Skip to main content

Momentum Mounts to Again Embrace Two-Spirits

A growing body of scholarly work shows that many American Indian tribes had a place for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) members in their culture and ceremonies. Like many Native traditions, this acceptance was lost when the dominant society drummed traditional tribal beliefs out of a generation of Indians and replaced them with Christian values. From that time on, most Indians started treating their GLBT tribal members the same way white culture treated them—as second-class citizens who had to keep their sexuality in the shadows. However, over the past two decades there have been great strides in restoring the traditional way Native gay people were perceived through the two-spirit movement.

“Two-spirit” has become the accepted term for GLBT Native Americans. It is an English translation from the Ojibwe term niizh manidoowag, which refers to people who carry both a masculine and feminine spirit. (Many tribes have a similar term: nadleeh (Navajo), winkte (Lakota), haxu’xan (Arapaho), ?a-y?nnas-ganne (Apache) and bate (Crow) are just a few of many examples.) The term two-spirit was adopted at the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg in 1990. “It is an intertribal way to describe this historic phenomenon in Native North America prior to contact,” says Dr. Brian Joseph Gilley, an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University and the author of Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. “The challenge was that people who would have occupied these gender-diverse categories historically were still being born into communities, but the communities no longer had the words for these people and no longer had the roles. The term has its origins in a desire to push back against discrimination and to recover these traditions that were lost along with a lot of other traditions. Changes in the ceremonial culture over time had come to exclude gender diversity in many communities.”

Gilley says that the words we use in English to describe the two-spirit’s role is inaccurate and misleading. “Accepted is not really a Native concept and is a modern term,” he explains. “In some cases the Native people respected the autonomy of those people whether they agreed with it or not because it was the right thing to do in a traditional context. So autonomy is traditional; acceptance is more general, tribal and multitribal.”

Lydia Nibley made a documentary, Two Spirits, about the 2001 murder of Fred Martinez; a 16-year-old Navajo youth who identified himself as gay and a cross-dresser. Her film is not only about the murder, but also about the historic tradition of two-spirit people. “It’s probably most accurate to say that not all, but many tribes recognized two-spirit people,” she says. “There are many scholarly books and articles on the subject. Many indigenous peoples recognized centuries ago the natural complexity of sexuality and gender, and male and female two-spirits have been documented in every region of North America, among every type of Native culture. [Two-spirit] people like Hastiin Klah, Navajo, were revered and were deeply involved in ritual and spiritual life of the Diné, Osh-Tisch, Crow, was well-known. And We’wah, Zuni, was a cultural ambassador to Washington for Zuni Nation and a highly respected political figure and leader. We’wah was a transgender person, beloved by her people.”

“After so much pressure from the church and the government a lot of tribes gave up their ways, and one of their ways in a lot of tribes was the two-spirits,” says John Hawk Co-cke, who is of Osage, Peoria and Cherokee descent. He has worked in HIV prevention for years at the Indian Health Care Resource Center of Tulsa, Oklahoma and is the leader and pipe keeper of the Tulsa Two Spirits Society. “Two-spirits were the caregivers, the teachers, the holy people, and they would also defuse any fights in the council or within the tribe. It is a piece of the circle that is missing, that needs to be back in the tribes, and that is my mission. First, we had to go back to our own two-spirited people, because they had lost their way. Something was missing—they felt dejected, thrown out, and that is the problem we are having now: the suicide rate is unbelievable with our younger two-spirit people because there is no support. It breaks my heart to hear the stories of these young ones being bullied and harassed because of who they are, and nobody coming to the rescue. That’s why it’s so important to get this message to these young people, to say you are okay, you are fine.”

Will Roscoe, an author, scholar and activist based in San Francisco who has written a couple of books about the two-spirit tradition, says, “It was widespread, every part of the continent, every language group—every lifestyle would be represented,” going back hundreds of years. That changed in the 19th century, as the subjugation of tribes throughout North America accelerated. “When GLBT Native people began to come forward in the 1970s there had been one or two generations since there had been a two-spirit anything in any tribe,” he explains. “Their parents had forgotten it. The generation that went to the boarding schools—the white schools and missions—had it drummed out of them. The agents suppressed it, the white people ridiculed it, and people stopped cross-dressing because that was the most visible sign. When the Native gay people first came forward, their tribal peers understood only that they were talking about a white thing, and a ‘bad’ thing; they assumed it was a sickness. Because they had been assimilated into white culture, they thought it had nothing to do with their tradition, and there was tremendous hostility. So the tradition was blocked and the memory of it was wiped out.”

Roscoe notes that a major problem with any debate about the two-spirit tradition is that contemporary Native people have been assimilated into European culture to such a point that they no longer even think or reason like precontact Indians. He points out that European concepts of marriage are very different from the pre-Columbian Native American concept, as are the rules or law that define marriage in both cultures. It is this same confusion between Native and European concepts that has caused many Native Americans to see two-spirit people as something other than respected tribal members.

Nibley says, “It’s sad that [this tradition] has come close to being lost in many tribes, but it’s very exciting that there’s a resurgence of two-spirit studies. People are really investigating their cultures and there’s a reemergence and celebration of these people in many places. Native American scholars are reclaiming ancient beliefs about gender and sexuality that are found in Native cosmology, traditions and ceremonies, and cultural stories.

“For example, in the public debate surrounding marriage rights it has been common to hear unquestioned references to ‘traditional’ marriage without including the voices of Native people who could explain that recognized partnership between people of the same gender has been a part of traditional life on the North American continent for thousands of years. There are critically important lessons to be learned from the way many indigenous people have successfully attended to issues of gender and sexuality, and exploring these ideas will help shape more progressive and humane attitudes and behaviors.”

Attitudes about marriage, and the current national argument about same-sex marriages touch on many of these issues and traditions. Gilley sees a ban on same-sex marriage as a total transformation of what marriage once meant in Native communities: “I was involved in a Cherokee same-sex marriage case as an expert witness. The interesting thing about this was that if you go to the stomp grounds or the non-Christian Cherokees—the more liberal Cherokees—they would say that it is up to the couple; it is not our role to obstruct the path off those two women who want to get married. However, the tribal government was really invested in preventing this marriage.”

The case began in early 2004, when Kathy Reynolds was hospitalized and her partner Dawn McKinley was not allowed to see her because, even though they had been living together for years and were raising a child together, the hospital did not recognize Dawn as Kathy’s spouse. Both women are Cherokee tribal members and, since the language in Cherokee law pertaining to marriage did not specify sex or gender, they applied for and received a marriage application from the clerk of the Cherokee Nation District Court on May 13, 2004. The next day the chief justice of the court sent out a memorandum preventing same-sex couples from obtaining marriage certificates. Five days later, McKinley and Reynolds had a marriage ceremony, but when they attempted to register their marriage with the court, they were rejected.

Gilley says, “The court claimed that the marriage of two people of the same bodily sex is not traditional, but all the evidence points to the fact that it likely did occur. How that was perceived 500 years ago is drastically different from how it is perceived now.” In Gilley’s affidavit for that case he pointed out that a man-woman living with another man was documented among the Cherokees by a traveler in the early 1800s.

“The Cherokee council’s argument was that they had sworn to uphold Cherokee tradition and they couldn’t accept this marriage because it was in violation of Cherokee tradition,” Gilley says. “Right after this hit the national media the Navajo Nation passed an opposite-sex marriage law. Almost every tribe, within 30 days, had one of these laws. This case made it to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and the court found in favor of the two women, but they chose not to file their marriage certificate. For various reasons it just faded into the mist after that.

“The other aspect to this is, because of the relationship between the tribe and the federal government, had that couple filed their marriage certificate, it would have been a federally recognized same-sex marriage, which would have been in conflict with the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA),” Gilley adds. DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman and it keeps states, tribes and territories from having to acknowledge same-sex marriages from other states, tribes and territories. “The subtext to this is, especially under the Bush administration, was that this could have turned into a battle over sovereignty. You get this case in front of a conservative Supreme Court and you could possibly overturn 250 years of Indian law.”

“No tribe had an institution like the Western institution of marriage, with the religious beliefs behind it and the legal aspects of it,” Roscoe says. “When you legally marry, you’re doing something very 20th or 21st century, and you can’t justify that in terms of tribal tradition, practice or culture. In many ways, the lawyer defending DOMA is just as out of whack with tradition as the two Cherokee women who wanted the marriage license. The lawyer is defending a law derived from Western customs and practices, and the women were seeking legal recognition of their status, which also speaks to Western society. All of these things about the past and the present and being Native in the modern world, how do you do reconcile them?

“There were different roles for the two-spirits in different tribes. A Crow elder, Joe Medicine Crow, told Walter Williams, who wrote one of the first studies on this that got published, around 1986, ‘We don’t waste people like the white world does; everyone has their gift.’?”