Different Genders, Different Pasts: The Two-Spirit Identity in Native American Life 

Different Genders, Different Pasts: The Two-Spirit Identity in Native American Life

It was a mid-May morning in 1886 and all of Washington DC high society was abuzz with excited chatter in the wake of The Kirmes, a cabaret-esque pageant and dance recital that had opened in The National Theater the night before. Billed as a sort of festival of nations, The Kirmes was a hodge-podge of dance numbers performed by the city’s young aristocracy with varying degrees of cultural competency. A host of different ethnicities, from the Swedes and Bavarians to the Romani and the Japanese, had their heritage misappropriated that evening, but the night’s showstopper was undoubtedly the Indian dance. Sparing, “neither their good looks nor expense in their enthusiasm to look the part”, the youthful elite of the nation’s capital donned their best redface and, “wore the most barbarous of costumes” to mimic the sacred rituals of the people they had colonized and, in many cases, driven from the face of the earth. However, the most notable of the dance’s participants wasn’t a white aristocrat, but a “Zuni priestess” from New Mexico named We’wha.

At six feet tall, with broad, sloping shoulders, a strong, square jaw and clad in traditional Zuni dress, We’wha was one of the most recognizable and alluring figures in the capital at that time. While in Washington serving as an informal ambassador from the Zuni people, We’wha captured the attention and adoration of much of Washington society, earning an audience in The White House with no less an admirer than President Grover Cleveland and his wife. Almost without exception, everyone who came in contact with We’wha found the “Zuni maiden” to be charming and delightful, with The National Tribune describing We’wha as having a “dignified and self-possessed, though perfectly modest manner.”

By all contemporaneous accounts, We’wha was the ideal Native American woman in the eyes of Washington society. It was a laudable sentiment, but there’s one slight problem with it: We’wha wasn’t a woman. Nor, on the other hand, was We’wha a man. Among the Zuni people, We’wha would have been considered a Lhamana, a gender identity reserved for men and women whose dress and behavior don’t correspond to their biological sex. To Western eyes and minds that have been conditioned to view gender as a more-or-less immutable binary, the idea of a “third gender” sounds foreign and bizarre, but it was the norm for not just the Zuni, but for most traditional Native American societies. In a study of 250 aboriginal languages in the United States, researchers found that more than two-thirds of them had words for describing people who belonged to non-male and non-female genders, with a similar pattern holding true for First Nations tribes in Canada.


George Catlin’s drawing, “Dance To The Berdache” depicting a ceremonial dance among the Sac and Fox Indians in honor of a Two-Spirit person.

Upon first encountering these other-gendered Native people during their travels in North America, European explorers classified them with the term “berdache”, which comes from an Arabic word that essentially referred to a passive bottom in a homosexual relationship. For centuries, this was the primary term that was used to define third/fourth/other gendered Native Americans until the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in 1990, when the term “Two-Spirit” was coined. Coming from the Ojibwe phrase, niizh manidoowag, the term Two Spirit creates an autonomous, self-defined community that applies to all Native and First Nations people who identify with traditional, non-Western gender categorizations. This emphasis that the Two Spirit conception places on shared history and self-empowerment has profound ramifications for not just Native people who would have traditionally been lumped into an LGBT framework, but for the communities they belong to and the broader society.

In many tribes, Two-Spirit individuals were revered and endowed with a spiritual significance not given to men and women. They were often thought to have mystical powers and frequently served a shamanic role within their community, both as healers and as visionaries who had to be consulted–and in many cases, honored–before a tribe went to war. Two-Spirit people were also charged with being conduits for the interactions of men and women within tribe that usually had set rules to prevent men and women from intermixing during daily life. Being in possession of both male and female spirits, Two-Spirit people were able to navigate social relationships in ways that others in their tribe could not. As a result, Two-Spirit people frequently played the role of social worker and caregiver, shuttling between the male and female camps to keep the peace and ensure the health of their community.

It’s easy to see why some who fall underneath the West’s LGBT banner would find such an identity appealing, but those within the Two-Spirit community are quick to point out that Two-Spiritedness is something that must be confined to among Indigenous peoples if it is to have meaning. When I was at the 2015 United States Conference on AIDS last month, I had the chance to sit down with Harlan Pruden, a Two-Spirit activist and member of the Cree Nation, to talk about his work in organizing around Two-Spirit identities in Native American communities and the issues he’s had to deal with surrounding cultural appropriation.

Pruden said that he believed the intentionality of non-Native people who had begun co-opting Two-Spiritedness was good, but was very clear in his view that such intentions don’t permit the appropriation of their culture:

“I went to the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference and I’ve had to stand before that community and be like, ‘Noodles, you can’t use our term.’ And that sounds harsh, right? But I immediately follow that up with, if the current system, current nomenclature, current choice of identities doesn’t work for you, come up with your own. And you know what? I’ll be right there, fighting and supporting your use of that identity and I hope that would be reciprocated…because if anyone and everyone can use the term Two Spirit, then my job as a community organizer that wants to talk to and advocate for folks who are indigenous and LGBT identified becomes almost impossible.”

For more on my Two-Spirit communities and my conversation with Harlan about everything from his discovery of his Two-Spiritedness to the role the community plays in eradicating health disparities among Native Americans, go over to The Body and read my companion article, Native Americans Facing HIV Find Power in Two-Spirit Identity.