Two-Spirits, Third Gender

By Maxwell Zingarelli

The idea of breaking gender into two strict norms that everyone must fit into is absurd.
People need to keep an open mind towards that which is different and try to comprehend the
position people outside the dichotomous culture. The two-spirited people of the Native
Americans fit nowhere in the traditional strict male and female because they are believed to be
both male and female spirits inhabiting the same body at the same time. The two-spirits are
traditionally respected by the Native Americans, but have in more recent times become more
outcast.
It was not considered uncommon to find a two-spirited person in every Native American
village in a region of the Americas. The populations of two-spirits varied some, but it was
typical to find a two-spirit in each village because the two-spirits were important to the villages.
This importance was because the two-spirit was a link between our world and the spirit world
that controlled our world.
Two-spirits can take on the jobs of a role opposite of what their physical sex is because
they are respected enough to be allowed to make the choice of their role for themselves.
Sometimes the creation of a two-spirit could start as early as childhood, but older individuals
could also discover themselves to be two-spirits. “Those Illinois destined to live as berdaches
began this way of life during childhood.(Hauser 1990)” A typical male Native American role
would be a warrior or a hunter. This role could be taken on by a female two-spirit because she
Maxwell Zingarelli 1
also had a male spirit in that body. Alternately, a traditionally female role like weaving or
making pottery could be taken on by a male two spirit because his body contained a female
spirit.
Mystical jobs were also often filled by two-spirits because the two-spirit was
believed to have a closer connection to the spiritual world, thus making them better at such a job.
Some of these roles included arranging for ceremonial dances, prophets, medicine persons,
conductors of sexual rites of passage, or dealing with the deceased. These jobs all were tied to
the idea of a world of spirits that the two-spirit was more in tune with. The respect that
accompanied these positions allowed two-spirits to reach great social heights. It is even
suggested that some two-spirits came about because of traditional females wanting a higher
social status. “This is perhaps overdrawn, but is certainly the case that women did most of the
drudgery and gained prestige largely though the imitation of masculine values. (Thayer 1980)”
Two-spirits often had spouses, but the gender of the spouse was usually determined by
tradition within the tribe. In some tribes, a female two-spirit in a traditionally male role would
take a wife and this was considered not gay, but normal because the two-spirit contained a male
spirit. A male two-spirit could become the wife of another tribal male after that male’s wife had
died. This allowed the traditional male to take on a wife who could not have children and would
look after his previous children. The partners of these two-spirits were not considered
homosexual in any way, but were not strictly considered heterosexual either. They were just
considered the spouse of a two-spirit.
The clothing of a Native American would not always tell about gender. “… the essence of
berdache lies not in the change of wardrobe, but rather in the publicly recognized,
institutionalized change in role and status. (Forgey 1975)” While two-spirits could wear any
garb they wanted, they often chose to not wear traditionally male or female clothing, but a mix of
clothing that was distinctly that two-spirits. The choice of clothing was considered personal
preference, but usually mimicked the role the two-spirit had taken in a village. For example a
two-spirit acting as a wife would likely wear a more feminine mix of clothing than a two-spirit
who was acting as a hunter.
Two-spirits were never considered gay or lesbian within Native American society. The
two-spirits were respected and understood enough to be considered their own separate third
gender. This idea of two separate spirits inside a single body has become less understood and in
todays dichotomous culture, they are becoming less respected. Two-spirits are equally male and
female and to label them as anything else is an insult to their culture.
One way that two-spirits are less respected in our culture is to call them transvestites.
Transvestites are in-between the “two sexes,” but are somewhat more understood than a notion
as foreign as a female and male spirit residing in the same body. The forcing of the category of a
transvestite is trying to classify a two-spirit as a person who changes their physical appearance to
be the opposite gender. Two-spirits are clearly not trying to change what type of body they are
in, and thus are clearly not transvestites.
Another degradation of the two-spirits is calling them “gay indians” or “lesbian indians.”
This calling a two-spirit by a name like gay or lesbian is saying they have only the opposite spirit
of their body residing within them. This label of gay or lesbian is forcing the two-spirit into one
of the dichotomous branches and labeling them as only male or only female. The idea that a
two-spirit is a gay or a lesbian comes from the traditional practice of a two-spirit taking a partner
of the same sex. This practice of coupling two same sex partners is what is seen as wrong in this
modern culture so horrible names are used to describe the two-spirit in question so people who
are not used to ideas of a completely separate third gender can feel they understand the situation
better than they actually do.
Many two-spirits now live “in a closet” where they hide their true nature from society.
These modern two-spirits are often put into the closet by female relatives who are more
understanding what a two-spirit is. These relatives are trying to help the two-spirits while
preserving family honor. Unfortunately the closet two-spirits often do not understand themselves
why they have to hide the fact that they have both male and female spirits residing in their
bodies.
Modern two-spirits are typically take up jobs that are done by either sex. A couple of
these jobs include knowledge in traditional medicine and teachers. Taking one of these jobs
allows the two-spirit to live in relative peace and not be ridiculed by society. Furthermore taking
up these jobs done by either sex, the two-spirit stays in the closet and hides from society because
society rejects the notion of a two spirited person and a third gender all together because of a
lack of understanding.
Two-spirits who are found in modern culture are often driven away like animals who are
unwanted. Brutally wrenched from their homes and families two-spirits in this situation often
meet a bad end because of the lack of knowledge and the treatment of anything outside the
current dichotomous beliefs where there are only males and females. Angry mobs of the uniformed sometimes chase two-spirits off reservations or even attempt to kill them because these people now consider it unnatural to have both the male and female spirits residing inside a
single body.
Cross-dressing occurs in some modern two-spirits who wish to take on the roles
traditionally considered female. By wearing the opposite sex’s clothing and taking on the
general appearance and mannerisms of the opposite sex. The act of cross-dressing actively plays
against the ideas of homophobia so if a two-spirit wearing the opposite sex’s clothing is found it
can lead to horrible behavor from people who do not understand the idea of a two-spirit. This
concealment only furthers the the idea that someone is either male or female and not possibly
both.
A driving factor of this alienation of two-spirits is the adoption of homophobic beliefs by
some Native Americans. This belief encourages the active fear of two-spirits and can help to
create a reasoning that allows a non-two-spirit to attack a two-spirit for their differences. This
homophobic belief has tricked into Native American culture from dichotomous European culture
where there is no commonly known third gender so nothing comparable to the two-spirits or to
allow understanding.
Two-spirits have made a small resurgence with the current movement for cultural
understanding of third genders, their numbers are still far to small to say they as a group have
recovered from the prejudice that removed them from their previous status. The majority of
modern two-spirits are believed to still be hiding within the ideas of there only being males and
females and no third gender could possibly exist. These once revered two-spirits are still outcast
and a fringe of society.

Works Cited

1. Forgey, Donald G. “The Institution of Berdache among the North American Plains Indians”
The Journal of Sex Research v. 11.1 (1975) pp. 1-15
2. Hauser, Raymond E. “The Berdache and the Illinois Inidan Tribe during the Last Half of the
Seventeenth Century” Ethnohistory v. 37.1 (1990) pp. 45-65
3. Thayer, James S. “The Berdache of the Northern Plains: A Socioreligious Perspective”
Journal of Anthropological Research v. 36.3 (1980) pp. 287-293
Maxwell Zingarelli 6

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