5 GENDERS: THE STORY OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN TWO-SPIRITS

Prior to Christian intervention, fluid gender identities of the Native American Two Spirits were seen as a gift from the gods, says Pearson McKinney

Osh-Tisch Native American Two Spirit on The Numinous

Celebrated Lakota Two Spirit Osh-Tisch (left) with his wife.

It wasn’t until Europeans took over North America that natives adopted the ideas of gender roles. For Native Americans, there was no set of rules that men and women had to abide by in order to be considered a “normal” member of their tribe.

In fact, people who had both female and male characteristics were viewed as gifted by nature, and therefore, able to see both sides of everything. According to Duane Brayboy, writing in Indian Country Today, all native communities acknowledged the following gender roles: “Female, Male, Two Spirit Female, Two Spirit Male and Transgendered.”

He goes on to describe how: “Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to two spirits as nádleehí (one who is transformed); among the Lakota is winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), niizh manidoowag (two spirit); in Ojibwe, hemaneh (half man, half woman), to name a few.”

As the purpose of ‘Two Spirit’ is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa.”

The Two Spirit culture of Native Americans was one of the first things Europeans worked to destroy and cover up. According to people like American artist George Catlin, the Two Spirit tradition had to be eradicated before it could go into history books. Catlin said the tradition: “must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.”

And as Brayboy also notes: “Spanish Catholic monks destroyed most of the Aztec codices to eradicate traditional Native beliefs and history, including those that told of the Two Spirit tradition.” As a result, Native Americans were forced to dress and act according to newly designated gender roles.

One of the most celebrated Two Spirits in recorded history was a Lakota warrior fiercely named Finds Them And Kills Them. Osh-Tisch (see main image) was born a male and married a female, but adorned himself in women’s clothing and lived daily life as a female. On June 17 1876, Finds Them And Kills Them earned his stripes when he rescued a fellow tribesman during the Battle of Rosebud Creek, an act of fearless bravery.

It’s an example of how in Native American cultures, people were valued for their contributions to the tribe, regardless of the gender attributes they exhibited. Parents did not assign gender roles to children either, and children’s clothing tended to be gender neutral. There were no ideas or ideals about how a person should love; it was simply a natural act that occurred without judgment.

Without a negative stigma attached to being a Two Spirit, there were also no inner-tribal incidents of retaliation or violence toward the chosen people simply due to the fact they identified as the opposite or both genders. If anything; “Traditional Native Americans closely associate Two Spirited people with having a high functioning intellect (possibly from a life of self-questioning), keen artistic skills and an exceptional capacity for compassion,” writes Brayboy.

We'wha (1849-1896), of the Zuni nation. We'wha was biologically a male and engendered with a female spirit.

We’wha (1849-1896), of the Zuni nation. We’wha was biologically male and engendered with a female spirit.

Once outside religious influences brought serious prejudice against “gender diversity,” openly alternative or androgynous people were forced into to one of two choices. They could either live in hiding, and in fear of being found out, or they could end their lives. Many of whom did just that.

Imagine a world where people allowed others to live freely as the people nature intended them to be, without harm, without persecution, without shame. Imagine a world where we are truly free.

This article originally appeared on Bipartisan Report. For further reading visit Indian Country Today.

17 Comments

  • Wow this is a really enlightening article, and just brings to light the conditioning of a nation, I’m very much included in it. It’s only when you see the perceived extremes (so different to your own) that you realise just how engrained your beliefs are, beliefs that you have accepted without question. Thanks so much.

  • Bobbi Carswell says:

    I am transgendered. No apologies for that. I have lived a life (I’m 65) of denial and am still fighting a fight with my self and also societal attitudes and norms, I’m slowly coming to a point where I can be myself, but, how is it fair that to live a productive life (I’m intelligent, creative, empathetic, compassionate) I have to fight prejudice because I just want to be who I feel I am, me. These articles are eye-opening, I just hope they at least open ONE person’s eyes to the huge spectrum that makes up humanity.

  • Im searching for a guest interview on my Tumblr blog, do you be
    interested?

  • Joyce says:

    Modernization has corrupted our simple minds and lives. I was always told that it’s wrong to be in love with another woman, always told it’s a sin to be homosexual this article is really eye opening. It’s nice to know that people accepted you for who you are back then there in the Americas and respected you. I hope everyone accepts us for who we are, it’s a shame we call ourselves modern and still judge people for who they are.

  • Casey Harwick says:

    I am genderfluid and knowing cultures have embraced people like me in the past gives me hope.
    I’ve grown up in a somewhat conservative town and many a time have I been told that I only identify this way because it’s popular now.
    Knowing that cultures such as the Native Americans acknowledged people like me gives me hope that the world can accept nonbinary and trans people once again.

  • Toby Mittenshire says:

    i must poke the holes i see. This author has no credible sources for any claim. The translations have no connections to quotes and could easily have been constructed the day this was written to fit the narrative. Next, assuming men who wear more feminine things are obviously as the author claims; am i trans or two spirited because i like to wear floral shirts and tight, form revealing pants? Am i as this author claims because i appreciate jewelry?
    The only credible quote comes from Catlin, and given the vagueness of the quote, could easily be attributed to any tradition of the native peoples.
    Next, this automatically assumes the Aztecs had the exact same culture has their more northern cousins, which they didn’t. Though most of the culture was destroyed in conquest, theirs was unique when compared to their fellows.
    In short, stop appropriating other cultures to futher your own goals, it’s disgusting. You are not native, you have no right to steal their culture to make yourself feel better.

    • Emmanuel says:

      Totally agree with you on that.

    • Julia says:

      I agree with you. I’m Native American. I’m not sure what tribe this article is describing, but it’s not one that I am even familiar with. Additionally, my tribe is actually a patriarchal societal. Females and males have different roles and different tasks, with males being the dominant gender. This goes back before the English came to America, and has only recently been changing to more equality. Women still can’t do certain things that males can do. So this is kind of offensive to group all Native American tribes as having the same agenda. We are different tribes and nations with different spiritual traditions.

    • Cristina Monteiro says:

      http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/two-spirits/

      This same article, almost word for word. Strange, it comes up in quite a few publications, some with things add, or taken away. Some with same pictures, or a few different.

      It says that the Navajo tribe had these beliefs… There is a movie, said to be based on an actual event called two spirit that goes along with this. Id live to know if this was really the case or not.

    • Eva says:

      I’m native, and two-spirit. All of this is true and actually appreciate this article. Not many people are willing to straight come out and say “my ancestors destroyed a belief through Christianity”. It’s hard to think but two-spirit people are target’s and live hard lives and are usually killed or commit suicide. We have to save our people. And articles like this, are awakening.

  • Andi says:

    I asked a question today. Am I none binary or tranz .i was told I may be two spirit. Iv never heard of this before. I have just read the above .well .what an eye opener . Does it matter about proof of this or that. The idea is what is important that maybe in a community far away one was free to just BE. It doesn’t matter where ,what matters is that they could.in their own world for their own reasons as does anyone in THEIR own world. To just BE .

  • James says:

    a bit confused here. I see a lot of LGBT explanation, but what are these “5 Genders” they keep claiming? Also every story I’ve heard about this has been about the same few people. my history is a little rough but if this was “normal” would there not be way more testimonies?

  • Zelina says:

    Some people above should research abit more before saying it isn’t true

  • TTShini says:

    Its surprising that Native Americans themselves haven’t heard of it. This article as well seems to have been taken from an article from 2011. Also like someone mentioned above, a man might prefer to wear more colourful/floral shirts,even skirts and doing “traditional” womens work in this day and age and a woman preferred wearing pants and doing “traditional” manly work. Does that make these people Two spirits. I have read a few articles about Two spirits and we usually see the same pictures and the two or three tribes are mentioned.( There should be so much more)Which means this believe in Two spirits is not exactly something that a lot of tribes follow. It doesn’t have to be. Where i come from(obviously not America) our tribal societies don’t have mention of Two spirits kind of people.

  • I was evicted from an all female shelter as soon as they discovered that I was trans. The shelter was run by the Catholic Church as owned by the Arch Diocese of Newark NJ

    I would like to buy some land – in Arizona I saw there was land for sale – On it I would like to build a non – profit org that would be open to all trans persons that I could sustain,

  • BestGladys says:

    I have noticed you don’t monetize your page, don’t waste your traffic, you can earn extra cash every month because you’ve got
    high quality content. If you want to know how to make extra money, search for:
    Ercannou’s essential adsense alternative

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *