgeneralising.

Even though in many Native tribes Two Spirit people were highly revered, “[…] many of the documents that report negative reactions are themselves suspect, and should be evaluated critically in light of the preponderance of evidence that suggests a respectful attitude. Some European commentators, from early frontier explorers to modern anthropologists, also were influenced by their own homophobic prejudices to distort native attitudes.”

Mahealani Joy specifically focuses on avoiding generalisation of different Native tribes, starting their article with an incident of a person that claimed that every Native LGBTQ+ person should necessarily be using the Two Spirit term instead of any other universalised term to describe their identities. According to Joy this is not the case, and there are specific reasons for which both decisions of a Native queer person, to either claim this identity or not, are valid.

But is Two Spirit referring to gender, or sexual orientation? In Western culture we hold these categories as entirely different and unrelated. Yet when it comes to different LGBTQIA+ Native individuals claiming the terms to describe their identity, its uses may vary. Some people use it to describe their gender identity based on the initial meaning and history of the term, or to describe multiple genders, and some others use it as an umbrella term derived from their own culture, to refer more generally to LGBTQIA+ or fluid identities.

In below video, produced by Basic Rights Oregon, Indigenous LGBTQIA+ people share their stories, and some of them who describe experiences that gay, lesbian and bisexual people in Western culture can relate to, use the term Two Spirit to describe their identities.

The ways that Two Spirit will be used depends on how the individual will choose to claim it, and the language links between how such a term existed or was originally used in different tribes, and how it can be used today are not that clear, since many elements of Native languages have been extinguished by colonisation.

Many Native LGBTQIA+ people may not choose to identify as Two Spirit because their tribe and its history are not associated with this term, since there exist countless different opinions on this topic and we shouldn’t make generalisations.

Some tribes are hostile towards Two Spirit identities, therefore their members may not feel comfortable to use this term. For the people who choose to identify with this term, it can be truly empowering and send through an important political message against the combined racism and homophobia/transphobia that Native LGBTQIA+ people have to go through.

Many Native LGBTQIA+ people may also choose not to identify as Two Spirit for personal or political reasons, and their choices must be respected. As for non-Native LGBTQIA+ people, they shouldn’t appropriate this term to identify with, since it does not connect in any way to their history, heritage and tradition, and there are important social and political reasons for which this term should be used exclusively by Native people.

If you are a Native LGBTQIA+ person and are wondering where to start from, concerning the Two Spirit term, Joy’s article on Everyday Feminism can offer you some really good resources.

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