Two Spirit: My Journey Home
by Lynn Young (Lakota)
The only way I know to write about “Two Spirit” is to weave my own story with the stories of other Indigenous people of Turtle Island, the land now known as North America. I am drummer, drum maker, activist, educator, and artist of Lakota heritage. I have been in a same sex relationship for 17 years. My wife and I were married in Massachusetts in October of 2012, a marriage that our home state does not recognize as valid. I describe myself as an interfaith person, but my foundational spirituality is as a Native American Traditionalist.
What is Two Spirit?
Two-Spirit is an identity that encompasses being an Indigenous LGBTQ person -- and so much more. My identity places me at the intersection of the LGBTQ community and Indigenous culture, which is a unique place to be -- with a story rich in honour and complexity.
To be Two Spirit is to navigate gender, but not necessarily transgender experience. Certainly, an Indigenous person of transgender experience may identify as Two Spirit, but Indigenous lesbian, bisexual, and gay individuals may also identify under this broad label. There is also space here for Indigenous genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and other non-binary identified people.
To be Two Spirit is first and foremost to be Indigenous, connected to Native culture and rooted in our Indigenous histories. With the resurgence of traditional Indigenous teachings and cultural reclamation and preservation efforts, Two Spirit identities will also move with us into our futures.
Being Two Spirit means placing oneself within an Indigenous worldview that is altogether different than the colonial European society that has grown up around us. The Indigenous worldview is one that centers on gender expression and identity, not sexual orientation. The labels and concepts simply don’t line up.
Two Spirit is my gender. My Two Spirit identity informs how I interact with other Indigenous folks in a variety of contexts, guides how I engage with the world at large, and most importantly it influences how I experience, and am in relationship, with myself.
The Two Spirit gender construct is one where both masculine and feminine spirits coexist in one being. Each Two Spirit person carries their identity differently; it is experienced and expressed uniquely. If you gathered ten indigenous folks who identify as Two Spirit in a room (which is always awesome!) you would likely get as many interpretations of the term as you had individuals.
Many indigenous languages have specific words to identify the Two Spirit people among them. The Lakota have the “wikte,” the Crow have the “boté,” and the Navajo the “nádleehí.” Actually, these are not translations of “Two Spirit” at all. Each Native term has its own cultural meaning within that Nation’s history and traditions. The term “Two Spirit” is a modern term (circa 1990) that was coined as a way to have common language across the Two Spirit intertribal community.
As Two Spirit people, we differ in our gender identities and expressions. Tribal histories and traditions also differ. But the common threads for Two Spirit people are the honouring of Two Spirit people within tribal societies, and our indigeneity.
Before the European invaders hit the shores of the Americas, traditional Indigenous societies from all regions, from all language groups and living all manner of lifestyles (agrarian, hunter-gatherer, etc.) recognized and embraced individuals whose gender did not fall neatly into male or female, masculine or feminine. In fact there was no expectation that individuals should fit this either/or pattern. Indigenous views of gender in those days were broadly visioned, not binary. Sometimes three, four, five, or more genders were recognized in a particular culture, and all were accepted as normal components of the created order.
In pre-contact Native societies, the emphasis was not so much on placing people into categories, as it was about empowering the individual to fulfill one’s role in tribal society. There was a flexibility that enabled individuals to express their particular gifts in community. As a result, Two Spirit people were honoured in their societies, often performing sacred ceremonial and spiritual functions reserved only for Two Spirit people, such as shaman, medicinegivers, and interpreters. Two Spirit people were considered uniquely qualified to perform these and other sacred functions due to their perspectives and experiences walking the Two Spirit path.
The word “berdache” was used by Europeans who first encountered Indigenous / Native American individuals who do not fit into European gender expectation. Translations of the term from the early contact period range widely, though none of them are flattering. Even more importantly the use of “berdache” inaccurately caricatured Two Spirit people compared to how we were perceived by our tribal societies.
As a result, many Indigenous Two Spirit folk find the word “berdache” offensive. “The B Word” is something I avoid except to explain why I don’t use it -- because of the oppressive colonial baggage that it carries. Other Indigenous people make different choices and that is not a wrong thing. Self-determination is a key value in Native cultures, so we do not all have to agree on such things.
Historically, identities we now place under the Two Spirit label were viewed as a genders unique unto themselves, and many of us who identify as Two Spirit today also embrace this way of visioning gender. Despite what you may have heard, there is no one way to be transgender, no official lesbian way of being, and no rule book for being bisexual. Gender is unique and complex for everyone -- and the Native worldview makes space for these diverse realities.
So, there is no single Two Spirit identity. Language and understanding vary with the Indigenous cultural group, as well as from person to person. Different experiences of Two Spirit identity are simply understood as different ways of being Two Spirit, rather than introducing opposition or hierarchy. The priority, in terms of Indigenous worldviews, is that these experiences are authentic for the Indigenous individuals who live them.
Coming Home to Ourselves
Therefore, I can only speak for myself, for what the term Two Spirit means to me and the way being Two Spirit is experienced in my life. There is an innately female spirit within me, and a innately male spirit within me. They coexist. They are a team. They work in consort to inform what I do, how I walk in the world, and how I breathe from moment to moment. But, in the place where they come together deep in the core of my Isness, they have grown together; they are woven and twisted around each other in an entirely beautiful way. Two Spirits -- one solidly rooted core.
When I initially used the term Two Spirit to self-identify, it was a way of affirming both my identity as a member of the LGBTQ community and my Indigenous identity. My initial discovery of, and subsequent journey into a deeper understanding of my Indigenous identity, has occurred over time, with each additional footfall bringing me closer and closer to encountering my cultural home. The depth and rhythm of Two Spirit identity has also taken me to deeper understandings of myself.
Revealing these aspects of cultural identity and gender identity has been like scrubbing an old tile floor with a toothbrush and uncovering a fiercely beautiful mosaic. Each individual tile of understanding that is revealed contributes to my overall image of myself. This is process of engaging culture and gender in an increasingly Indigenous way.
In indigenous circles, the process of going about one’s identity path as a Two Spirit person, is not a process of coming out, so much as a process of coming in. Coming in - to our cultural and ancestral home. Coming in - to a deep understanding of the ancient histories and traditions associated with our Indigenous gender identity. Coming in - to the warmth of our cultural fires and finding nourishment there, finding home. The nourishment that I have found here, has empowered me to step into the circle with other Two Spirit leaders, and join in the work of restoring Two Spirit roles and functions that were erased from our cultural memory by colonization.
Now I identify as Two Spirit. Having taken this journey of discovery, Two Spirit is not merely an affirming label to claim my culture and my sexual orientation. Today, I claim Two Spirit as my actual gender -- not male or female, but an ancient non-binary gender identity uniquely and wholly Indigenous. This Two Spirit journey of self-discovery has been my journey home.
I have the honour of serving on the board of Transfaith and that connection has also brought rich conversation about what it means for me to identify as Two Spirit. In the Transfaith community, we recognize that many Two Spirit people are gender non-conforming compared to European gender expectations -- and yet quite traditional in terms of an Indigenous worldview.
We honor that, while these identities are not necessarily “transgender,” they remain a crucial and valuable part of an even larger multi-faith, cross-cultural conversation about gender diversity -- one which is too often overcome by simplistic European approaches to gender and sexual orientation. So with Transfaith, we are seeking to prioritize Two Spirit conversation about gender identity and expression, holding Sacred the notion that these conversations must be authentic and culturally appropriate, grounded in an Indigenous worldview.
We invite you to journey with us, weaving in your own stories and understandings.
This is a first in a series of Two Spirit Stories. Please join in the conversation. Read the Transfaith Call for Submissions with a special invitation to Two Spirit Communities -- or visit our editorial page.