Areas of Advice

  • No categories

The Advice Archive


Two-Spirit is a term for transgender people of native American origin who feel they have a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit living in the same body. Although it is a term which applies to Native Americans and has a spiritual connotation, it has historically been misappropriated by some members of the transgender community to represent someone who is bigender, or to refer to a transgender shaman. Occasionally it is used to refer to the gay culture in general in the Native American context.

Native American Culture and History of Two-Spirit

“Two-spirit” originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It comes from the Ojibwa words niizh manitoag (two-spirits). It was chosen to distance Native/First Nations people from non-Natives as well as from the words “berdache” and “gay“.

These individuals are often viewed as having two spirits occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles. They have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes. For instance, among the Lakota there was one ceremony during the Sun Dance that was performed only by a two-spirited person of that tribe. (See winkte)

Two-spirited individuals perform specific social functions in their communities. In some tribes male-bodied two-spirits were active as healers or medicine persons, gravediggers, undertakers, handling and burying of the deceased, conducted mourning rites, conveyers of oral traditions and songs, nurses during war expeditions, foretold the future, conferred lucky names on children or adults, wove, made pottery, made beadwork and quillwork, arranged marriages, made feather regalia for dances, special skills in games of chance, led scalp-dances, and fulfilled special functions in connection with the setting up of the central post for the Sun Dance. In some tribes female-bodied two-spirits typically took on roles such as chief, council, trader, hunter, trapper, fisher, warfare, raider, guides, peace missions, vision quests, prophets, and medicine persons.

Some examples of two-spirited people in history include the accounts by Spanish conquistadors who spotted a two-spirited individual(s) in almost every village they entered in Central America.

There are descriptions of two-spirited individuals having strong mystical powers. In one account, raiding soldiers of a rival tribe begin to attack a group of foraging women when they perceive that one of the women, the one that does not run away, is a two-spirit. They halt their attack and retreat after the two-spirit counters them with a stick, determining that the two-spirit will have great power which they will not be able to overcome.

Native people have often been perceived as “warriors,” and with the acknowledgement of two-spirit people that romanticized identity becomes broken. In order to justify this new “Indian” identity many explained it away as a “form of social failure, women-men are seen as individuals who are not in a position to adapt themselves to the masculine role prescribed by their culture” (Lang, 28). Lang goes on to suggest that two-spirit people lost masculine power socially, so they took on female social roles to climb back up the social ladder within the tribe.

Cross dressing of two-spirit people was not always an indicator of cross acting (taking on other gender roles and social status within the tribe). Lang explains “the mere fact that a male wears women’s clothing does not say something about his role behaviour, his gender status, or even his choice of partner…” (62). Often within tribes a child’s gender was decided depending on by either their inclination toward either masculine or feminine activities, or their intersex status. Puberty was about the time frame by which clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice.

Two-spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges. However, they also took on female roles such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities. Today’s societal standards look down upon feminine males, and this perception of that identity has trickled into Native society. The acculturation of these attitudes has created a sense of shame towards two-spirit males who live or dress as females and no longer wish to understand the dual lifestyle they possess.

Alternate spellings are “two spirit” and “twospirit.”

Sources/Recommended reading

[ * = most important ]

  • The Kutenai Female Berdache in Ethnohistory 12(3):193-236, 1965, by Claude E. Schaeffer
  • Blackfeet tales of Glacier National Park (1916) and Running Eagle (1919) by James W. Schultz
  • Changing Native American Roles in an Urban Context and Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context in Two-Spirit People [see below], pg. 145-148, by Beatrice Medicine *
  • The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures by Walter L. Williams
  • Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology by Will Roscoe
  • The Zuni Man-Woman by Will Roscoe
  • Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas by Richard C. Trexler *
  • Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang *
  • Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America by Will Roscoe *
  • Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures by Sabine Lang *
  • Oracle of the Two-Fold Deities by Craig Conley
  • The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer

External links