Travis Sky Ingersoll, PH.D., MSW, M.ED. - Social Work & Sexual Health Education/Consulting/Research
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Q: I just learned a little about Native American two-spirited people. Is being transgender and being a two-spirit the same thing?

A: What we know about trans-related (i.e., transgender, transsexual, intersex) topics has grown significantly over recent years. However, individuals who identify as being neither “male” nor “female” or of being something entirely different, a third gender if you will, is a human reality depicted in our earliest writings and artworks. Before getting to the answer, I feel it’s necessary to provide a brief historical background of indigenous American Two-Spirit people.
Throughout North and South America, many of the native population’s creation myths
appear to have led to the establishment of egalitarian gender roles within their societies.
Where western ideologies, based primarily on Christianity, emphasized a singular male
god, most indigenous North and South American cultures emphasized the importance of both male and female deities. Under the moral authority of western religion, women were considered inferior, whereas with most Native American cultures women were viewed as equals to men (Bonvillain, 1989; Picchi, 2003; Tannahil, 1982).
In Eskimo culture the most powerful deity was called Sedna. She was responsible for
ensuring the survival of the Eskimo people through the yearly creation of the sea-life on which they depended. Navajo people stressed the importance of women’s fertility, and of the spiritual bond between mother and child. Many Navajo mythical stories involve
mother figures, such as the “Changing Woman,” who came when early humans lost their
ability to reproduce. She mated with the Sun, producing twins, who eventually gave birth
to all Navajo clans. Among the Iroquois, symbolism of female fertility and power was
also expressed through their creation myths. According to Iroquois legend the female
figure, “Aataensic,” was responsible for creating all life and is honored for being the
caretaker of human souls (Bonvillain, 1989).
Although some Native American religions talk of great female deities responsible for
giving and sustaining life, many stress that the great spiritual beings were neither male
nor female, but a combination of both (Powers, 2000; Williams, 1983).  This way of thinking about gender has been documented in over 155 American Indian tribes that revered the Two-Spirits. Within the two-spirited person, the creators are said to have instilled the spirit of both man and woman, creating a third gender, who act as intermediaries between the polarities of male and female. The Two-Spirits were said to have been created for the purpose of improving society through their creative ingenuity, their spiritual power, and their ability to act as go-betweens for addressing relationship issues between men and women (Williams, 1983). 
There were many tales of women engaged in tribal warfare and who married other women, as there were men who married other men.  Such individuals were often viewed as a third and fourth gender, and in almost all cultures they were honored and revered. Two-spirit people were often the healers, the visionaries, the medicine people, the care-givers and the nannies of orphans. They were respected as fundamental components of their cultures and societies (Roscoe, 1988).
Around the 16th century, the egalitarianism of most Native American peoples would
come under attack with the arrival of foreigners upon their shores. The European
emphasis on Christianity and male dominance would permanently alter the lives of most
indigenous Americans. When the Spanish explorers arrived in South America they
quickly began to push their agenda of male supremacy and sexual oppression, which had
a disastrous effect on the status of South American women (Picchi, 2003; Powers, 2000;
Tannahil, 1982).
Under the Spanish colonial regime, women would become stripped of their autonomy,
and the gender-parallelism that governed the Inca society would be left in ruins. The
Spanish, being a patriarchal war-like society, was built upon a foundation of Christian
evangelicalism. The Spanish soldiers and missionaries would not tolerate women
holding power economically, politically and/or religiously. As a result, women began to
lose their status on all levels. Their matrilineal access to resources was obliterated, being
replaced by male-centered organizations. Although women did put up resistance, and
used whatever means were at their disposal, over time the Inca men would come to internalize the male-centered ideologies of their conquerors, which led to a pervasive
atmosphere of male-superiority (Powers, 2000).
On the continents of North and South America, the constant stream of incoming colonizers would also significantly alter the gender roles of the indigenous populations. Christian missionaries, like those in South America, preached of strict gender roles and the
subjugation of women. Within this atmosphere of sexual suppression there was no place
for the Two-Spirits, who through western eyes were nothing more than sinful sodomites
(Williams, 1986).  Two-spirited people were viewed as an abomination, which was just the kind of justification the colonizers used when ordering the torture and killing of two-spirited people.  In fact, all expressions of gender variance were oppressively
Just as with the invasion of South America, the patriarchal ideologies of North
American colonizers persistently eroded the status of Native American women. Male
dominance was preached and even forced upon the indigenous peoples through
government-funded re-education programs. This pressured assimilation eventually
resulted in Native American rejection of cross-gender roles (i.e. a third gender/two-spirited), and the adoption of the male-centered ideologies of the colonists. Over time, as western colonization spread, the traditional gender-allocated system of reciprocal labor would be replaced by a market in which the demand for male-labor dominated. So not only was the spiritual role of women depreciated through the emphasis of a supreme male God, but women’s means of contributing equally to their people’s livelihood was also stripped away (Bonvillain, 1989; Williams, 1986).
Now that you know a little about the history of Native American two-spirited people, let’s examine the definition of transgender.  The word “transgender” means different things depending on whom you ask.  At its most basic level, “transgender” is a word that applies to anyone who doesn’t fit within society’s standards of how a man or a woman is expected to look or act.  The term “transgender” may be used to describe an individual assigned the sex of female at birth, but later in life realizes that label doesn’t exactly reflect who they feel they are inside.  Such an individual may now live their life as a man, or they may feel that their gender identity cannot be accurately summed up by either of the two strictly defined gender options available (male or female).  They may feel like they’re in between those two options (both male and female), or that they’re outside of the dichotomous two-gender system.  In other words, they may neither feel male nor female, but something completely different.
So, back to the question. Is being transgender and being two-spirited the same thing?  I’d have to say yes, being two-spirited is one form of being transgender.  Transgender people have been with us from the beginning, and will be until the end, regardless of the mechanisms of social oppression aimed at enforcing the dichotomized, heterosexist, homophobic and sexist gender ideologies pushed upon us through educational, political, and religious institutions. Now you know:)
Bonvillain, N. (1989). Gender relations in native North America. American Indian
     Culture and Research Journal, 13:2, 1-28.
Picchi, D. (2003). Unlikely Amazons: Brazilian indigenous gender constructs in a
     modern context. History and Anthropology, 14:1, 23-39.  
Powers, K. V. (2000). Andeans and Spaniards in the contact zone. American Indian
     Quarterly, 24, 511-536.
Roscoe, W. [Editor] (1988).  Living the spirit: A gay American Indian anthology. St.   
     Martin: St. Martin’s Press.
Tannahill, R. (1982) Sex in history. Briarcliff Manor, New York: Stein and Day
Williams, W. (1986). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian
     culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
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