While I totally hear what you are saying about wanting to use or claim the term Two-Spirit, it is problematic for several reasons for the Two-Spirit community if Non-Natives choose to use our term.
On the land we know as North America, there were approximately 400 distinct Indigenous Nations. Of that number, 170 have documented multiple gender traditions. Two-Spirit is a contemporary term that came into being at the 3rd Annual International Gay and Lesbian Native Gathering in 1990. The attendees at the gathering organized a talking circle and came up with the term “Two-Spirit”. They wanted a term that “…reflected the combination of masculinity and femininity which was attributed to males in a feminine role and females in a masculine role” (Lang 1998) that existed in many traditional Indigenous cultures of Turtle Island.
The existence of Two-Spirit people challenges the rigid binary view of the world of the North American colonizers and missionaries, not just of a binary gender system, but a binary system of this or that, all together. The Two-Spirit’s mere existence threatened the colonizers’ core beliefs; the backlash was violent. Sketches, housed at the New York City public library, depict Two-Spirit people being fed to colonizers’ dogs. Word of this brutal treatment spread quickly from Nation to Nation. Many Nations decided to take actions to protect their honored and valued Two-Spirit people. Some Nations hid them by asking them to replace their dress, a mixture of men and women’s clothing, with the attire of their biological sex. After years of colonization, some of those very same nations denied ever having a tradition that celebrated and honored their Two-Spirit people.
The Two-Spirit tradition is primarily a question of gender, not sexual orientation. Sexual orientation describes the relationship a person of one gender has with another gendered person. Gender describes an individual’s expected role within a community.
Within traditional Native communities, there was an expectation that women farmed/gathered food and cooked; men hunted big game. Although there was division of labor along gender lines, there was no gender-role hierarchy. Within the Native social construct of gender, a community could not survive without both of the equal halves of a whole. The Native commitment to gender equality opened the door for the possibility of multiple genders, without the idea that a man was taking on a lesser gender by placing himself in a women’s role and vi-versa for Two-Spirit women.
Gender Roles of Two Spirit People
People of Two-Spirit gender functioned as crafts-people, shamans, medicine-givers, mediators, and/or social workers. In many Native communities, men and women’s styles of speech were distinct; sometimes even different dialects were spoken. The Two-Spirit people knew how to speak both in the men and women’s ways. They were the only ones allowed to go between the men and the women’s camps. They brokered marriages, divorces, settled arguments, and fostered open lines of communication between the sexes.
Their proficiency in mediation often included their work as communicators between the seen (physical) and un-seen (spiritual) worlds. Many of the great visionaries, dreamers, shamans, or medicine givers were Two-Spirit people. In some traditions, a war party could not be dispatched until their Two-Spirit person consulted the spirits of the un-seen world and then gave their blessings. In the Sioux tradition, before any war party’s departure, the party preformed a dance with the Two-Spirit person at the center of the circle to show their respect and honor.
It is traditional to present gifts at gatherings to those who exemplify the “spirit” of the community or who have done the most for the community. Two-Spirit people were respected and honored with gifts when they attended gatherings. They did not keep the gifts, but passed them on to spread the wealth. In this respect, Two-Spirit people were similar to modern day social workers.
When a family was not properly raising their children, the Two-Spirit person would intervene and assume the responsibly as the primary caretaker. Sometimes, families would ask the Two-Spirit people for help rearing their children. This unique role of social worker was specific to Two-Spirit people, for they had an excess of material wealth as a result of the gifts they received.
Remembering Our Traditions
Since the time of colonization many Native people have forgotten the “old” way. Many converted to a Western religion, which did not accept traditional spirituality and community structures.
However, there are groups of elders and activists that have quietly kept the Two-Spirit tradition alive. In some Nations that have revived this tradition, or brought it once again into the light, Two-Spirit people are again fulfilling some of the roles and regaining the honor and respect of their communities.
The Two-Spirit tradition is a very rich one that deserves a closer examination. The LGBTI activists engaged in achieving equality for all should remember that there was a time when people who engaged in same-sex relationships were accepted and honored for their special qualities.
Two-Spirit people are a part of the fabric of this land, and we stand here today as a testament of our collective strength and fortitude.
Response to Your Question:
There are many reasons why non-Native people should not use the term ‘Two-Spirit’. Below are a couple of the main reasons:
1. First and foremost, Two-Spirit is term/identity that acknowledges our ethnicity, Native American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Indigenous Peoples, First Nations People, and/or Aboriginals, and our sexual orientation/gender, lesbian, gay bisexual and/or transgender identified. This modern term is to honor our collective history, cultural and traditions that celebrated a world view of more than two genders. In many of our traditional languages, there is no word for ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’ because that didn’t exist. Male-bodied Two-Spirit would take a heterosexual male as husband and the female-bodied Two-Spirit would take a heterosexual as a wife. If either of these relationships would end, the heterosexual would go back into the pool of eligible bachelors or bachelorettes.
2. The term Two-Spirit does not make sense unless it is contextualized within a Native community/setting. At the root of the term as articulated by Lang 1998, it is gender. Gender is socially defined and dictates one’s place and role with one’s community. And, therefore, Two-Spirit is a Native identity and does not easily translate or equate to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. If non-Native people use the term ‘Two-Spirit’ then that core component is stripped from its intended meaning.
3. If anyone and everyone to uses the term ‘Two-Spirit’, then the mission of the seventeen Two-Spirit community-based organizations in the USA organizing and working with Two-Spirit community becomes impossible on a number of fronts.
a. Could you image if non-Native people started showing up at our meetings and gatherings and because they identified as Two-Spirit and wanted to partake in our ceremonies?
b. How then do we tailor programs and services to this community if anyone and everyone can use it?
c. If I could use Montana Two-Spirit Society or Denver Two-Spirit Society as examples of organizations that in many ways have won the trust and respect of the broad Native community, all this hard work could be quickly undone by a few, who are not Native, and decide to use the term of Two-Spirit and do not know our traditions, history and roles.
Therefore, people who are not indigenous or not-partnered with a Two-Spirit person have no right to claim Two-Spirit as an identity. However, at the same time, I fully support non-Native people wanting to come up with their own term if they don’t like or support the current non-Native/western terminology of gender and/or sexual orientation.
For these very reasons listed above, I feel we must defend and challenge anyone who is not Native from using the term/identity of Two-Spirit.
I hope this is of some use.