he popular take on “how the West was won” evokes images of rowdy cowboys and brave Indians slugging it out, with the noble but obsolete Indians gradually falling back and fading away before the military might of the Europeans, and the moral force of “manifest destiny,” the principle that the white American has a God-given mandate to conquer and rule the entire temperate zone of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. All the while the Indian is seen as faithfully paired off with his “squaw,” and the cowboy or the soldier as getting his rocks off on the run in the local bordello, under the tough but benign gaze of the hard-nosed madam: “Wham, bam, thank you m’am!”

Whatever may be the merits of that colonial mentality, still prevalent de facto and de jure throughout the U.S., the fact is that this image has little to do with how either the victor or the vanquished lived. But only a handful of scholars are likely to be aware of the rich veins of homoerotic tradition pervading the culture of the invaders as well as that of the First Nations whose lands they barged through. Of the intimate friendships and love affairs among cowboys we will have little to say here. And of the furtive kisses between soldiers, Walt Whitman has already said a great deal.



For the moment the ancient patterns of male love woven through the fiber of almost every (yes, variety allowed even for the occasional homophobic tribe) Native culture on the American continent is of greater interest. The many forms of this tradition have until recently been lumped by historians under the rubric of berdachism, “berdache” being defined by Webster’s Dictionary as a “homosexual male – an American Indian transvestite assuming more or less permanently the dress, social status, and role of a woman.”

Not surprisingly, the experience of Native peoples is something other than either the popular or the professional stereotype. Though it would be presumptuous to claim to represent its essence from the perspective of an outsider, we can still look at certain features of two-spirit life in Native cultures, features that delineate how First Nations peoples integrated individuals with uncommon gender identity into their society.

The first step on the path to a two-spirit life was taken during childhood. The Papago ritual is representative of this early integration: 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. “They watched what he took with him as he ran out, and if it was the basketry materials they reconciled [sic] themselves to his being a berdache.” [1]

The Mohave ritual, usually carried out when the child is between the ages of nine and twelve, has a different form, but keeps the central element of allowing the child’s nature to manifest itself: A singing circle is prepared, unbeknownst to the boy, involving the whole community as well as distant friends and relatives. On the day of the ceremony everyone gathers round and the boy is led into the middle of the circle. If he remains there, the singer, hidden in the crowd, begins to sing the ritual songs and the boy, if he is destined to follow the two-spirit road, starts to dance in the fashion of a woman. “He cannot help it,” say the Mohave. After the fourth song the boy is declared to be a two-spirit person and is raised from then on in the appropriate manner. [2]

What manner was that? It consisted of teaching the young boy to do women’s work as well as that reserved for men. He would also spend time with healers, often two-spirit people themselves. Above all, his childhood was marked by acceptance and understanding. That did not necessarily insulate the boy from being ribbed about his ‘otherness.’ Joseph Quinones, the cousin of a Yaqui two-spirit youth, relates that: “One time we kids got down on him for not being typically masculine, but my Great Aunt, who is the clan matriarch, came down on us real strongly. She said it was part of his character and we should respect him.” [3]

In recent times that pattern of acceptance has been undermined by the boarding school education forced upon native children, by the influence of Christian missionaries, and increasingly by the encroachment of television into the psychic space of the tribe, with the result that two-spirit people are more and more being viewed with suspicion by the less traditionalist in their community. Robert Stoller observes the “… deterioration in American Indians of techniques for ritualizing cross-gender behavior. No longer is a place provided for the role – more, the identity – of a male-woman, the dimensions of which are fixed by customs, rules, tradeoffs and responsibilities. The tribes have forgotten. Instead, this role appears as a ghost.” [4]

All tribes were aware of the existence of two-spirit people, and each still has a name for them. The Dinéh (Navaho) refer to them as nàdleehé one who is ‘transformed’, the Lakota (Sioux) as winkte, the Mohave as alyha, the Zuni as lhamana, the Omaha as mexoga, the Aleut and Kodiak as achnucek, the Zapotec as ira’ muxe, the Cheyenne as he man eh. [5]  This abundance of terms testifies to the familiarity of Native Americans with gender-variant people. For proof of the sacred role they held, and hold, in Native society we again turn to Native sources. Terry Calling Eagle, a Lakota man, recounts: “Winktes have to be born that way. People know that a person is going to become a winkte very early in his life. At about age twelve parents will take him to a ceremony to communicate with past winktes who had power, to verify if it is just a phase or a permanent thing for his lifetime. If the proper vision takes place, and communication with a past winkte is established, then everybody accepts him as a winkte.” [6]

Claire R. Farrer, an anthropologist who has “gone native” in the best sense of the term, reports on the present situation among the Mescalero Apache: “Multigendered adult people at Mescalero are usually presumed to be people of power. Because they have both maleness and femaleness totally entwined in one body, they are known to be able to ‘see’ with the eyes of both proper men and proper women. They are often called upon to be healers, or mediators, or interpreters of dreams, or expected to become singers or others whose lives are devoted to the welfare of the group. If they do extraordinary things in any aspect of life, it is assumed that they have the license and power to do so and, therefore, they are not questioned.” [7]

In everyday life the two-spirit male typically would wear women’s clothes and do women’s work. He would be accepted as “one of the girls.” He might take a husband from among the men of the tribe, or might have affairs with several, or both. Generally two-spirit males were not expected to have sexual relations with women. None of these “rules” however were ironbound. [8]  Again and again we see that variation from the norm, change, transformation, and fluidity of roles for those who felt called to that path was welcomed and appreciated. Here we have to confront a very real epistemological problem: it is impossible to define precisely what two-spirit experience is. Though all agree such individuals exist, “the particulars of that identity remain variable.” [9]  We may have to content ourselves with the explanation offered by P.K., one of Carolyn Epple’s Dinéh teachers, who said that we need to “… see nàdleehé as human beings responding to situations.” [10]

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

As mentioned before, many of the ancient two-spirit ways are no longer being practiced. Nonetheless Native two-spirit peoples are experiencing a re-awakening to the validity, and to the cultural and spiritual roots, of their inner calling. Many who, as a result of the cultural scorched-earth policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had sought escape from isolation and rejection by adopting modern “gay” identities are now reconnecting with their heritage by way of groups like the Native Gay and Lesbian Gathering. They are re-interpreting their identity in terms dictated neither by white culture nor by ancient customs, or perhaps by both. The result is a mix peculiarly their own, which by breaking with both traditional as well as modern forms remains true to the essence of the two-spirit life. As Michael Red Earth tells it: “In today’s world it is easy to become confused by titles: gay, straight, bi, winkte or queer. For me, once I realized that my family was responding to me and interacting with me with respect and acceptance, and once I realized that this respect and acceptance was a legacy of our traditional Native past, I was empowered to present my whole self to the world and reassume the responsibilities of being a two-spirited person.” [11]

Though, due to the nature of this site, the discussion so far has been limited to the male experience in Native American societies, this should not be construed to mean that the two-spirit path was, or is, closed to women. If any conclusion can be drawn from what we know about gender variation in traditional Native society it is that gender flexibility in any individual is welcomed as a rare and precious aspect of human experience, a special talent to live life in a fresh, spontaneously authentic way that enriches and empowers the lives of all in the community. It is a lasting testament to the psychological sophistication of Native tribes that they recognized two-spirit people as being engines of creativity, change and innovation (much as they have been in other cultures and continue to be in ours) and co-operated in creating the sacred space in which such people could manifest. As Joe Medicine Crow, a Crow traditionalist, told Walter Williams, “We don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift.” [12]

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Andrew Calimach, World History of Male Love, "Homosexual Traditions", The Two-Spirit Traditon, 2000 <http://www.gay-art-history.org/gay-history/gay-customs/native-american-homosexuality/two-spirit-native-american-gay.html>

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