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Two Spirit

Native dancers

Though Two Spirit may now be included in the umbrella of LGBTQ, The term "Two Spirit" does not simply mean someone who is a Native American/Alaska Native and gay.

Traditionally, Native American two spirit people were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status. In tribes where two spirit males and females were referred to with the same term, this status amounted to a third gender. In other cases, two spirit females were referred to with a distinct term and, therefore, constituted a fourth gender. Although there were important variations in two spirit roles across North America, they shared some common traits:

  • Specialized work roles. Male and female two spirit people were typically described in terms of their preference for and achievements in the work of the "opposite" sex or in activities specific to their role. Two spirit individuals were experts in traditional arts - such as pottery making, basket weaving, and the manufacture and decoration of items made from leather. Among the Navajo, two spirit males often became weavers, usually women and men's work, as well as healers, which was a male role. By combining these activities, they were often among the wealthier members of the tribe. Two spirit females engaged in activities such as hunting and warfare, and became leaders in war and even chiefs.
  • Gender variation. A variety of other traits distinguished two spirit people from men and women, including temperament, dress, lifestyle, and social roles.
  • Spiritual sanction. Two spirit identity was widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams and sanctioned by tribal mythology. In many tribes, two spirit people filled special religious roles as healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders.
  • Same-sex relations. Two spirit people typically formed sexual and emotional relationships with non-two spirit members of their own sex, forming both short- and long-term relationships. Among the Lakota, Mohave, Crow, Cheyenne, and others, two spirit people were believed to be lucky in love, and able to bestow this luck on others.

Most Indigenous communities have specific terms in their own languages for the gender-variant members of their communities and the social and spiritual roles these individuals fulfill; with over 500 surviving Native American cultures, attitudes about sex and gender can be very diverse. Even with the modern adoption of pan-Indian terms like Two Spirit, not all cultures will perceive two spirit people the same way, or welcome a pan-Indian term to replace the terms already in use by their cultures.

The disruptions caused by conquest and disease, together with the efforts of missionaries, government agents, boarding schools, and white settlers resulted in the loss of many traditions in Native communities. Two spirit roles, in particular, were singled out for condemnation, interference, and many times violence. As a result, two spirit traditions and practices went underground or disappeared in many tribes.

Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender native people throughout North America are reviving the two spirit role and its traditions. National gatherings of two spirit people have been held since the early 1990s, and regional gatherings are held in many parts of the country.

LGBTQ2S Advocacy and Native Out [PDF - 782 MB] Presentation

Native Out Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov  Webinar

Two Spirit Identity: Then and Now Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov  Presentation

Two Spirit People: Then and Now [PDF - 3.2 MB] Presentation

Other Media

PBS's Independent Lens presented the film "Two Spirits" Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov  offering information about the history of Two Spirit people and a mother's loss of a son to a modern hate-crime.

"Two Spirit: The Story of a Movement Unfolds Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov ," Native Peoples Magazine, May-June 2014

"Two Spirit: The Trials and Tribulations of Gender Identity in the 21st Century Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov ," Indian Country Today, January 21, 2015