What Is the Two-Spirit Community?

A photograph of an Indigenous couple standing side by side.

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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 individuals 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 and sexuality.

Gender refers to the way that a person feels and presents their identity (male, female, 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 individuals.

It does not refer to a specific gender or orientation and is instead a catch-all term that represents a wide variety of individuals who do not fit in with the traditional gender binary.

Traditionally, many Indigenous cultures recognized third and fourth alternative gender statuses that encompassed male, 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 male and female energies. 

Origins of the Term

The term 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. It was introduced to replace an older term that had been used by colonists but was problematic, offensive, and culturally inaccurate.

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, and 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.

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.

Historical Roles

While the term-two spirit is a contemporary coinage, the concept of a male and female spirit existing within the same individual has a long history within Indigenous cultures. Indigenous cultures have traditionally recognized that each of them has a female and male spirit that exists in harmony with the female or male 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. People who are Two Spirit may dress as the other gender, or combine different aspects of traditionally masculine and feminine gender expression. 

Some of the different roles that Two Spirit individuals play in different communities including:

  • Foretelling the future
  • Conferring luck on others
  • Playing special roles in spiritual traditions
  • Making traditional arts such as baskets, pottery, decorative items, and regalia
  • Acting as healers, shaman, and ceremonial leaders

Within different communities, Two Spirit individuals were often involved in performing work that was generally associated with either men and women. They also often dressed in ways that were associated with the opposite sex.

Challenges

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.

  • Differing Worldviews: 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 is sometimes seen as another form of cultural erasure. Rather than recognizing 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.
  • Two Spirit People Are Unique: 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 male, female, or a combination of the two spirits. And many people identify as Two Spirit as well as another sexual identity such as queer or gender non-conforming. 
  • Cultural Appropriation: 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. 
  • Colonized Perspectives: It is also important to remember that the study of Two Spirit communities is also often carried out through a colonized lens, which often contributes to and perpetuates cultural misunderstandings. The influence of colonist perspectives has also had an impact on the acceptance of Two Spirit individuals within their own tribal communities.

As a unifying term, Two Spirit helps recognize the unique challenges that are faced by Indigenous people who are outside the gender or sex binary. They face the compounded challenges of being part of marginalized sexual 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 who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

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 sexuality and gender expression. Today, Two Spirit communities are working to help restore many of these traditions.

Resources

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

  • 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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Article Sources
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