Native Americans revered the LGBTQ community because its members could perform both male and female responsibilities. Today, the so-called “Two Spirits” are struggling to regain recognition.
“Two Spirits” – a man with two souls. This is what the native people of North America call members of the LGBTQ community. And has been for a number of years. Although the term only became established in the 1990s, almost all tribes previously had their own terms for homosexuals, transsexuals and bisexuals. Before colonization they played a special role in their communities. Because of their special properties, “Two Spirits” enjoyed high recognition.
Fluid boundaries in the indigenous LGBTQ community
The two-soul concept has its origins in the language of the Ojibwa tribe. According to Kylan Mattias de Vries, of the Chair in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Southern Oregon University, the term became popular after a 1990 conference for gay people in Canada. that arose in the colonial era.
The Indian Health Service, a US Native American health program, defines a “Two Spirit” as “male, female, and sometimes intersex individuals who combined traditional roles of males and females with characteristics relevant to two-spirit status.” spirit people were unique”. Originally meant were primarily homosexuals, transgender and bisexuals. But the borders were and are fluid. “Two Spirits” describe their identity in a variety of ways, from being able to access the masculine and feminine within them to walking in both the masculine and feminine worlds.
Gender tied to specific tasks
For the indigenous tribes, human gender was a spiritual but also a pragmatic concept. “A lot of people assume that it’s all about gender identity or sex, but I personally think it has a deeper meaning in terms of the spiritual connection to the land and to our peoples,” says a Nisichawayasihk descendant Cree tribe in a USA Today article. In many groups, the sex of the newborn was not determined at birth, but during growth.
Among the aborigines there was a strict division of labor between male and female roles. While men were usually responsible for hunting and politics, women did clothing, cooking, raising children and farming. Depending on which of these tasks one was more inclined towards, one was considered male, female or a member of a third gender. “‘Two Spirits’ were therefore people who identified themselves with the opposite sex, particularly through gender-specific work,” explains Sebastian Braun, professor of world languages and cultures in the “Iowa State Daily”.
Valuable for the community
The “Two Spirits” were therefore considered the third gender. In some tribes there were other categories. For example, according to Braun, the Navajo had at least ten different genders. A “Two Spirits” did not only adapt the tasks of the opposite sex, but often filled both roles. They fulfilled a wide variety of tasks for the community and were therefore particularly valued. The indigenous peoples recognized the change between the two poles as a special gift.
The respect of the “Two Spirits” also has to do with the position of women as “creators of life”. Heike Bungert, Professor of Modern History, writes in her book “The Indians – History of the Indigenous Nations in the USA”: “Because of their productivity, women were considered ‘wealth’.” Because of their (re)productive qualities, women were considered so powerful that they should withdraw during menstruation.
“Fundamental component of the clan”
In addition to the traditionally male or female tasks, “Two Spirits” devoted themselves to handicrafts. They made pottery, wove or braided baskets. In addition, in most tribes they performed two of the most important functions: medicine and religion. Because the indigenous peoples believed that “Two Spirits” were created from the work of supernatural forces. “They were seen as mysterious people and mysterious means powerful,” explains Sebastian Braun. They were said to have strong, mystical abilities. Therefore, they were allowed to take on special, religious roles and act as healers, shamans, prophets or undertakers, among other things. The Rainbow Resource Center, an organization dedicated to sexual orientation education, describes the Two Spirits as “leaders,” “sources of strength,” and “a fundamental component of the clans.”
Members of the third sex usually have same-sex relationships, so today they would be considered homosexual. According to the “Indian Health Service”, it was believed at the time that “Two Spirits” were particularly lucky in love and could pass it on. During colonization, the cherished position of the “Two Spirits” fell into oblivion. “The European concept of man and woman is very rigid and unchangeable,” writes Jean Lessenich in “Transsexuality in Theology and Neuroscience”. The arriving settlers would have labeled the sexuality of the “Two Spirits” as immoral and perverted. Anything that deviated from the European norm was condemned and demonized. “Two Spirits” became victims of discrimination and violence.
Not only did they lose their traditions and practices, but over time they lost community recognition. Anthropologist Sabine Lang says in an article by the news agency “Reuters” that the colonization of North America had “devastating effects” on the acceptance of “Two Spirits”. The special role of the third gender has disappeared from the consciousness of many native communities. Instead, the settlers’ homophobic attitude was adopted, reports the Rainbow Resource Center. Indigenous groups began to see “Two Spirits” as social failures – until today.
“Some people in Native American communities today will deny that such people ever existed in their communities, despite anthropological evidence,” says Sabine Lang. Members of the LGBTQ community who come from indigenous groups face double discrimination: they belong to an ethnic group that is already marginalized, from which they experience additional exclusion. In Canada, according to Reuters, indigenous transgender people are the group with the highest risk of suicide in the LGBTG community. In a survey of 26,000 people in 2018, 37 percent of them said they had attempted suicide in the past year.
Traditions are slowly reviving
However, a change has been initiated in recent years that gives hope to indigenous supporters of the LGBTQ community. Since there have been official conferences and meetings for them since the 1990s and the umbrella term “Two Spirits” was introduced, some communities are slowly reviving the old tradition. However, of the more than 500 recognized Indigenous communities in North America, some reject the “Two Spirits” term, insisting on their own historical variant of the expression.
But no matter what the exact name of the people in their respective groups: The idea of the “Two Spirits” has changed. “There’s the traditional meaning and the contemporary meaning,” explains Sebastian Braun. Today the term refers almost exclusively to sexual identity. “‘Two Spirits’ are Indigenous North Americans who identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community, i.e. homosexual, bisexual, transgender or a completely different gender,” says the Iowa State Daily article.
At USA Today, some Tribesmen who self-identify as “Two Spirits” report that progress is being made in recognizing their characters. They want to be treated as equals and to be recognized as valuable members of their community. The “Rainbow Resource Center” describes it as a healing process. “We’re reclaiming our lost places,” says Marlon Fixico Blackkettle of the Chayenne people. “We have a lot to offer and teach the mainstream LGBTQ community and the world,” he adds. Professor Sebastian Braun agrees: “‘Two Spirits’ show that people don’t fit into boxes.”
Sources: “Native Americans – History of Native American Nations”, “Iowa State Daily”, “Indian Health Service”, “Rainbow Resource Center”, “Reuters”, “Transgender in Theology and Neuroscience”, “USA Today”