Two-Spirit: Gender Identity in America, Before America

99dd0f127974f7cb497dd0770bc3149eI’ve heard many people claim that sexual orientation and gender identity are new and radical ideas invented by god-hating progressives, but that’s simply not true. From ancient China to the pre-colonial Americas, and just about everywhere in between, recognition of non-binary gender and sexuality is a common but often ignored part of history. The details vary between cultures, and our current movement has its own unique traits, but the basic ideas are far from new.

Long before Europeans introduced smallpox and Christianity to the American continents, many of the native tribes recognized non-binary gender identities, which are now described by the term two-spirit. Formerly, Europeans had used berdache, which essentially means “male prostitute”…one small example of how badly they failed at respecting native culture.

The phrase ‘two spirit’ began to gain traction across Native America after 1990, when 13 men, women and transgender people from various tribes met in Winnipeg, Canada, with the task of finding a term that could unite the LGBTQ Native community. Numerous terms in tribal languages identified third genders in their cultures that encompassed both masculine and feminine, and the struggle for those gathered in Winnipeg was finding a contemporary term that would be embraced across all tribal cultures.

-Zachary Pullin, Two Spirit: The Story of a Movement Unfolds

The details of the social standing of two-spirit individuals before European colonization varied from tribe to tribe. Many considered them to have both male and female spirits in one body, hence the modern term, and in most tribes they were accepted and respected. Some thought being two-spirit was a blessing from the gods. They filled roles such as maintaining oral traditions and storytelling, healing, weaving, performing spiritual ceremonies, caring for children, arbitrating conflicts, and more. Their existence was one of the most widely shared social features of native tribes throughout the Americas.

Expression of a two-spirit identity also varied. Sometimes they wore a mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine clothing, or dressed as both at different times. Some lived mainly in the traditional role of the opposite biological sex. A famous example is We’wha (pictured above), a male-bodied Zuni born in 1849 who lived as a woman. Her parents died of smallpox brought to their village by Americans, and she was adopted by her aunt. Later, she befriended an anthropologist named Matilda Coxe Stevenson, who was unaware for years that We’wha was biologically male. Stevenson described We’wha as the most intelligent person in her tribe, highly respected, and loved by all the children. In the Zuni language, the term for people like her is lha’mana.

Despite the misconceptions of Europeans who characterized two-spirit people as “homosexuals,” sexual orientation was not a defining part of the concept. However, it was common for them to have partners of the same biological sex. Female two-spirits often had wives, and male two-spirits had husbands. Since they were considered to be a third gender, or to have both genders in one body, their relationships were not restricted to the binary concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The two-spirit tradition accommodated a diverse range of individuals and individual differences. Western terms, which focus on a single trait, such as sexual preference or gender identity, fail to capture the range and nuances of two-spirit roles, especially their economic and spiritual dimensions. Although many two-spirit people cross-dressed, others did not, and some dressed in styles distinct from both men and women. And while two-spirits typically formed relationships with members of their own biological sex who were not two spirits these were not viewed as “homosexual” relationships because the gender identity of two spirits was considered different from the gender identity of their partner.

-Will Roscoe, Who are the Two Spirits?

European colonization brought Christian values to America and the result was devastating for two-spirit natives, who were considered perverted and forced into more traditional gender roles. The U.S. government acted directly to suppress the acceptance of non-binary genders among native tribes. Unfortunately, their efforts were successful and native communities became corrupted with the homophobia of Europeans.

The notion of a third, fluid, male-and-female gender conflicted with the colonizers’ heterosexual views, and in 1879, the U.S. government removed thousands of Two Spirited people from their tribes. They were sent to live in an Indian boarding school.

-Samantha Mesa-Miles, Two Spirit: The Trials and Tribulations of Gender Identity in the 21st Century

The attempt to exterminate Native Americans and their rituals by both the church and the government resulted in a loss of many rituals including those who identified and honour cross-gender individuals. With very few exceptions, there is no longer a place in Native cultures for a man-woman or a woman-man. The tribes have forgotten the two-spirit teachings and many of the ancient two-spirit ways are no longer being practiced. Instead, this role appears as a ghost of the past or a dirty secret. Elders who may know the stories and teachings are often afraid to talk about them because of their experiences in Residential Schools and other forms of colonialization.

I remember a member of one of the agencies that I co-founded and ran for a few years, was HIV+ and living in a cross-gender role, wanting to go home and die with dignity surrounded with family members and love, so she went home and she would communicate with us letting us know that all is well and she had been well received home. When she finally passed away we found out that the tribe had rented a house outside the reserve as they did not want her on the reserve and she was not respected in the cross-gender role she had chosen. This type of behaviour is endemic of remote communities that are still healing from centuries of cultural genocide behaviours from the government policies.

-Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn, The Way of the Two Spirited People

The stubborn and arrogant resistance of European Christians to considering any gender or sexual role outside of their strict “God-ordained” binary all but erased two-spirits from history. It’s one more entry in the long list of abuses perpetrated against the native peoples in the name of Christianity.

Mason Lynch also blogs at castinglargeshadows.wordpress.com

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