A history and culture once wiped away is making a comeback

If you’re familiar with the full LGBTQQIP2SAA acronym, you might know that 2S stands for two spirit. But what exactly does that mean? Here’s an inside look into the two-spirit identity and the comeback it’s making in native tribes.

Past History

When European invaders came to Turtle Island (North America), they did not approve of the people they found there. The Europeans saw the natives, not as people, but as savages, barbaric in every sense.

Sade Heart of the Hawk Ali described what it was like.

“They brought with them their ideology and puritanism and concept of what is right and wrong,” she said. “We were always wrong and always savage, and ones to be feared, and ones seen as lacking a soul so they created schools to take the savage out of us.”

Sade Ali’s own mother had been a student at one of the schools. Ali said the people in charge of the school brutalized, raped and starved her mother.

With colonization, men no longer dressed as women and women no longer dressed as men. Each person knew their correct gender and place in society, she said.

Before the Europeans came to North America, tribes respected and sometimes even revered people who had a different gender identity or preference, said Houston Cypress, a two spirit Miccosukee native. He described a ceremony called the basket and the bowl during which children chose their roles and identity in society.

Ali said two spirit people were respected and an important part in traditional society.

“When you found out your child had the tendency to function in another role, you were seen as blessed,” she said. “They thought it had a closer connection to the creator, the ability to mediate disputes, the ability to conduct ceremony in a very serious way.”

Ali said when the elder council couldn’t solve a problem, they would ask the two-spirit person because they believed they had one spirit in the physical world and one in the spiritual world.

But they lost all of that with the new culture and invaders, said David Webb, a Tuscarora and Meherrin Indian of Iroquois heritage.

David Webb

Webb gives the example of the Lakota term, winkte, which originally had a positive connotation in society for people who did not fit in with others of their born gender.

“Out west with the Lakotas, winkte was a very special term for a person who had a balance of male and female power,” he said. “When they became Christianized, it became the equivalent of faggot, a derogatory term.”

For years, berdache, a European term meaning to wound or strike a seized prisoner, came to describe two spirit individuals, and the two spirit identity all but disappeared from its place within the native tribes.

Defining the Two Spirit Identity Today

So what does it mean to be two spirit and where did the term come from?

Well, in the 1990s, at an international gathering in Winnipeg, Canada, Native American and First Nation people met to develop the concept that they hoped would get them recognized as part of the larger LGBT community, Ali said.

The term has no set meaning, and anyone can identify as two spirit within native communities, Ali said. Everyone has a different definition and way of understanding their identity.

“I describe two spirit as like a river,” Ali said. “Rivers flow, and they touch different things, and they land at that bank, and they move on. Instead of being constrained by the letters LGBTQ and all of the rest of the alphabet that they use, we are all of those and none of those.”

Cypress said it related to spirituality.

“It’s about being an LGBT native, but also respecting our spirit,” he said. “Being two spirit is honoring more of what I am as a complete human being, not about what I do in the bedroom.”

Webb agrees.

“The terms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender can be a little bit limiting in not really describing the whole person,” he said. “With the term two spirit for Native Americans, it’s unique because it’s something that we can use to talk about our spiritual and world view so it’s a very different world view from just saying LGBT.”

Will Davis, 68, said that what defines him as a two spirit is his social, spiritual and personal responsibility.

Sade Heart of the
Hawk Ali

Finding One’s Place in Society

Because the term’s revival is so new, many people don’t realize they’re two spirit until later in their lives.

Davis said he had never really been interested in or attracted to other people when he was younger. Instead, he felt a strong attraction to nature.

He came out as gay when he was younger, but he didn’t feel like he belonged in that community. After high school, he joined the military and met other native men.

“One of them told me his grandpa was a Medicine Man, and he thought that I was probably a Two Spirit person,” he said. “I met this man later, and he explained that although I was gay, I was also a Two Spirit.”

Davis said he didn’t understand the difference.

“He explained that being Two Spirit carried with it a responsibility,” he said. “It was sometimes a spiritual path that some are called to. He explained that’s why I felt different and was connected to the spirit world.”

Cypress and Webb both identified as gay until they found out about two spirit people in the books they read. Even though two spirits were once revered, now being different came with a cost.

Two Spirit Problems Today

Two spirit people are subject to hate crimes and neglect, Webb said. He remembers a time when four men attacked him and beat him so badly he had to be hospitalized.

“I’m nervous in my tribe,” he said. “I don’t like it there because I’m scared. I would love nothing more than to live with my own people, but it’s not a safe and accepting environment. There’s a sense of otherness when you’re around people that aren’t accepting of you.”

Ali said it’s a tough battle within and outside of the community.

“We still have our own people who don’t treat us well, who don’t understand us, who don’t admit that we’re even there,” she said.

Webb remembers a time when he was younger, when a young girl was dismissed from a powwow because she wanted to dance traditionally men’s style.

“I saw an elder who kicked her out for trying to go in men’s clothing, and I was so shocked,” he said. “How can you be so angry at this girl who is being so natural for her?”

Ali said it’s difficult for two spirit children because the suicide rate for native children is already great, and when you add the concept of two spirit, or otherness, it gets even higher.

According to a report by the University of Calgary in 2011, aboriginal LBGT youth face a higher risk of suicide than both LGBT white youth and aboriginal youth as a whole. Aboriginal youth are 2.5 more times likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts, according to the study.

Two spirit identifying aboriginal males are also two times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, the study found.

We'Wha, a Two Spirit of
the Zuni (1871-1896)

A Rising Two-Spirit Nation

Ali said awareness will help solve the issue.

The winkte term has been restored to a meaning of honor, and two spirit people have been invited to the White House.

Ali works for the East Coast Two Spirit Society, which provides resources and support for two spirit people in eastern United States. She said parents will often come into the center with their children looking for guidance and understanding.

“When the kids understand who they are and the history within the native community, they experience a feeling of peace, relief and acceptance in the community,” she said.

It helps that tribes are becoming more accepting and empowered by their traditional backgrounds, said Webb, but he said it’s difficult to break the older members.

“For instance, my grandparents, they’re Christian, but they’ll go to the pagan ceremonies, and they don’t fully understand all of the tradition,” he said. “They just kind of ride on the fence sometimes.”

Ali understands.

“I think that one of the biggest problems is how do we talk to people that are set in their beliefs,” she said. “Maybe their beliefs are political or learnt. How do we talk to people set in their beliefs and demonstrate that in being more inclusive and respectful that we have a society that is thriving, creative and hopeful?”

Still, two spirit people are starting to form their own community and bring back their own culture.

“There’s more and more of us who are coming together every day,” Ali said. “There’s two spirit societies all over the country and Canada.”

She said young people and elders like herself are spreading their teachings and guiding the young people, helping to reduce suicide, spreading a sense of pride and reducing a sense of fear.

Ali said two spirit people are gathering to have powwows and socials. Additionally, two spirit people have been in various pride parades like the New York City and Rochester Pride Parades.

“The more we can get the information out, the more we can get rid of the fear,” Ali said.

The weekend of June 20, Davis hosted the first South Eastern Two Spirit gathering.

“We all understand our place within society and the greater society,” he said. “I’m honored that I could be the one to host.”

Davis said he wished people understood that two spirit people are really no different than anybody else except for the role they play within society.

Webb said it’s important for people to understand that everyone’s way of identifying as two spirit is different.

“It’s an entire spectrum,” he said. “Within LGBT you have labels, and within two spirit you have any number of labels. By designation, it’s a culturally and spiritually connected term.”

Ali describes two spirit people like the phoenix.

“We’re struggling to come up out of the ashes like the phoenix and reclaim our victory and place in the circle,” she said. “Let people know, ‘Yes, we’re here. Yes, we’re part of the rainbow culture. We want to be accepted as brothers and sisters in the larger gay community.'"