Indigenous Identity: Your Guide to Understanding Two Spirit People

two spirit

Two spirit people have been noticed in at least 155 different tribes across North America. But where does the term “two spirit” come from and what does it mean?

Even if you think you have heard all the different LGBTQ definitions, you may not have heard of two spirit people. That’s because this group is small and specific, and has been underground for the last century.

Are you curious about the meaning and spiritual significance of two spirited indigenous people? Keep reading for more information.

What Does Two Spirit Mean?

Two spirit is a term used specifically by indigenous people groups. So it has not been clearly defined in popular media the way other minority gender expressions have. Some may not have ever heard the term, and yet the idea has been around longer than western culture.

The idea of a person being born with two spirits, meaning both masculine and feminine spirits, dates back far into indigenous history. Like people who identify as non-binary, these people are neither male nor female but a third gender different from the others. In some cases, they would classify two spirit people born with female anatomy even further into a fourth gender.

Native peoples assign special significance to the role of two spirit people. Many tribes considered them balance bringers. They gave them particular roles, like healers, medicine people, or ceremonial leaders.

Are Two Spirit People LGBTQ?

While a two spirited person may also identify as gay or queer, they are not exactly the same. A person being two spirited refers more to them having both masculine and feminine spirits within themselves. They also take on a specific third or fourth gendered role in their society. The focus is on the fluidity of gender rather than on same-sex attraction.

There are definitely overlaps between LGBTQ people and two spirit indigenous people. Two spirit embraces more of a spectrum of gender and sexuality rather than strict definitions.

The University of Toronto recently changed their LGBT research division to be “Re:Searching for LGBTQ2S+ Health.” This explicitly includes two spirit people in their name.

Special Role of Two Spirit People

Two spirited people would often take a spouse of the same biological gender as them, so that the balance would remain in the partnership. For instance, a two spirit person who was born with female anatomy would likely take on a masculine role in the society such as hunting. Then, they would marry a more feminine woman who could take on the other half of the work that would normally be assigned to women.

In the same way, a feminine person born with male anatomy would end up marrying a masculine man. In this way, there was a lot of overlap with homosexuality, but the tribes did not consider these marriages to be unusual in any way. The emphasis would not be on whether this was a “man” marrying another man but on the two spirit nature of the person’s gender.

Androgyny was considered a strength. Having both the spirit of masculinity and the spirit of femininity made the person more well-rounded, This meant they were able to perform a variety of functions, and even more spiritual than others.

Two Spirit People as Spiritual Leaders

According to the Northeast Two-Spirit Society, two spirited people were known as spiritual leaders in many tribes. They performed tasks such as:

  • Name giving
  • Match making
  • Creating love potions
  • Performing the sun dance
  • Bringing good luck
  • Being peace makers
  • Being medicine people

Two spirit people were also known to tell the future and be closely connected to their spirituality. Even some modern two spirit people have revived their role as a shamanic healer or psychic. They have embraced their role as a two spirit spiritual healer. At many modern gatherings of two spirit people, there is an emphasis on continuing spiritual traditions. These include saying particular prayers and doing community work for the tribe.

Significance in Indigenous History

While the term “two spirit” was coined in 1990, it is an umbrella term that covers a variety of expressions of gender and sexuality throughout indigenous history. You could find two spirit people in many tribes before there was a phrase to describe the idea.

Many tribes still have their own words that they would prefer to use, but they all fall under the two spirit expression.

For example, the Maidu people referred to two spirit people as Osa’pu or Suku. The Lakota people used the term winkte, and the Navajo people would say nadleeh. All these terms referred to the same general idea.

The knowledge of two spirit people went away for a long time thanks to the efforts of missionaries and boarding schools. These colonizing forces made indigenous children fit a certain European-style gender mold. Often, two spirit children were forced to perform a western idea of the gender role they were assigned.

The damage of colonization affected all native American children who went through it. But two spirit people in particular were singled out and forced into gender role boxes that they did not fit. As a result, this traditional view of the complexity of gender went underground for a long time to protect the indigenous people who were at risk in an excessively gendered western society.

Recently, with the coining of the umbrella term “two spirit” to describe this tradition and make people aware of it, there have been increased efforts in the indigenous community to renew what was an honored societal role. For instance, there is an organization called 2-Spirits that provides community and resources for those who identify as two spirited.

Two Spirits, One Voice

Two spirit people are not a creation of modern society but an ancient and honored societal role that provides value. Their voice deserves to be heard and listened to. Hopefully, as more people are made aware of the history of this concept, it will provide safer spaces for indigenous people who identify as two spirited.

Please keep browsing to find out more about ancient and modern expressions of spirituality.

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