What Is the Two-Spirit Community?

A person carries a sign that reads "Indigenous Two-Spirit Pride" during the Queer Liberation March in New York City
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There are hundreds of Indigenous cultures found throughout North America, each with its own unique history, traditions, languages, identities, and worldviews. It is not surprising, then, that these cultures also have differing perspectives on gender, sex, and sexuality. 

You can think of Two Spirit as a pan-Indigenous, unifying term that has been adopted by some Indigenous people from North American communities to describe people who identify as having both masculine and feminine traits. 

Two Spirit is considered a contemporary, umbrella term that is specific to the Indigenous LGBT2QQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, Two Spirit, queer, questioning, intersexual, asexual) community. It encompasses a variety of understandings of gender. The term is sometimes used to describe variations of sexuality as well.

Gender vs. Sexuality

Gender refers to the way that a person feels and presents their identity (man, woman, non-binary, gender fluid, etc.), while sexuality refers to who people are attracted to (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.).

What Does Two Spirit Mean?

"Two Spirit" is an umbrella term that is meant to unify various gender identities and expressions among Indigenous, Native American, Alaskan Native, and First Nations people.

It does not refer to a specific gender and is instead a catch-all term that represents a wide variety of people who don't fit in with the traditional gender binary.

Traditionally, many Indigenous cultures recognized third and fourth alternative gender statuses that encompassed masculine, feminine, and unique traits. The term aims to reflect the different gender identities within the two spiritual communities, where third and fourth gender roles have ceremonial and spiritual significance.

Within Indigenous communities, these individuals historically fulfilled specialized roles in both work and spiritual practices.

Different Indigenous cultures have their own variations on the term Two Spirit, but historically this term has been used to describe a variety of people who embody traits, identities, and gender expressions of both masculine and feminine energies. 

Origins

The term Two Spirit was first introduced and adopted during the Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990. While this is a relatively new term, it describes a very old tradition of gender fluidity.

At the time of early European contact, research has found there was a great diversity in gender expressions among Native American tribes. At first contact, Native American cultures recognized three to five gender roles. 

The use of the term "Two Spirit" was seen as a way for Indigenous communities to reclaim lost traditional ways of viewing gender, sex, sexuality, and spirituality. Two Spirit is often included under the umbrella of the LGBTQ+ acronym.

While the term is sometimes used to indicate gender or orientation, it does not simply mean that someone is both Indigenous and gay. A person who is Two Spirit may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming, but the terms are not synonymous.

It is important to note that there is no single, universal definition of what Two Spirit means. For example, the term may refer to embodying both masculine and feminine qualities, but that is not its only meaning or use.

While the term Two Spirit offers a universal way to describe Indigenous views of gender identity and expression, each tribe has its own specific term.

Native American, Alaskan Native, First Nations, and Indigenous people may use this term to describe their experience of masculine and feminine traits, but not all people use or identify with this term. Some may see it as meaning that someone possesses both a masculine and feminine spirit, while others view it as being more of a metaphor for the traits and qualities they possess.

It is also important to note that Two Spirit is culturally specific to Indigenous groups.

History

While the term Two Spirit is a contemporary coinage, the concept of a masculine and feminine spirit existing within the same individual has a long history within Indigenous cultures. Indigenous cultures have traditionally recognized that people have a feminine and masculine spirit that exists in harmony with the feminine or masculine being. 

While the role of Two Spirit individuals differs within each culture, they historically played important roles within their communities and often held special status. 

In many Indigenous cultures, Two Spirit individuals are seen as being two identities that occupy one physical body. Native American beliefs suggest that some people are born with both masculine and feminine spirits. Children wore gender-neutral clothing until they were old enough to determine for themselves which path was theirs. People who are Two Spirit may dress in gender-nonconforming ways or combine different aspects of traditionally masculine and feminine gender expression. 

Within different communities, Two Spirit individuals were often involved in performing work that was generally associated with both men and women. Having the spirits of two genders was considered a special gift and people with this gift often held highly respected positions within their communities. Rather than being confined to a rigid gender role, Two Spirit people often participated in activities such as hunting or going to battle, while also participating in activities such as caring for children and cooking. 

Potential Pitfalls

It is important to recognize that with hundreds of different Native American, Alaskan Native, and First Nations cultures, there are widely diverse perspectives on sex and gender. Terms like Two Spirit can be unifying, but are not always agreed upon or even welcomed by Indigenous groups.

Doesn't Reflect Diversity Among Indigenous Groups

While the use of the term Two Spirit has become more common, it has not gained universal recognition. Different tribal groups throughout North America have their own unique views and terms to describe these individuals, and the use of the term Two Spirit is sometimes seen as another form of cultural erasure. Rather than recognizing the diversity of Indigenous worldviews on gender and sex, the term is sometimes seen as a way of forcing traditional Indigenous belief systems into the Western binary perspective.

Each person with two spirits carries their identity differently, which is uniquely experienced and expressed. Many Indigenous languages have certain words that describe a person's gender identity as man, woman, or a combination of the two spirits. And many people identify as Two Spirit as well as another sexual identity such as queer. 

May Perpetuate Stereotypes

Non-Indigenous people may sometimes use the concept of Two Spirit people to perpetuate romanticized, inaccurate views of Indigenous cultures and attitudes. While the term suggests a shared perspective on sex and gender among Indigenous, Native American, and First Nations groups, beliefs and attitudes towards Two Spirit individuals vary widely among individual tribes.

May Perpetuate Dominance of Non-Indigenous Perspectives

It is also important to remember that the study of Two Spirit communities is also often carried out through the lens of non-Indigenous settler groups, which can contribute to and perpetuate cultural misunderstandings. Such perspectives often favor Western culture and include Eurocentric belief systems that emphasize a two-gender binary.

Impact

Though not without its pitfalls, as a unifying term, Two Spirit helps recognize the unique challenges that are faced by Indigenous people whose identities are outside the gender binary. They face the compounded challenges of being part of a marginalized gender or sexuality minority affected by discrimination, as well as the complex, intergenerational trauma faced by Indigenous communities.

This multiple minority status places Two Spirit individuals at a higher risk for mental health challenges, substance misuse, and exposure to stress, violence, and trauma.

Two Spirit communities have gained greater prominence, particularly among Indigenous youth.

The effects of colonization and historical trauma have had a significant damaging impact on many Indigenous traditions and forced Western views on the understanding and expression of gender and sexuality. Today, Two Spirit communities are working to help restore many of these traditions.

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Resources

There are a number of online resources where you can learn more about issues affecting Two Spirit individuals and communities:

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a number of online webinars that address topics related to Two Spirit and trangender identities in Indigenous and tribal communities. 
  • WeRNative, a site devoted to Indigenous youth, also offers resources for LGBT and Two Spirit youth
  • The University of Winnipeg also maintains an archive of Two Spirit resources, including links to histories, documentaries, and community organizations.
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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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