In many Indigenous and Native communities and traditions, there were folks welcomed and celebrated for being Two-Spirit people. Native people and tribal communities considered Two-Spirit individuals to be divine. Indigenous cultures saw Two-Spirit folks as people who communed with the creator, sacred beings often regaled in their societies. Furthermore, people with Two-Spirit identities were given roles as healers, mediators, shamans, matchmakers, and leaders. People like We’wha, Osh-Tisch, Hastiin Klah, Lozen, Dahteste are just a few of the historically documented Two-Spirit people who took such roles.
The term Two-Spirit was coined in the 1990s by Myra Laramee during an international Indigenous gathering of Lesbian and Gay Natives in Winnipeg, Canada. It was used to identify indigenous individuals who fulfilled mixed gender roles in Native American cultures. Two-Spirit expresses the complex and diverse traditions of tribal nations regarding gender identity and gender-diverse people in a way that could unify across tribal affiliations without erasing multiple native terms or individual experiences.
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Nevertheless, this third gender identity should only be used by people who are part of Native American communities and not by folks outside of Native and Indigenous tribes. The term reflects a traditional, cultural, and spiritual component that should be respected. Native and Indigenous members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community may also use the term Indigiqueer.
While many tribes and nations respected diversity in gender and sexual identities, often celebrating Two-Spirit traditions, a lot of the history was forcibly destroyed through colonization by European settlers that came to Turtle Island, now commonly referred to as North America. Unfortunately, many of the records available today are from the perspective of colonizers who often did not understand nor respect the wide variety of gender identities of native individuals, and refused to comprehend the traditions and experiences of Native American societies. We’wha is one of the most prominent figures recorded in Two-Spirit history, and a member of the Zuni Indians from the area of New Mexico, was imprisoned by Christian missionaries for being Two-Spirit.
It wasn’t until these interactions with colonizers that Two-Spirit people started to become displaced in tribal societies. As mentioned earlier, Two-Spirit individuals often held positions of power and were highly regarded in Native American communities. However, colonizers and settlers would refuse to work with any Two-Spirit people and used hostility to displace them from their esteemed societal roles, leaving them ostracized and eventually erased.
This displacement and erasure were magnified by genocidal practices inflicted on Native nations across Turtle Island. Unfortunately, the atrocities didn’t stop with genocide and land displacement, as many Native children were taken and placed in boarding schools, where they would be beaten, starved, humiliated, and murdered in an effort to “kill the savage, save the man,” as it was in the interest of colonizers to completely eliminate Native culture and tradition.
The impact of colonization on Native and Indigenous communities is still ongoing and continues to marginalize Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer people as well. When advocating for Two-Spirit folks, it’s important to recognize that all aspects of oppression are interlinked. This is most clear in the policies regularly put in place in the U.S. with the purpose of disenfranchising Native peoples.
Two-Spirit people were healers and leaders and served an important role in their communities. We should honor and respect their identities and third gender status, as well as the culture and history intertwined with them. The constant erasure and disregard for Native and Indigenous people take a toll on the mental health of Two-spirit people. There’s a disproportionate amount of stressors and pressure put on Native communities and this gets amplified if you are Indigiqueer or Two-Spirit.
All members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community deserve respect, and you can help us by advocating for the Two-Spirit community, nearby Native communities where you live, and more mental health resource access in your area.
This post was written by Jamez Ahmad.
Jamez (they, them) is a proud member of the LGBTQIA2S+ community. They have over fifteen years of experience educating groups on issues relating to gender identity and sexual orientation. As a mixed-race individual, they are passionate about social justice and dismantling systems of oppression. They have an MA from USC and an MSW from Smith College. They are a Taurus who enjoys travel, fiction writing, and film.