wo-Spirits were the first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Asexual+ people of the so called "American" continent. However, we are much more than that. We are healers, we are language keepers, we are artists, we are farmers, we are many things... To be Two-Spirit means much more than just being an LGBTQIA+ Native. It is a community role. Through the lie of neoliberalism, the LGBTQIA+ movement has added a 2 at the end of the long acronym of sexual orientations, romantic orientations, and gender identities. They've added a pan-Indigenous cultural term in a box we don't belong in. Examining Two-Spirit history, the colonial and anti-Native mistreatment within the LGBTQIA+ movement, and contemporary use, rejection, and evolution of the term, this piece aims to teach the importance of not assimilating Two-Spirits into LGBTQIA+ culture, and instruct on ways to uplift the Two-Spirit Diaspora instead through Two-Spirit Sovereignty.
Each Indigenous culture of the “American” continent has their own understanding of gender, and each culture has their own process of dealing with the forms of violence that oppress Two-Spirits. It has recently been popularized that, “Traditionally, Two Spirit people held positions within their tribes that earned them great respect,” but this itself is homogenization. While in some cases it is sometimes true, such as the Muxe of the Zapotec people of what is now known as Mexico who are an integrated third gender people as part of their communities, as well as the Machi Weye of the Mapuche people of lands now known as Chile and Argentina who are taken as spiritual leaders; however, some Indigenous people, such as the Mexica (also known as the Aztec), had harsh laws against Two-Spirits, who were exiled, punished, or murdered, all prior to European colonization. Indigenous communities are diverse, and so their treatment of Two-Spirit people has also been diverse throughout history.
However, with the arrival of the Spanish, and subsequently the English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and others, Two-Spirit genocide became law across the continent. Such as in the writing known as the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century ethnographic research study in Mesoamerica drawn and recorded by Nahua writers, and guided by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. In Book X of the Florentine Codex, the death penalties for having various Two-Spirit identities are detailed, including the burning and hanging of patlache (Intersex) and xochihua (Transgender) Two-Spirits. Though the Codex is celebrated as a view into “pre-colonial life”, the inclusion of burning as a form of punishment suggests influence from the Spanish culture and Christian faith. Another example is in 1512, Vasco Núñez de Balboa ordered the murder of 40 Cueva-Quaraqua Two-Spirits in present day Panama, where he had them eaten alive by trained dogs. His atrocities were celebrated with more trained assassins to help aid him in the further colonization of the Americas; many colonizers have called for the genocide of Two-Spirits, and just like Balboa, are celebrated worldwide.
The stories of Two-Spirit Ancestors and our Two-Spirit siblings remind us to keep pushing for decolonization. Stories such as that of Kauxuma Nupika, a Kootenai Two-Spirit Trans Man who after a year of marriage to a white cis man, returned to his tribe and declared he was a Transgender Man. Discovering through his marriage that he was not a heterosexual woman attracted to men, instead, he was a heterosexual man attracted to women, he flirted with all the single Women in his tribe, and was later feared by many who opposed him. Also, the story of Zuni Imahanna We’Wha, who traveled to Washington D.C. to represent her nation at the White House. History says that the United States president assumed she was a cisgender Woman.
There is also the story of the gathering of LGBTQIA+ Natives in Manitoba, where the spirit-name Two-Spirit was born in 1990, coined by Fisher River Cree Nation Elder Dr. Myra Laramee. The spirit-name Two-Spirit felt right to so many LGBTQIA+ Natives present at the gathering, that the it spread very quickly. And of course, the historic presence of Two-Spirit Nation at the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in 2016 was a big turning point for Two-Spirit visibility, not only in Indian Country, but across the United States colonies and internationally. Water Protectors from Two-Spirit Nation were on the front lines, praying, cooking, sharing stories, reporting, and defending the water along with non-Two-Spirit people. Though Two-Spirit erasure can never be overcome under colonialism, Two-Spirit Nation was present at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Two-Spirits have left their mark in our history, and continue to uplift Two-Spirit Nation.
Though Two-Spirit people have existed on this continent since time immemorial, LGBTQIA+ activism is often framed as a European-inspired ideology. Indigenous communities are often labeled homophobic and transphobic by white LGBTQIA+ activists who shame communities of color as machista and hyper masculine, without taking into consideration colonization of ideology. Safe Spaces are created to be supportive environments for people who experience gender identity and sexual orientation outside the cisheteromative scope. However, these Safe Spaces do not honor the diversity of the “community”, and members are often made to choose between a safe place for their gender identity and sexual orientation, and a safe place for their culture outside of that Safe Space.
Assimilation into the LGBTQIA+ community often means access to affirming health care, community, and safety. Many times, when Two-Spirits, especially Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Two-Spirits, visit a doctor (if it is even accessible), they experience microaggressions and discrimination based on presentation, gender expression, class, race, language access, or ethnicity. This lack of cultural competency add an extra layer of difficulty for many Two-Spirits to have access to to their medical needs, such as: Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), HIV medication, gynecological health, family/reproductive health, psychology, and so much more. Very few medical organizations are honoring the needs of Two-Spirit patients, and some have even appropriated the term Two-Spirit to conduct business for LGBTQIA+ communities. Simple access is a huge challenge for Two-Spirit people.
A vast majority of Two-Spirits have left their ancestral homes and communities to live in other places. Transmisogyny instigates migration, where Trans people are forced to leave their homes to seek safety. From “urban Indians” to the “migrant caravan”; Trans, Intersex, and Queer Natives are being forced into the Two-Spirit Diaspora by the violence the world offers. Even through migration and assimilation, its important to understand the importance of allowing Two-Spirits their own Two-Spirit Spaces, where they can honor all of their identities. It’s also important for non-Two-Spirits to honor Two-Spirit History, Survival, and Communities, and allow Two-Spirit freedom from assimilation to exist. Through Two-Spirit Sovereignty, the authority of Two-Spirits to dictate for ourselves who we are and what are needs are, non-Two-Spirit people can learn to deconstruct their own internalized colonialism.
The term Two-Spirit is an English word, with origin on lands colonized by English-speaking people. However, this spirit-name is meant to describe Indigenous LGBTQIA+ people across cultures and languages. The colonizer language English is limiting, which is why terms in Indigenous languages, if known, become particularly important. Though Two-Spirit may not encompass all the meanings in Indigenous languages, the term is meant for Pan-Indigenous Solidarity. Through this spirit-name, LGBTQIA+ Natives are able to organize, heal, and resist together.
In contemporary times, Two-Spirit people are often rejected by their communities, and seek refuge in urban spaces where intertribal gatherings happen. Because of this diaspora, Two-Spirit Nation was born; and Two-Spirit Nation has gained visibility through Two-Spirit societies, resistance camps, and land projects. As well as through the creation of safe spaces and healing grounds, within predominantly non-Two-Spirit spaces.
The term has even made its way into the Indigenous LGBTQIA+ diaspora from the lands colonized as “Latin America”, with people translating English-language articles about Two-Spirit history into Spanish. Groups such as Trans-Latinx DMV, a member of the TransLatin@ Coalition, are using the term “Dos-Espiritus” to increase visibility for Trans Native migrants and refugees from Central America. English-speaking members of organizations use their access to two colonizer tongues to bridge the gap between both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking monolingual Indigenous LGBTQIA+ people.
There are even LGBTQIA+ Native American people who reject the term all together, choosing to identify solely with their Nation and with their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Pan-Indigenous term may fail them because it may feel like they are distancing themselves from their birth Nation. Some of these LGBTQIA+ Natives may feel that Two-Spirit identity is homogenization into a term they never agreed on, nor do they feel connected to. Still others may have never even heard the term before in their lives. All of these people’s identities are a valid part of the Two-Spirit/LGBTQIA+ Native Diaspora.
Where there is Two-Spirit Sovereignty, there is sovereignty of the people and the land. To achieve these needs more efficiently, one must learn how to center Two-Spirits in all movements. When Two-Spirits are centered, we are given the space and safety to express our ideas, our needs, and our goals. In turn, accomplices are now open to decolonial organizing and a clearer path to their freedom. Accomplices often fail to meet the needs of Two-Spirits both within and outside of LGBTQIA+ spaces. Within the community, Two-Spirits are rarely mentioned. When we are, it’s in an white liberal manner, uncaring, ill-informed, and “oh yea, them too” type of way. This is clearly due to erasure leaving Two-Spirits on the side lines and people not truly knowing our needs. Accomplices assume our needs are the same as non-indigenous Queer and Transgender people. This is ineffective to our growth and survival. More often than not, the needs of Two-Spirits are ancestral and nature given. They just need the resources to access them. Two-Spirits need accomplices to give up resources, be it land, financial capital, Indigenous herbs they’ve grown or all the above plus some. It is a way to heal the land, it’s original people, and those who share in it’s bounty.
Recognizing the difference in the needs of Two-Spirit communities from mainstream LGBT+ and Native American communities is not only important, but necessary for the liberation of this continent. Creating access and mobilizing resources for Two-Spirits will not only support Two-Spirit people, but will also help heal the land, and fix the spiritual imbalance brought on by colonization, transphobia, homophobia, intersex genocide, asexual erasure, and all the other violence Two-Spirits face. Assimilation will not save any community, especially not Two-Spirit communities because assimilation asks us to dismiss a part of ourselves, whenever that part may be. Allies and Accomplices must learn to hold space for our needs, without interpreting those needs into their own words. They must learn that we are a diaspora, a displaced people, and they must learn that only Two-Spirits know what is best for Two-Spirits.
Though the term Two-Spirit is relatively new, Indigenous LGBTQIA+ people of the American continent are not. Our struggles are unique, and come with historic scars, but the resiliency of our communities against colonization, leads the way for Two-Spirit Nation. Through the adoption or rejection of the spirit-name Two-Spirit, and the historic place of Two-Spirits in the LGBTQIA+ community, demands for Two-Spirit Sovereignty. Two-Spirit Liberation requires that Two-Spirit people be centered, uplifted, and revered, and it is through this way that the Two-Spirit Diaspora can continue to exist. Through the colonization of our lands, our identities, and our bodies, non-Two-Spirits are ensuring the extinction of Two-Spirit people. However, despite colonization: Two-Spirits are still here, we have always been here, and we will always be here.