TWO SPIRIT - HOMOSEXUALITY IN NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES
by Matthew Barry
Homosexuality was common in Native American cultures, as well as cultures throughout the world. Every tribe had a different name for it, but the names all translate to "Two Spirits." The Native American People looked upon these unique individuals (Two Spirit People) as something special the Great Mystery created to teach us. "These people had something special to tell us."
The Two Spirits in most Native cultures have traditionally lived between the sexes, claiming both male and female, and were typically healers, prophets, teacher and spiritual leaders and advisors, shamans, peacemakers or arbitrators, name givers, and were special and honored persons in the tribe.
Two Spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges. However, they also took on female roles such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities. Female-bodied Two Spirits could be warriors and hunt with the men.
If you were born a male, 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 honored. 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.
In the traditional tribal sense, Two Spirit roles have often been ones associated with great respect and spiritual power. Rather than being viewed as an aberration, the role was seen as one, which bridged the gap between the temporal and spirit worlds. The spiritual aspect of the Two Spirit role was emphasized far more than the homosexual or gender variant aspect. Because of this, Two Spirits were highly valued by the people of the tribe. Two Spirits have the reputation of being the cleverest people, the sort who would be good at gambling.
IMPORTANT: In contradiction, men who showed cowardice in battle could be forced to assume the role of women upon pain of death. These men were not considered Two Spirits, nor were they held in any other status than contempt. Europeans did not made a distinction between them.
American Bison display homosexual behaviors, males much more so than females. In the case of males, it is not related to dominance but rather to social bonding and gaining sexual experience.1, 2
Native American Peoples, their Traditions, their Culture, have a symbiotic relationship with their Environment, with Nature and the Elements, and they have great respect for these things. When you live in Harmony with your environment, then it is more likely that you will live in harmony in your community. When they observed homosexual behavior in the Bison and elsewhere in the Animal Kingdom, then homosexuality would naturally be accepted within their own communities.
1Ref: Homosexual Behavior in Bison/Buffalo: Vervaecke H, Roden C. "Going with the herd: same-sex interaction and competition in American bison". In: Sommer V, Vasey PL, (editors).
2Ref: Homosexual behavior in animals. Cambridge University Press; 2006. pp. 13153 ISBN 0-521-86446-1.
It is important to know that most of the anthropological records of the western world were collected at a time when the Western observers were very highly biased and would have reported that which was the most obvious and Heathen, which was Gender reversal roles. Not so easily observed would be same-sex sex without Two-Spirit identification, which was likely to have been occurring, but not observed by the Western observers.
Much of the anthropological records of the western world have adopted the term "berdache" to describe the "Two Spirit," but this is actually considered insulting by traditional Native Americans. Therefore, I have substituted the term "berdache" with "Two Spirit." ""Berdache" was a term coined by the French for Two Spirit" members of tribe, meant "kept boy; male prostitute, catamite," from the Arabic bardaj.
The Arapaho of the plains believe the role existed due to supernatural gifts from birds or animals. The Creation story of the Colorado Mohave "speaks of a time when people were not sexually differentiated". In the Omaha language, the term for Two Spirit meant, "Instructed by the Moon." Many myths warned not to try to interfere with the fulfillment of the role. Consequences could be dire and sometimes resulted in death.
In a similar vein, the belief was strong that no one should not resist spiritual guidance when lead to follow the Two Spirit path. This, combined with a level of respect sometimes bordering on fear, lead to acceptance with blind faith that the Two Spirit was indeed a gift to the tribe; someone to be honored and cherished.
Many tribes believed that the person was lead by a spiritual experience into the role. A boy was never forced into the role but rather was allowed to explore his natural inclination. They often went through some sort of ceremony to determine their path. Because Two Spirit were believed to have great spiritual vision, they were often viewed as prophets.
The following sentence seems to sum up the overall feeling of the Native American about differences among their people. "By the Indian view, someone who is different offers advantages to society precisely because he or she is freed from the restrictions of the usual. It is a different window from which to view the world."
In 1971 a Sioux shaman interviewed a winkte (Two Spirit). "He told me that if nature puts a burden on a man by making him different, it also gives him a power". The Zapotec Indians around the Oaxaca area in Mexico, staunchly defend their Two Spirit's right to adopt different gender and sex roles because "God made them that way." The emphasis in defining the role is placed on the person's character and spirit and not on the sexual aspects.
Alternative gender roles were among the most widely shared features of North American societies. Male Two Spirits have been documented in over 155 tribes. In about a third of these groups, a formal status also existed for females who undertook a man's lifestyle, becoming hunters, warriors, and chiefs. They were sometimes referred to with the same term for male Two Spirits and sometimes with a distinct term-making them, therefore, a fourth gender. Thus, "third gender" generally refers to male berdaches and sometimes male and female Two Spirits, while "fourth gender" always refers to female Two Spirits.
Each tribe, of course, had its own terms for these roles, such as boté in Crow, nádleehí in Navajo, winkte in Lakota, and alyha and hwame in Mohave. Because so many North American cultures were disrupted (or had disappeared) before they were studied by anthropologists, it is not possible to state the absolute frequency of these roles. Those alternative gender roles that have been documented, however, occur in every region of the continent, in every kind of society, and among speakers of every major language group. The number of tribes in which the existence of such roles have been denied (by informants or outsider observers) are quite few. Far greater are those instances in which information regarding the presence of gender diversity has simply not been recorded.
The "Two Spirit" concept also extends to: Native Africans Tribes (Ambo, Bagasu, Basongye, Lebou, Lubbara, Maale, Mbo, Shatt, swahili, Wolof, Zulu), Korea, Siberia, Thailand, Philippines, India, Pakistan, Turkic (Central Asia), Arabic, Ottoman, Singapore, Borneo, Sulawesi, Cook Islands, Hawaii, Maori, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, & Tuvalu.
A Gay (Two Spirit) Shaman, of both the male and female spirits, would be better able to act on the spiritual plain, for both the male and female members of the tribe. Shamans exhibit a Two Spirit identity, assuming the dress and attributes of the opposite sex from a young age, for example, a man taking on the role of a wife in an otherwise ordinary marriage. This practice is common, and found among the Chukchi, Sea Dyak, Patagonians, Araucanians, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Navajo, Pawnee, Lakota, and Ute, as well as many other Native American tribes. Indeed, these Two Spirited shamans were so widespread as to suggest a very ancient origin of the practice.
Traditionally, a person's sexual orientation also brought gifts of vision and understanding. People who were Two Spirited (i.e., homosexual) were considered to have a great gift of vision that went beyond most people's abilities. Because of the nature of the Two Spirited person, it was believed that they could understand and help solve problems that both women and men have individually or between each other.
They possessed the ability to see an issue from both perceptions. Two Spirited people were not only considered normal, but a vital and much needed part of the natural world and of the community as a whole.
In the traditional tribal sense, these roles have often been ones associated with great respect and spiritual power. Rather than being viewed as an aberration, the role was seen as one, which bridged the gap between the temporal and spirit worlds. The spiritual aspect of the "Two Spirit" role was emphasized far more than the homosexual or gender variant aspect. Because of this, "Two Spirits" were highly valued by the people of the tribe.
Besides their spiritual abilities, their capacity for work also figured into the high status of Two Spirit people. Even though a Two Spirit male would have taken on the gender identity of a woman, he would still have the endurance and strength of a man. Thus his productivity was greater than that of most women, and for that reason also he would have been valued as a marriage partner. Other characteristics that Natives associate with Two Spirit people and that help explain their desirability as partners are a highly developed ability to relate to and teach children, a generous nature, and exceptional intellectual and artistic skills.
BECOMING Two Spirit
The role of Two Spirit was determined during childhood. Parents would watch a child who seemed to have a tendency toward living as Two Spirit and would assist him in pursuing it rather than discouraging him. At some point, usually around puberty, a ceremony would be performed which would formalize a boy's adoption of the role. One ceremony commonly practiced involved placing a man's bow and arrow and a woman's baskets in a brush enclosure. The boy went inside the enclosure that was then set on fire. What he took with him as he ran to escape the flames was believed to be indicative of his spiritual guidance to follow or not to follow the Two Spirit path.
The Hočąk word for "Two Spirit" was teją´čowįga, "blue ocean woman." A young man became a Two Spirit if during his fasting vision quest, he was blessed by Moon and ordered by this spirit to "take up the skirt." If he failed to do this, it was thought that the moon would take his life. Part of his blessing was the power to foresee the future, and the virtue of being able to excel anyone in the performance of women's duties.
If you were born a male, but came back from your first vision quest at age 13 years and said your vision told you to live as a woman, your choice was honored. 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.
It is important to remember that Indians do not consider this role one that is a matter of personal choice. They generally believe that one who follows the path is following his own spiritual guidance. The important feature here is living a life true to one's spiritual path. In most cases, a person assumes Two Spirit status for life, but in the case of a nineteenth-century Klamath Two Spirit named Lele'ks, the role was abandoned. He began wearing men's clothing, acting like a man and married a woman. His reason for doing so was because he had been instructed to do so by the Spirits.
Following spiritual direction is the key issue in assumption or abandonment of the role. "Of those who became Two Spirits, the other Indians would say that since he had been 'claimed by a Holy Woman,' nothing could be done about it. Such persons might be pitied because of the spiritual responsibilities they held, but they were treated as mysterious and holy, and were respected as benevolent people who assisted others in time of starvation."
If a child was born with ambiguous genitalia "nádleehés in Navajo", the child's gender was decided by depending on either their inclination toward either masculine or feminine activities, or their intersex status. Puberty was about the time by which clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice. The genitally ambiguous twins born to First Man and First Woman -- Navaho nádleehés were sanctioned by a spiritual precedent, and they were regarded as holy and sacred. They were permitted any form of sexual intercourse with either sex.
SAME SEX RELATIONS
As opposed to European views of sexuality, Native Americans experience sex as more than a means of reproduction. It is also an activity to be enjoyed and appreciated. Sexual pleasure is considered a gift from the spirit world. As a result, most traditional tribes felt no inhibition in regard to sexual relations. Children were exposed to the sight of adults having sex and some ceremonies involved sex on an orgy level. Additionally, sexual contact was not necessarily limited to one's spouse or to the opposite sex; thus same sex activity was not the exclusive realm of the Two Spirit.
There are some characteristics of the sexual practices of Two Spirit, which differ from those of other same sex relationships. Two Spirit almost always observe an incest taboo which involves the avoidance of sex with another Two Spirit. One explanation for this is that sexual partner of the Two Spirit must, by nature, be masculine. This belief is consistent with the emphasis on the gender aspects of the role rather than the sexual aspects. It also dovetails with the information on Two Spirit marriages to masculine men. In these unions, the Two Spirit is considered a wife and is valued by the husband not only for the domestic duties the Two Spirit performs, but also for the socially acceptable homosexual relationship.
In a sense, Native American cultures have institutionalized and socially sanctioned homosexual relations by utilizing the Two Spirit role as the preferred same sex partner. When men want to have male/male sex, they are encouraged to do so with a Two Spirit.
The usual sexual behavior of the Two Spirit is to take the passive role in anal intercourse. At times they may indulge in oral sex or take the active role in anal intercourse, but this is not widely talked about. If a Two Spirit wishes to take an active role, it is usually done only in secret and with a partner who can be trusted not to talk. This is also true of the feelings of the man involved with a Two Spirit. If he wishes to assume the passive role, he will try to keep the activity secret.
Two Spirit frequently are available for sex with both unmarried adolescent boys and married men who occasionally seek out same sex partners. Because of this, female prostitution is not needed. Traditional Two Spirit were also available as sexual partners during hunts and in war parties. This was yet another reason why they were welcomed on these excursions.
A man having sex with a Make-bodied Two Spirit was not considered homosexual, because the Two Spirit man would be consider of female spirit. But he could also be sexual with a woman and not be consider as homosexual, because then he would be in male sexual spirit. Two Spirits can move between male and female spirits if the with. It would have been rare for one Male-bodied Two Spirit to be sexual with another Male-bodied Two Spirit, although it coulees be justified as one taking the female spirit and one taking the male spirit.
The following is how the NAVAJO did it:
Male-bodied Two-Spirit = Homosexual Man
Female-bodied Two-Spitit = Homosexual Woman
A Male-bodied Two-Spirit was considered the equivalent of being a woman, and a
Female-bodied Two-Spitit was considered the equivalent of being a man, therefore:
A male-bodied Two Spirit with a heterosexual male would be considered a heterosexual relationship. This was the most common relationship.
A female-bodied two-spirit a heterosexual woman would be considered a heterosexual relationship. This was the most common relationship.
Interestingly, the following would be considered a homosexual relationship:
- A male-bodied Two Spirit with a female-bodied two-spirit
- A male-bodied Two Spirit with a male-bodied Two Spirit
- A male-bodied Two Spirit with a heterosexual Female
- A female-bodied two-spitit with a female-bodied two-spitit
- A female-bodied two-spirit with a heterosexual male
The traditional Two Spirit was known for living within a strong moral code. Their ethics were above reproach and they were valued as peacemakers and settlers of disputes. They accepted the duties of the role and tried to exceed the expectations of others in how well they performed. Not only were they adept at settling disagreements among tribe members, but they also could act as intercessors between the physical and the spiritual world.
The tribes held them in great esteem and were quite respectful and often frightened by their connection with the spirit world. This seems to be one reason traditional Two Spirit were not harassed or bothered. Most tribes believed it very dangerous to attempt to interact with the spiritual realm and felt fortunate to have a Two Spirit in their midst to perform that task.
There are descriptions of Two Spirited individuals having strong mystical powers. In one account, raiding soldiers of a rival tribe begin to attack a group of foraging women when they perceive that one of the women, the one that does not run away, is a Two Spirit. They halt their attack and retreat after the Two Spirit counters them with a stick, determining that the Two Spirit will have great power which they will not be able to overcome.
Although Two Spirit often fulfilled the role of caring for the sick and wounded, they were not usually shaman, but rather ones to whom the shaman would turn for guidance. As a Lakota stated, "Winktes can be medicine men, but are usually not because they already have the power."
Two Spirit were closely associated with dreams and visions. In some cultures dreams were believed simply to guide the person and, as such were considered a benevolent force. In others, such as the Maricopa, adoption of the Two Spirit role was associated with "too much" dreaming.
Among the Plains tribes, it was the Two Spirit who was assigned to bless the sacred pole for the Sun Dance ceremony, the most important religious rite of the culture. Their association with anything on a spiritual plane brought luck to the ritual or the person involved. Two Spirit are often in charge of preparing the dead for burial. Among the Yokuts, tongochim were so esteemed, they were allowed to keep any of the deceased's belongings they chose.
In the Potawatomi tribe if a Two Spirit groomed the hair of a man going on a hunt, it was thought to provide "special spiritual advantage and protection for the hunter." Although they could be among the most gentle and loving members of a group, if crossed, they could become vindictive and formidable foes, a characteristic, which underscores the mystery and power of the role.
In relation to the spiritual nature of the role, people approached their relationships with the Two Spirit, as they would have with a deity, with awe, respect and a sense of acceptance without needing to fully understand.
SPECIALIZED WORK ROLES AND GENDER DIFFERENCE
Two Spirits were sometimes viewed in certain tribes as having two spirits occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles. They have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes.
Two Spirited individuals perform specific social functions in their communities. In some tribes male-bodied Two Spirits held specific active roles which, varying by tribe, may include:
- healers or medicine persons
- gravediggers, undertakers, handling and burying of the deceased (Bankalachi, Mono, Yokuts)
- burial festivities (Achomawai, Atsugewi, Bankalachi, Mono, Tübatulabal, Yokuts, Oglala Lakota, Timucua)
- conduct mourning rites (Yokuts)
- conduct sexual rites
- conveyers of oral traditions and songs (Yuki)
- nurses during war expeditions (Cheyenne, Achomawi, Oglala Lakota, Huchnom, Karankawa, Timucua)
- foretold the future (Winnebago, Oglala Lakota)
- conferred lucky names on children or adults (Oglala Lakota, Papago)
- weaving and basketry (Zuni, Navajo, Papago, Klamath, Kato, Lassik, Pomo, Yuki)
- made pottery (Zuni, Navajo, Papago)
- made beadwork and quillwork (Oglala Lakota, Ponca)
- matchmaking (Cheyenne, Omaha, Oglala Lakota)
- mediator between lovers or married persons (Navajo)
- made feather regalia for dances (Maidu)
- special skills in games of chance
- ceremonial roles during and leading scalp-dances (Cheyenne)
- fulfilled special functions in connection with the Sun Dance (Crow, Hidatsa, Oglala Lakota)
In some tribes female-bodied Two Spirits typically took on roles such as:
- chief, council
- hunter, trapper, fisher
- warrior, raider
- peace missions
- vision quests, prophets
- medicine persons
Two Spirits commonly married widowers; a male-bodied Two Spirit could perform the function of parenting the children of her husband's late wife without any risk of bearing new children to whom she might give priority.
Two Spirits excel in weaving, beadwork, and pottery; arts associated almost solely with the women of the tribe. We'Wha, a famous Zuni Two Spirit was an accomplished weaver and potter as well as a sash and blanket maker. Her pottery was sold for twice that of other potters in the village. Two Spirit men are also involved with cooking, tanning, saddle-making, farming, gardening, raising children, basket-making.
One notable attribute of the Two Spirit is that the work of these people is greatly prized both within and without the tribe. "To tell a woman that her craft-work is as a good as a Two Spirit's is not sexist, but rather the highest compliment." Because of their superior quality, work done by the Two Spirit is highly valued by collectors and tribal members as well. There is a belief that some of the spiritual power of the maker has been transferred to the craft itself. Some believe that the exquisite art is itself a manifestation of that power.
In addition to craftwork, Two Spirit are known to be strong family and community members. They were traditionally considered assets to the tribe and were sources of great pride. A man raised with his Two Spirit cousin said, "The boy lived as though he had some higher understanding of life."
Many Two Spirits adopt children and are known to be excellent parents and teachers. Native Americans as a whole readily accept adoption of children and traditionally share in child rearing among their kin. They excel at cooking, cleaning and all other domestic duties. Many, such as We'Wha took great pride in being able to provide their families with the ultimate in comfort, nourishment and nurturing.
Throughout the literature there are references to the Two Spirit finding no greater purpose than that of serving his fellow tribesmen. Hastiin Klah, a famous Navajo shaman and Two Spirit was written about with much love and respect by the wealthy Bostonian, Mary Cabot Wheelwright. "I grew to respect and love him for his real goodness, generosity-and holiness, for there is no other word for it . When I knew him he never kept anything for himself. It was hard to see him almost in rags at his ceremonies, but what was given to him he seldom kept, passing it on to someone who needed it Everything was the outward form of the spirit world that was very real to him."
In terms of child rearing and education, the Two Spirit fulfill an important role. They not only adopt children of their own; they are often involved with the care of other's children. One of the best examples of this is within the Zuni culture. All adult members consider themselves responsible for the behavior of all the children within the tribe. An adult passing the misbehaving child of another will correct the child. We'Wha was reported to have benefited from this as a child herself and became noted for her excellent way with children as she matured and became a Two Spirit.
Today, the practice of Two Spirits being involved in child rearing persists and seems to be gaining importance in tribes where abuse and alcoholism abound. "Terry Calling Eagle, a Lakota Two Spirit, states, 'I love children, and I used to worry that I would be alone without children. The Spirit said he would provide some. Later, some kids of drunks who did not care for them were brought to me by neighbors. The kids began spending more and more time here, so finally the parents asked me to adopt them.'
After those children were raised, Terry was asked to adopt others. In all, he has raised seven orphan children, one of whom was living with him when I was there. This boy, a typical masculine seventeen-year-old, interacts comfortably with his winkte parent. After having been physically abused as a young child by alcoholic parents, he feels grateful for the stable, supportive atmosphere in his adoptive home."
The Two Spirit role is most often characterized by a tendency to a pacific temperament, but they were known to go to war or on hunts on a regular basis. Some cultures took the Two Spirit along to do the cooking, washing, caring for the camp and tending to the wounded.
Their presence among the warriors was valued because of their special spiritual powers. Occasionally, a Two Spirit would participate directly in warfare. This dispels the argument among early anthropologists that the role was adopted as a means of avoiding warfare. The Crow Two Spirit Osh-Tisch, which means Finds Them and Kills Them got his name by turning warrior for one day in 1876. He took part in an attack on the Lakota and was distinguished for his bravery.
Because of their unique position as neither male, nor female, Two Spirit would act as counselors for marital conflict. Among the Omaha tribe, they were even paid for this service. Two Spirit also performed the role of matchmaker. When a young man wanted to send gifts and get the attention of a young woman, the Two Spirit would often act as ago between with the girl's family.
One of the most notable aspects of the Two Spirit is their association with wealth and prosperity. Because they were not subject to menstruation, pregnancy or tied down to nursing infants, they were able to work during times when women could not. In addition, their greater musculature made them strong and able to endure long days of hard labor. They were known to do almost twice the work of a woman. " the Two Spirit is ever ready for service, and is expected to perform the hardest labors of the female department. " When a man wished to marry a Two Spirit often her ability and inclination to work hard was a large part of the attraction.
Although there is much fluidity in alternate gender behavior, a Two Spirit reaches some absolutes when it comes to adopting biological female roles. This limitation has not eliminated attempts at mimicking such female biological processes such as menstruation and pregnancy. The Mohave alyha were known to have gone to great lengths to simulate mock pregnancies. They would self induce constipation and then "deliver" a stillborn fecal fetus. Appropriate mourning rites and burial were performed with the involvement of the alyha's husband.
Alyha also simulated menstruation through scratching their legs until they bled. They would then require their husbands to observe all the taboos associated with menstruation. They had never been observed attempting to nurse infants, however. Sometimes an alyha would fake a pregnancy to stop her husband from trying to leave or divorce her on the grounds of infertility.
Certainly one of the most entertaining stories associated with the berdache adoption of female dress and attitude comes from We'Wha. In 1886, she went to Washington DC to meet President Grover Cleveland accompanied by anthropologist and debutante, Matilda Coxe Stevenson. Because she passed easily as a woman, she was allowed into the ladies rooms and boudoirs of the elite. She delighted in telling the Zuni upon arriving home that "the white women were mostly frauds, taking out their false teeth and 'rats' from their hair." One woman gossiped, "To hear Mrs. Stevenson give Waywah's description of the way a society lady in Washington 'makes herself young again' was exceedingly amusing."
MAORI - NEW ZEALAND
This is from arion-stormsong (arion-stormsong.deviantart.com…)
I am a Maori (New Zealand Native) and prior to the arrival of Europeans we too had similar customs and beliefs surround takatapui (Same gender attraction). Takatapui were allowed to assume any roles within the community they desired be it Warrior, Tohunga (Shaman/Medicine Person) carver, farmer, wearver or any of the other varied activites necessary for the communities function and survival. I had thought our culture quite isolated in its acceptance but obviously not. It is very heartening to know other cultures of ancient origin understood and respected the necessary contributions of Two Spirit peoples to their way of life.
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The Berdache Spirit: nu-woman.com/berdache.htm
©Matthew Barry 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014