Though The Native American Term ‘Two-Spirit’ Is Centuries Old, It’s Often Misunderstood

Though The Native American Term ‘Two-Spirit’ Is Centuries Old, It’s Often Misunderstood

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Chances are that if you live in North America, you’ve heard of the term “Two-Spirit.” While it’s often (mis)understood to be an umbrella term for Native folks within the LGBTQ+ community, the concept has actually been a part of Native culture predating that terminology. And while a Two-Spirit person may indeed be gay, a gay person is not necessarily Two-Spirit.

Of course, there are hundreds of Native cultures, and not all of them will have identical conceptions or understandings of gender and sexuality. While “Two-Spirit” is a widely used term across the Indigenous communities of North America, different cultures may have different definitions of the term; furthermore, different cultures may already have their own language for the term’s meaning. (For example, the Lakota tribe’s name for this concept is winkte.) So by no means do we want to generalize or conflate multiple diverse cultures into one, but instead simply provide an overview of the term “Two-Spirit” as part of the rich fabric of gender identity.

For the LGBTQ2 Well-Being Education Series, Two-Spirit was defined as “a male-bodied or female-bodied person with a masculine or feminine essence. Two Spirits can cross social gender roles, gender expression, and sexual orientation.”

Two-Spirit couple Adrian Matthias Stevens and Sean Snyder. Stevens is of Northern Ute, Shoshone-Bannock and San Carlos Apache heritage. Snyder is of Southern Ute and Navajo heritage. Photo by Tomás Karmelo Amaya / CNN

The majority of tribes traditionally viewed those who were Two-Spirit as occupying an alternate gender status — neither male nor female. Depending on the tribe, Two-Spirits might be considered the third gender (if both male and female two-spirits were referred to with the same term). If, however, female Two-Spirits were referred to differently, this could constitute a fourth recognized gender. Though many of these details vary from culture to culture, many Native American Two-Spirits share similar attributes.

Two-Spirit people historically held significant roles in their tribal social structures, and their identities were widely believed to be a result of spiritual intervention. As such, they filled many special religious roles and took the position of “balance keepers” in many tribes. They also typically formed relationships with members of their own sex, and were believed by many tribes to be lucky in love.

Of course, colonial damage on Native cultures is immeasurable: “The effects of colonialism in Native American communities resulted in both marginalization on the basis of racial/ethnic identity and also of gender and sexuality. Christian European colonizers condemned same-sex relationships and gender variance as sinful and used these beliefs to further dehumanize Indigenous people.” As a result of being targeted in that way, much of Two-Spirit culture and traditions went underground or disappeared altogether.

You can learn more about Two-Spirit folks here, and undo some general misconceptions here.

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