“Two-Spirit refers to the commonly shared understanding among many Native American Tribes that some individuals manifest both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities.”
“Two Spirit people have both a male and female spirit within them and are blessed by their Creator to see life through the eyes of both genders.”
“Two-Spirit is a term used to identity, reclaim and revitalize very specific identities histories, legacies and power that go far beyond just sexuality and gender identity for Indigenous peoples.”
While the term Two Spirit was coined in 1990 In Winnipeg, Canada as a means of unifying various gender identities and expressions of Native American/First Nations/Indigenous individuals, the term is not a specific definition of gender, sexual orientation or other self-determining catch-all phrase, but rather an umbrella term.
For those of us in the LGBTQ+ community who are not members of the Native/NDN/Indigenous/First Nations population, Two Spirit may not be a term we’re familiar with. Maybe we’ve heard it in passing, or once in a training we went to, or, maybe, have not come in deliberate contact with the term before at all.
If you have, you may have been introduced to a black-and-white photo of We-wha, an honored Zuni Pueblo cultural ambassador who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1886 and shared the story and values of her people, who live in what is now western New Mexico. She was referred to as lhaman or “mixed gender” in the Zuni language. While the historical and cultural significance of depicting the broad continuum of gender is important, it can also make it easier to imagine that these identities are not thriving in our modern world. Quite the contrary.
Before the 20th century, anthropologists were widely using the term “Berdache” as a generic term to reference Two Spirit people. The term is based on the French “Bardache,” to imply a male prostitute and the word originates from the Arabic “Bardaj,” meaning “captive” or “slave.”
The challenge, then, at the meeting in Winnipeg 28 years ago, was to find a contemporary term that could be embraced across tribal cultures, when numerous terms in tribal languages existed.
The term does not diminish the tribal-specific names, roles and traditions nations have for their own Two Spirit people. There are as many names for Two Spirit people as there are nations. Harlan Pruden (Nehiyawe/First Nations Cree) and Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce, Yakama) share some of the many names in their presentation “Two Spirit People: Sex, Gender & Sexuality in Historic and Contemporary Native America”: http://www.ncai.org/policy-research-center/initiatives/Pruden-Edmo_TwoSpiritPeople.pdf
Examples of such names are the Winkte among the Lakota, Nudale asgaya/agehya among the Cherokee, ayahkwêw and înahpîkasoht among the Cree, M’netokwe among the Potawatomi, and the Nadleeh among the Navajo people.
These identities were recognized and celebrated from a young age as “gifts from the creator”; Two Spirit people were often the visionaries, healers and medicine people.
“In my culture we have people who dress half-man, half-woman. Winkte, we call them in our language. If you are Winkte, that is an honorable 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.” – Native rights activist and American Indian Movement co-founder Russell Means.
The term Two Spirit affirms the interrelatedness of all aspects of identity — including gender, sexuality, community, culture, and spirituality. Many Two Spirit people were lost due to the impacts of colonization, their complex, un-binaried gender system too threatening to Western attitudes. A key aspect of the Two Spirit community now is to reclaim pre-colonial traditions and responsibilities. Understanding of the complexities of Two Spirit identity helps build insight of culture and intersectionality.
Shane Ortega, activist and Mr. Montana Two Spirit 2018-2019 notes that claiming the role of Two Spirit is to take up the spiritual responsibility that the role traditionally had. This entails being “for the people”, guiding youth, taking council from elders, walking the “red road”, and being a force for good in all communities.
“Being of service to elders and definitely to youth with our spirits and energy is so, so important. We keep our traditions, languages, healing, and songs. We have to put in effort to keep those alive and take back what so many of our ancestors lost.”
This keeps with the historical space that Two Spirit people held. In many tribes Two Spirits were balance keepers, the “dusk” between morning and evening. Two Spirit gatherings and communal events happen all around the United States and Canada throughout the year, providing a space for healing, community, tradition, and expression.
While Western mindsets can often categorize based on standards of “norm” and “other”, creating boxes to fit into, Two Spirit acknowledges the continuum of gender identity and expression. It does not fit neatly into a prescribed definition of any other letter in LGBTQ+. Some Two Spirit people consider themselves all, some, or none of the above.
“In ALL tribal cultures people who walk between worlds, who are considered extravagant or unique from the heteronormative space were traditionally considered sacred. It is a blessing.
Knowing this. It is not my job to light you on fire. It is my job to share the path to it.
People who walked in-between held a position-a sacred role to their people. This role has been lost due to colonization of all people of the world. It’s time for you to remember your places, sacredness, spirituality and responsibility in your tribe. We cannot afford to ignore this. If we do the world does not get better. We are more than simplified pride parties and parades. That is barely the surface of our identities.” – Shane Ortega
As we continue our work in allyship amongst our community, it is imperative that we consider what it means to be an ally to Two Spirit people. Learning more about the experiences and perspectives of Two Spirit people is just a start. We need to be mindful of our actions and inactions. Humility and a commitment to listening, learning, and challenging ourselves in our own assumptions. This also means recognizing that as many of us sit down to a Thanksgiving, or Friendsgiving, or Something-giving meal this month, for many in our own community the day is no holiday at all.
Two Spirit groups and societies continue to raise awareness about LGBTQ2S individuals in communities across North America. In Rochester, the East Coast Two Spirit Society has had a presence in the Pride Parade and Festival since 2015. They can be found on Facebook @EC2SS. The University of Rochester’s TINT (Transgender, Intersex, Non-Binary, and Two Spirit) is an informal social group for trans, gender non-conforming, and questioning U of R students. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details about weekly meetings.