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Detail of Dance to the Berdache, painted by George Catlin

Two-Spirit is a term for third gender people (for example, woman-living-man) that are among many, if not most, Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes. It usually implies a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit living in the same body. It is also used by some contemporary gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex Native Americans to describe themselves. There are also native terms for these individuals in the various Native American languages.

The older term "berdache" is a generic term used primarily by anthropologists, and is frequently rejected as inappropriate and offensive by Native Americans. This may be largely due to its pejorative etymology as it is a loan from French bardache via Spanish bardaxa or bardaje/bardaja via Italian bardasso or berdasia via Arabic bardaj meaning "kept boy; male prostitute, catamite" from Persian bardaj < Middle Persian vartak < Old Iranian *varta-, cognate to Avestan varəta- "seized, prisoner," formed from an Indo-European root *welə meaning "to strike, wound" (which is the same in English as vulnerable). It has widely been replaced with two-spirit.

"Two-spirit" originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It comes from the Ojibwa words niizh manitoag (two-spirits). It was chosen to distance Native/First Nations people from non-Natives as well as from the words "berdache" and "gay."

These individuals are often viewed as having two spirits occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles. They have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes. For instance, among the Lakota there was one ceremony during the Sun Dance that was performed only by a two-spirited person of that tribe. (See winkte)

Two-spirited individuals perform specific social functions in their communities. In some tribes male-bodied two-spirits were active as healers or medicine persons, gravediggers, undertakers, handling and burying of the deceased, conducted mourning rites, conveyers of oral traditions and songs, nurses during war expeditions, foretold the future, conferred lucky names on children or adults, wove, made pottery, made beadwork and quillwork, arranged marriages, made feather regalia for dances, special skills in games of chance, led scalp-dances, and fulfilled special functions in connection with the setting up of the central post for the Sun Dance. In some tribes female-bodied two-spirits typically took on roles such as chief, council, trader, hunter, trapper, fisher, warfare, raider, guides, peace missions, vision quests, prophets, and medicine persons.

Some examples of two-spirited people in history include the accounts by Spanish conquistadors who spotted a two-spirited individual(s) in almost every village they entered in Central America.

There are descriptions of two-spirited individuals having strong mystical powers. In one account, raiding soldiers of a rival tribe begin to attack a group of foraging women when they perceive that one of the women, the one that does not run away, is a two-spirit. They halt their attack and retreat after the two-spirit counters them with a stick, determining that the two-spirit will have great power which they will not be able to overcome.

Native people have often been perceived as "warriors," and with the acknowledgement of two-spirit people that romanticized identity becomes broken. In order to justify this new "Indian" identity many explained it away 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” (Lang, 28). Lang goes on to suggest 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.

Cross dressing of two-spirit people was not always an indicator of cross acting (taking on other gender roles and social status within the tribe). Lang explains “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…” (62). Often within tribes a child’s gender was decided depending on by either their inclination toward either masculine or feminine activities, or their intersex status. Puberty was about the time frame by which clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice.

Two-spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges. However, they also took on female roles such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities. Today’s societal standards look down upon feminine males, and this perception of that identity has trickled into Native society. The acculturation of these attitudes has created a sense of shame towards two-spirit males who live or dress as females and no longer wish to understand the dual lifestyle they possess.

Some tribes, notably the Comanche, Eyak and Iroquois, did not have words for, or recognize the existence of, two-spirits. Most Apache bands as well, except for the Lipan, Chiricahua, Mescalero, and southern Dilzhe'e. Although all tribes were influenced by European homophobia/transphobia, certain tribes were particularly so such as the Dilzhe'e (Tonto) Apache, Cocopa, Costanoan, Klamath, Maidu, Mohave, Omaha, Oto, Pima, Wind River Shoshone, Tolowa, and Winnebago.

Alternate spellings are "two spirit" and "twospirit."

Notable Historical Two-Spirits[edit | edit source]

Notable Modern Two-Spirits[edit | edit source]

Terms[edit | edit source]

  • Aleut
    • Male-bodied: Ayagigux' ("man transformed into a woman")
    • Female-bodied: Tayagigux' ("woman transformed into a man")
  • Apache
    • Mescalero
      • Male-bodied: Nde'isdzan ("man-woman")
  • Arapaho
    • Male-bodied: Haxu'xan (singular), Hoxuxuno (plural) ("rotten bone")
  • Arikara
    • Male-bodied: Kuxa't
  • Assiniboine
    • Male-bodied: Winktan
  • Atsugewi
    • Male-bodied: Yaawa
    • Female-bodied: Brumaiwi
  • Bella Coola
    • Male-bodied: Sx'ints ("hermaphrodite")
  • Blackfoot
    • Siksika
      • Male-bodied: A'kiihka'si ("acting like a woman"), Aawoowa'kii ("misaligned woman")
    • Peigan
      • Southern
        • Male-bodied: (dialectal variants of the aforementioned, more conservative, Siksika terms with loss of ' and compensatory lengthening, as well as assibilation of 'h' follwing 'i')
        • Female-bodied: Saahkómaapi'aakííkoan ("boy-girl") [ *strictly a nickname given to Running Eagle* ]
  • Cheyenne
    • Male-bodied: He'eman (singular), He'emane'o (plural) (hee = "woman")
    • Female-bodied: Hetaneman (singular), Hatane'mane'o (plural) (hetan = "man")
  • Chickasaw, Choctaw
    • Male-bodied: Hoobuk
  • Chumash
    • Male-bodied: Agi
  • Cocopa
    • Male-bodied: Elha ("coward")
    • Female-bodied: Warrhameh
  • Coeur d'Alene
    • Female-bodied: St'amia ("hermaphrodite")
  • Cree
    • Plains
      • Male-bodied: Aayahkweew or Eeyihkweew ("neither man or woman")
  • Crow
    • Male-bodied: Bote/Bate/Bade ("not man, not woman")
  • Dakota (Santee Sioux)
    • Male-bodied: Winkta
  • Deg Hit'an (Ingalik)
    • Male-bodied: Nok'olhanxodeleane ("woman pretenders")
    • Female-bodied: Chelxodeleane ("man pretenders")
  • Gros Ventre
    • Male-bodied: Athuth
  • Hidatsa
    • Male-bodied: Miati ("to be impelled against one's will to act the woman," "woman compelled")
  • Hopi
    • Male-bodied: Ho'va
  • Illinois
    • Male-bodied: Ikoueta
    • Female-bodied: Ickoue ne kioussa ("hunting women")
  • Interior Salish (Flathead)
    • Male-bodied: Ma'kali
  • Inuit
    • Male-bodied: Sipiniq ("infant whose sex changes at birth")
  • Juaneno
    • Male-bodied: Kwit
  • Karankawa
    • Male-bodied: Monaguia
  • Keresan
    • Acoma
      • Male-bodied: Kokwi'ma
    • Laguna
      • Male-bodied: Kok'we'ma
  • Klamath
    • Male-/Female-bodied: Tw!inna'ek
  • Kutenai
    • Male-bodied: Kupatke'tek ("to imitate a woman")
    • Female-bodied: Titqattek ("pretending to be a man")
  • Kumeyaay
    • Tipai, Kamia
      • Female-bodied: Warharmi
  • Lakota (Teton Sioux)
    • Male-bodied: Winkte ("['wants' or 'wishes'] to be [like] [a] woman." A contraction of winyanktehca)
    • Female-bodied: Bloka egla wa ke ("thinks she can act like a man") [ editor's note: cited by Beatrice Medicine, its age unknown ]
  • Luiseno
    • San Juan Capistrano
      • Male-bodied: Cuit
    • Mountain
      • Male-bodied: Uluqui
  • Mandan
    • Male-bodied: Mihdacka (mih-ha = "woman")
  • Maricopa
    • Male-bodied: Ilyaxai' ("girlish")
    • Female-bodied: Kwiraxame
  • Miami
    • Male-bodied: Waupeengwoatar ("the white face," possibly the name of a particular person who was two-spirit)
  • Micmac
    • Male-bodied: Geenumu gesallagee ("he loves men," perhaps correctly spelt ji'nmue'sm gesalatl)
  • Miwok
    • Male-bodied: Osabu (osa = "woman")
  • Mohave
    • Maled-bodied: Alyha ("coward")
    • Female-bodied: Hwame
  • Mono
    • Western
      • Male-bodied: Tai'up
  • Navajo
    • Male-/female-/intersexed-bodied: nádleeh or nádleehé (nominalization of the iterative of a verbal root meaning "to turn," i.e. "permanently changing," read: "emergent")
  • Nisenan (Southern Maidu)
    • Male-bodied: Osa'pu
  • Ojibwa (Chippewa)
    • Male-bodied: Agokwa ("man-woman")
    • Female-bodied: Okitcitakwe ("warrior woman")
  • Omaha, Osage, Ponca
    • Male-bodied: Mixu'ga ("instructed by the moon," "moon instructed")
  • Otoe, Kansa (Kaw)
    • Male-bodied: Mixo'ge ("instructed by the moon," "moon instructed")
  • Paiute
    • Northern
      • Male-bodied: Tudayapi ("dress like other sex")
    • Southern
      • Male-bodied: Tuwasawuts
  • Patwin
    • Male-bodied: Panaro bobum pi ("he has two [sexes]")
  • Pawnee
    • Male-bodied: Ku'saat
  • Pomo
    • Northern
      • Male-bodied: Das (Da = "woman")
    • Southern
      • Male-bodied: T!un
  • Potawatomi
    • Male-bodied: M'netokwe ("supernatural, extraordinary," Manito plus female suffix)
  • Quinault
    • Male-bodied: Keknatsa'nxwixw ("part woman")
    • Female-bodied: Tawkxwa'nsixw ("man-acting")
  • Salinan
    • Male-bodied: Coya
  • Sanpoil
    • Male-bodied: St'a'mia ("hermaphrodite")
  • Sauk (Sac), Fox
    • Male-bodied: I-coo-coo-a ("man-woman")
  • Shasta
    • Male-bodied: Gituk'uwahi
  • Shoshone
    • Bannock
      • Male-bodied: Tuva'sa ("sterile")
    • Lemhi
      • Male/Female-bodied: Tubasa
      • Female-bodied: Waipu sungwe ("woman-half")
    • Gosiute
      • Male-bodied: Tuvasa
    • Promontory Point
      • Male-bodied: Tubasa waip ("sterile woman")
      • Female-bodied: Waipu sungwe ("woman-half")
    • Nevada
      • Male-bodied: Tainna wa'ippe ("man-woman")
      • Female-bodied: Nuwuducka ("female hunter")
  • Takelma
    • Male-bodied: Xa'wisa
  • Tewa
    • Male-/Female-bodied: Kwido
  • Tiwa
    • Isleta
      • Male-bodied: Lhunide
  • Tlingit
    • Male-bodied: Gatxan ("coward")
  • Tohono O'odham (Papago), Akimel O'odham (Pima)
    • Male-bodied: Wik'ovat ("like a girl")
  • Tubatulabal
    • Male-bodied: Huiy
  • Ute
    • Southern
      • Male-bodied: Tuwasawits
  • Winnebago (Ho-Chunk)
    • Male-bodied: Shiange ("unmanly man")
  • Wishram
    • Male-bodied: Ik!e'laskait
  • Yuma (Quechan)
    • Male-bodied: Elxa' ("coward")
    • Female-bodied: Kwe'rhame
  • Yana
    • Male-bodied: Lo'ya
  • Yup'ik
    • Chugach/Pacific (Alutiiq, Southern Alaskan)
      • Male-bodied: Aranu'tiq ("man-woman")
    • St. Lawrence Island (Siberian Yup'ik, Western Alaskan)
      • Male-bodied: Anasik
      • Female-bodied: Uktasik
    • Kuskokwim River (Central Alaskan)
      • Male-bodied: Aranaruaq ("woman-like")
      • Female-bodied: Angutnguaq ("man-like")
  • Zapotec
  • Zuni
    • Male-bodied: Lha'mana ("behave like a woman")
    • Female-bodied: Katotse ("boy-girl")

Two-Spirit like identities outside of North America[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Sources/Recommended reading[edit | edit source]

[ * = most important ]

  • The Kutenai Female Berdache in Ethnohistory 12(3):193-236, 1965, by Claude E. Schaeffer
  • Blackfeet tales of Glacier National Park (1916) and Running Eagle (1919) by James W. Schultz
  • Changing Native American Roles in an Urban Context and Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context in Two-Spirit People [see below], pg. 145-148, by Beatrice Medicine *
  • The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures by Walter L. Williams
  • Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology by Will Roscoe
  • The Zuni Man-Woman by Will Roscoe
  • Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas by Richard C. Trexler *
  • Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang *
  • Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America by Will Roscoe *
  • Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures by Sabine Lang *
  • Oracle of the Two-Fold Deities by Craig Conley
  • The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer

External links[edit | edit source]

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