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On Two-Spirits and Native Identity

Brian Joseph Gilley, Cherokee/Chickasaw, is associate professor of anthropology and director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of Becoming Two-Spirit (University of Nebraska Press, 2006).Here, he addresses issues raised by “Two-Spirit Men’s Sexual Survivance Against the Inequality of Desire,” his contribution to Queer Indigenous Studies (University of Arizona Press, 2011), as well as by his earlier work. Read a review and an excerpt. Our feature story is here.

Prior to European contact, what place did mixed-gender individuals have in Native American societies?

I hear a lot of people using words like acceptance. I think it is a much more variegated idea than simply saying that gender-different people were accepted. I would say it more in terms of, there wasn’t even a notion of gender difference. They were just people.

As decolonization progresses, what role might they have?

Are tribal governments going to all of a sudden be like, “We love gay Native Americans?” It is just not in the interest of the tribal government to do that sort of thing when they are already politically and socially marginalized.

There is a rumor that there is a two-spirit stomping ground now in Oklahoma. In order for that to exist it had to be endorsed by an elder with the knowledge to teach these younger people how to do everything. So that is a pretty significant thing, but it has taken years of work. The impact at the micro level is huge; the impact at the macro level—the tribal level—will take an enormous amount of time.

What conditions have revitalized the concept of the gender-diverse Native Americans over the past two decades?

Initially I would say it was very [American Indian Movement]–inspired. There were protests and marches and things like that in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was just sort of a fight against homophobia. Then I think once AIDS became more prevalent among urban Native gay men, that really solidified the fight. It was not until the late 1990s that you saw it kind of taking on this cultural piece. The Internet had an enormous amount of impact on this.

What do you hope readers take away from your piece?

I wanted to try to get people to begin to think about the role of sexuality in this. I think we sort of take it for granted as a by-product. I think we have been so focused on saying it is about culture that we have sort of left out the fact that there are the corporeal desires that help fuel this. I think we have avoided sexuality on purpose simply because the goal has always been to separate two-spirit from popular gay identity.

What do you hope the book accomplishes?

I do not think it accomplished everything I wanted it to. My goal was to create something that Native American studies in general had to deal with. The problem with doing this kind of study—you know, queer indigenous, two-spirit social-acceptance stuff—is that it is wildly popular among the people who have a natural interest in it.