As part of National Native American Heritage Month, it is important to recognize parts of the Native American community that may not be well known. One of these groups includes people who identify as “two-spirit.”
“Two-spirit is a third gender found in some Native American cultures, often involving birth-assigned men or women taking on the identities and roles of the opposite sex,” according to dictionary.com. “A sacred and historical identity, two-spirit can include but is by no means limited to LGBTQIA+ identities.”
Though two-spirit may now be included in the umbrella of the LGBTQIA+ community, the term "two-spirit" does not simply mean someone who is a Native American and gay.
“There are two different meanings,” said Sebastian Braun, associate professor of world languages and cultures. “There is the traditional meaning and the contemporary meaning.”
Traditionally, Native American two-spirit people were male, female and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people.
“Two-spirits were both sexually men and women who identified with a different gender, especially through gendered work,” Braun said. “In most Native societies there was a pretty strict division on what each gender did. So two-spirits were people, for one reason or another, who did work that identified them with the gender opposite of their sex.”
According to the Indian Health Service website, in most tribes, two-spirit people were considered neither men nor women. Instead, they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status.
In tribes where two-spirit males and females were referred to with the same term, this status amounted to a third gender. In other cases, two-spirit females were referred to with a distinct term, therefore constituting a fourth gender.
“There are Native societies where there are not just one, two, three, four genders, but there are eight or ten different genders,” Braun said. “I spoke with someone who is Navajo and he said there are at least ten genders in Navajo.”
Although there were important variations in two-spirit roles across North America, they shared some common traits. These traits included working roles, gender variation, spiritual sanctions and same-sex relations.
For the trait of gender variation, two-spirit people were historically distinguished from men and women in many ways, including temperament, dress, lifestyle and social roles.
“Two-spirit people were basically doing things that the opposite gender was supposed to,” Braun said. “So men would stay and take care of the household and do a lot of handicrafts and on the other hand women went to war and got involved in tribal politics.”
For the trait of specialized work roles, male and female two-spirit people were typically described in terms of their preference for and achievements in the work of the "opposite" sex or in activities specific to their role.
Two-spirit individuals were experts in traditional arts such as pottery making, basket weaving and the manufacture and decoration of items made from leather.
“Among the Navajo, two-spirit males often became weavers — usually women and men's work — as well as healers, which was a male role,” said the Indian Health Service website. “By combining these activities, they were often among the wealthier members of the tribe. Two-spirit females engaged in activities such as hunting and warfare and became leaders in war and even chiefs.”
For the trait of spiritual sanction, two-spirit identity was widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams and sanctioned by tribal mythology. In many tribes, two-spirit people filled special religious roles as healers, shamans and ceremonial leaders.
“Two-spirits were seen as very mysterious people and mysterious means powerful,” Braun said. “It had both negative and positive connotations because you can use your power for both good and bad things. Parents often tried to raise their children ‘gender-appropriate,’ but when someone had a vision or a dream that they had to do the other thing, nobody could stand in their way. You can’t go against the vision because it would have very negative consequences.”
For the trait of same-sex relations, two-spirit people typically formed sexual and emotional relationships with non-two-spirit members of their own sex, forming both short and long-term relationships.
“Among the Lakota, Mohave, Crow, Cheyenne and others, two-spirit people were believed to be lucky in love, and able to bestow this luck on others,” said the Indian Health Service website.
Many indigenous communities have specific terms in their own languages for the gender-variant members of their communities and the social and spiritual roles these individuals fulfill. With over 500 surviving Native American cultures, attitudes about sex and gender can be diverse.
“Even with the modern adoption of pan-Indian terms like two-spirit, not all cultures will perceive two-spirit people the same way, or welcome a pan-Indian term to replace the terms already in use by their cultures,” said the Indian Health Service website.
Many traditions like the two-spirit identity were lost or stifled by the disruptions caused by conquest and disease, as well as the efforts of missionaries, government agents, boarding schools and white settlers. Two-spirit roles in particular were singled out for condemnation, interference and, many times, violence. As a result, two-spirit traditions and practices went underground or disappeared in many tribes.
“I feel like we are trying to put everyone in boxes,” Braun said. “We define those boxes and that’s that. I think two-spirit people demonstrate that not everything fits in a box. That’s okay, society is not going to die off. We can have a society where we have many different classifications because people have started to realize that not everyone is born male or female.”
Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Native people throughout North America are reviving the two-spirit role and its traditions. Two-spirit people have gathered nationally and regionally since the early 1990s in many parts of the country.
“Today two-spirit is more used as a term that is more associated either with lesbian or gay; it has gone away from the traditional meaning,” Braun said. “The traditional meaning did not necessarily mean that the two-spirit person would have sexual acts with someone of the same sex.”
Within the already marginalized Native American community, two-spirit people today may face more discrimination for their identities.
“In Lakota, for example, men who were two-spirits were called ‘winkte,’ and today if you call someone ‘winkte’ it is an insult and degrading word,” Braun said. “I think today it is clearly understood that this is not a positive connotation and I think this has a lot to do with the loss of the original meaning of how all this worked.”
The prevalence of two-spirit people depends on the community. Braun said there may be more people who identify as two-spirit now due to the resurgence of people learning about their culture, but those individuals may still face discrimination within their own communities.
According to Braun, urban communities tend to be less discriminatory and rural communities tend to be more discriminatory depending on how traditional the community is, with really traditional communities being less discriminatory, regardless of their location.
“If someone doesn’t fit into the designated gender categories, in many communities they have a really tough life,” Braun said. “Not only do they not fit into the categories but they are actively discriminated against and ridiculed and ‘they’re not a real man,’ and that opens you up for all kinds of things.”