Thursday, May 10, 2012

GUEST POST: Two Spirit: Tradition, History and Future

After having the opportunity to speak with two elders a few weeks ago, one being a Lakota living in Hot Springs, South Dakota from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations and the other who is Chiricahua Apache (one of my own tribes), Blackfeet and  Cherokee, regarding the two spirit tradition, which some tribes evidence during the bow and basket ceremony. We had a very interesting discussion, the background of which follows below.

In 2010, I was approached by an author who writes m/m fiction who planned a “Native American” story. Naturally it would center on two or more male characters in a relationship of some sort which would eventually include a sexual one. The author had general questions about Native Americans and the “blood brother” bond which they had heard could include a sexual relationship. They also queried regarding the “berdache” tradition (berdache is actually a non-native word) as they considered what area, what people and what time period to set their story in.

They inquired about research materials, and referenced a few works from non-native writers, and when I saw who they were I had to give my honest opinion. These were European descended writers some of whom, which was generally agreed upon among natives, had no true inside insight or knowledge of natives beyond what they had observed and superimposed their own religious and culture interpretations upon. One writer regularly used the word “squaw” which is a highly offensive term to many Native Americans used by French explorers to describe Indian women which means “c***” or “vagina”, though it is originally descended from the Algonquin word for “woman”.  Just the same, considering it is a very controversial word to many, how could anyone accept such derogatory remarks about one’s people?

Eventually, the author gave me an overview of their story asking for insights. I pointed out the scenes and/or actions of a character which wouldn’t take place in a native tribe, and the fact some natives would not look kindly on someone trying to write on a topic about which they knew so little even if the author considered it "imaginary" or "fiction." Offensive to us mostly means something we would not advocate or support, but after long years of misinterpretation and misinformation about us, it is something we are unfortunately used to. The opinions I expressed were general, as I believe an author can write whatever they wish, but understandably should consider reaction and responsibility regarding the work. A long story short: the author became quite irritated and defensive, though I was only giving her an honest answer, which is the only kind I ever choose to give.

For some topics, Native American oral tradition is the proper source, if you are fortunate to be able to do so, and are trusted with information. There are few extensive and factual documents by native people which have been made about “two spirited” people written by two spirits. Two spirits are called the Dinéh (Navajo) refer to them as nàdleehé or ‘one who is ‘transformed’, the Lakota (Sioux) as winkte, the Mohave as alyha, the Zuni as lhamana, the Omaha as mexoga, the Aleut and Kodiak as achnucek, the Zapotec as ira’ muxe, the Cheyenne as he man eh, etc. (Roscoe, 1988). Some tribes had different names for two-spirited men and women.” I had explained that much of what I knew was through that oral tradition but it was sound, as well as some titles of academic work. There are some scholarly works wit pertinent information also, but the author I spoke with wasn’t interested in the factual for the facts part, but rather to take some aspects and change them to suit their story. That is another issue altogether: “creative license”, but back to the Two Spirit tradition.

I presented this incident to the two elders, and a couple of other natives near my age, along with my son who was listening in.  The female elder deferred to the male but she smiled to herself looking down, perhaps knowing what he was going to say. I’d watched his face and reactions as I recounted what happened.

He is an older man of indeterminate age who answers, “Old enough”, if you ask him what that number is. He looks a bit to the side with a smile as mischievous as a child’s. A multiple decorated veteran of two wars and featured in a number of history books both Native American and military, he’s well known and respected across the world, for like myself, he’s travelled from one end of this earth to the other.

His arms had continued to rest folded across his chest, which is his usual stance, sitting or standing, but I’d heard his indrawn breath, it’s slow release. I saw a brief hand come up to his brown brow before returning to its place. The jaw had tightened at one point. The eyes rose hard and focused to a point above my head but soon slid back down to the side. He laughed a little, as I finished.

“You did better than I would’ve.” He laughed again.

The Elder speaks:

(Note: Among the Lakota, such ones are called winkte. To pronounce it correctly, it’s not exactly two syllables as it appears, but has an almost subvocal, gutteral “drop” after the “K”, making it sound more like: “wink-(kuh)-tay”.)

“We people have mysteries. Things we cannot explain. Things we don’t know how they came to be or how they stay alive but it’s all part of life. For some things we have legends and tales passed down from our ancestors, and they’re enough though now we have science and all kinds of stuff which explain how things work inside. Or they try to anyway. There are still mysteries and will always be. There are some things you don’t need answers to in order to have a happy life or just get by even.

There have always been winkte. Even now we have winkte who live on the reservation and they’re accepted just like anybody else. There’s no need to comment on them, make up tales about them or treat them badly because that’s just the way they are. That’s how they were born. If a man wants to live as a woman and take a male partner, then it’s his choice, and he is the woman he wants to be, doing woman’s things that feel good to him.

That’s the way it’s always been with the People but when the black robes came (the European settlers with their Christian religion. The Catholics are directly referred to first as “black robes” but that term came to include all Christians) they saw something they didn’t understand. Well, they thought they understood it and put their own words to it, words like “evil”, “wrong” and “sin”. But there is no evil among the People. Things happen. People are certain ways. That’s just life. We don’t try to force our own thoughts or beliefs on anybody else, but that’s what the black robes did to us.

Then you had some of the People converting to the black robe religion and they too tried to say certain things were “evil” and “sin”, but it’s not our way to judge others. It’s the white man’s God’s way. Every body should just be how they are and be allowed to. I can be happy with very little because their definition does not apply to me. They might be unhappy with what I had. I think that’s why they are so unhappy and so far from the earth. They’re always looking at someone else and trying to change them when they don’t really know themselves in the first place.”

To understand the two spirit tradition, you have to try to understand the People themselves and not place other cultures terms or definitions upon it. Take it as it is. In some ways, in both the literal and traditional sense, there is no “gay” among natives. If someone born with a male outward appearance feels they are female, then they are then female to us. It’s as simple as that. No other psychological terms or interpretations. That is the tradition of most Native American tribes.

Same thing with a person born with a female appearance, if they choose to be a man, then they are a man. This is one of the reasons you will find no records of such in certain tribes. In the spirit of modernization, what a person chooses to term themselves is their choice, for “two spirit” can refer to a range of realities: intersex, transsexual, transgendered, hermaphrodite, gay, lesbian, but if you are using to the term or applying to it someone, make sure you ask or define clearly and respect that answer you are given or the silence you receive. Life is simply life. Sexuality is a part of it, but not central to being.

In this modern age, of course and especially with globalization, in order to try to understand others, people naturally apply or assign their own definitions, but be careful and considerate. Respect other people’s cultures and don’t just ask the questions, but accept the answers. Accept there are differences, but there need be no dividers.

The full article can be found at Songs of the Universal Vagabond, under "Two Spirit: Tradition, History and Future." 


  1. Excellent post. I have been researching the two spirit tradition for some time and, as pointed out here, found many of the 'histories' and stories written from a demeaning Eurocentric viewpoint. Facts remain facts and unwittingly diminishing the honor of the People for 'creative license' is simply vulgar and rude. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Brandon. As mentioned, it is a subject very close to my heart, as the traditions and history of the People are special to me. I like to help promote greater understanding both of who and what we are, as compared to film or works by non-natives which are not correct, though there have been several writers, directors, etc. who really do try to do their very best at presenting American Indians honestly.

    That being said, yes it is also for me to help writers and others understand, that even if I support their creative effort, most anyone wishes to be portrayed accurately even in fiction. It is not personal, but if they do not do so, how could I support it?

    All in all, I think if such ones really got to know the People, they could do so. Some don't want to, they just wish to write a story. But Native Americans, as a whole, have been sorely diminished, denigrated and demeaned in literature. We've been misunderstood, stereotyped and caricatured, this still takes place every in real life for many of us also.

    In past times, many had to take subversion in some form or way to survive, even if in our hearts we hated what was being said, and having our sacred traditions or just our lives and history twisted for someone else's gain or research conclusions. Plain fact, most of us are very tired of it, and we will speak up.

  3. thanks, very good =)