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Two spirited marchers at San Francisco Pride 2014

Two-spirit people (also two spirit or twospirit) is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans for gender variant individuals in their communities. Non-Native anthropologists have historically used the term berdaches for individuals who fulfill one of many mixed gender roles in First Nations and Native American tribes, but this term has more recently fallen out of favour.

Third and fourth gender roles historically embodied by two-spirit people include performing work and wearing clothing associated with both men and women. Some tribes consider there to be at least four genders:

  • masculine men
  • feminine men
  • masculine women
  • feminine women.

The presence of male-bodied two-spirits "was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples."[1] According to Will Roscoe, male-bodied and female-bodied two-spirits have been "documented in over 130 North America tribes, in every region of the continent."[2]


  • Terminology 1
  • Definition and historic societal role 2
  • Historical accounts 3
  • Media depictions 4
  • Tributes 5
  • Self-identified two-spirits 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Sources and further reading 9
    • Archival resources 9.1
  • External links 10


Before the late twentieth century, the term berdache was widely used by anthropologists as a generic term to indicate feminine Native men; however, this term has become considered increasingly outdated and even offensive. (Based on the French bardache implying a male prostitute or catamite, the word originates in Persian barda: برده meaning "captive, prisoner of war; a slave."[3][4][5][6][7]) Spanish explorers who encountered two-spirits among the Chumash people called them "joyas", Spanish for "jewels".[8]

Use of the berdache term has widely been replaced by the self-chosen two-spirit, which itself gained widespread popularity in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg. Two-spirit is a term chosen to distinctly express Native/First Nations gender identity and gender variance, in addition to replacing the otherwise imposed and non-Native terms of berdache and gay.[9][10][11]

"Two-spirited" or "two-spirit" usually indicates a Native person who feels their body simultaneously manifests both a masculine and a feminine spirit, or a different balance of masculine and feminine characteristics than usually seen in masculine men and feminine women.

Most Indigenous communities have specific terms in their own languages for the gender-variant members of their communities and the social and spiritual roles these individuals fulfill — including Lakota: wíŋkte and Navajo: nádleehé.[12]

Definition and historic societal role

Two-spirit individuals are viewed in some tribes as having two identities occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles, or they may dress as a man one day, and a woman on another. According to Sabine Lang many tribes have distinct gender and social roles.[13] Some specific roles sometimes held by male assigned at birth two-spirits include:

Detail of Dance to the Berdashe, painted by George Catlin

Some studies of two spirit identities among biological males explain them as a “form of social failure, women-men are seen as individuals who are not in a position to adapt themselves to the masculine role prescribed by their culture”[14] and that two-spirit people lost masculine power socially, so they took on female social roles to climb back up the social ladder within the tribe. However, Lang argues that the problem with the "failure" approach "probably lies, inter alia, in the fact that the women-men's ambivalence in both role and status is over-looked".[15] Lang disputes a supposed example of women being considered inferior to men in Lakota society from R. B. Hassrick's studies:

That Lakota men did not like to be called "heart of a woman" in council meetings (Hassrick 1989:133) is less likely to mean that women were regarded as inferior than that the warrior's role was sharply set off from the woman's role (see DeMallie 1983): a warrior clearly held the status of "man". Because the Lakota winkte (upon whom Hassrick's interpretations are based) were culturally defined as "non-men", the norms valid for the masculine role were therefore not applied to them.[15]

Lang later says "men made to wear women's clothes for the purposes of humiliation are everywhere ... distinguished from women-men".[16]

Cross dressing of two-spirit people was not always an indicator of gender identity. Lang believes "the mere fact that a male wears women's clothing does not say something about his role behavior, his gender status, or even his choice of partner..."[17]

Male-bodied two-spirit people, regardless of gender identification, can go to war and have access to male activities such as male-only sweat lodge ceremonies.[18] However, they may also take on "feminine" activities such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities.[19]

Two-spirits might have relationships with people of either sex.[20] According to Lang, female assigned at birth two-spirits usually have sexual relations or marriages with only females.[21]

Partners of two-spirits do not receive any special recognition, although some believed that after having sexual relations with a two-spirit they would obtain magical abilities, be given obscene nicknames by the two-spirited person which they believed held "good luck," or in the case of male partners, receive a boost to their masculinity. Examples of sexual relationships between two-spirited individuals are absent in the historical literature (with the sole exception of the Tewa tribe),[22] yet are a common occurrence in contemporary two-spirit communities. As male assigned at birth two-spirits often regarded each other as "sisters," Lang has speculated that it may have been seen as incestuous to have a relationship with another two-spirit.[23]

In most tribes a relationship between a two-spirit and non-two-spirit was seen for the most part as neither heterosexual nor homosexual (in modern day terms) but more hetero-normative; European colonists, however, saw such relationships as homosexual. Partners of two-spirits have not historically viewed themselves as homosexual, and moreover drew a sharp conceptual line between themselves and two-spirits.[24]

Although two-spirits have been both respected and feared in many tribes, the two-spirit is not beyond being reproached or even killed for bad deeds. In the Mojave tribe, for instance, two-spirits frequently become medicine persons and, like all who deal with the supernatural, are at risk of suspicion of witchcraft, notable in cases of failed harvest or of death. There have been instances of murder in these cases (such as the female assigned at birth two-spirit named Sahaykwisā).[25] Another instance in the late 1840s was of a Crow male assigned at birth two-spirit who was caught, possibly raiding horses, by the Lakota and was killed.[26]

According to some reports there had never been an alternative gender identity among the Comanche.[27] This is true of some Apache bands as well, except for the Lipan, Chiricahua, Mescalero, and southern Dilzhe'e.[28][29] One tribe in particular, the Eyak, has a single report from 1938 that they did not have an alternative gender and they held such individuals in low esteem, although whether this sentiment is the result of acculturation or not is unknown.[30][31]

Williams wrote that the Iroquois do not have a specific role for gender-variant individuals,[27] although there is a single report from Bacqueville de la Potherie in his book published in 1722, Histoire de l'Amérique septentrionale, that indicates that an alternative gender identity existed among them.[32] Many, if not all, tribes have been influenced by European homophobia/transphobia.[33][34][35][36][37][38]

Some sources have reported that the Aztecs and Incas had laws against such individuals,[39][40][41] though there are some authors who feel that this was exaggerated or the result of acculturation, because all of the documents indicating this are post-conquest and any that existed before had been destroyed by the Spanish.[37][42] The belief that these laws existed, at least for the Aztecs, comes from the Florentine Codex. According to Dr Nancy Fitch, Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton,

Historical accounts

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. At least three diaries were kept during the expedition, but Fages wrote his account later - in 1775. Fages gave more descriptive details about the native Californians than any of the others, and he alone reported the presence of homosexuality in the native culture. The English translation reads:

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.... They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem.[44]

Media depictions

The two spirit pride trolley at San Francisco Pride 2014

The 1964 book Little Big Man by Thomas Berger, adapted into the 1970 western film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn, stars Dustin Hoffman as a white man who is adopted into a Cheyenne band in the mid-1800s. The film features a character named Little Horse (played by Robert Little Star). The Cheyenne accept Little Horse as a "hee-man-eh," a class of persons who are neither traditionally male nor female. The novel describes Little Horse as anatomically male but displaying mannerisms more typical of women and self-identifying as female. While Hoffman's character is initially wary of Little Horse and rejects her sexual overtures, the two eventually form a close friendship.

The 1975 book The Manly-Hearted Woman by Frederick Manfred depicts challenges faced by and privileges accorded to two-spirit characters of the Yankton Sioux.

The 2009 documentary film[45] Two Spirits, directed by Lydia Nibley, tells the story of the hate-murder of 16-year-old Navajo Fred Martinez, nádleehí - a male assigned at birth person with a feminine nature.[46]


In 2012 a marker dedicated to two-spirit people was included in the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago, Illinois that celebrates LGBT history and people.[47]

Self-identified two-spirits

See also


  1. ^ Gilley, Brian Joseph (2006: 8). Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. ISBN 0-8032-7126-3.
  2. ^ Roscoe, Will (1991). The Zuni Man-Woman, p.5. ISBN 0-8263-1253-5.
  3. ^ Steingass, Francis Joseph. A Comprehensive Persian-English dictionary, including the Arabic words and phrases to be met with in Persian literature. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1892. p. 173
  4. ^ Jacobs, S.; Thomas, W.; Lang, S. (Eds.): Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality, page 4. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  5. ^ Williams, W.: The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian cultures, page 9. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
  6. ^ Roscoe, W.: Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in native North America, page 7. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
  7. ^ vulnerable, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: March 24, 2007.
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Jacobs, S. (1997), pp. 2–3, 221.
  10. ^ Lang, S.: Men as women, women as men: Changing gender in Native American cultures, page XIII. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1998.
  11. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), p. 109.
  12. ^ Burrus, Virginia & Keller, Catherine (2006). Toward a theology of eros: transfiguring passion at the limits of discipline Transdisciplinary theological colloquia. Fordham University Press. ISBN 0-8232-2636-0, ISBN 978-0-8232-2636-8. p. 73.
  13. ^ Lang, Sabine, Men as women, women as men: changing gender in Native American cultures'.'
  14. ^ (Lang, 28)
  15. ^ a b (Lang, 29)
  16. ^ (Lang, 341)
  17. ^ (Lang, 62)
  18. ^ "Inventory of Aboriginal Services, Issues and Initiatives in Vancouver: Two Spirit – LGTB". Retrieved 2007-07-01. 
  19. ^ Page 72 -
  20. ^ Stryker, Susan (2004). "Berdache".  
  21. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pp. 289–298.
  22. ^ Lang, S. (1998), p. 295.
  23. ^ Lang, S. (1998), p. 185.
  24. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pp. 208-212.
  25. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pp. 164, 288.
  26. ^ Walker, James: Lakota Society, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, p. 147. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  27. ^ a b Williams, W. (1986), pp. 39, 48.
  28. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pp. 291–93.
  29. ^ Jacobs, S. (1997), pp. 236–251.
  30. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pp. 202–203.
  31. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), p. 15.
  32. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), pp. 250-251n.43. (vol. 3, p. 41)
  33. ^ Jacobs, S. (1997), p. 206.
  34. ^ Williams, W. (1986), pp. 14, 39, 148, 187–192, 209–210, 228, 304n.29.
  35. ^ Roscoe, W. (1998), p. 114.
  36. ^ Lang, S. (1998), pp. 119, 311–313, 322.
  37. ^ a b Trexler, R. : Sex and conquest: Gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas, pp. 155–167. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
  38. ^ Swidler, Arlene: Homosexuality and World Religions, pp. 17–19. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993.
  39. ^ Williams, W. (1986), p. 148.
  40. ^ Lang, S. (1998), p. 324.
  41. ^ Spencer, Colin: Homosexuality in History, p. 142. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.
  42. ^ Greenberg, David: The Construction of Homosexuality, pp. 165–168. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  43. ^ Fitch, Nancy: General Discussion of the Primary Sources Used in This Project, The Conquest of Mexico Annotated Bibliography. Accessed: June 14, 2008.
  44. ^ Fages, P., Priestley, H. I., & Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). A historical, political, and natural description of California(HathiTrust limited search only) . Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33. Retrieved July 2014. 
  45. ^
  46. ^ Two Spirits website
  47. ^
  48. ^ Gloria Kim, "Why be just one sex?". Maclean's, September 8, 2005.
  49. ^ Sorrel, Lorraine, "Not Vanishing," review in "Off Our Backs." Washington: Mar 31, 1989. Vol.19, Iss. 3.
  50. ^

Sources and further reading

  • Cameron, Michelle. (2005). Two-spirited Aboriginal people: Continuing cultural appropriation by non-Aboriginal society. Canadian Women Studies, 24 (2/3), 123–127.
  • Conley, Craig. Oracle of the twofold deities.
  • Hawkins, Philip Colin. (2012). New World Sodom: Biblical Tales of Conquest and Acculturation. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 15.
  • Jacobs, Sue-Ellen; Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Eds.). (1997). Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02344-7, ISBN 0-252-06645-6.
  • Lang, Sabine. (1998). Men as women, women as men: Changing gender in Native American cultures. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-74700-4, ISBN 0-292-74701-2.
  • Medicine, Beatrice. (1997). Changing Native American roles in an urban context and changing Native American sex roles in an urban context. In S.-E. Jacobs, W. Thomas, & S. Lang (Eds.) (pp. 145–148).
  • Roscoe, Will. (1991). The Zuni man-woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1253-5.
  • Roscoe, Will. (1998). Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-17539-6.
  • Roscoe, Will; & Gay American Indians. (1988). Living the spirit: A gay American Indian anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-01899-1.
  • Schaeffer, Claude E. (1965). The Kutenai female berdache. Ethnohistory, 12 (3), 193–236.
  • Schultz, James W. (1916). Blackfeet tales of Glacier National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Schultz, James W. (1919). Running Eagle, the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Spanbauer, Tom. (1991). The man who fell in love with the moon: A novel. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-468-3.
  • Trexler, Richard C. (1995). Sex and conquest: Gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3224-3.
  • Williams, Walter L. (1986). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian cultures. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-4602-7.
  • Williams, Walter L. & Toby Johnson. (2006) Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press. ISBN 1-59021-060-3
  • Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, Eds. (2011) Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Two-spirit: BelongingWolf, Rope. (film)

Archival resources

External links

  • Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories by Beatrice Medicine
  • - Two Spirit blog, resources, and multimedia
  • Support Services for Two-Spirit Youth
  • Two Spirits, documentary about Fred Martinez, a nádleehí who was murdered at age 16
  • American Indian Gender-Crossers
  • The Berdache
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