Two Spirit History
By Harlan Pruden and Melissa Hoskins, Co-Chairs of NE2SS
On the land we know as North America, there were approximately 400 distinct indigenous Nations. Of that number, 155 have documented multiple gender traditions. Two Spirit is a contemporary term that refers to those traditions where some individuals’ spirits are a blending of male and female spirit.
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 Spirits’ 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 attacked by 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 American Indian 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 American Indian social construct of gender, a community could not survive without both of the equal halves of a whole. The American Indian 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.
Gender Roles of Two Spirit People
People of Two Spirit gender functioned as crafts-people, shamans, medicinegivers, mediators, and/or social workers. In many American Indian communities, men and women 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’s 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 Lakota 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 person 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 American Indians 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.