is an English term that emerged in 1990 out of the third annual inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay/lesbian American conference in Winnipeg. It describes Indigenous North Americans
The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America, their descendants and other ethnic groups who are identified with those peoples. Indigenous peoples are known in Canada as Aboriginal peoples, and in the United States as Native Americans...
who fulfill one of many mixed gender role
Gender roles refer to the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex in the context of a specific culture, which differ widely between cultures and over time...
s found traditionally among many Native Americans
Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples in North America within the boundaries of the present-day continental United States, parts of Alaska, and the island state of Hawaii. They are composed of numerous, distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of which survive as...
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" usually indicates 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." 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."
There are many indigenous terms for these individuals in the various Native American languages — including Lakota
Lakota is a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. While generally taught and considered by speakers as a separate language, Lakota is mutually understandable with the other two languages , and is considered by most linguists one of the three major varieties of the Sioux...
Navajo or Navaho is an Athabaskan language spoken in the southwestern United States. It is geographically and linguistically one of the Southern Athabaskan languages .Navajo has more speakers than any other Native American language north of the...
(Burrus & Keller, 2006: p. 73).
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
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...
implying a male prostitute or catamite
A catamite was a handsome youth kept as a sexual companion in ancient Rome, usually in a pederastic relationship. The word derives from the proper noun Catamitus, the Latinized form of Ganymede, the beautiful Trojan youth abducted by Zeus to be his companion and cupbearer...
. The word's origin is complex: the French derives from the Spanish
Spanish , also known as Castilian , is a Romance language in the Ibero-Romance group that evolved from several languages and dialects in central-northern Iberia around the 9th century and gradually spread with the expansion of the Kingdom of Castile into central and southern Iberia during the...
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...
: البَرْدَجُ" meaning "captive, captured" from Persian
Persian is an Iranian language within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. It is primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and countries which historically came under Persian influence...
< Middle Persian
Middle Persian , indigenously known as "Pârsig" sometimes referred to as Pahlavi or Pehlevi, is the Middle Iranian language/ethnolect of Southwestern Iran that during Sassanid times became a prestige dialect and so came to be spoken in other regions as well. Middle Persian is classified as a...
< Old Iranian *varta-
, cognate to Avestan varəta-
"seized, prisoner," formed from an Indo-European root *welə-
meaning "to strike, wound."
Use of the term has widely been replaced with two-spirit
(except in scholarly literature,) which originated in Winnipeg
Winnipeg is the capital and largest city of Manitoba, Canada, and is the primary municipality of the Winnipeg Capital Region, with more than half of Manitoba's population. It is located near the longitudinal centre of North America, at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers .The name...
, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It is a calque
In linguistics, a calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.-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
Definition and historic societal role
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. 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
The Yuki are a Native American people from the zone of Round Valley, in what today is part of the territory of Mendocino County, Northern California. Yuki tribes are thought to have settled as far south as Hood Mountain in present-day Sonoma County...
- seers (Winnebago
The Ho-Chunk, also known as Winnebago, are a tribe of Native Americans, native to what is now Wisconsin and Illinois. There are two federally recognized Ho-Chunk tribes, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska....
, Oglala Lakota
The Oglala Lakota or Oglala Sioux are one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota people; along with the Nakota and Dakota, they make up the Great Sioux Nation. A majority of the Oglala live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the eighth-largest Native American reservation in the...
- conferrers of lucky names on children or adults (Oglala Lakota, Tohono O'odham
The Tohono O'odham are a group of Native American people who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of the southeastern Arizona and northwest Mexico...
- nurses during war expeditions
- potters (Zuni, Navajo
The Navajo of the Southwestern United States are the largest single federally recognized tribe of the United States of America. The Navajo Nation has 300,048 enrolled tribal members. The Navajo Nation constitutes an independent governmental body which manages the Navajo Indian reservation in the...
, Tohono O'odham)
- matchmakers (Cheyenne
Cheyenne are a Native American people of the Great Plains, who are of the Algonquian language family. The Cheyenne Nation is composed of two united tribes, the Só'taeo'o and the Tsétsêhéstâhese .The Cheyenne are thought to have branched off other tribes of Algonquian stock inhabiting lands...
The Omaha are a federally recognized Native American nation which lives on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska and western Iowa, United States...
, Oglala Lakota)
- makers of feather regalia for dances (Maidu
The Maidu are a group of Native Americans who live in Northern California. They reside in the central Sierra Nevada, in the drainage area of the Feather and American Rivers...
- special role players in the Sun Dance
The Sun Dance is a religious ceremony practiced by a number of Native American and First Nations peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations. Each tribe has its own distinct practices and ceremonial protocols...
The Crow, also called the Absaroka or Apsáalooke, are a Siouan people of Native Americans who historically lived in the Yellowstone River valley, which extends from present-day Wyoming, through Montana and into North Dakota. They now live on a reservation south of Billings, Montana and in several...
The Hidatsa are a Siouan people, a part of the Three Affiliated Tribes. The Hidatsa's autonym is Hiraacá. According to the tribal tradition, the word hiraacá derives from the word "willow"; however, the etymology is not transparent and the similarity to mirahací ‘willows’ inconclusive...
, 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
Intersex, in humans and other animals, is the presence of intermediate or atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish female from male...
status. Around puberty clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice.
Two-spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges. 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. Female-bodied two-spirits usually had sexual relations or marriages with only females. 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.
Partners of two-spirits did not receive 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. Male-bodied two-spirits regarded each other as "sisters," it is speculated that it may have been seen as incest
Incest is sexual intercourse between close relatives that is usually illegal in the jurisdiction where it takes place and/or is conventionally considered a taboo. The term may apply to sexual activities between: individuals of close "blood relationship"; members of the same household; step...
uous to have a relationship with another two-spirit.
It is known that in certain tribes a relationship between a two-spirit and non-two-spirit was seen for 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.
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). 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.
According to certain reports there had never been an alternative gender among the Comanche
The Comanche are a Native American ethnic group whose historic range consisted of present-day eastern New Mexico, southern Colorado, northeastern Arizona, southern Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas. Historically, the Comanches were hunter-gatherers, with a typical Plains Indian...
. This is true of some Apache
Apache is the collective term for several culturally related groups of Native Americans in the United States originally from the Southwest United States. These indigenous peoples of North America speak a Southern Athabaskan language, which is related linguistically to the languages of Athabaskan...
bands as well, except for the Lipan, Chiricahua
Chiricahua are a group of Apache Native Americans who live in the Southwest United States. At the time of European encounter, they were living in 15 million acres of territory in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona in the United States, and in northern Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico...
Mescalero is an Apache tribe of Southern Athabaskan Native Americans. The tribe is federally recognized as the Mescalero Apache Tribe of the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southcentral New Mexico...
, and southern Dilzhe'e
The Tonto Apache is one of the groups of Western Apache people. The term is also used for their dialect, one of the three dialects of the Western Apache language...
. One tribe in particular, the Eyak
The Eyak are an indigenous group traditionally located on the Copper River Delta and near the town of Cordova, Alaska.-Territory:The Eyak's territory reached from present day Cordova east to the Martin River and north to Miles Glacier....
, 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.
It has been claimed that the Iroquois
The Iroquois , also known as the Haudenosaunee or the "People of the Longhouse", are an association of several tribes of indigenous people of North America...
did not either, although there is a single report from Bacqueville de la Potherie
Bacqueville de la Potherie, also known as Claude-Charles Le Roy, was a French chronicler of New France.His most famous work is Histoire de I'Amerique septentrionale, an account of French expeditions to the Great Lakes and Mississippi region in the late 17th century. This book was written in 1702...
in his book published in 1722, Histoire de l'Amérique septentrionale
, that indicates that an alternative gender existed among them (vol. 3, pg. 41). Many, if not all, tribes have been influenced by European homophobia
Homophobia is a term used to refer to a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards lesbian, gay and in some cases bisexual, transgender people and behavior, although these are usually covered under other terms such as biphobia and transphobia. Definitions refer to irrational fear, with the...
Transphobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards transsexualism and transsexual or transgender people, based on the expression of their internal gender...
It has been claimed that the Aztecs and Incas had laws against such individuals, 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
The Spanish Empire comprised territories and colonies administered directly by Spain in Europe, in America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. It originated during the Age of Exploration and was therefore one of the first global empires. At the time of Habsburgs, Spain reached the peak of its world power....
. The belief that these laws existed, at least for the Aztecs, comes from the Florentine Codex
The Florentine Codex is the common name given to a 16th century ethnographic research project in Mesoamerica by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Bernardino originally titled it: La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana...
. According to Dr Nancy Fitch, Professor of History at California State University
The California State University is a public university system in the state of California. It is one of three public higher education systems in the state, the other two being the University of California system and the California Community College system. It is incorporated as The Trustees of the...
- Hosteen Klah
Hosteen Klah was a Navajo artist and medicine man. He documented aspects of Navajo religion and related ceremonial practices. He was also a master weaver.-Background:...
- Kaúxuma Núpika
Kaúxuma Núpika, also called Qangon, Bowdash, and the Manlike Woman, was a Kootenai person who lived in the early 19th century....
Osh-Tisch was a leading badé of the Crow Nation. Osh-Tisch translates as "Finds Them and Kills Them". Badés, males living as females, such as Osh-Tisch held such an esteemed place amongst the Crow that when an American agent jailed them and forced them to get masculine haircuts in the late...
- Pine Leaf
Pine Leaf was a woman and chief of the Crow tribe who counted coup in the 1830s. She is described in the autobiography of James Beckwourth as well as in Edwin T. Denig's chronicle on the tribes of the upper Missouri River....
- Yellow Head
Ozaawindib was an Ojibwa warrior who lived in the early 19th century and was described as an egwakwe —what a modern Ojibwa would describe as a niizh manidoowag...
Modern self-identified Two-Spirits
- Beth Brant
Beth E. Brant is a Mohawk writer.-Life:...
- Alec Butler
Alec Butler is a Canadian playwright and filmmaker. Born intersex and raised as a female, he was known as Audrey and identified as a butch dyke before pursuing gender reassignment in 1999, and currently identifies as a Two-Spirit and transman.He was a nominee for the Governor General's Award for...
Chrystos is a Menominee rights activist and poet. Prior to being published, she worked as a home caretaker, and an activist for Turtle Mountain Band of Chipewa, Norma Jean Croy , and Leonard Peltier....
- Waawaate Fobister
Waawaate Fobister is a Canadian playwright and actor, whose debut work Agokwe won six Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2009. The play, which premiered at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times theatre in 2008, is a gay-themed play which explores the burgeoning attraction between two aboriginal teenagers, one a...
- Carole LaFavor
Carole S. LaFavor is an Ojibwe novelist, activist and nurse. She was a member of the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 1995–1997 and a founding member of Positively Native, an organisation that supports Native American people with HIV/AIDS. She was featured in Mona Smith's 1988 film...
- Kent Monkman
Kent Monkman is a Canadian First Nations artist of Cree and Irish ancestry. His works examine the way indigenous American and Canadian history has been presented in art by 19th and 20th Century artists such as George Catlin and Paul Kane, and "constructs new stories through images that take into...
- Mary Gauthier
Mary Gauthier is an American folk singer-songwriter.-Life and career:Gauthier was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Given up at birth by a mother she never knew, Gauthier was adopted by an Italian Catholic couple in Thibodaux, Louisiana...
- L. Frank
L. Frank is the nom d'arte of L. Frank Manriquez, a Tongva-Acjachemen artist, writer, tribal scholar, cartoonist, and indigenous language activist. She lives and works in California.-Art:In 1990, L...
- Jessica Yee
- Raven E. Heavy Runner
- Hiram Calf Looking, Sr.
- Joey Criddle
- Steven Many Victories-Barrios
- Gender roles in First Nations and Native American tribes
This article concerns the "traditional" gender roles of some of the Native American, Canadian First Nation and Aboriginal peoples, and the Indigenous peoples of North America. The roles vary greatly from region to region and from tribe to tribe, and in some cases even from band to band within a...
- Two-Spirit Identity Theory
The expression Two-Spirit "reflects a traditional Indigenous peoples worldview that asserts that all aspects of identity including sexuality, race, gender, and spirituality) are interconnected and that a person’s experience of sexuality is inseparable from experiences of culture and community" The...
- The red road
The red road is a pan-Indian concept of the right path of life, as inspired by some of the beliefs found in a variety of Native American spiritual teachings...
- List of transgender-related topics
- Hijra (South Asia)
In the culture of South Asia, hijras or chakka in Kannada, khusra in Punjabi and kojja in Telugu are physiological males who have feminine gender identity, women's clothing and other feminine gender roles. Hijras have a long recorded history in the Indian subcontinent, from the antiquity, as...
- Anima and animus
Cogender is a term customarily applied by anthropologists to Native South Americans shamanism in the same sense that the term two-spirit is applied to Native North American shamanism -- in both cases it refers to usually crossdressing Cogender (also spelled "co-gender", with adjectival form...
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)
- 2 spirited people of the 1st nations One of the first Two-Spirit non-profit agencies, in Toronto, ON, Canada. Website has Aboriginal Two-Spirit News, Research & Information. www.2spirits.com
- NativeOUT A Two-Spirit group in Phoenix, Arizona. Website has Native American LGBT/Two-Spirit News & Information.
- Two-Spirit Society of Denver Traditional Two-Spirit group in Denver, Colorado.
- Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits includes links to other two-spirits groups, based in San Francisco, CA
- NorthEast Two-Spirit Society Based in New York City
- Nations of the 4 Directions San Diego TS organisation
- Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories by Beatrice Medicine
- Berdache on glbtq.com
glbtq.com is an online encyclopedia that presents detailed biographies of notable gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. It was named one of the "Best Free Reference Web Sites" in 2005 by the American Library Association....
- Indigenous Literature with a Queer/LGBT/Two-Spirit Sensibility
- International Two Spirit Gathering
- The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture by Walter L. Williams
- Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo by Walter L. Williams & Toby Johnson
- The Two-Spirit Tradition collection of articles at the Androgyne Online site
- The Two-Spirit Tradition article in the Androphile Project site
- In Search of "Berdache": Multiple Genders and Other Myths
- Berdache Origin Myth of the Winnebago
- Beyond Beads and Feathers on YouTube
- Two Spirits A documentary about Fred Martinez, a nádleehí, who was murdered at age 16.