I’d not heard of “two spirit people” in native American culture until recently. I found the subject profoundly interesting, and was eager to learn more, although my knowledge about them is still limited. The you tube above is a history of “two spirit people” that covers facts from both the present and past about their tragic history.
We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman.
Excerpted from Walter L Williams article on The Two Spirit People
Rather than the physical body, Native Americans emphasized a person’s “spirit”, or character, as being most important. Instead of seeing two-spirit persons as transsexuals who try to make themselves into “the opposite sex”, it is more accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender status that is different from both men and women. This alternative gender status offers a range of possibilities, from slightly effeminate males or masculine females, to androgynous or transgender persons, to those who completely cross-dress and act as the other gender. The emphasis of Native Americans is not to force every person into one box, but to allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities.
Most of the evidence for respectful two-spirit traditions is focused on the native peoples of the Plains, the Great Lakes, the Southwest, and California. With over a thousand vastly different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is important not to overgeneralise for the indigenous peoples of North America. Some documentary sources suggest that a minority of societies treated two-spirit persons disrespectfully, by kidding them or discouraging children from taking on a two-spirit role. However, many of the documents that report negative reactions are themselves suspect, and should be evaluated critically in light of the preponderance of evidence that suggests a respectful attitude. Some European commentators, from early frontier explorers to modern anthropologists, also were influenced by their own homophobic prejudices to distort native attitudes.
Two-spirit people were respected by native societies not only due to religious attitudes, but also because of practical concerns. Because their gender roles involved a mixture of both masculine and feminine traits, two-spirit persons could do both the work of men and of women. They were often considered to be hard workers and artistically gifted, of great value to their extended families and community. Among some groups, such as the Navajo, a family was believed to be economically benefited by having a “nadleh” (literally translated as “one who is transformed”) androgynous person as a relative. Two-spirit persons assisted their siblings’ children and took care of elderly relatives, and often served as adoptive parents for homeless children.
A feminine male who preferred to do women’s work (gathering wild plants or farming domestic plants) was logically expected to marry a masculine male, who did men’s work (hunting and warfare). Because a family needed both plant foods and meat, a masculine female hunter, in turn, usually married a feminine female, to provide these complementary gender roles for economic survival. The gender-conforming spouse of two-spirit people did not see themselves as “homosexual” or as anything other than “normal”.
In the 20th-century, as homophobic European Christian influences increased among many Native Americans, respect for same-sex love and for androgynous persons greatly declined. Two-spirit people were often forced, either by government officials, Christian missionaries or their own community, to conform to standard gender roles. Some, who could not conform, either went underground or committed suicide. With the imposition of Euro-American marriage laws, same-sex marriages between two-spirit people and their spouses were no longer legally recognised. But with the revitalisation of Native American “red power” cultural pride since the 60s, and the rise of gay and lesbian liberation movements at the same time, a new respect for androgyny started slowly re-emerging among American Indian people.
Walter L Williams is the author of The Spirit and the Flesh (Boston: Beacon Press) and is Professor of Anthropology, History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. His most recent book, Two Spirits: A Story Of Life With The Navajo has been released.
Historic photo of Navajo couple from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico, 1866.
Native American notions of identity are communal. They depend upon community context, status and history. In many ways, gender is more fluid in Native American cultures in comparison to the rigid binary concepts of male-female that we know in Western societies.
Navajo scholar Wesley Thomas explains that Navajo culture has four genders:
- Given that Navajo culture is matrilineal , the first gender is feminine woman (asdzaan). They are born biologically female and function socially as women;
- Masculine man (hastiin), are born biologically male and adopt the role of men;
- Feminine man (nádleehí) are born biologically male and function socially as women; and
- Masculine woman (dilbaa) are born biologically female but function as men.