Native American “Two-Spirits”

Native American Two-Spirits

“If your whole life is connected spiritually, then you learn that self-pride – the image of self- is connected with everything else. That becomes part of who you are and you carry that wherever you are.”

Spotted Eagle (Two-Spirit of the White Mountain Apache, quoted in Feinberg)

At least 135 Northern American tribes have been documented as integrating alternative gender roles. A complex sex/gender system was found “in every region of the continent, among every type of Native culture, from the small bands of hunters in Alaska to the populous, hierarchical city-states in Florida.”[1]. Transgender lifestyles  were honored and often coincided with healing and shamanic practices.

Here are some Native American names for Two-Spirits or transgender people:

Berdache: [“Berdache” was a derogatory term European colonizers used to label any Native person who did not fit their narrow notions of woman and man…]

Badé / Boté (by Crow people)

Warhameh (by Cocopa people)

Joya (by Chumash people)

Kwiraxame (by Maricopa people)

Ihamana (by Zuni people)

Winkte (by Lakota people)

Nadleeh (by Navajo people)


This synopsis-article is taken from: Feinberg, Leslie (1996): Transgender Warriors – Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Buy on Amazon.

From Chapter 3: The Give Away

I found my first clue that trans people had not always been hated in 1974…[spending] the day at the Museum of the American Indian in New York city. The exhibits were devoted to Native history in the Americas. I was drawn to a display of beautiful thumb-sized clay figures. The ones to my right had breasts and cradled bowls. Those on the left were flat chested, holding hunting tools. But when I looked closer, I did a double-take. I saw that several of the figures holding bowls where flat chests; several if the hunters had breasts. You can bet there was no legend next to the display to explain.

I called a member of the curator´s staff…He said that he came across references to these berdache  practically every day in his reading. I asked him what the word meant. He said he thought it meant transvestite or transsexual in modern English. He remarked that Native people didn’t seem to abhor them the way “we” did. In fact, he added, it appeared that such individuals were held in high esteem by Native nations….

“Strange country  this,” a white man wrote in 1850 about the Crow nation of North America, “where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!”[2]

As late as 1930, ethnographer Leslie Spier observed of a nation in the Pacific Northwest: “Transvestites or berdaches…are found among the Klamath, as in all probability among all other North American tribes. These are men and women who for reasons that remain obscure take on the dress and habits of the opposite sex.”[3]

“I saw a devilish thing,” Spanish colonialist Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote in the sixteenth century[4]:”Sinful, heinous, perverted, nefarious, abominable, unnatural, disgusting, lewd” – the language used by colonizers to describe the acceptance of sex/gender diversity, and of same-sex love, most accurately described the viewer, not the viewed. …

Describing his first trip down the Mississippi in the seventeenth century, Jesuit Jacques Marquette chronicled the attitudes of the Illinois and Nadouessi to the Two-Spirits. “They are summoned to the Councils, and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading and Extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous, – that is to say, for Spirits, – or persons of Consequence.”[5]

Although French missionary Joseph Francois Lafitau condemned Two-Spirit people he found among the nations of the western Great Lakes, Louisiana, and Florida, he revealed that those Native peoples did not share his prejudice. “They believe they are honored…” he wrote in 1724, “they participate in all religious ceremonies, and this profession of an extraordinary life causes them to be regarded as people of a higher order…”[6]

But the colonizers reactions toward Two-Spirit people can be summed up by the words of Antonio de la Calancha, a Spanish official in Lima. Calancha wrote that during Vasco Nuñez de Balboa´s expedition across Panama, Balboa “saw men dressed like women; Balboa learnt that they were sodomites and threw the king and forty others to be eaten by his dogs, a fine action of an honorable and Catholic Spaniard.”[7]

This was not an isolated attack. When the Spaniards invaded the Antilles and Louisiana, “they found men dressed as women who were respected by their societies. Thinking they were hermaphrodites, or homosexuals, they slew them.”[8]

…I learned that the colonizers´ efforts to outlaw, punish, and slaughter the Two-Spirits within those nations had also met with fierce resistance. Conquistador Nuño de Guzman recorded in 1530 that the last person taken prisoner after a battle, who had “fought most courageously, was a man in the habit of a woman…”[9]

Just trying to maintain a traditional way of life was itself an act of resistance. Williams wrote, “Since in many tribes berdaches were often shamans, the government´s attack on traditional healing practices disrupted their lives. Among the Klamaths, the government agent´s prohibition of curing ceremonials in the 1870s and 1880s required shamans to operate underground. The berdache shaman White Cindy continued to do traditional healing, curing people for decades despite the danger of arrest.”[10]

One such struggle focused on a Crow badé (boté) named Osh-Tissch (Finds Them and Kills Them). An oral history by Joe Medicine Crow in 1982 recalled the events: “One agent in the late 1890´s…tried to interfere with Osh-Tisch, who was the most respected badé. The agent incarcerated badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men´s clothing. He forced them to do manual labor…The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow Agency, and told (the agent) to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them.”[11]

How the badés were viewed within their own nation comes across in this report by S.C. Simms in 1903 in American Anthropologist: “During a visit last year to the Crow reservation, in the interest of the Field Columbian Museum, I was informed  that there were  three hermaphrodites in the Crow tribe, one living at Pryor, one in the Big Horn district, and one in Black Lodge district. These persons are usually spoken of as “she”….and they are highly regarded for their many charitable acts… A few year ago an Indian agent endeavored to compel these people, under threat of punishment, to wear men´s clothing, but his efforts were unsuccessful.”[12]

Lakota medicine man Lame Deer told an interviewer about the sacred place of the winkte (“male-to female”) in his nation´s traditions, and how the winkte bestowed a special name on an individual. “The secret name a winkte gave to a child was believed to be especially powerful and effective,” Lame Deer said. “Sitting Bull, Black Elk, even Crazy Horse had secret winkte names.” Lakota chief Crazy Horse reportedly had one or two winkte wives.[13]

Chrystos,a brilliant Two-Spirit poet and writer from the Menominee nation, offered me this understanding: “Life among First Nation people, before first contact, is hard to reconstruct. There´s been so much abuse of traditional life by the Christian Church. But certain things have filtered down to us. Most of the nations that I know of traditionally have more than two genders. It varies from tribe to tribe. The concept of Two-Spiritedhness is a rather rough translation into English of that idea…The whole concept of gender is more fluid in traditional life…People may choose their gender according to their dreams, for example. So even the idea that your gender is something you dream about is not even a concept in Western culture – which posits you are born a certain biological sex and therefore there´s a role you must step into and follow pretty rigidly for the rest of your life. That´s how we got the concept of queer…The gender fluidity is part of a larger concept, which I guess the most accurate English word for is “tolerance”. It is a whole different way of conceiving how to be in a world with other people.”

Chrystos told me about her Navajo friend Wesley Thomas, who describes himself as nadleeh-like. A male nadleeh, she said, “would manifest in the world as a female and take a husband and participate in tribal life as a female person.” I emailed Wesley….for more information about the nadleeh tradition. He wrote back that “nadleeh was a category for women who were/are masculine and also feminine males.” The concept of Nadleeh…is incorporated into Navajo origin or creation stories…”part of the normal Navajo culture, from the Navajo point of view, through the nineteenth century. It began changing during the first half of the twentieth century due to the introduction of Western education, and most of all, Christianity. Nadleeh since they has moved underground.”

Wesley, who spent the first thirty years of life on the Eastern Navajo reservation, wrote that in his initial fieldwork research he identified four categories of sex: female/woman, male/man, female/man, and male/woman. …(in between these) I placed forty-nine different gender identifications in between…This number derived from my own understanding of gender within the Navajo cosmology.”

(Interview with)Spotted Eagle (White Mountain Apache): “I was born in 1945…I grew up totally accepted. I knew from birth, and everyone around me knew I was Two-Spirited. I was honored. I was a special creation; I was given certain healing gifts because of that, teachings to share with my people and healings. But that changed – not in my generation, but in generations to follow.”

“There were three variations; the way the women spoke, the way the men spoke, and the ceremonial language.” Which way of speaking did she use? “I spoke all three. So did the two older Two-Spirit people on my reservation.”

Spotted Eagle explained that the White Mountain Apache nation was small and isolated, and so had been less affected early on by colonial culture. …(there was no)mission school system on the…reservation  until the late 1930s or early 1940s. Spotted Eagle said she experienced her first taste of bigotry as a Two-Spirit in those schools. “I was taken out of the mission school with the help of my people and sent away to live with an aunt off the reservation…I have some very horrible memories of the short time I was there….But as far as my own people,” Spotted Eagle continued, “we were a matriarchy and have been through history. Women are in a different position in a matriarchy than they are out here. It´s not that we have more power or more privilege than anyone else, it´s just a more balanced way to be. Being a woman was a plus and being Two-Spirit was even better. I didn’t really have any negative thoughts about being Two-Spirit until I left the reservation. …

[1] Feinberg, Leslie (1996), p.24, quoting from Randy Burns and Will Roscoe

[2] Edwin Thompson Denig (1961) Five indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri, ed. John C.Ewers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press)  p.199

[3] Leslie Spier(1930) Klamath Ethnography (University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology)p.51-53

[4] Alvar Nuñez Cabeza, Naufragios, Historiadores primitivos de Indias, ed Enrique de Vedia (1852), p. 538, Vol.1 of Biblioteca de autores Españoles, quoted in Jonathan Katz, gay American History: Lesbians and Gay men in the U.S.A (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) p.285

[5] Jacques Marquette, Of the first Voyage made by Father Marquette Toward New Mexico, and How the Idea Thereof was Conceived, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Burrows, 1896-1901) p-129, Vol. 59 of The Jesuit and Allied Documents, quoted in Katz, 287

[6] Joseph Francois Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains, compares aux moeurs des premiers tempts, 2 vols. (Paris: Saugrain, 1724) 1:52, 603-10, in Katz, 288-89

[7] Francisco Guerra, The Pre-Columbian Mind (London: Seminar Press, 1971), p.190, cited in Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (Boston, Beacon Press, 1986) p.137

[8] Cora Dubois, cited in Richard Green, Historical and Cross-Cultural Survey, Sexual Identity Conclict in Children and Adults (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p.11

[9] Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity and American Indian Culture (Boston, Beacon Press, 1986), p.137

[10] Ibid, p.178

[11] Ibid, p. 179

[12] S.C. Simms, Crow Indian Hermaphrodites, American Anthropologist ns. 5 (1903), p. 580-81

[13] C.Daryll Forde, ”Ethnography of the Yuma Indians”, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 28.4 (1931): 157, quoted in Williams (1986)

One Response to Native American “Two-Spirits”

  1. I Love Your Website. Virtually every post makes me laugh, reflect, and learn

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