Two-Spirit People in the Native American Tribes

By Johnna Davis, Xavier University

In the American society, gender is generally categorized as male and female; in the Native American society there is a third gender. Third gender, also known as Two-Spirit is displayed when the male and female spirit is in one body. People with these spirits take on roles dominated by the opposite sex; they still associate with the common roles dominated by their biological sex. In the tribe, the Two-Spirit people are highly respected and often honored in the Native American community. Two-Spirit people are considered a supernatural phenomenon that are valuable to their community and play a huge role to the Native American culture. Two-Spirit people have been documented in many Native American tribes such as: Sioux, Navajo, and Cheyenne. They were once called, “Berdaches”. This was a word meaning boy prostitute. Berdaches were popular with the young people because they were excellent match makers when it came to the concept of marriage. The Berdaches did all the work to create the ideal way of living comfortably with their mate.One of the more famous Berdaches was Yellow Head of the Cheyenne, who became the third wife of Chief Wagetote after being rejected by the white mountaineer John Tanner”(“Taking A Husband”). Since Berdache has a negative meaning to it, anthropologists gave these unique people another name that had a positive meaning behind it, Two-Spirit. They came up with the name because the body of a male had the spirit of both a male and a female. Two-Spirit people were rare in the tribes. These people weren’t considered normal but they also weren’t disgusting.

Since it was not considered disgusting in the Native American tribes, it was encouraged from childhood. The child who was blessed to have the spirit of a male and a female was told to pick which one makes them comfortable and happy. A ritual called, “The Papago Ritual”, was performed when the parents noticed that their son wasn’t taking interest in boyish type play. This would determine how the son would be raised in life. The article, Social Organization of the Papago Indians stated,

    They would make an enclosure of brush, and place in the center both a man’s bow and a woman’s basket. The boy was told to go inside the circle of brush and to bring something out, and as he entered the brush would be set on fire. ‘They watched what he took with him as he ran out, and if it was the basketry materials they reconciled [sic] themselves to his being a berdache. (Underhill)

The Mohave ritual is similar to the Papago ritual. Unlike the Papago ritual, the Mohave ritual takes place when the son is between the ages nine and twelve.

    A singing circle is prepared, unbeknownst to the boy, involving the whole community as well as distant friends and relatives. On the day of the ceremony everyone gathers round and the boy is led into the middle of the circle. If he remains there, the singer, hidden in the crowd, begins to sing the ritual songs and the boy, if he is destined to follow the two-spirit road, starts to dance in the fashion of a woman. ‘He cannot help it,’ say the Mohave. After the fourth song the boy is declared to be a two-spirit person and is raised from then on in the appropriate manner. (Devereux)

With the Two-Spirit children being raised in the appropriate manner, the roles that they take part in varies by the tribe. Two-Spirit people were considered holy and spiritual in the Native American community.

    Two-spirits were healers, artists, prophets, whatever their personal vision impelled them to be. The native world had great respect for personal vision. If you were born a boy, but came back from your first vision quest at 13 years and said your vision told you to live as a woman, your choice was honoured [sic]. You even got a new name celebrating your choice! Likewise the woman who said she wanted to live as a man, love as a man, even fight as a man, was able to do that freely. (Warren)

The children were being raised out of the honored lifestyle of the gender they envisioned.

As they got older, the males were allowed to marry another male who already had a wife. In the American culture, this form of act would be considered Polygamy. Princeton.com defined Polygamy as, “having more than one spouse at a time” (WorldNet).

The wedding of Two-Spirit people is not your average ceremony. Even though it might look like just another traditional wedding for a man and woman. The couple that’s really about to tie the knot are two, Two-Spirit people. The grooms that were getting married didn’t dress like a woman; there attire appeared to be traditional attire for the groom. The guest however, many were dress like women, from their make-up to their jewelry, to their clothing. During the wedding ceremony a spine would be painted on both backs. This symbolizes the backbone of the relationship. The Native Americans tend to respect the Two-Spirit people but now with Christian influence that seems to have change to anti-gay or anti-Two-Spirit.

The Native Americans since they were converted into Christians have changed the way the tribe views Two-Spirit people. Tribal traditions a child that had the spirit of a male and a female were considered holy and spiritual. It wasn’t about who they found attractive male or female but it was about the role they played in the tribal community. Basically the tribes of today who is Christian influence are forgetting the history of the Two-Spirit people. The tribes from today are not excepting the history and the influence the Two-Spirit people had on the tribes of yesterday so they started their own societies.

The rejection of many in the tribe, the Two-Spirit people societies were formed in Montana, Denver, and Minnesota just to name a few but are still apart of their native tribes. They organized under tribal traditions before the Christian influence took over when they were honored in nearly every tribe. An example of how much the tradition of the tribes has changed since the Christian influence. According to the New York Times the article Totally Radical: Two-Spirit American Indians,

    • In 2004, Kathy Reynolds and Dawn McKinley, two Cherokee women in Tulsa, petitioned to marry under tribal law. By doing this they set off a complicated legal and political battle that spread to other tribes. The women, who became unwilling public figures, were granted the right to marry by the Cherokee Judicial Appeals Tribunal; they have yet to file their marriage certificate and complete their marriage. In response, several tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation, passed laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. (Leland)

The Christian influence had a huge impact on the Two-Spirit people. At first, people that had the spirit of both genders were not considered homosexual; being Two-Spirit had nothing to do with their sexuality. Time has changed, and many in the modern society view Two-Spirit as homosexual. They are being closed minded about the history of the Two-Spirit.

Lacking the knowledge of what Two-Spirit people are and how the ancient tribes traditionally honored them because they were considered holy and spiritual leaders in the community. However, the modern tribes consider them to be homosexual and are not given the honor the ancient tribe placed upon the Two-Spirit people of the tribe. Now, knowing that Two-Spirit has nothing to do with their sexuality, the modern tribes who are Christian influence still consider them homosexual and the many leaders of these tribes are anti-gay. The Two-Spirit people are turned down of their traditional values that the ancient tribe would have allowed. These people should still be honored and respected by their native tribes since in one tribe along about five natives would be Two-Spirit. Even though they are not given the honor and respect they deserve they are still a supernatural phenomenon who should still be valued in Native American community.

Works Cited

Devereux, George 1937 “Institutionalized Homosexuality of the Mohave Indians” in Human Biology 9, pp. 508-509.

Norton, Rictor “Taking a ‘Husband’: A History of Gay Marriage”, Queer Culture. 21 February 2004, amended 3 February 2006 <http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/marriage.htm>.

“Polygamy”. Accessed on April 29, 2008. wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

Underhill, Ruth 1938 Social Organization of the Papago Indians, New York, Columbia University Press.

Warren, Patricia Nell, “Being With Two Spirits,” Sacred Hoop Magazine, Issue 12, November 1996, electronically retrieved, [http://www.sacredhoop.demon.co.uk/HOOP-35/Two-spririts.html].

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