Two Spirits, One Person; Many Tribes, One Nation

2016 Montana Two Spirit Gathering. Photo by Melissa Ponder, used with permission.

Over the years, the LGBT acronym has grown to encompass more identities, expanding the acronym to LGBTQIAA+ to be more inclusive of as many unique identities as possible. But, of all the identities within the acronym, perhaps the least talked about and even lesser known is that of the Two Spirit, a term belonging exclusively to Native American peoples.

As Rev. Aiden Crawford ShortCloud, a Native entrepreneur and Two Spirit individual, explained, Two Spirit is a special and unique identifier.  

“It is an umbrella term for a Native American or indigenous person who maintains their cultural identity and upholds the responsibilities that accompany this identity and is also a member of the LGBTQIAA+ community, the Rev. ShortCloud explained in an email. “It is important to keep in mind that there are over 122 traditional roles of Two Spirit people depending on the tribe that they belong to,” ShortCloud added.

For reference, there are over 560 federally recognized tribes throughout the nation, each with its own set of unique and equally important cultural traditions and practices.

ShortCloud also wrote that traditional roles for Two Spirit people are exclusive to their identity and such important responsibility is not something everyone feels comfortable bearing, and therefore many Natives do not identify as Two Spirit because they are not culturally active or do not want the responsibility.

For many Natives, the term “Two Spirit” is distinguished from western conceptualization of gender and sexuality because of its acknowledgement of fluidity, and the term’s flexibility in contemporary usage. The term, “Two Spirit” was translated from an Ojibwa term.

“In many tribes Two Spirits were balance keepers,” wrote Tony Enos in an Indian Country Today article. “Thought to be the ‘dusk’ between the male morning, and the female evening. As the role has evolved over time as necessary, the tradition is still alive.”

Different tribes have always had their own vocabulary and ideas about gender and sexuality. Still, Pan-Indianism and intertribal unity has given way to using the term “Two Spirit” across Indian Country. However, not all tribes accept Two Spirit peoples. That is a source of distress for many Two Spirit people today.

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time for non-Natives to deepen their knowledge of various tribes’ and tribal members’ traditions. It’s also a time to confront the misconceptions and misdeeds perpetrated against Native Americans.

For Natives, Native American Heritage Month is a time to celebrate their strength, resilience and beauty as they continue to stand strong in the face of ongoing oppression that has attempted to destroy them.

It’s important to understand that Native Americans are more than feathers, tipis, deer skins, headdresses, the Thanksgiving narrative, and bows and arrows. While many people may think that the existence of Native cultures ceased after the 19th century, Native people have continued to exist. Native Americans thrive on and off reservations, passing down to each new generation the importance of identity, culture, language and spirit unique to every Native in various tribes. And Two Spirit people are no exception.

Many people who hear the term Two Spirit and learn about the definition may find it resonates with them. However, Two Spirit is only an appropriate identifier for Native people, because it only exists in the context of their respective cultures and traditions. It’s extremely important that non-Natives respect that.

Different tribes have different expectations of their Two Spirit peoples, as well as different rights and responsibilities conferred upon them. So, if you know that you have some Native heritage but don’t know your tribal affiliation, it’s wise to take caution in using the term for yourself.

For any person who’s ever had an unwanted label placed upon them, we can only partially understand the strength and courage it takes for Two Spirit people to live out and proud. Especially following the legacy of the boarding schools that sought to destroy Native cultures and whitewash their peoples.

When Two Spirit individuals were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools, their gender labels were assigned. Any attempt to deviate from those labels was met with extreme violence and hostility. Anyone who deviated from the dominant culture’s expectation of sexual expression would have also faced punishment and abuse.

As Tony Enos notes, partly due to these boarding schools, one may encounter considerable phobia of Two Spirit peoples even within Indian Country, depending on the tribe. That, compounded with the stigma and phobia from non-Natives, makes living out and proud as a Two Spirit individual a truly brave endeavor that encompasses heart and spirit, or rather, two spirits.

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