Two Spirit People Are Reclaiming a Lost Aspect of Indigenous Society

Two Spirit People Are Reclaiming a Lost Aspect of Indigenous Society

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Ask, "what does Two Spirit mean?" and you'll find many answers. In the centuries before European colonizers arrived in what's now North America, the Indigenous people currently referred to as Two Spirit held unique roles within their respective tribes.

According to the Indian Health Service (IHS), "Traditionally, Native American two-spirit people were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status."

In modern society, “Two Spirit” is an umbrella term used across the U.S. Native American and Canadian First Nations communities. A feminine spirit and masculine spirit are the titular “two,” though a Two Spirit person's gender identity is unique to each individual. For many who identify, owning the term is a way to reconnect with an important and largely forgotten history.

“For my Indigenous relatives, it is to remind them that we were here. And to remind them that we used to be honored and celebrated, and lifted up within our communities,” Harlan Pruden, First Nation Cree organizer and editor of Two Spirit Journal, tells Oprah Daily.

Here's some background on what it means to be Two Spirit, the rich history behind it, and why some Two Spirit people feel that it's a way to reclaim their own heritage.

The term was coined in 1990.

The Pan-Indian term Two Spirit was coined in 1990 at the Third Annual Inter-Tribal Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg, Canada. It was intentionally conceived to replace the French term used by European settlers, berdache, which has offensive roots and is considered derogatory. But while the term is a powerful identifier that shares meaning across hundreds of culturally diverse Native nations and tribes, the actual name and role of a Two Spirit person is different within each nation—just as it was many centuries ago.

"Before colonization, our tribal communities actually had a specific word for individuals who are like me," Lenny Hayes, a therapist and member of the Sisseton Wahpeton-Oyate of the northeast corner of South Dakota. "I define myself first as winkte, which is the word given to me by my people, and secondly as a Two Spirit male," Hayes tells Oprah Daily.

For Pruden, "Two Spirit is not an identity. It's a community organizing tool, or a placeholder." Like Hayes, the Vancouver, Canada-based educator uses the term in his work; in Pruden's case, it's a way to communicate Indigenous understandings of gender and social roles that were created long before the ways that Western non-Native society characterizes those today. "Ayahkwêw is my identity," he says.

Most pre-colonial Indigenous societies had three or more genders.

A tribe could have 3, 5, 7, or in at least one instance, 12 genders, Pruden says.

The role a Two Spirit person had in their community varied by tribe; in addition to wearing "opposite gender" clothes, they were often healers, name-givers, ceremony leaders, or matchmakers. In precolonial Cree society, Pruden explains, "men lived in one camp while women lived in a different camp, with neither permitted to enter the others’." But ayahkwêw could move between these two worlds. "They had unfettered and equal access to both camps, so if there was ever imbalance or disharmony, we would have played this mediator role.”

Photo credit: Sepia Times - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sepia Times - Getty Images

When Spanish colonizers arrived at the end of the 15th century, they brought European gender and sexual taboos with them, and Two Spirit people were deeply impacted. In one particularly horrific instance captured in an engraving, 16th century conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's dogs slaughtered 42 Panamanian Two Spirit people. And per a 2015 Indian Country Today article, "in 1879, the U.S. government removed thousands of Two Spirited people from their tribes," sending them to live at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first federally-funded Indian boarding school.

"We were looked upon as being spiritual beings, because of the roles that we played in community," Hayes says. Because of the homophobia and transphobia pervading Western culture from the "discovery" of America up to today, "we're looked at as sexual beings–everything about us is identified by sex."

Two Spirit is not a sexual orientation.

While Two Spirit people may also identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or pansexual, Two Spirit does not mean "gay Indian"—a common misperception, according to Pruden.

It's a term specific to Indigenous people only.

To appropriate the term as a non-Native person is exactly that: Cultural appropriation. “It’s an Indigenous term, thereby open solely to Indigenous community members,” Pruden explains. “If a non-Indigenous person says, ‘hey, I’m Two Spirit’—how do you reclaim something you never had access to?"

Pruden recalls a moment following a talk on Two Spirit people that he’d given at a camp for Indigenous youth, after which an Indigenous teenager said in awe, “we have something they don’t.” For the teenager, Pruden says, it finally presented an instance in which they didn’t have to solely fit their identity through non-Native concepts such as being nonbinary or genderqueer. “It was the first time, probably in their life, that there was in inversion of the script."

It isn't the same as being nonbinary.

Speaking specifically about Cree society, in pointing out how language shapes culture, Pruden says, "We don't have words like ‘identity.’ We don't have words like ‘gender’ and ‘gender role’ or ‘gender identity.' We just had a distinct role within society." While someone may identify as nonbinary as well, the roles of Two Spirit people and the tribes they lived in predate, and are separate from, how gender nonconformity and sexuality are defined in non-Native society today.

Don't assume an Indigenous LGBTQ person is Two Spirit.

Because everyone's identity is in relationship to their personal experience and self-perception, Hayes advises politely asking, "How do you identify?"

"It's respectful and so loving and caring to do that," Hayes says, because depending on the Indigenous person in question, "someone may identify as LGBTQ, but not identify as Two Spirit.”

Is there a Two Spirit Flag?

While there's no official Two Spirit pride flag, there are multiple versions that are available for purchase. Some Two Spirit people, including Pruden, believe in a "2S/LGBTQQIA*" acronym, in part because Two Spirit people literally existed first on Turtle Island (the name some U.S. and Canadian Indigenous people use for North America). Others accept the acronym LGBTQ2S+.

There are also multiple Two Spirit societies across the U.S and Canada. In February 2021, the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) held their 10th annual Two-Spirit Powwow, albeit virtually. Hayes attended the event for the first time the year before.

"When I walked into that grand entry with my tribal flag, I became very teary eyed," Hayes says. "They were tears of happiness, because I'd never been around that many Two Spirit people from different nations."

Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images - Getty Images

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