The two-spirited person is a native tradition that researchers have identified in some of the earliest discoveries of Native artifacts. Much evidence indicates that Native people, prior to colonization, believed in the existence of cross-gender roles, the male-female, the female-male, what we now call the two-spirited person.
Woman Chief (Crow) circa early 19th century -1854
While many Two-Spirit individuals throughout history were typically and biologically men, Woman Chief, on the other hand, was born a woman who eventually assumed the role of a fierce Crow warrior. Woman Chief participated in several traditionally male activities, such as hunting and, interestingly, leading her own war parties, as she was an expert rifleman. Most notably, however, “Woman Chief married another woman,” Will Roscoe writes, “Eventually Woman Chief supported four wives” (pg. 69).
We’wha (Zuni) circa 1849-1896
We’wha (pronounced Way-wuh) is perhaps the most distinguished and iconic figure in Two-Spirit history. She was a Zuni spiritual leader as well as a notable ceramic artist and weaver, who, as a Two-Spirit individual, linked genders by undertaking traditional women’s roles, including performing sacred roles in ceremonial dances. We’wha also cross-dressed.
She met President Grover Cleveland in Washington, D.C. in 1886, and other high-ranking political officials. Interestingly, however, We’wha’s gender was never questioned by non-Zunis, as most outsiders regarded him as a her. Yet as a Two-Spirit person, We’wha was more accurately a s/he.
Many tribes had or have particular terms and roles for "two-spirit" people in their communities:
Winkte (Lakota Sioux)
It is estimated that 168 (remaining) Native languages have terms for people who are not exclusively "male" or "female".
Many traditional Navajos understand the universe as exquisitely interconnected, with the individual literally inseparable from the mountains, the sky...all natural phenomena. To ground the definition of nadleehi in sexuality presupposes the individual is independent of these interconnections and overlooks the highly integrated nature of the individuals' existence.
This initial and preliminary investigation of the lives of urban two-spirit adults demonstrates that they have much in common with their heterosexual peers. At the same time, they are subjected to stressors such as elevated rates of childhood physical abuse and intergenerational trauma that may be partly responsible for their greater use of illicit substances. Researchers and practitioners working with two-spirits need to be attuned to their unique stressors to ensure proper assessment and treatment. However, as when working with other LGBT of color, they must never overlook the considerable cultural and personal strengths that enable them, despite battling the dual oppressions of racism and heterosexism, to endure.
This was a study done on 179 American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) New Yorkers. 86% identified as heterosexual, leaving 14% two-spirit or "other". In about 3-hour interviews, they were asked questions regarding cultural participation, trauma, physical and mental health, and substance use. The difference between the experiences of LGBTQ Native Americans and heterosexual Native Americans is to be expected. However the article suggests that LGBTQ NA's also face harsher treatment than other LGBTQ peoples of other races and cultures.
As governmental efforts at assimilating Natives grew more intense, the gender different became an increasingly less visible part of the public culture of Native society, which occurred in tandem with the loss of ceremonial traditions and social practices in general. The result was a decline in the ceremonial use of women-men's roles and responsibilities. Once Indians began to convert to Christianity en masse, they also accepted ideologies about the sinfulness of same-sex relations. As a result, the history of gender diversity in Native North America has gone largely unnoticed by contemporary Native peoples.
Gender diversity, as with other Native cultural practices, however, had difficulty surviving amid the onslaught of Euro-American aggression. From the time of first contact with Europeans, gender diversity and same-sex relations were repressed by religious condemnation and violence...Indeed, "sodomy" and "transvestitism" among indigenous populations became a central reason to justify the conquest of North America. By contrasting Native licentiousness against their own virtuous Catholicism, the Spanish convinced themselves of the divine nature of their violence against Native peoples and the gender different.
It is documented in the academic literature that many American Indian cultures honored and respected alternative sexual lifestyles and gender roles. Some cultures are noted to have third or fourth gender statuses. Several papers in this volume reaffirm that traditional elders show great respect for Gay American Indians (GAI). I believe this view is consistent with most American Indian traditions and beliefs...In contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition honors the male and female gender roles within the scope of heterosexuality, but alternative sexuality is regarded as sinful and outside of God's plan.
Though this contrast in beliefs is mostly true, it is not always the case. Not all Native American societies had a designated role for two-spirits, and if they did they weren't necessarily excused from malice or mistreatment. (For example, as many two-spirits played spiritual or medicinal roles, they might be blamed for crop failure or natural disaster.) Similarily, not all Judeo-Christians preach the prosecution of the LGTBTQ community.
"Berdache" has been employed to refer to special gender roles in Native American cultures that anthropologists have interpreted as ceremonial transvestism, institutionalized homosexuality, and gender variance/multiple genders. "Gender variance" is defined by Jacobs and Cromwell (1992:63-64) as "cultural expressions of multiple genders (i.e., more than two) and the opportunity for individuals to change gender roles and identities over the course of their lifetimes." We use gender variance and gender diversity interchangeably.
At least 150 tribes across North America had at one point, and to some degree, cross-gender or gay and lesbian individuals fulfilling specific duties (Roscoe, pg. 217), including men fulfilling women’s roles, women fulfilling men’s roles, and importantly, Two-Spirit individuals contributing as spiritual leaders.
Two-spirit is a contemporary term, adopted in 1990 from the Northern Algonquin word niizh manitoag, meaning "two-spirits"; it is meant to signify the embodiment of both feminine and masculine spirits within one person. This pan-Indian term is used contemporarily to connote diverse gender and sexual identities among AIAN and Canadian First Nations people.
People of Two Spirit gender functioned as crafts-people, shamans, medicinegivers, mediators, and/or social workers. In many American Indian communities, men and women styles of speech were distinct; sometimes even different dialects were spoken. The Two Spirit people knew how to speak both in the men and women’s ways. They were the only ones allowed to go between the men’s and the women’s camps. They brokered marriages, divorces, settled arguments, and fostered open lines of communication between the sexes.