At the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg in 1990 the identity ‘Two-spirit’ became popular as a term chosen to replace the imposed, non-native words ‘berdache’ and ‘gay’, as a way to express the Native/First Nations’ distinct approach to gender identity, sexual identity and and gender-variance.
“Two-spirited” or “two-spirit” usually indicates a Native person who simultaneously manifests both a masculine and a feminine spirit, which is seen as giving the individual certain spiritual powers. Those who possessed “two spirits” were revered, as most tribes held the belief that the third gender had a strong relationship with “the Creator” because they were able to link the gap between men and women. Thoughtco.com defines Two Spirits as “indigenous members who see through the eyes of more than one gender.” The many indigenous communities have or had their own terms in their own languages for the gender-variant members of their communities and the social and spiritual roles these individuals fulfilled — such as wíŋkte (Lakota, translates as ‘wants to be like a woman’) and nádleehé (Navajo, translates as ‘one who changes’), mixu’ga (Omaha, translates as ‘instructed by the moon’).
“American Indian cultures and societies have had and many presently have a variety of ways in which gender is expressed…. gender has not always been defined in dichotomies: boy/girl, man/woman. American Indian groups have at least six alternative gender styles: women and men, not-men (biological women who assume some aspects of male roles) and not-women (biological men who assume some aspects of female roles), lesbians and gays.
“These not-women and not-men seemed either to puzzle the newly arriving Europeans or in some cases the new immigrants were simply aghast and shocked by them.
“Alternative gender roles were respected and honoured, and believed to be part of the sacred web of life and society…. the judeo-Xian tradition honours the male and female gender roles within the scope of heterosexuality, but alternative sexuality is regarded as sinful and outside of god’s plan.” from ‘Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men’ By Lester B Brown 1997
Europeans arriving in the Americas from the 16th century onwards were shocked by the acceptance and prevalence of gay sex and of the presence and normality of feminine men and masculine women in the native tribes, many of whom took sacred roles and were held in great esteem. The word some Spanish explorers gave these men/notmen was ‘joyas’ meaning jewels:
Don Pedro Fages was third in command of the 1769-70 Spanish Portolà expedition, first European land exploration of what is now the U.S. state of California – he wrote reports about the many, as he called them, ‘sodomites’ that he saw there:
“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession (it being confirmed that all these Indians are much addicted to this abominable vice) and permit the heathen to practice the execrable, unnatural abuse of their bodies. They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.”
Jewels could have been a great word if it had stuck, but the one that did meant Bottoms – the northern Europeans applied the word Berdache to these shamans – a word, not necessarily perjorative, depending on one’s stance, that had Persian roots, had come through French into English, and which implied femininity in a male but actually meant a passive bottom in homosexual sex, a boy kept for sex, a catamite.
Berdache was dropped in the 1990s because of its associations and replaced by the term Two Spirit, but historian Will Roscoe points out that we should note that berdache is “a Persian term, its origins are Eastern, not Western. Nor is it a derogatory term, except to the extent that all terms for nonmarital sexuality in European societies carried a measure of condemnation. It was rarely used with the force of faggot, but more often as a euphemism with a sense of lover or boyfriend.”
So perhaps for some the label Berdache did not carry stigma, but in fact the same positive qualities as we can sense in the Spanish term ‘joyas’.
Reports by explorers from the early 16th century onwards repeatedly referred to the presence of third gender people and their spiritual roles, some even comparing them to the ancient pagan priests of Europe.
Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s report of his five-year captivity among the Indian’s of Florida, from 1528 to 1533 states:
“During the time that I was thus among these people I saw a devilish thing, and it is that I saw one man married to another, and these are impotent, effeminate men [amarionados] and they go about dressed as women, and do women’s tasks, and shoot with a bow, and carry great burdens, … and they are huskier than the other men, and taller.”
Captain Laudonniere’s account of four French expeditions into Florida during the years 1562-67 observes:
“There are in all this country many hermaphrodites, which take all the greatest paine and beare the victuals when they goe to warre.”
Juan de Torquemada’s ‘Monarchia Indiana’, which he began in 1609, refers to male Indians of Florida marrying each other. These Natives he calls ‘mariones’ (effeminate men), and says that they dress like and do the work of women. He compares these Indian customs to those of the French and Greeks.
Joseph Francois Lafitau’s Customs of the American Savages, Compared with the Customs of Ancient Times, is based on his own experience as a Jesuit missionary in French Canada (1711-17).
In a section on “Men Who Dress as women” among the Native peoples of the Americas, Lafitau writes:
“If there were women with manly courage who prided themselves upon the profession of warrior, which seems to become men alone, there were also men cowardly enough to live as women. Among the Illinois, among the Sioux, in Louisiana, in Florida, and in Yucatan, there are young men who adopt the garb of women, and keep it all their lives.
“They believe they are honored by debasing themselves to all of women’s occupations; they never marry, they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order, and above the common man. Would these not be the same peoples as the Asiatic adorers of Cybele, or the Orientals of whom Julius Fermicus speaks, who consecrated priests dressed as women to the Goddess of Phrygia or to Venus Urania, who had an effeminate appearance, painted their faces, and hid their true sex under garments borrowed from the sex whom they wished to counterfeit?”
In another section of the some work Lafitou writes on Des Amities porticufieres, or “special friendships,” among the Natives of America:
“the Athenrosera, or special friendships among young men, which are instituted in almost the same manner from one end of America to the other, are one of the most interesting sides of their customs, since they entail a most curious chapter of Antiquity, and serve to reveal to us what was practiced in that regard, particularly in the Republic of the Cretans and in that of the Spartans.”
Pierre François Xavier Charlevoix’s Journal of a Voyage to North America contains a letter this Jesuit explorer and historian wrote in July 1721 concerning the tribes of the Seven Nations, especially the Iroquois, the Illinois, and others of the Louisiana area.
“It must be confessed that effeminacy and lewdness were carried to the greatest excess in those parts; men were seen to wear the dress of women without a blush, and to debase themselves so as to perform those occupations which are most peculiar to the sex, from whence followed a corruption of morals past all expression; it was pretended that this custom came from I know not what principle of religion.”
A fur trader named Edwin T. Denig spent two decades with the Crow Nation in the early 1800s, and wrote that “men who dressed as women and specialized in women’s work were accepted and sometimes honored… Most civilized communities recognize but two genders, the masculine and feminine. But strange to say, these people have a neuter.”
Historian Will Roscoe quotes a Crow elder who says, “We don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift.”
BOTTOMS – JEWELS – TWO SPIRITS
In Two Spirits: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men, written 1997, Lester B Brown explains how through knowledge of their ancient traditions, “Gay American Indians have a much more benevolent and understanding tradition from which to assert their identity and reaffirm their sacred being” and through this be an crucial example to gay, lesbian, bi and trans people in other cultures too.
“In many American Indian worldviews, the universe is composed of beings of various power and purpose. All are to be honoured and respected as part of the plan of the Great Spirit… Much toleration of individualism in many Indian societies derives from the sacredness of an individual’s personal mission in life.
“By divine ordination, GAIs have a sacred mission to achieve as a group and as individuals…
“Native traditions provide cultural resources for the reevaluation of sexuality and gender relations.
“… the spiritual warrior challenges the existing devaluation of alternative sexuality and understanding of gender roles…
“The sacredness of being teaches the honoring of the present world as a given sacred gift from the Great Spirit, and it is in this present-day world that spiritual warriors must achieve their sacred life tasks… Attempting to recreate the past will only distract us from the future, where our spiritual tasks must have their contribution to the flow of human history. … By taking on the understandings, beliefs, ethics and wisdom of the Indian view of sacredness of being, the GAI can reaffirm their identity, worth and purpose, and seek actively to recreate and contribute to a world that continues to hold them at arms length.
“This interpretation of American Indians as bearers of the Great Spirit’s gifts also implies that GAIs have a responsibility to grant access to such knowledge and wisdom to gays and lesbians of other ethnic groups, whose traditions may not be so favourable…. GAIs can share the gift of sacred being with other gays and lesbians, and with the heterosexual and Judeo-Xian worlds.”
Native American Two-Spirit (thoughtco.com) :
“Modern Two Spirits publicly embrace the mixture of masculine and feminine within them, and there are Two Spirit societies all over North America. Gatherings, including powwows which are open to the public, are held regularly as a way of not only building community, but also of educating non-Natives about the world of the Two Spirit. Today’s Two Spirits are taking on the ceremonial roles of those who came before them, working to facilitate spiritual events in their communities. They also work as activists and healers, and have been instrumental in bringing GLBT health issues to the forefront among the hundreds of Native tribes. By bridging the gap between gender roles and indigenous spirituality, today’s Two Spirits are continuing the sacred work of their ancestors.”
One thought on “BOTTOMS, JEWELS & TWO SPIRITS”
Of all the narratives, descriptors etc about my queerness, two spirits is the one that has most accurately described what I feel in myself