Throughout November we celebrate Native American Heritage Month and pause to celebrate the Two-Spirit folks in our community.  According to the Dept of Health & Human Services website the term "Two-Spirit" has a much broader meaning than is often understood:

‘Traditionally, Native American two-spirit people were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status. In tribes where two-spirit males and females were referred to with the same term, this status amounted to a third gender. In other cases, two-spirit females were referred to with a distinct term and, therefore, constituted a fourth gender. Although there were important variations in two-spirit roles across North America, they shared some common traits:

  • Specialized work roles. Male and female two-spirit people were typically described in terms of their preference for and achievements in the work of the "opposite" sex or in activities specific to their role. Two-spirit individuals were experts in traditional arts - such as pottery making, basket weaving, and the manufacture and decoration of items made from leather. Among the Navajo, two-spirit males often became weavers, usually women and men's work, as well as healers, which was a male role. By combining these activities, they were often among the wealthier members of the tribe. Two-spirit females engaged in activities such as hunting and warfare, and became leaders in war and even chiefs.
  • Gender variation. A variety of other traits distinguished two-spirit people from men and women, including temperament, dress, lifestyle, and social roles.
  • Spiritual sanction. Two-spirit identity was widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams and sanctioned by tribal mythology. In many tribes, two spirit people filled special religious roles as healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders.
  • Same-sex relations. Two-spirit people typically formed sexual and emotional relationships with non-two-spirit members of their own sex, forming both short- and long-term relationships. Among the Lakota, Mohave, Crow, Cheyenne, and others, two-spirit people were believed to be lucky in love, and able to bestow this luck on others.’

As described by Native Americans in Philanthropy: ‘Two-spirit people are not just a subgroup within the larger Native community, they simultaneously represent an integral part of our traditions and the contemporary practice of affirming one’s identity through the reclamation of Indigenous cultural practices.’

The Native American community is keen to share wider understanding of the true meaning of the term ‘Two-Spirit’ - which is only used within their own community, and should not be adopted to describe non-binary/non-hetero folks in non-Native American communities.  Additionally the Native American community believes that gender binary roles have been imposed on them in the colonization process, and are working to decolonize gender roles within their community.  The Native Justice Coalition share additional information on this here.

The Two-Spirit tradition is steeped in a rich cultural history and practice to be appreciated by everyone – take a look at this virtual gallery from sharing some recent photography and video work celebrating Indigenous queer moments.

Our thanks to the wonderful folks at The West Bear Claw Council of the Inter-Tribal Association of AT&T Employees (ICAE) for their support in sharing this information with you.  ICAE news and events are shared through the monthly national ICAE newsletter.  If you are not already a member of the ICAE ERG but would like to find out more, please sign up here

ICAE hosted a Tribal Talks titled Walking In Two Worlds What Is Two Spirit? in 2021; the webcast is available to watch here: Tribal Talks: Walking In Two Worlds What is Two Spirit