Trans History: Two Spirit – The Story of a Movement Unfolds

Native Peoples Magazine: Two Spirit – The Story of a Movement Unfolds
An important article on the history of gender-diverse peoples in Native American culture, and the new movement to re-embrace native cultural traditions that supported and valued gender-diverse Native Americans.

The term stems from the Ojibwe phrase niizh manidoowag and replaces the outdated, oversimplified term berdache, which appeared frequently in research and anthropological studies that aimed to describe the place of gay men in Native society in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Berdache is a derivative of a French term meaning “kept boy.” So not only is the word offensive, it also falls short in defining the diverse experiences of Native people who weren’t of only the male and female genders in their cultures.

The phrase “two spirit” began to gain traction across Native America after 1990, when 13 men, women and transgender people from various tribes met in Winnipeg, Canada, with the task of finding a term that could unite the LGBTQ Native community. Numerous terms in tribal languages identified third genders in their cultures that encompassed both masculine and feminine, and the struggle for those gathered in Winnipeg was finding a contemporary term that would be embraced across all tribal cultures.

The attendees at the gathering settled on “two spirit.” They wanted a term that “reflected the combination of masculinity and femininity which was attributed to males in a feminine role and females in a masculine role,” says author Sabine Lang in the book Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Many two spirit, historically, were keepers of traditions, tellers of the stories of creation, and healers.


[Courtesy of] One of the most well-known two spirit in history is We-wha, an honored Zuni Pueblo cultural ambassador who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1886 and shared the story and values of her people, who live in what is now western New Mexico.

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