Two-Spirit History

nativeoutBecause of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion and next week’s dual colonial celebrations in North America’s settler colonies of Canada and the United States I thought to myself that it would be appropriate and interesting to take a brief look at where two main interests of mine, queer liberation and Native Indian liberation, intersect, specifically in the emergence of the modern Two-Spirit movement.

According to most descriptions the term usually implies a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit living in the same body (either biologically female or male) and was coined by contemporary gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender American Indians to describe themselves and the traditional, quite often sacred, roles they are reclaiming. The modern use of the term originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual inter-tribal 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.

Prior to the arrival of the colonial pirate Christopher Columbus in 1492 Two-Spirit people were found in every region of North America, among every type of Native culture. A good example of the wide-spread presence and acceptance of Two-Spirit people in Colombian times is reports by Spanish conquistadors who observed the presence Two-Spirit people in almost every village they entered in Central America. However with the arrival of European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism and the subsequent imposition of Christian and patriarchal social norms and practices on the Native people of North America  entered a period of persecution. It is known that in certain nations a relationship between a two-spirit and non-two-spirit was seen on the most part as neither heterosexual nor homosexual (to use the modern Western terms) but more “hetero-gender,” the new European conquerors  however saw them as being homosexual and as such persecuted Two-Spirited people and their partners.

However the Europeans and their colonial daughter states were never ever to exterminate this part of our cultures, and like the rest our traditions it is experiencing a resurgence as LGBTI-Q Indians reclaim their traditions as part of the battle against colonialism. So on this intersection of two important dates I present a brief history of the Two-Spirit movement from NativeOUT.

To all who fought back and to all who fight still, for Native and queer liberation, and against all other forms of oppression, thank you from the depth of my heart, your sacrifices and all that you have given us will never be forgotten.

Oka and Stonewall Were Not Candlelight Vigils!

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

The Two-Spirit movement is a contemporary development among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Native Americans whose primary focus is the reestablish their traditional roles within their respective tribes, as, historically, most Two-Spirit individuals, including not-men, not-women, gays and lesbians (and those who fell in between genders and sexualities), fulfilled a spiritual, if not sacred, purpose within specific tribes. At least 150 tribes across North America had at one point, and to some degree, cross-gender or gay and lesbian individuals fulfilling specific duties (Roscoe, pg. 217), including men fulfilling women’s roles, women fulfilling men’s roles, and importantly, Two-Spirit individuals contributing as spiritual leaders. According to Duane Champagne, “It is documented in the academic literature that many American Indian cultures honored and respected alternative sexual lifestyles and gender roles” (Brown, pg. xviii), which the Two-Spirit movement is attempting to recover. The term “Two-Spirit,” however, was not the first term to traditionally define the GLBT Native American community.

The “berdache” was the earliest (post-Columbus) term to corroborate the existence of homosexual activities and customs within Native American tribes. And while the term itself is a common anthropology label within Native American studies, “berdache” is a misguided categorization, or as Karina L. Walters explains, “[it is] an inappropriate French term used by many researchers because it means a young man or boy who is the passive recipient of anal intercourse” (Brown, pg. 48). Accordingly, the term “Two-Spirit” replaces the “berdache” label in order to reestablish accurate traditional (and spiritual) roles for GLBT Native Americans in modern-day tribes. On the other hand, traditional Two-Spirit customs and ceremonies have clearly been replaced with Anglo-Christian ideology and homophobia, or as Will Roscoe observes, “Unfortunately, Indian homophobia is still a problem today” (pg. 3)

While most contemporary Two-Spirit communities are endeavoring to regain and strengthen their spiritual niche, Champagne advises, “I am not suggesting a return to the religious and social life of several centuries ago. The [European] colonial regime has made that impossible […] the Great Spirit has set forth a new challenge, and that is preserving and sharing the sacred gifts of Indian cultures” (pg. xxii). The Two-Spirit movement has honorably accepted this challenge.

We go forward together in love
our humor carries us through.
And your words and guns are
on our backs in your land
that will one day be returned to us.

These are our stories
these are our dreams.

– Anne Waters, “Homelands and Family”


Brown, Lester B., ed. Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men. New York: Haworth, 1997.

Roscoe, Will. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

Ancestors: Prominent Two-Spirit Individuals: 1800-1937 A.D.

We’wha (Zuni) circa 1849-1896

We’wha (pronounced Way-wuh) is perhaps the most distinguished and iconic figure in Two-Spirit history. She was a Zuni spiritual leader as well as a notable ceramic artist and weaver, who, as a Two-Spirit individual, linked genders by undertaking traditional women’s roles, including performing sacred roles in ceremonial dances. We’wha also cross-dressed.

She met President Grover Cleveland in Washington, D.C. in 1886, and other high-ranking political officials. Interestingly, however, We’wha’s gender was never questioned by non-Zunis, as most outsiders regarded him as a her. Yet as a Two-Spirit person, We’wha was more accurately a s/he.

Hastiin Klah (Diné) 1867-1937

Like We’wha, Hastiin Klah was a celebrated weaver, and, additionally, a sand painter. Klah also met a U.S. President – Franklin D. Rooseelt. But unlike We’wha, Klah did not cross-dress. Yet they led parallel lives: both attained a high-status within their respective tribes, because like the Zuni, the Diné (Navajo) believed in the spiritual uniqueness of Two-Spirit individuals – those who displayed and fulfilled both male and female behaviors and duties.

Finds Them and Kills Them (Crow) 1854-1929

According to Will Roscoe, Finds Them and Kills Them, or Osh-Tisch, “was one of the last traditional Crow [Two-Spirit individuals] or boté” (pg. 59.)  He dressed in women’s clothes to which Anglos and government agents protested against. The Crows, however, and like several other tribes at the time, revered Two-Spirit individuals including those who cross-dressed.

Woman Chief (Crow) circa early 19th century -1854

While many Two-Spirit individuals throughout history were typically and biologically men, Woman Chief, on the other hand, was born a woman who eventually assumed the role of a fierce Crow warrior. Woman Chief participated in several traditionally male activities, such as hunting and, interestingly, leading her own war parties, as she was an expert rifleman. Most notably, however, “Woman Chief married another woman,” Will Roscoe writes, “Eventually Woman Chief supported four wives” (pg. 69).

Running Eagle (Blackfeet) circa first half of the 19th Century

With permission of her father, Running Eagle was allowed to participate in hunting duties, which was one of many male activities she’d rather do. After her parents died, she assumed both father and mother roles in order to take care of her younger siblings. Eventually, Running Eagle took in another woman to care for the children, and later, joined war parties, and on these war parties, dressed in male clothing – all before twenty years of age– until finally renouncing: “I shall never marry[…]” (Roscoe, pg. 71).


Roscoe, Will, ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.


  • Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men by Lester Brown – Two Spirit People is the first-ever look at social science research exploration into the lives of American Indian lesbian women and gay men. Editor Lester B. Brown posits six gender styles in traditional American Indian culture: men and women, not-men and not-women (persons of one biological sex assuming the identity of the opposite sex in some form), and gays and lesbians. He brings together chapters that emphasize American Indian spirituality, present new perspectives, and provide readers with a beginning understanding of the place of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Indians within American Indian culture and within American society. This beginning will help you understand these unique people and the special challenges and multiple prejudices they face.
  • Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country by Brian Joseph Gilley –  The Two-Spirit man occupies a singular place in Native American culture, balancing the male and the female spirit even as he tries to blend gay and Native identity. The accompanying ambiguities of gender and culture come into vivid relief in the powerful and poignant Becoming Two-Spirit, the first book to take an in-depth look at contemporary American Indian gender diversity. Drawing on a wealth of observations from interviews, oral histories, and meetings and ceremonies, Brian Joseph Gilley provides an intimate view of how Two-Spirit men in Colorado and Oklahoma struggle to redefine themselves and their communities. The Two-Spirit men who appear in Gilley’s book speak frankly of homophobia within their communities, a persistent prejudice that is largely misunderstood or misrepresented by outsiders. Gilley gives detailed accounts of the ways in which these men modify gay and Native identity as a means of dealing with their alienation from tribal communities and families. With these compromises, he suggests, they construct an identity that challenges their alienation while at the same time situating themselves within contemporary notions of American Indian identity. He also shows how their creativity is reflected in the communities they build with one another, the development of their own social practices, and a national network of individuals linked in their search for self and social acceptance.
  • The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions by Paula Gunn Allen – This pioneering work, first published in 1986, documents the continuing vitality of American Indian traditions and the crucial role of women in those traditions.
  • Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America by Will Roscoe – The term ‘berdache’ is a little-known, rarely discussed reference to Native American individuals who embodied both genders – what some might classify as ‘the third sex.’ In Changing Ones, William Roscoe explores the world of berdaches, revealing meaningful differences between Native American culture and contemporary North American culture. Roscoe reveals that rather than being ostracized or forced into obscurity, berdaches were embraced by some 150 tribes, serving as artists, medicine people, religious experts, and tribal leaders. Changing Ones combines the fields of anthropology, sociology, queer theory, gay and lesbian studies, and gender studies to challenge conventional schools of thought and to expand every reader’s horizons.
  • Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang – This landmark book combines the voices of Native Americans and non-Indians, anthropologists and others, in an exploration of gender and sexuality issues as they relate to lesbian, gay, transgendered, and other “marked” Native Americans. Focusing on the concept of two-spirit people–individuals not necessarily gay or lesbian, transvestite or bisexual, but whose behaviors or beliefs may sometimes be interpreted by others as uncharacteristic of their sex–this book is the first to provide an intimate look at how many two-spirit people feel about themselves, how other Native Americans treat them, and how anthropologists and other scholars interpret them and their cultures.


  • The Business of Fancydancing directed by Sherman Alexie – While in college, Spokane Reservation best friends Aristotle and Seymour took different paths. Aristotle went back to “the rez,” while Seymour began a new life for himself as an openly gay poet. Sixteen years later, the two are reunited, but mutual feelings of hurt and resentment stand in the way of their friendship.

Posted on June 26, 2009, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles, Queer & Trans Struggles, Radical History, Women's Liberation. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for this post! I identify as a non-gendered female (and/or working-class lesbian.)

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