Two-Spirit People: Gender and Sexual Variability in Native North America

This paper was written by myself as part of one of my anthropological undergraduate courses a number of years ago now. Looking back at it now the limitations and problems of the article are clear. In terms of the paper itself, because of its nature as a broad, basic introduction to the subject it was not possible to give the subject anywhere the near the depth it required. It is very general. There was also a tendency to clump diverse First Nations cultures, which is related to a point about worldview. Additionally the article tried to give coverage to both “traditional two-spiritism” and the modern revival of it, which only increased the problem of breadth.

In terms of the views expressed, one of the most clear problems from my own point of view is that is that this paper was written during a time when I was caught up in a kind of cultural nationalist view on Native politics. I had lost touch with dialectical and historical materialist approach. And as per the norm for that worldview I believed in assumptions of generic First Nations culture free of patriarchy, serious class difference etc. Eventually though I came back around to a more historical materialist analysis. This is not to say that I do not hold that First Nations societies were not, on the whole, far more open, accepting and empowering to people who today might be labelled ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘trans’, but rather that I no longer look through a lens clouded by the philosophical idealism of cultural nationalism.

Now I more critical of this paper and so readers might be wondering why exactly I am posting it. Quite simply, despite its numerous problems and insufficiencies I still feel that the paper provides a descent overview of the history of Two-Spirit people. It examines the role of the cultural construction of gender, and how this process differed in a number of traditional First Nations societies from than that of Euro-American culture. It also goes over the most basic history of contact with European civilization, in particular the response of Europeans to the practice of Two-Spirit. It also covers the effects of colonization on Two-Spirit people and the acceptance of them by a number of traditional Native cultures. Finally, the paper gives room tothe rise of the contemporary Two-Spirit movement, which is an outgrowth of the Native gay, lesbian and bisexual community, and was later adopted by many Native trans people.

For much of the history of modern North American society gender expression has been viewed as a simple binary of polar opposites: male and female, masculine and feminine. Below the surface mainstream culture there has always been a vibrant community of gender variable people and cross-dressers, especially within the gay and lesbian community where the archetypes of the drag queen and stone butch have been present for some time. With the explosion of the gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States in the years after the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York City there has been a growth in the visibility of those whose gender expression does not conform to the hegemonic culture’s simple binary. In the 1990s authors like Leslie Feinberg and Jamison Green helped to popularize the existence and struggles of gender bending, gender blending, gender changing and other gender variable people. Today transgendered and transsexual people, as well as intersexed people, have integrated themselves largely into the lesbian, gay and bisexual struggle for social acceptance and equal rights, leading to the often used acronym of LGBTI to describe the movement. However, long before the arrival of the first white European settlers, whose descendents make up the bulk of the North American population, the cultures of many of the indigenous Indian nations had institutionalized gender variability. Once referred to by the term berdache by the Western academic institution, including anthropologists, historians, sociologists, psychologists and sexologists, this term is now considered a pejorative by many (Jacobs et al. 1997:2). The term Two-Spirit, which is a translation of the Anishinabe/Ojibwa term niizh maleitoag, was coined by members of the Indian community in 1990 at the third conference of American Indian gays and lesbians in Winnipeg (Roscoe 1998:109) as an alternative to berdache. Emerging from the usage of modern gay and lesbian Indians as well as those people who would have traditionally been labelled as berdache by Western scholars, Two-Spirit now refers to a number of identities, both contemporary and historical, within North American indigenous cultures, ranging from modern Native lesbian, gay, bisexual and gender variable individuals to the traditions of many Native nations in which multiple gender and sexual variations were institutionalized.  The goal of this paper will be to examine the institution of the Two-Spirit person as it represents gender and sexual variability across in Native North America. This paper will examine both the historical institutionalization of multiple genders and sexual expressions in many Native cultures at the time of first contact with European civilizations and colonization, and the roles that such individuals fulfilled, as well as the modern movements to reclaim of the concept by modern American Indian gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender variable people.

According to Harriet Whitehead’s article The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America “a social gender dichotomy is present in all known societies in the sense that everywhere anatomic sexual differences observable at birth are used to start tracking the newborn into one or the other of two social role complexes.” (1981:57) Whitehead explains that it is this attaching of gender and related social roles and relations to biological sex at birth that is at the core of why gender dichotomy exists. However, she also notes that there are also often a host of other factors that vary across cultures and often come into play in defining ones gender, ranging from ideas of fate, an individual’s temperament, or suspected spiritual power, or the mythical history of the culture into which they are born. Whitehead further points out that in many of the cultures of Native North America these kinds of secondary characteristics of an individual tend to form clusters, with maybe one feature that forms the core of the cluster (Whitehead 1981:57). The result of this in indigenous North American society was the development of the institution of the Two-Spirit person (formerly called berdache), who is a biological female or male who takes on the gender roles and associated social relations and obligations of the traditionally opposite gender.

Western knowledge of gender and sexual variability in Native North America has been around since the first sustained contact between the people of North America and the civilization of Europe. In his book Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America William Roscoe recounts the account of Edwin T. Denig, who beginning in 1833 traveled up the Missouri river and spent twenty-three years as a trader for the for the American Fur Company in the territory of the Crow Indian nation. According to Roscoe, Denig found himself in a land populated by an unfamiliar people with foreign customs, and most shocking of all found himself amongst a people for whom “some of the important and respected individuals were men and women who in American and European societies would be condemned, persecuted, jailed, even executed.” (1998:3) In the culture that Denig had left the lifestyles of these people that he encountered in Crow country would have been considered immoral, perverse, and ultimately condemned as being unnatural (Roscoe 1998:3). The presence of gender and sexual variability amongst Indians marks perhaps one of the starkest areas in which Native North American and European cultures differed.

However, Edwin T. Denig’s encounter with Two-Spirit people amongst the Crow is far from a unique experience, and was also far from the first time that this type of meeting of cultures had happened. Indeed, as Roscoe notes, “Europeans had been encountering ‘berdaches’…since the days of Spanish conquest.” (1998:4) In her article Various Kinds of Two-Spirit People: Gender Variance and Homosexuality in Native American Communities, Sabine Lang notes that:

Ever since Europeans came into contact with North American Indian cultures, there have been reports on Native American males who partially or completely take up the culturally defined roles of women in their respective communities, doing women’s work and feminine arts or crafts, such as beadwork, pottery, and basketry; sometimes wearing women’s clothes; and often entering into sexual relationships or marriages with men. (1997:100)

One can see this in the account of Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, who traveled amongst the Karankawa Indians of modern Texas, who said of his journeys “in the time that I continued among them, I saw a most brutish and beastly custom, to wit, a male who was married to another, and these be effeminate and impotent men, who goe clothed and attired like women, and performe the office of a womale.” (Roscoe 1998:4) Denig’s response to the presence of Two-Spirit people was also far from new. During the Spanish conquest of the Americas they reacted to Two-Spirit people with everything from amazement, to disgust, and even violence (Roscoe 1998:4).

It should be noted also that gender variability did not only take the form of Indian men who took up the roles and dress of women, but also amongst women who lived, partially or entirely, with a male gender expression. However, because of the fact that many male Two-Spirited individuals entered into sexual or marital relationships with men, leading to the long time interpretation that institutionalized Two-Spirit roles were an attempt to integrate deviant male homosexuality into Native North American cultures, the phenomenon of male Two-Spirited has often been the primary focus scholarly literature on the topic. As such, according to Lang “females taking up the ways of men were not included in discussions of the Two-Spirit.” (1997:101) The fact is though that both male and female Two-Spirit individuals existed in many Native cultures in North America, ranging from the nádleehé of the Navajo, the winkte of the Lakota, the warharmi of the Kamia, the ihamalea of the Zuni to the hwame of the Mohave (Lang 1997:100).

There is much discussion surrounding the relationship between sexual orientation and gender expression in Native cultures. In contrast to the notion that the institution of the Two-Spirit  was an attempt to integrate deviant sexual behaviour Lang puts forward the argument that an individual’s identity as Two-Spirit had much more to do with their occupational preferences and personality traits than the type of body that they desire sexually (1997:101). Further, it should be noted that a number of reports of Two-Spirit males living with women, and even having sexual relationships with them have been overlooked or ignored by much of the literature. There are reports of at least twenty Indian nations where male Two-Spirits where this is exactly the case, and at least that many regarding cases where they have no sexual relations at all, with either men or women (Lang 1997:102). A similar problem exists with regards to reports of female Two-Spirits who entered into relationships with men (Lang 1997:102). It is also important to take note of the fact that, according to Lang, the “culturally defined roles for individuals who one way or another are reversing or blending gender roles in Native American cultures are as diverse as those cultures themselves.” (1997:101)

A key notion to grasp in all of this here is the nature of how gender is culturally constructed. This is a process that takes place in all cultures. Specifically, the process of the cultural construction of gender as it is being used here, according to Harriet Whitehead, refers to “the ideas that give social meaning to physical differences between the sexes, rendering two biological classes, male and female, into two social classes, men and women, and making the social relationships in which men and women stand toward each other appear reasonable and appropriate.” (1981:57) As has been stated already, there was a great amount of diversity cross-culturally in Native North America in that each individual culture differed on what exactly its culturally defined gender roles and social relations were, however a majority of indigenous cultures had a definition of gender that explicitly allowed for the construction of more than the standard accepted two genders of male and female (Lang 1997:103). The result of this in indigenous North American cultures is that it allowed for the growth, and eventual institutionalization, of a wide range of gender variable Two-Spirit traditions.

Traditionally in Indian cultures Two-Spirit people fulfilled a number of important social roles beyond the culturally determined gender roles that they taken up. It has long been noted in the scholarly literature that Two-Spirit people have played an important aspect in the ritual aspect of many Native cultures, and often were perceived as being imbued with a large amount of spiritual power. In Sex Life and Marriage from The Crow Indians Robert Lowie notes that “the task of chopping down the first tree for the Sun Dance lodge specifically devolved on a berdache.” (1956:50) Similarly, in her book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen notes that the koshkalaka, the female Two-Spirit counter-part to the winkte amongst the Lakota are seen to have quite a bit of spiritual power, though not without a cost, as she notes that their power is not to “’determine [their] own and others’ action.’ Rather is consists of the ability to manipulate physical and nonphysical reality towards certain ends. When this power is used to determine others’ actions, it at least borders on black magic or sorcery.” (1992:258) Outside of the cultural zone of the Great Plains, Arnold R. Pilling in Cross-Dressing and Shamanism among Selected Western American Tribes notes several instances among Indian cultures where Two-Spirit people play a central role, such as in the Kachina dance of the Zuni people (1997:70) and cross-dressing shamans and medicine men among the Wapato group of Tualatin Indians in northern Oregon and Tolowa of northwestern California (1997:74).

However, much of these traditional roles and practices, even the institution of the Two-Spirit person itself, began to disappear after the arrival of European colonialism. With the European settler-colonists also came European Judeo-Christian values and norms about gender and sexuality, which, needless to say, were starkly different than those of indigenous North Americans. It has already been noted how the first European conquerors and explorers reacted in a number of ways at the existence of Two-Spirit people, including with violence. In one very telling example of the violent ways in which Europeans attempted at times to eliminate Two-Spirit people, Roscoe recounts the story of Vasco Núñez de Balba who upon encountering “forty pathicos foemineo amictu (male homosexuals dressed as women) in Panama, he had them put to the dogs.” (1998:4) One catholic theologian a century later would applaud de Balba violence by anointing his actions as being those of an honourable Catholic Spaniard (Roscoe 1998:4). The result of this onslaught on the institution and practice of the Two-Spirit, which included not only physical violence directed at those people who were part of the group, but also the cultural colonization of the indigenous population, especially with the imposition of the Christian religion and Judeo-Christian European ideas on gender and sexuality is that by the time of the early 20th century there was fear that the Two-Spirit institution had ceased to exist in certain areas of North America. For some time the male Two-Spirit person Kasinelu was labelled by some scholars as the last Zuni Two-Spirit person (Pilling 1997:71).

Several authors also have noted the emergence of homophobia in the Indian community and the problem this has caused for the continuity of the Two-Spirit tradition. Pilling retells the story of the Zuni Two-Spirited person Kasinelu who sought the approval of his mother and mother’s mother for his lifestyle as a Two-Spirit person as in Zuni society it is an individual’s mother and mother’s mother who has have the most say regarding their behaviour. Pilling notes that while Kasinelu did have the blessing of his mother and mother’s mother for his Two-Spirit identity, he did face some opposition from his father Nayuchi. Pilling suspects that Nayuchi’s opposition to Kasinelu’s identity may have been an early example of homophobia in the Indian community (1997:70). This has continued to be the case in many Indian communities down to the modern day. The Yup’ik author Anguksuar also notes the prevalence of homophobia modern Native society, saying that “many Native people had become homophobic and acquired other forms of intolerance in recent generations.” (1997:220) Michael Red Earth, of the Sisseton Dakota nation, in his autobiographical article Traditional Influences on a Contemporary Gay Identified Sisseton Dakota explores the problem of homophobia in modern day Native North American communities. Himself a gay-identified he describes the dissonance between his more traditionalist reservation-based extended family and his urban dwelling assimilationist nuclear family, and especially the role that the Indian boarding schools had on his mother and her sisters in creating this situation. On this Red Earth says “the policy at the Indian boarding schools was to re-educate and assimilate Indian into white culture. Expressions of Indian heritage were suppressed and punished.” (1997:210) Red Earth also describes that after he came out to his urban non-traditional family they became quite upset, and he attributes this to the effect of the boarding schools on his family (1997:213).

However, despite these threats to the continuity of the Two-Spirit institution at the hands of five centuries of sustained colonial assaults on it and its basis in Native North American cultural constructions of gender, there is currently a modern movement to revive the term and its original meanings within the indigenous communities themselves. The modern Two-Spirit movement is a contemporary development that has emerged from the gay and lesbian Indian underground community beginning in the 1990s. The initial impetus for this movement actually comes as the result of academic and scholarly work on traditional indigenous North American ideas on gender and sexuality in the 1980s. As a result of these works, such as Walter Williams’ The Spirit and the Flesh, the mainstream gay and lesbian community in North America began to embrace the notion of a North America that was tolerant of gender and sexual variability before colonialism, especially as a counter the systematic intolerance of gays and lesbians in modern North America. This even lead to a number of mainstream gay and lesbian organizations incorporating the old anthropological term berdache into their names. Ultimately this resulted in a number of gay and lesbian Indian groups deciding to reclaim their heritage and traditions, and in the early 1990s they decided to reject the term berdache and proposed the use of the term Two-Spirit to describe themselves (Gilley 2006:25).

According to Brian Joseph Gilley, author of Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country, this coordinated rejection of the colonial term berdache and embracing of Two-Spirit accomplished two primary goals “it removed the negativity of colonial impression of Native gender diversity and wrangled the concept away from the popular gay community.” (2006:25) Superficially this has allowed for a partial separation of the Indian gay and lesbian community from the predominantly white mainstream gay and lesbian community, thus allowing them the opportunity to develope independently, but more importantly, the embracing of the concept of Two-Spirit by many contemporary gay and lesbian Indians has allowed them find an identity for themselves that relies less on their sexual orientation, and more on drawing from their heritage as indigenous people (Gilley 2006:25). Gilley notes that with “the knowledge that gender-different persons historically were respected in their communities, indigenous gays began to emphasize their cultural heritage through the establishment of Two-Spirit as a kind of personhood and as a socially observable fact.” (2006:29) As the use of the term Two-Spirit has increased in popularity the flexibility of it as a concept has allowed many more people to feel a connection to their indigenous heritage that may usually be unavailable to them or discouraged for reasons ranging from issues of blood quantum to physical appearance (Gilley 2006:30). For those Indians who lived in their traditional communities the concept of Two-Spirit allowed them to bring together their sexual orientation and indigenous heritage within the cultural and social sphere of their traditions (Gilley 2006:32).

Outside of the community of gay and lesbian Indians, the notion of being Two-Spirit has also been picked up by modern-day indigenous transsexuals and transgenderists, who may or may not identity as a homosexual. In hir book Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, white American transgender activist and author Leslie Feinberg interviews Gary Bowen, an Apache Indian, on the interplay between his status as a transperson and as an indigenous person. Bowen says that once he “figured out that ‘transgendered’ was someone who transcended traditional stereotypes of ‘male’ and ‘woman,’ I saw that I was such a person. I began a quest for finding words that described myself.” (Feinberg 1998:63) In the case of Bowen this was a journey that eventually culminated in his acceptance of his trans nature as gift from the creator. Specifically he says “my own transgendered state is a sacred calling given to me by Spirit, not a neurosis discovered by white medicine.” (Feinberg 1998:63) Bowen goes onto to say that he does not accept the popular labels of transsexual and transgendered for people like himself because “it is important to remember that ‘transsexual’ and ‘transgendered’ are terms that have arisen out the dominant culture’s experience with gender, and are not necessarily reflective of a wide variety of people, cultures, beliefs and practices relating to gender.” (Feinberg 1998:64) Rather, Bowen and many other contemporary indigenous gender variable people, like gay and lesbian Indians, have turned to their Native heritage to find an identity that fits how see themselves and their place in the world. Like the gay and lesbian Indians, Native gender variable people have rejected the word berdache as a way to describe them, finding it offensive and rooted in colonial discourse. Bowen himself states the prefers to use the traditional Sioux term winkte for people who mainstream society would generally describe as male-to-female transsexuals or transgenderists, and the Yuma Kwe’rhame term kurami for female-to-male trans people (Feinberg 1998:65). While Bowen does not use the term Two-Spirit to describe himself, stating that where he is from it has been used as a slur for people of mixed blood, and could also be translated into some Native languages as ghost-haunted, which is an important, but separate spiritual concept, there are many Native transpeople who do identity with the term (Feinberg 1998:65).

Ultimately the modern resurrection of the Two-Spirit concept by current gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans Indians is part of a much longer tradition that reaches back to the cultures that existed in North America before the arrival of European colonialism. This is because in spite of differences between what exactly each culture defined as male and female, almost all indigenous North American cultures followed a cultural construction of gender that allowed for the existence of more than two genders, and for a range of behaviours that would be considered deviant in European societies. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they were unprepared for the presence of Two-Spirit people and reacted sometimes with confusion and awe, and sometimes with brutal violence. The traditional acceptance of gender variability in indigenous cultures was also assaulted by the cultural colonization of their communities through such institutions as the Indian boarding schools, which punished traditional practices and rewarded acceptance of Western ideology and norms. This eventually lead to the growth of homophobia and a general lack of acceptance of gender variable people within indigenous communities in North America. However, despite this there have been movement by Native people to reclaim the term Two-Spirit as a cultural identity separate from the predominantly white mainstream gay and lesbian society, and that allows them to link their gender identity and their sexual orientation with their identity as Native peoples.


Allen, Paula Gunn

1992[1986]   The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feninine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.

Anguksuar (Richard LaFortune)

1997   A Postcolonial Colonial Perspective on Western [Mis]Conceptions of the Cosmos and the Restoration of Indigenous Taxonomies. In Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Pp. 217-222. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Feinberg, Leslie

1998   Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gilley, Brian Joseph

2006   Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Thomas and Sabine Lang

1997   Introduction. In Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Pp. 1-20. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lang, Sabine

1997   Various Kinds of Two-Spirit People: Gender Variance and Homosexuality in Native American Communities. In Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Pp. 100-118.

Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lowie, Robert H.

2010   Sex Life and Marriage from the Crow Indians. In Readings in the Cross-Cultural Study of Sexuality. Harriet Lyons, ed. Pp. 48-55. Waterloo: Courseware Printing.

Pilling, Arnold R.

1997   Cross-Dressing and Shamanism among Selected Western North American Tribes. In Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Pp. 69-99. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Red Earth, Michael

1997   Traditional Influences on a Contemporary Gay-Identified Sisseton Dakota. In Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality and Spirituality. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Pp. 210-216. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Roscoe, Will

1998   Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York City: St. Martin’s Press.

Whitehead, Harriet

2010   The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look At Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America. In Readings in the Cross-Cultural Study of Sexuality. Harriet Lyons, ed. Pp. 56-73. Waterloo: Courseware Printing.

Posted on March 23, 2010, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles, Queer & Trans Struggles, Radical History, Revolutionary Culture & Cultural Work. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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