The Beauty and Importance of the Two-Spirit People


Issues on gender and sexuality are on the forefront of human rights campaigns in society today. As a culture, America struggles to accept those who do not fall into the societally-deemed normative categories.

After colonization, and as European culture spread its influence throughout the territories in Northern America, one of North America’s Indigenous Peoples’ most spiritual traditions became distorted: the Native American belief that members of their tribe who embodied both feminine and masculine characteristics were gifted with two spirits.

Since the Indigenous people of America focused more on a person’s spirit to define their character, sexual orientation was not an identity factor. Instead what spirit, male or female, they embodied determined who they were. If both were present, they were seen as especially gifted.

What is quite unfamiliar to dominant culture today is that Native Americans not only raised these “Two-Spirit” members above others, but they understood them as existing not of either gender- as a transcendence of the two. These people would include androgynous male and females, feminine males, and masculine females.  “Instead of seeing two-spirit persons as transsexuals who try to make themselves into ‘the opposite sex’, it is more accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender status that is different from both men and women,” said Walter L. Williams author of The Spirit and the Flesh.

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Many of the Two-Spirit people would be involved in same sex relationships, which was viewed as perfectly natural and encouraged by the rest of the tribe. In fact, it was seen as an advantage to be married to or in a relationship with a Two-Spirit person, for they were able to take on tasks attributed to both men and women.

In Navajo tradition, a “nadleh” (direct translation meaning “one who is transformed”) person was considered to be an economical asset to have in the extended family and community. Nadlehs would take of care of many of the children and elderly relatives, as well as become the adopted parents of homeless children.

Beyond the Navajo, the cross-gender identity has been documented across 155 tribes of Native North America, and in almost all cases Two Spirits were revered, taking on important community roles including healers, medicine people, visionaries, and caregivers.

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The traditions of honoring people who do not transcribe to one gender or the other has deep roots in the origin of Native American ancestry. There is evidence to the existence and acceptance of transgender and androgynous persons amongst Indigenous people of Siberia, as well as many parts of Central and southeast Asia. The ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia 20,000 years ago, resulting in the continuation of the Two-Spirit tradition in Indigenous communities from Alaska to Chile.

In the 20th century, however, a dark shadow was cast across the Two-Spirit persons and beliefs as Euro-American Christian ideas on sexuality and gender permeated North American culture. The respect for same-sex love, transgender, and androgynous persons disappeared and was replaced with homophobia and a demand to conform to socially accepted gender roles. Many Two-Spirit people became closeted among their community and beyond; some conformed to the roles deemed acceptable; and others committed suicide, feeling unable to be themselves in a prejudiced culture.

As with many communities struggling to regain a voice, the Two-Spirit people are still facing discrimination from outside and within their community today.

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“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,” wrote Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn in their article for the Eagle Society website.

The name itself, Two-Spirit, was recently decided upon as the best term to call those who lived outside of the gender binary. Originally, contemporary society would call them “berdache”, a term coined by the early French settlers meaning “kept boy.” Not only is the name offensive and forced on the Native People, but it is completely inaccurate to the experience of the Two-Spirits who embody both genders.

In 1990, 13 men, women, and transgender people met in Winnipeg, Canada to find a term that would both encompass the native LGBT+ experience and be accepted by all the tribes across the Native Community.

The reawakening of the Two-Spirit term and tradition proved to be important for the contemporary climate: 2012 experienced devastating rates of anti-transgender violence, as well as structural and interpersonal acts of  racism according to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force report.

There has been violence against Two-Spirit people throughout recent history, such as Navajo Fred Martinez who was a transgender person violently murdered in Cortez, Colorado. A 2011 documentary entitled Two-Spirits tells his story along with the history of the gay and transgender identity in Native culture.

However, there has also been great progress to return the beautiful acceptance of Two-Spirit people in the community. There are a minimum of seven native governments that have now passed laws recognizing same-sex marriage, many of which were passed before the state itself, such as the Suquamish Tribe in Seattle.

Heather Purser was the tribal member behind the wave of acceptance in Suquamish law before the state of Washington. After a year of waiting for action, she took matters into her own hands and appealed to her people to change the laws and allow marriage rights for all members. In the end, they voted unanimously in favor of same-sex marriage, marking the first judicial ruling in the state of Washington. She said, “it was less a vote and more an affirmation of me and an understanding of my struggle.”

Yet, the Two-Spirit tradition speaks beyond the acceptance of homosexual relationships and marriages, defining gender as spiritual, multi-directional construct, which is an even less accepted concept in American society today.

Society has grown more accepting to those who are homosexual, although there is still a gross prejudice against anyone who does not fit into gender or sexual binaries. Those who exist in the between and embody all the complexities of the human experience are still widely discriminated against and unaccepted.

The revival of celebrating Two-Spirit people among tribes is vitally important to maintaining a strong and historically rich Native community, but it can also teach Western societies to see the beauty and truth in gender fluidity.

Breaking away from binaries and embracing the multiple spirits within ourselves is a massive step toward creating a wide community based on acceptance, equality, and love.

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