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Two-Spirit People (also Two Spirit or Twospirit), an English term that emerged in 1990 out of the third annual inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay/lesbian American conference in Winnipeg, describes Indigenous North Americans who fulfill one of many mixed gender roles found traditionally among many Native Americans and Canadian First Nations indigenous groups. The mixed gender roles encompassed by the term historically included wearing the clothing and performing the work associated with both men and women.

A direct translation of the Ojibwe term Niizh manidoowag, "two-spirited" or "two-spirit" is usually used to indicate a person whose body simultaneously houses a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit. The term can also be used more abstractly, to indicate presence of two contrasting human spirits (such as Warrior and Clan Mother) or two contrasting animal spirits (which, depending on the culture, might be Eagle and Coyote). However, these uses, while descriptive of some aboriginal cultural practices and beliefs, depart somewhat from the 1990 purposes of promoting the term.

According to Brian Joseph Gilly, the presence of male two-spirits "was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples."[1] Will Roscoe writes that male and female two-spirits have been "documented in over 130 tribes, in every region of North America, among every type of native culture."[2]



There are many indigenous terms for these individuals in the various Native American languages — including Lakota wíŋkte and Navajo nádleehé (Burrus & Keller, 2006: p. 73).[3]

Until recently, the term berdache was used by anthropologists as a generic term to indicate "two-spirit" individuals; however, this term is increasingly considered outdated and inappropriate. It is a loan from French bardache implying a male prostitute or catamite. The word's origin is complex: the French derives from the Spanish bardaxa or bardaje / bardaja via Italian bardasso or berdasia via Arabic bardaj: البَرْدَجُ" meaning "captive, captured"[4] from Persian bardaj < Middle Persian vartak < Old Iranian *varta-, cognate to Avestan varəta- "seized, prisoner," formed from an Indo-European root *welə- meaning "to strike, wound."[5][6][7][8]

Use of the term has widely been replaced with two-spirit (except in scholarly literature,[9]) which originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It is a calque of the Ojibwa phrase niizh manidoowag (two spirits). It was chosen to distance Native/First Nations people from non-natives as well as from the words berdache and gay.[10][11][12]

Definition and historic societal role

Detail of Dance to the Berdashe, painted by George Catlin

These individuals were sometimes viewed in certain tribes as having two spirits occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles. According to Sabine Lang they have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes.[13] In some tribes, male-bodied two-spirits held specific active roles which, varying by tribe, may include:

  • healers or medicine persons
  • conveyors of oral traditions and songs (Yuki)
  • foretold the future (Winnebago, Oglala Lakota)
  • conferred lucky names on children or adults (Oglala Lakota, Tohono O'odham)
  • Nurses during war expeditions
  • made pottery (Zuni, Navajo, Tohono O'odham)
  • matchmaking (Cheyenne, Omaha, Oglala Lakota)
  • made feather regalia for dances (Maidu)
  • fulfilled special functions in connection with the Sun Dance (Crow, Hidatsa, Oglala Lakota)

Some feel the two spirit identity may be explained as a “form of social failure, women-men are seen as individuals who are not in a position to adapt themselves to the masculine role prescribed by their culture” (Lang, 28). Lang goes on to suggest that two-spirit people lost masculine power socially, so they took on female social roles to climb back up the social ladder within the tribe. Others feel that the two spirit identity is very natural within certain individuals.

Cross dressing of two-spirit people was not always an indicator of cross acting (taking on other gender roles and social status within the tribe). Lang explains “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...” (62). Often within tribes, a child’s gender was decided by depending on their inclination toward either masculine or feminine activities, or their intersex status. Puberty was about the time by which clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice.[citation needed]

Two-spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges.[14] However, they also took on female roles such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities. Today’s societal standards look down upon feminine males, and this perception of that identity has trickled into Native society.

Two-spirits might have relationships with people of either sex.[15] Female-bodied two-spirits usually had sexual relations or marriages with only females.[16] In the Lakota tribe, two-spirits commonly married widowers; a male-bodied two-spirit could perform the function of parenting the children of her husband's late wife without any risk of bearing new children to whom she might give priority.[17] Partners of two-spirits did not take on any special recognition, although some believed that after having sexual relations with a two-spirit they would obtain magical abilities, be given obscene nicknames by the two-spirited person which they believed held "good luck," or in the case of male partners, receive a boost to their masculinity. Relationships between two two-spirited individuals is absent in the literature with one tribe as an exception, the Tewa.[18] Male-bodied two-spirits regarded each other as "sisters," it is speculated that it may have been seen as incestuous to have a relationship with another two-spirit.[19] It is known that in certain tribes a relationship between a two-spirit and non-two-spirit was seen on the most part as neither heterosexual nor homosexual (in modern day terms) but more "hetero-gender," Europeans however saw them as being homosexual. Partners of two-spirits did not experience themselves as "homosexual," and moreover drew a sharp conceptual line between themselves and two-spirits.[20]

Although two-spirits were both respected and feared in many tribes, the two-spirit was not beyond reproach or even being killed for bad deeds. In the Mohave tribe, for instance, they frequently became medicine persons and were likely to be suspected of witchcraft in cases of failed harvest or of death. They were, like any other medicine person, frequently killed over these suspicions (such as the female-bodied two-spirit named Sahaykwisā).[21] 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.[22]

According to certain reports there had never been an alternative gender among the Comanche.[23] This is true of some Apache bands as well, except for the Lipan, Chiricahua, Mescalero, and southern Dilzhe'e.[24][25] 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.[26][27] It has been claimed that the Iroquois did not either,[23] although 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 existed among them (vol. 3, pg. 41).[28] Many, if not all, tribes have been influenced by European homophobia/transphobia.[29][30][31][32][33][34]

It has been claimed that the Aztecs and Incas had laws against such individuals,[35][36][37] 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.[33][38] The belief that these laws existed, at least for the Aztecs, comes from the Florentine Codex. According to Dr Nancy Fitch, Professor of History at California State University,

There is evidence that indigenous peoples authored many codices, but the Spaniards destroyed most of them in their attempt to eradicate ancient beliefs. ... The Florentine Codex is unquestionably a troubling primary source. Natives writing in Nahuatl under the supervision of the Spanish Fray Bernardino de Sahagún apparently produced the manuscript in the 1500s. The facts of its production raise serious questions about whether the manuscript represents the vision of the vanquished or of the colonizers ... colonization of the natives’ minds loomed large in the Spanish project ... To make matters worse, while it appears that the original manuscript was completed in Nahuatl some time around 1555, no evidence of it remains. Authorities in New Spain confiscated his manuscripts in 1575, and at various times, the Spanish monarchy ordered him to stop his work. The earliest known version of the manuscript is, thus, Sahagún’s summary of it written in Spanish. In 1585, he published a revised version of the codex, which, he argued, corrected some errors and integrated some things ignored in his earlier summary. Sahagún’s revised version is the manuscript commonly known as the Florentine Codex.[39]

Nancy Fitch, The Conquest of Mexico Annotated Bibliography


Historical Two-Spirits

Modern self-identified Two-Spirits

See also

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  1. ^ Gilley, Brian Joseph (2006: 8). Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. ISBN 0803271263.
  2. ^ Roscoe, Will (1991). The Zuni Man-Woman, p.5. ISBN 0826312535.
  3. ^ Burrus, Virginia & Keller, Catherine (2006). Toward a theology of eros: transfiguring passion at the limits of discipline. Transdisciplinary theological colloquia. Fordham University Press. ISBN 0823226360, 9780823226368. Source: [1] (accessed: Friday April 23, 2010), p.73
  4. ^ (الصّحّاح في اللغة),(لسان العرب)
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Williams, W.: The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian cultures, page 9. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986
  7. ^ Roscoe, W.: Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in native North America, page 7. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998
  8. ^ vulnerable, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: March 24, 2007
  9. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), pages 109–111.
  10. ^ Jacobs, S. (1997), pages 2–3, 221.
  11. ^ Lang, S.: Men as women, women as men: Changing gender in Native American cultures, page XIII. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1998
  12. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), page 109.
  13. ^ Lang, Sabine, Men as women, women as men: changing gender in Native American cultures
  14. ^ "Inventory of Aboriginal Services, Issues and Initiatives in Vancouver: Two Spirit – LGTB". Retrieved 2007-07-01. 
  15. ^ Stryker, Susan (2004). "Berdache". Retrieved 2007-07-01. 
  16. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pages 289–298.
  17. ^ Hermaphrodeities The Transgender Spirituality Workbook. Raven Kaldera. p44
  18. ^ Lang, S. (1998), page 295.
  19. ^ Lang, S. (1998), page 185.
  20. ^ Lang, S. (1998), page 208-212.
  21. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pages 164, 288.
  22. ^ Walker, James: Lakota Society, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, page 147. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982
  23. ^ a b Williams, W. (1986), pages 39, 48.
  24. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pages 291–93.
  25. ^ Jacobs, S. (1997), pages 236–251.
  26. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pages 202–203.
  27. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), page 15.
  28. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), pages 250-251n.43.
  29. ^ Jacobs, S. (1997), page 206.
  30. ^ Williams, W. (1986), pages 14, 39, 148, 187–192, 209–210, 228, 304n.29.
  31. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), page 114.
  32. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pages 119, 311–313, 322.
  33. ^ a b Trexler, R. : Sex and conquest: Gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas, pages 155–167. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995
  34. ^ Swidler, Arlene: Homosexuality and World Religions, pages 17–19. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993
  35. ^ Williams, W. (1986), page 148.
  36. ^ Lang, S. (1998), page 324.
  37. ^ Spencer, Colin: Homosexuality in History, page 142. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995
  38. ^ Greenberg, David: The Construction of Homosexuality, pages 165–168. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988
  39. ^ Fitch, Nancy: General Discussion of the Primary Sources Used in This Project, The Conquest of Mexico Annotated Bibliography. Accessed: June 14, 2008
  40. ^ Gloria Kim, "Why be just one sex?". Maclean's, September 8, 2005.
  41. ^ Sorrel, Lorraine, "Not Vanishing", review in Off Our Backs. Washington: Mar 31, 1989. Vol.19, Iss. 3.

Sources and further reading

  • Cameron, Michelle. (2005). Two-spirited Aboriginal people: Continuing cultural appropriation by non-Aboriginal society. Canadian Women Studies, 24 (2/3), 123–127.
  • Conley, Craig. Oracle of the twofold deities.
  • Jacobs, Sue-Ellen; Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Eds.). (1997). Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02344-7, ISBN 0-252-06645-6.
  • Lang, Sabine. (1998). Men as women, women as men: Changing gender in Native American cultures. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-74700-4, ISBN 0-292-74701-2.
  • Medicine, Beatrice. (1997). Changing Native American roles in an urban context and changing Native American sex roles in an urban context. In S.-E. Jacobs, W. Thomas, & S. Lang (Eds.) (pp. 145–148).
  • Roscoe, Will. (1991). The Zuni man-woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1253-5.
  • Roscoe, Will. (1998). Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-17539-6.
  • Roscoe, Will; & Gay American Indians. (1988). Living the spirit: A gay American Indian anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-01899-1.
  • Schaeffer, Claude E. (1965). The Kutenai female berdache. Ethnohistory, 12 (3), 193–236.
  • Schultz, James W. (1916). Blackfeet tales of Glacier National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Schultz, James W. (1919). Running Eagle, the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Spanbauer, Tom. (1991). The man who fell in love with the moon: A novel. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-468-3.
  • Trexler, Richard C. (1995). Sex and conquest: Gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3224-3.
  • Williams, Walter L. (1986). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian cultures. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-4602-7.
  • Williams, Walter L. & Toby Johnson. (2006) Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press. ISBN 1-59021-060-3
  • Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, Eds. (2011) Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Wolf, Rope. Two-spirit: Belonging (Film)

External links

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