@ Creating Change ’09: Embracing Two Spirit Traditions

Organized by the Two Spirit Society of Denver.
Some thoughts from the panelists of the Two Spirit Society about what it means to be Two Spirit:

Two-spirit is a universal term we have adopted. In the early 80s, there was a group of Native Americans who wanted to change the perspective of what two-spirit meant. It used to be known as “berdache” in academic communities, and Two Spirit was a new word that could be accepted. That’s where the two-spirit term came from. Two spirit people did exist within our cultures and we want to go back to that. It’s about going back and relearning traditions.
Some of the native communities didn’t support two-spirit people within the communities. Many of the two-spirit people would leave the reservations and flee to the cities. Two Spirit is different than gay or lesbian.
Two Spirit is life. Before I had a word for it, it’s me. Even as a kid I was a mediator between the sexes, between genders. I was raised–I can lay cement and shingle a roof with the best of them. I can also wear a suit and high heels with the best of them. Tradition says that we have been touched by the grandfather, the great spirit, to be who we are. This is not something we chose. It is a deep responsibility. It’s not something that is taken lightly. It doesn’t mean that some of us don’t identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.
Two Spirit people exist everywhere. We were the people who held the community together. We were more concentrated on the community–carrying on the songs, the stories, the cultural ways.
Film: Two Spirits about Fred Martinez, a young two-spirit person who was murdered. He identified as gay at the time of his passing.

It is amazing the parts of our cultures that have been robbed from us by colonialism. There are many examples from history of this type of gender variance in other cultures–primarily indigenous communities. What is so difficult is that these oppressions, gender oppression, heteronormativity, have been forced on us by our colonial history. And now, gender non-conformity, queerness, is seen as a “white” thing. It’s seen as a “white” movement, and there is resistance among some communities of color to these supposedly new movements of gender liberation and sexual openness. We’ve so internalized the oppression of colonialism and now we are using it on each other.

As a Latina who identifies as genderqueer, this is important to me. I have had people of color tell me that gender non-conformity is a white thing. It is so sad to be disconnected from our own history, to have internalized the oppression and message of religious colonialism. To have squelched the diversity of our own people and now we have to fight so hard to remember who we are–what we were and how to reclaim our own cultural autonomy. I believe this two-spirit movement is so important because it reconnects Native communities with their histories. Reminds them of the role that two-spirit people played in society before colonialism came. Often times we find the most oppression, the least acceptance of our gender identities and sexual orientations from our own communities–this is the long lasting effect of colonial oppression. We need to fight to reclaim our history and not oppress members of our communities.

Join the Conversation

  • h2o_girl

    I was in Samoa last year and learned about fa’afafine – thought it might interest you:

  • LucyBell

    A similar concept in Hawaii, thought the roots of the word “Mahu” are debated, Hawaiian, Tahitian or other Pacific Island. Some say it is a negative term, but others embrace it. Ha’ole (one without breath) meaning white people, also is debated to be negative or not. It matters who is saying it. Thanks for posting on this, Miriam. I have really learned a lot from your links.

  • cfitz

    I’m not quite sure what you’re advocating in this post. Please clarify because I’m getting the impression that you’re suggesting that living/being a part of in two cultures is still a detrimental state in our society, which I disagree with.

  • Brandi

    What would be the difference in two-spirit and androgynous? I’ve always used androgynous to refer to myself. I’m wondering (thinking aloud here) if androgyny is more “absence of gender” while two-spirit is embracing both genders.
    I tend to be more middle-of-the-road. I have some qualities/personality traits/desires that line up more with “traditional” (so many quotes needed here) women and others with “traditional” men, though I’ve always leaned more toward a conventionally male perspective.
    In appearance, though, I’m neither overly feminine nor masculine. I’m not sure if appearance matters here, but I think it does in terms of the choices we make, i.e. clothing, hair, etc.

  • Cory

    From my queer studies class, I consider two-spirit to be an affair of the whole community… If there were signs that a child was a two-spirit, the parents would encourage this behavior, leading to a full life that the tribe would respect.
    But considering what a minority that Native-Americans are considered now… It’s no surprise that the two-spirit philosphy has been thrown to the side and forgotten.

  • ex.cimmerian

    thank you miriam for drawing our attention to this. i am a biracial canadian woman (cree and caucasian) and it truly breaks my heart to see my people taking the tools of our colonial oppressors and using them on each other. here’s to educating/re-familiarizing ourselves about who we are, and about our own traditions! many blessings to you.

  • Miriam

    I’m advocating that we need to push the discussions within communities of color (like those who identify as two-spirit are doing in Native communities) to remember our own history. To use this history of gender variance as a tool for combating the heteronormativity and transphobia that still exists. I’m advocating that we recognize and acknowledge how colonialism has left it’s imprint on our communities.
    As ex.cimmerian said so well:
    “here’s to educating/re-familiarizing ourselves about who we are, and about our own traditions!”

  • Miriam

    I think you’re right Brandi–being two-spirit, from what I learned, seems to be more about embracing and calling on both masculinity and femininity than androgyny.
    Also, it has a very specific meaning in Native communities in regards to responsibility. Historically two-spirit people have been mediators, have played an important role in preserving traditions of the community. That was a big emphasis at the workshop today.

  • Aconite

    Terminology may have changed in this field since I learned it, but I think “androgyny” may be being misused here to refer to an absence of gender when it actually means a balanced blend of genders. “Neuter” is the term for absence of gender (though I’d rather see a better word there).

  • Auriane

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
    I love the Two-Spirit designation, and feel it speaks to who I am precisely. My family background is mostly Cherokee, Choktaw and Irish, and from an early age I was taught equally to take part in any task I thought I might excel in. After a point, how I spent my time was my own decision; I only had to take full responsibility for my actions.
    I, too, can drive a forklift or feel good in a ball gown, and once, when working for a music event, I did both at the same time!
    These days, I do a lot of logistics coordination for the entertainment industry, and much of this includes translating between artists and producers, who seem to speak a separate language.