Gender giftedness and gender variance is not a new phenomenon. Though debates and discussions on the causes and trajectories of non-traditional gender expression continue; there is great wisdom to be found in the traditions of Native American Culture in appreciating gender-gifted people. As a therapist working with gender variant community, my clients are often without cultural support or reference for the territory they encounter. Together, we have found that exploring the history of gender variance among the Native Americans to be a helpful way of re-imagining gender yesterday and today.
Anthropologists and historians have well documented the incidence of gender non-conforming people in Native American culture, across all tribes. Each tribe having their own terms with translations that indicate an appreciation for gender complexity and inclusion for those who fall outside of typical gender expression.
The term Two-Spirit is used as a kind of contemporary concept that captures the meaning of all of these tribal terms: one who has both the spirit of male and female and who can appreciate the world in a more "holistic manner". It is certain that two-spirit people were a diverse group that today might be recognizable as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. We know this because they were known to partner with members of their same sex and that they were often recognized because of their cross-gender behavior and dress.
Two spirit people were usually genetic males; and sometimes genetic females. Two-spirit people were usually recognized or given some chance to choose their expression, at a young age. The Mohave Tribes of the southwest, gave tests to their children in order to identify children of "two-spirit" status. Clearly relying on some form of bias-tests would be given to determine if a child was inclined to traditional gender roles, or "two-spirit" status. One account suggested that the Papago Indians used a small brush tent in which they placed a bow and arrow, and a woman's basket. Setting a possible "two-spirit" child inside and lighting the brush with flame, whichever utensils the child emerged with indicated their natural affinity.
Two-Spirit people were also given a place of honor within the tribe. As healers, leaders, matchmakers or warriors; they broke the boundaries of their physical sex and served in the capacities that fit their gifts. They were invested by the tribe with a kind of honor which called for respect, due to their special gifts. They were valued by their families and their tribe.
Historians document that same-sex marriages involving two-spirit people, were common. For example, Crazy Horse, the chief of the Lakota Sioux, was said to have a few "winktes" (the Sioux term for two-spirit) among his wives. The winkte would have completed womanly duties, and been the passive partner in sex.
Though there are fewer accounts of two-spirit natal women, there is one account of a biologically female, Crow Chief. Known only as the Woman Chief of the crow Indians of the upper Missouri, she was known for her "manly accomplishments". She had many wives and was a well respected warrior.
As a therapist, working with gender gifted people and their families have been honored to accompany my clients who are engaged in exploring, discovering, questioning and liberating their two-spirit identities. The result is often profoundly spiritual and freeing. As an ally, I recognize that there are challenges and sometimes painful losses that come with the journey of a modern day two-spirit person. My hope is that as we engage in this journey of embracing gender giftedness- we can learn from the wisdom of the Native Americans and their appreciation of the gift of the two-spirit tradition; and in doing so, we can as a community, appreciate, value, and honor the gifts that they share with us.
Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present
by Neil Miller by Advocate Books
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You can read more about Native American Tribes and the incorporation of gender variance and transformation through rituals, story, art and rites of passage on GLBTQ.com here
or at the Dancing To Eagle Spirit Society's two-spirit page here