Transness.org

Exploring Gender Identity

Two-Spirit Way

on September 27, 2012

The tradition of gender variance has a long history in the Americas because nature is diverse thus making people diverse.  This is the way of Spirit.  Accept that each person is unique to the Universe and yet we are all a part of the Whole.  One with Great Spirit.

“Two-Spirit people are defined as LGBT and gender-variant members of the Native American community. The term “Two-Spirit” was coined in 1990 by queer Native Americans gathering in Winnipeg. Many contemporary LGBT Native Americans use the term “Two-Spirit” to maintain cultural continuity with their traditions. In many of our cultures, some individuals possessed and manifested a balance of both feminine and masculine energies, making them inherently sacred people.” (BAAITS 2010)

“In Native American culture, before the Europeans came to the America’s, “two-spirit” referred to an ancient teaching. This type of cross-gender identity has been documented in over 155 tribes across Native North America (Roscoe 1988).

Our Elders tell us of people who were gifted among all beings because they carried two spirits, that of male and female. It is told that women engaged in tribal warfare and married other women, as there were men who married other men. These individuals were looked upon as a third and fourth gender in many cases and in almost all cultures they were honoured and revered. Two-spirit people were often the visionaries, the healers, the medicine people, the nannies of orphans, the care givers (Roscoe 1988). They were respected as fundamental components of our ancient culture and societies. This is our guiding force as well as our source of strength.” (Sandra Laframboise, Michael Anhorn 2008)

“The abundance of terms that we find as we study various tribes testifies to the familiarity of Native Americans with gender-variant people. It is important to note that this is different than sexual orientation as such words did not exist in Native languages. Concern for appropriate terminology should always be on one’s mind because ‘Gender’ is an obligatory grammatical category in the English/French and Latin languages. It is a linguistic term and has no connection with biological sex or social identity of an individual. This issue comes to a head in the area where ‘gender’ intersects with the Native people of North America. Many non-natives have misinterpreted two-spirit as referring to people with homosexual tendencies, when in fact, the ceremonies and practices were based on different genders being manifested, and not on sexual preferences or practices.

Many tribes had rituals for children to go through if they were recognized as acting different from their birth gender. These rituals ensured the child was truly two-spirit. If parents noticed that a son was disinterested in boyish play or manly work, they would set up a ceremony to determine which way the boy would be brought up. They would make an enclosure of brush, and place in the center both a man’s bow and a woman’s basket. The boy was told to go inside the circle of brush and to bring something out, and as he entered the brush would be set on fire. The tribe watched what he took with him as he ran out, and if it was the basketry materials they reconciled themselves to his being a ‘berdache’ (Colonial term for Transgender). (Roscoe, 1988)

In another ritual, usually carried out when the child is between the ages of nine and twelve, that helped identify a child’s two-spirit nature, a singing circle would be prepared, unbeknownst to the boy, involving the whole community as well as distant friends and relatives. On the day of the ceremony everyone gathered around and the boy was led into the middle of the circle. If he remained in the centre, the singer, hidden in the crowd, began to sing the ritual songs and the boy, if he was destined to follow the two-spirit road, starts to dance in the fashion of a woman. After the fourth song the boy was declared a two-spirit person and was raised from then on in the appropriate manner (Two Spirit Tradition – internet citation).

These rituals determined if the person was two-spirited and taught young boys to do women’s work in addition to that reserved for men. Similar rituals applied to woman. Children of both genders would also spend time with healers, often two-spirit people themselves. Above all, their childhood was marked by acceptance and understanding by the whole tribe. Multi-gendered adult people were usually presumed to be people of power. Because they have both maleness and femaleness totally entwined in one body, they were known to be able to ‘see’ with the eyes of both biological men and biological women. They were often called upon to be healers, mediators, interpreters of dreams, or expected to become singers or others whose lives were devoted to the welfare of the group. If they did extraordinary things in any aspect of life, it was assumed that they had the license and power to do so, and therefore, they were not questioned.

In everyday life the two-spirit male typically would wear women’s clothes and do women’s work. He might take a husband from among the men of the tribe, or might have affairs with several, depending on the role of the gender the two-spirit man in his tribe. This is very different from homosexuality as we know it today. Two-spirit individuals were expected to behave within the two-spirit gender norms of his or her tribe. Roscoe reports that early ethnographers observed a Mojave two-spirit man who was also faking a woman’s menstruation by scratching his inner thighs until he bled thus faking menstrual bleeding. When the partner threaten to leave the two-spirit male even mimicked pregnancy by adding clothes inside his upper shirt and stop the menstruation cycle. He would then eat foods that would give indigestion and stomach cramps thus faking some of the symptoms of pregnancy. When time came to give birth he went into the woods and came back childless under the pretense of still birth. Generally two-spirit males were not expected to have sexual relations with women. All of these rules, however, were culture specific and even within any given Native culture, there was often room for various expressions of gender variance. Throughout historical documents, we see that type of variation from the norm, change, transformation, and fluidity of roles for those who felt called to that path and yet most often they were welcome and appreciated.

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 he would have been valued as a marriage partner. Other characteristics Natives associate with two-spirit people which help explain their desirability as partners were their highly developed ability to relate to and teach children, a generous nature, and exceptional intellectual and artistic skills.

As we begin to understand the great diversity of genders in Native America cultures, and the ways in which sexuality influenced the performance of gender roles, we are drawn back to the original pre-colonial rituals. The inner calling of contemporary two-spirited people, however, is often mixed in with modern understandings of sexuality, thus creating a perception that homosexuality was well accepted in pre-colonization instead of recognizing that these homosexual behaviours were accepted under the role of gender identity. Arguably culture is not static and thus evolves and incorporates all the experiences of life. Therefore today the modern movement of reclaiming Two-Spirit Traditions incorporates sexual orientation and sexual identity.” (Sandra Laframboise, Michael Anhorn 2008)

Now that you have a picture of Native American tradition surrounding gender it is important to see that Polarity is maintained.  Either a person is male role or female role, not both at the same time.  While they did have fluidity, at any particular moment the person was either male or female.  This is because of Spirit or Universal Law of Polarity.  Law of Polarity is saying that these things (male & female) are the same just on opposite sides of the spectrum. It is all in how we perceive them and it is up to the individual as to what side of this pole to experience. Without one the other could not exist, because they are One.

The other aspect to appreciate is their level of acceptance.  They simply accepted each person for who they are and integrated this individual into the tribe as best they could; empowering the individual to choose their path in various ways.  Our society today can learn much from our ancestors!

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