Two-Spirited: Decolonizing gender norms

By Velu Ochoa

“In my culture we have people who dress half-man, half-woman. Winkte, we call them in our language. If you are Winkte, that is an honorable term and you are a special human being and among my nation and all Plains people, we consider you a teacher of our children and are proud of what and who you are.”

Russell Means

Long before people from Europe arrived in the Americas, people who identified with more than one gender existed on this land. Research has shown more than 100 instances of diverse gender expression in Native American tribes at the time of the arrival of European colonizers. However the cultural legacy of these people was almost eradicated by religious indoctrination and the criminalization of varied sexuality and gender expressions. 

One of the first people European colonizers targeted for their elimination among Native American cultures was the Two Spirit people. The term “Two-Spirit” is a blanket term that describes the genderqueer, transgender, and gender fluid individuals who were accepted and well respected in many Native American societies. But each tribe has their own specific term in their own languages for the gender-variant members of their communities.

The Native American belief is that some people are born with the spirits of both genders into one body. Before European contact, the Two-Spirit people were highly revered and families that included them were considered lucky. They held positions within their tribes that earned them great respect, such as shamans, mystics, conjurers, keepers of oral traditions, and artists. 

Christian prejudices along with the disruptions caused by conquest and disease, resulted in the loss of many traditions in Native communities. Two-spirit roles, in particular, were singled out for condemnation and repudiation, in many instances turning into murders. As a result, two-spirit traditions and practices went underground or completely disappeared from the traditions of many tribes. Additionally, the imposition of western marriage laws invalidated the same-gender marriages that were once common among tribes in North America. 

“Two-spirits” by quinn.anya is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As Native Americans claim back their culture, people throughout the U.S. are reviving the two-spirit role and its traditions. A new awareness and reverence of the Two-Spirit Native Peoples has since inspired a gradual increase of acceptance and respect for gender variances within tribal communities – going back to their roots.

Once again Native Americans are teaching us an invaluable lesson; we must push beyond the boundaries of the gender binary system imposed by our patriarchal/colonized culture. The only way forward for true equality is building a society in which diverse sexual and gender identities are included, respected and celebrated to promote and maintain the dignity, rights and freedoms of all people.

Sources and additional info:

Top image photo credit: "Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits, San Francisco Pride 2013" by InSapphoWeTrust is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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