Final Project: The Two-spirit Identity

Some may have heard of this term, some may have not: two-spirit. What are these words, and what do they mean? What significance does this term hold? Does it mean quite literally as it sounds, that a person has ‘two spirits’? To answer these questions, in a sense yes, two-spirit means a person who has ‘two spirits’ or more specifically speaking in American white cultural terms, a person with two or more genders. Two-Spirit is a Native American, umbrella term, derived from the Ojibwe term niizh manidoowag, that identifies the third and fourth genders existent in Indigenous tribes and cultures in North America. Two-spirits contain both the male and female spirit, differentiating themselves from typical, binary classifications of gender, and can be attracted to the same sex or different sex. When looking up the definition in the New Oxford American Dictionary, it is defined as a “gay, lesbian, or transgender” member of Native Americans.[1] But, Native American scholars and two-spirits themselves prefer not to define and categorize the term into any sexuality or gender, but instead focus on the spirit of a person.[2] It is also a term used to distinguish the Native conceptualization of gender and sexuality and make it their own, steering away from typical American, heteronormative, white cultural terms.[3]

For my identity, I argue for the two-spirit amongst Indigenous peoples and the support this identity needs to be publicized so people of American, heteronormative culture can be educated on this unique identity. By doing so, this would inform the informed, ranging from members of the LGBT community to mainstream American popular culture. This could potentially result in less discrimination and overall better awareness of this non-binary, non-conforming identity. Two-spirits, similar to people of non-binary sexualities and genders, are often and have been historically bullied, harassed and in some cases killed for not ‘conforming’ to typical binary gender roles of American culture. In certain cases, they are not even accepted by their own Indigenous people and tribes despite that once two-spirits were looked upon as important, unique members and leaders of their tribes. Thus, by publicizing this identity amongst traditional, heteronormative American culture in effort to educate the uneducated, two-spirits would be more broadly known and, even more importantly, accepted by members of their own tribe and the American public.

Two-spirit is in need of help as an identity due to the oppression they have faced for centuries. Though this identity used to hold prominence amongst natives, it is now looked down upon as tribes have been infiltrated with traditional, binary roles of American culture. But, by looking at the history of the two-spirit, it can lead to enlightenment and change for an identity in need of major assistance.

Though some may believe the history of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender history in America started with the Stonewall riots in 1969, the history started far before then.[4] As Michael Foucault amongst other historians of sexuality argue, “sexual acts between two people of the same sex had been punishable through legal and religious sanctions well before the late nineteenth century.”[5] Non-conforming identities have been around for hundreds of years, but their history remains hidden, unwritten and popularly unknown. This can be attributed to the discrimination and oppression these people faced when performing or displaying their non-binary gender roles.

Since North America was colonized by the Spanish Catholics in the early 16th century, two-spirit figures in various tribes have been discriminated against. This discrimination would eventually result in the enforcement of European gender roles, torture, imprisonment or death. When the Spaniards began to colonize, they came across men dressed like women and women dressed like men. Along with cross-dressing, they witnessed men performing feminine, societal roles and women performing masculine roles. In their eyes, this simply looked wrong as all people were cis-gender, especially in 16th century Spain as the Catholic Church was instituting the Spanish Inquisition. To Spanish standards, certain genders had certain societal roles they were supposed to maintain and reinforce.

The first account of Spanish and two-spirit contact that was recorded came in in 1513 colonial Spain, present-day Panama. Vasco Núñez de Balboa came upon a two-spirit, or in his eyes an effeminate man dressed as a woman. Balboa stripped the two-spirit of her clothes and let the dogs upon her, eating the two-spirit alive and to death.[6] This is one, violent example of traditional Christian beliefs forcefully imposed on Indigenous culture which launched the beginning of the persecution of two-spirits. This only worsened over time as more Natives were converted to Christianity and saw the practice of two-spirits as sinful and wrong. This led to their two-spirit persecution throughout the 16th through 20th century as North America as a continent was Christianized and the diminishing of the two-spirit population as a whole commenced.

In this instance, if the Spaniards, somehow and in some capacity, had been educated or aware of the two-spirit and their unique identity, they may have not been as harsh with their punishments. If the Spaniards had been more aware that different cultures and cultural practices had different gender and sexual beliefs than those of western Europeans, this could have led to a better and potentially kinder treatment of the two-spirits by the Spaniards. With the help of education, the situation could have been radically different and produced radically different results.

Another historical instance of cultural differences leading to misunderstandings are the written accounts of French writer and military member Jean-Bernard Bossu. When he was stationed in colonial New Orleans and as he traveled up the Mississippi River to Illinois, Bossu witnessed two-spirits engaging in typical sexual behaviors. In his 1768 Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales, he recorded: “The majority [of the Choctaws] are addicted to sodomy. These corrupt men [the berdache] wear their hair long and a short skirt like the women.”[7] Due to his Western European customs and practices, sodomy and cross-dressing was looked down upon as strange, vile, and unchristian. More importantly, it was misunderstood due to lack of knowledge of other cultures. Since Bossu only knew his European, binary cultural practices and ways, sodomy and cross-dressing was a sin and was even deemed illegal in 18th century France. Thus, with a broader knowledge of cultures, Bossu may have not looked upon this practice as “sodomy” but instead looked upon it as a cultural practice that was normalized by Indigenous tribes and the two-spirit identity.

Another turning point for Indigenous people and two-spirits, especially, was the start of government intervention in the lives and practices of native tribes. Since the Office of Indian Affairs was created in 1806, the American government attempted to enforce Western cultural practices on native peoples.[8] This included cutting men’s hair to shorter lengths, enforcing American government structures on the people, and making all conform to binary gender practices.

Up until the 20th century, two-spirits were celebrated in their tribes and were looked upon as leaders or knowledgeable medicinal figures. An example of a celebrated two-spirit is Osh-Tisch, who was part of the Crow Nation.[9] From a white, American binary perspective, Osh-Tisch looked like a male performing effeminate roles and wearing feminine clothes. She displayed her bravery when she saved a fellow, kidnapped Crow member and killed a Lakota tribesman at the 1876 Battle of Rosebud and was commonly seen amongst the women of the tribe. She led the women in their daily routines and was called even “sister.” Unfortunately, B.I.A agent Briskow came onto Crow Nation lands in the late 1890s, with the intention of conforming all Natives to American, heteronormative culture. “He tried to interfere with Osh-Tisch, who was the most respected badé. The agent incarcerated the badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men’s clothing. He forced them to do manual labor, planting trees that you can see here on the BIA grounds.”[10] Eventually, the Crow leaders convinced Briskow to leave Native lands, but not first without breaking the spirit of Crow two-spirits.

This is one example of a two-spirit’s identity being overlooked and changed due to government intervention and enforcement of mainstream American cultural practices. This would eventually change the cultural practices of natives and how they view the two-spirit identity. If the government had dedicated the time and resources to familiarize themselves with the natives and their practices in the late 1890s and even before then, views of the two-spirit identity would be looked upon with substantial difference. If only the government could have realized that different does not mean bad, but purely just different. If the government had taken on this mentality, the two-spirit identity could have been preserved by native tribes and looked upon with awe, interest and respect in comparison to disgust and puzzlement. This mentality can still be applied to the government today as practices and cultural ways that are deemed different than mainstream, binary American cultural ways are still looked down upon. This condescension can result in the disappearance of certain cultures and practices, which would be a shame. With the help of education, native standings with the government could have been radically different and a culture in itself could have been better preserved.

Another similar example of Indigenous people conforming to binary, gender American ways to the point of exploitation were the Navajo women working at the Fairchild’s Shiprock, New Mexico plant in the 1960s.[11] Fairchild bargained a deal with the Navajo tribe in which the digital company could build a plant on Navajo land and in turn would provide jobs for the native people. This opened up job opportunities, but led to gender imbalances and problems as the women, who showed better skills for building technology, were employed and the men turned toward unemployment and drinking. Even though two-spirits, who possessed both men and women genders, once led tribes and participated in both gender roles, these times had faded with history as American and mainstream gender roles had been imposed and enforced on natives. Thus, this example of gender imbalance would have never existed if the government and American culture in general had not inflicted their cultural practices and forcing them to conform to typical, binary gender ways.

A suggestion for action that would support and help the two-spirit identity and those who identify as two-spirits would be the enforcement of the same-sex marriage law on Indian reservations. Since the same-sex marriage law was passed in June of 2015 with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, LGBTQ members, including two-spirits, of native tribes and those who live on native lands may or may not be able to marry their loved one of the same sex. The decision of Obergefell v. Hodges can only be enforced on reservations if the tribe’s jurisdiction supports and thus passes this law. For all Indigenous LGBTQ members to experience same-sex marriage laws and privileges as the rest of America, the government should intervene and legalize same-sex marriage on reservations. This could result in fewer hate crimes of two-spirits and decrease general oppression and discrimination that two-spirits face by their own tribe members and from people outside of their respective reservations.

Another suggestion that could result in change, more awareness and general knowledge on the two-spirit identity is scholarship and academia coverage of the two-spirit identity. This can be done by writing diverse articles and books that include the two-spirit identity. If scholars who focus on and study LGBTQ scholarship shifts their focus toward two-spirit, more scholars will know about this identity, which in turn could eventually result in the infiltration of American popular culture. Since the rise of LGBTQ awareness and rights in the 21st century, two-spirit identity has potential and a chance at reaching awareness on a grand-scale.

The two-spirit identity represents an important historical figure and identity to Native American culture and history. Due to European and American cultural practices, intervention, and enforcement, the two-spirit identity was altered and changed to fit binary norms. The two-spirit has been on the decline ever since the Spanish crossed the Atlantic and began to colonize the Americas. But, with the aid of two-spirit communities, gatherings and societies that have formed in the last 30 or so years, the two-spirit identity is being revived. Along with these two-spirit communities, the film Two Spirits was released, telling the story of Fred Martinez’s life and murder as a Navajo two-spirit. The film highlights the cultural contexts of two-spirits in Native American life and the hate crime that minorities, especially the LGBTQ community, receive for publically showing their true selves. As two-spirits begins to gain scholarship traction and receive a nod from popular culture, the identity is on its path to better overall awareness by American mainstream culture. But, spreading awareness and educating the uneducated is still necessary for two-spirit to receive public recognition. Eventually, with time, this awareness will lead to a tolerance by American mainstream culture. Hopefully, that tolerance will lead to acceptance and a better understanding of a historic and treasured practice of Indigenous peoples.


[1] New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “Two-spirit,”, accessed March 6, 2018.

[2] Margaret Robinson, “Two-Spirit and Bisexual People: Different Umbrella, Same Rain,” Journal of Bisexuality 17, no. 1 (January 13, 2017): accessed March 5, 2018, doi:10.1080/15299716.2016.1261266.

[3] Esther Rothblum, “Native American Two-Spirit People,” Archives of Sexuality and Gender 11, no. 1 (November 1998): ,

[4] Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2015), 1.

[5] Siobhan Somerville, “Scientific Racism,” in Queer Studies: A LGBTQ Anthology(New York, NY: NYU Press, 2006), 241.

[6] Leslie Feinberg. Transgender warriors: making history from Joan of Arc to RuPaul. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

[7] Jean-Bernard Bossu. 1768 Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales. Vol. 2. Paris. Also from Henry Angelino and Charles L. Shedd, (1955), A Note on Berdache. American Anthropologist, 57: 121-126. doi:10.1525/aa.1955.57.1.02a00130

[8] Carl Waldman. Atlas of the North American Indian. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2009. Google Scholar.

[9] Duane Brayboy, “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders,” Indian Country Today, September 7, 2017, accessed March 6, 2018,

[10] Walter L. Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004), Google Scholar.

[11] Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Radicalization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2014): 922.


Angelino, Henry and Charles L. Shedd, (1955), A Note on Berdache. American Anthropologist, 57: 121-126. doi:10.1525/aa.1955.57.1.02a00130

Brayboy, Duane. “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders.” Indian Country Today. September 7, 2017. Accessed March 6, 2018.

Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2015.

Bossu, Jean-Bernard. 1768 Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales. Vol. 2. Paris.

New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “Two-spirit,”, accessed March 6, 2018.

Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender warriors: making history from Joan of Arc to RuPaul. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Nakamura, Lisa. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Radicalization of Early Electronic Manufacture.” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2014): 919-41.

Somerville, Siobhan. “Scientific Racism.” In Queer Studies: A LGBTQ Anthology, 241-55. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2006.

Rothblum, Esther. “Native American Two-Spirit People.” Archives of Sexuality and Gender 11, no. 1 (November 1998): 7.

Robinson, Margaret. “Two-Spirit and Bisexual People: Different Umbrella, Same Rain.” Journal of Bisexuality 17, no. 1 (January 13, 2017): 7-29. Accessed March 5, 2018. doi:10.1080/15299716.2016.1261266.

Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2009. Google Scholar.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004. Google Scholar.

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