Below is a list of terms used by my people in their many languages:
Ayagigux’, Haxu’xan, Kuxa’t, Winktan, Sx’ints, Aakíí’skassi, He’eman, Hoobuk, Agi, Aayahkwew, Bote, Ma’kali, Athuth, Miati, Ho’va, Ikoueta, Sipiniq, Kwit, Monaguia, Kokwi’ma, Kok’we’ma, Tw!inna’ek, Cuit, Uluqui, Ilyaxai’, Nde’isdzan…
What’s more, they’re all sacred words used to specifically describe American Indians that possess qualities and characteristics typical of the opposite sex. But today, Native people across the country now refer to individuals like this as “Two-Spirited people.”
In the traditional Native worldview, a “Two-Spirit” is someone who transcends the conventions of sexuality and gender-expression because they are believed to have been blessed with both a male and a female spirit. For this reason, Two-Spirits weren’t seen as less-than, they had more to them than someone who wasn’t Two Spirited. Two-Spirits were a rarity to a tribe: the two genders reflected so perfectly in one person.
But most importantly, “LGBTQ” members of our tribe were valued in our communities as conduits between the material and spiritual world due to the special nature of their persons. (Which is a defining quality of our many medicine men.) “We [never] threw our people away. There was a reason why the creator made them different.” said a relative in the moving documentary Our Families: LGBT/ Two Spirit Native American Stories.
These spiritual concepts have existed for thousands of years, long before “gay rights” were even a gleam in the eye of American culture. “No one is complete until they have a Two-Spirited member in their family.” said First Owl (Blackfeet tribe) in Our Families. Indeed, for American Indians who remember our traditional worldview, being “gay” was a gift, an honor and a spiritual designation one could embrace in their tribe.
In fact, it’s well documented that over 135 tribes acknowledged the existence of multiple genders. “American society [today] is really caught up in the boxes and the labeling of “what” individuals are. [And] the allowing of individuals to be who they are is seen as socially unacceptable… [However] when we try to understand [how Natives saw things like gender and sexuality], we begin to understand that those boxes never existed.” said Ben Lucero Wolf (Kiowa tribe). This only validates a conclusion that contemporary Western society has only just arrived at: that sexuality and gender cannot be understood with the strict dualities of Western culture.
In the Great Basin tribes, a child wasn’t called a boy or girl until they decided themselves at a ceremony where they would choose between a “basket or a bow”; choosing the function of that gender for that time in their life. Elders would even try spotting the early signs of whether a certain “boy was actually a girl”, etc. The Zuni definitely embraced this belief; believing that people come into this world rawand that it takes time for us to cook and mature into our realized gender. We’Wha of the Zuni in particular was an embodiment of this belief when at their burial, they were dressed as half-man and half-woman, the Zuni tribe believing that we all leave this world in how we will be born into the next. (We’Wha also confused US President Grover Cleveland when he invited We’Wha to the White House thinking they were a “female Zuni Princess!”)
In the Crow tribe, a female named Woman Chief was not only among the most honored of warriors, she took four wives! In the Yupik tradition, all the men and women of the tribe would swap garments to honor one another. And most intriguingly, in the Blackfeet tradition, it was considered an honor and a blessing for the warriors of the village to sleep with the Two-Spirited men and have it not be considered adultery because Two-Spirits had no one specific gender. (Interestingly enough however, it was seen as unnatural for Two-Spirits to sleep with each other!)
And finally, most would be surprised to hear that the Navajo even have a Creation story about how the first Two-Spirits were the ones that brought the two sexes together when they were at war over who’s qualities were more essential to a community. It goes without saying, the Native mindset was way ahead of its time.
Today, the roles Two-Spirited people have in our communities are much different, thanks to centuries of systematic cultural, religious and racial cleansing by European colonizing, Christianity and the US government. “The influence of Christianity really skewed that view of homosexuality.” explained the YouTube series Injunity. “The Spanish conquerors, European traders and the missionaries saw Two-Spirits as sodomites violating their Christian principles of absolute gender in sex.” said the World Economy short Two Spirits in American Culture.
Many visual accounts survive today as records of impaled bodies at the bottom of pits and men hacking at Two Spirited victims with swords. But the most notorious account was that of conquistador Balboa ordering 40 “stinking abominations” to be torn apart by his war dogs and made into an example.
Even into the 20th Century, the last remaining Crow chief had many stories of when the Two-Spirited men of his tribe were abducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, forced to dress and act like European men and plant the trees that surround the BIA office today.
Sadly, this isn’t just history. It’s still the present reality. “Berdache” is still a commonly used term for Two-Spirits despite its roots as a derogatory word used by European explorers that meant “prostitute.” Indeed, even the “cultural amnesia” within our Native communities has turned us against one another. Discrimination and hate crimes are still as ever present today in our reservations as they are for all transgendered people; specifically referring to the heinous murder of 16-year-old Navajo Fred Martinez which inspired the documentary Two Spirits (2009).
Some reservations are dangerous places for Two-Spirit people. Many LGBTQ Natives often find themselves thrown out of their communities; and many reservations have yet to legalize same-sex marriage, despite the ruling the Supreme Court made in 2015. It’s hard enough trying to exist between two incompatible worlds as an Indigenous person, it’s even worse to not be accepted by either. “The place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to live.” spoke a man in the trailer for Two Spirits.
But despite the state of near-hopelessness almost all Indigenous people still combat today, the country’s awareness of Two Spirited people continues to grow. Every year, Two Spirit societies like EC2SS can be spotted joining pride parades and performing healing prayers in Philadelphia, New York, Rochester, at the Transgender House Conference and even for the Human Rights Campaign. Books like Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Mythology and The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture have also discussed the subject extensively.
In Los Angeles, the Red Circle Project, founded in 2003, has grown into a safe space for Two-Spirited people. And since 2012, the world’s only Two-Spirit Powwow has established its spiritual staying power in San Francisco, where hoop-dancers like Ty DeFoe see their performances as “prayers in motion” for all Two-Spirited people.
As far as what will become of us, Natives don’t worry about our past or future. We only believe in a present. We will do what Natives do best. We will survive. We will fight. With the LGBTQ+ community as our allies. “We are turning a double oppression into a double opportunity. To create a place for gay Indians in both worlds we live in.” said Randy Burns, founder of Gay American Indians in the 1970s. It’s what my people understood better than “America” today. Inclusion. Being different is not a threat. It means you have a very special role in your community that no one else can fill.
That is the hope of this Indigenous person of Tarahumara and Lakota descent. This story is my tear-filled prayer for my people, all of whom I love so much.
Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ. “To all my relations.”
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