LGBTQIA2S people have existed on Turtle Island since time immemorial. We did not arrive on these shores during the white invasion, and queer marriage did not first occur here because of the political actions of non-Natives. In fact, our queerness was placed under threat by the arrival of white people.
Over 500 years of genocide, forced assimilation, and Christianity have left many Two Spirits without a home, both within our tribal nations and the larger white society, including the LGBTQIA2S community. Despite living on the margins, we have persevered and are representing our Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S relatives through our political resistance and cultural revival.
As we enter into Pride month under a particularly tyrannical administration, it’s crucial that the lives of Two Spirit People, both past and present, are recognized and honored. By acknowledging not only our existence, but the centuries of our resistance to the white, heterosexist, gender binary, we move closer to the decolonization of Turtle Island and completion of the circle our ancestors began for us.
What Does Two Spirit Mean?
Two Spirit is an umbrella English language term that refers to non-binary gender identities that were present in some tribal nations pre-invasion.
Many Indigenous nations have multiple genders and names for those who fall outside the gender binary. Candi Brings Plenty Wakinyan Tuwanpi Iwoanpa (Bright Lightening Woman) Cante Mikeyla Win (Woman Close to My Heart) of the Oglala Sioux and CEO of the Two Spirit Nation, said there were traditionally seven genders and a gender-free designation within her/their people. The Diné (Navajo) have the Nadleeh, Apaches the Nde’isdzan, and the Tsalagi (Cherokee) have the Asegi, to name a few.
One cannot be Two Spirit if they’re not Indigenous. Artist and Indigenous Trans rights activist, Marcy Angeles (Chiricahua Apache, Guamares Indian and Aztec) described being Two Spirit as a “blessing.”
“Being Two Spirit is being bestowed with the gift of sight and feeling. Two Spirits have the gift of seeing from both a male and female [sic] perspective and so in many cases it is easier to see into others as we can see into ourselves,” said Angeles.
Psychotherapist and musician, Marca Cassity (Osage Nation), described her/their role as a Two Spirited person as “a purpose to bring balance and healing in my communities.”
Before the European invasion, Two Spirit people held roles of importance in their nations that included being medicine men, performing caretaker duties for orphaned children, participating in warfare, serving as ambassadors in negotiations with the illegally occupied United States government, and holding important roles in ceremony. Elton Naswood, a Two Spirit “gay male” and member of the Navajo Nation, said that as a Nadleeh he often finds himself in the role of the “negotiator” with his family and friends and playing both “male” and “female” roles in ceremony. The “Nadleeh are sought out because we’re able to transgress in these different roles and activities. It is a blessing … to be able to do these things in ceremonial fashion.”
A History of Violence Under Settler Colonialism
Despite the reverence of Two Spirit people in Native nations, many have had to hide who we are due to the violence we have suffered under colonialism. Post-invasion conquistadors and Bureau of Indian Affairs agents alike targeted Two Spirits. They tortured, killed, incarcerated, and forced us to conform to eurocentric gender roles.
Under Spanish rule, many Two Spirit people were thrown into pits of starved dogs and eaten alive. Missionaries also played a large role in the attempted eradication of our multi-gendered ways. They forced the eurocentric gender dichotomy onto Indigenous people, which also played a role in loss of culture and land.
Judy Tall Wing, the first international Ms. Leather and an elder (Apache, Tewa [Pueblo], and African), was born in an encampment in the mountains of Arizona where she and her family resisted the control of the U.S. government. Her grandfather entered the encampment after his first family was murdered in the “Indian wars.” Tall Wing is a survivor of the boarding school era as well. It was while in these schools that she realized her attraction to women. “The nuns tried to shame me and did their best to ‘straighten’ me out, even placing me in a solitary confinement for almost a year,” Tall Wing said.
Angeles said that during earlier years of colonization, the Apache elders and community members hid the Nde’isdzan in order to protect them from the Christians that “found us to be abominations and began to murder us.”
The violence against Two Spirit people by settlers did not remain in the past. Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, a Trans, Lakota woman of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, was the second Transgender person found murdered in 2017. Wounded Arrow’s body was found only six days into the new year. According to Brings Plenty, Two Spirit people’s murders were not counted or recognized by the Trans Day of Remembrance or the list of murdered Trans people until 2017. Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, while sadly not the first murdered, was the first to be recognized outside of Native communities.
Two Spirit People in LGBTQIA2S Culture
The activities and rights of the LGBTQIA2S community in the United States have come to fruition on Indigenous soil, often without tribal consultation or active engagement with the Two Spirit community, and even come at the expense of the community. From white, gay men, such as Walter L. Williams, who made a living off our backs, to the overwhelmingly non-Native led Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Pride parades and festivals, Two Spirits are rarely recognized, let alone honored.
Many Pride parades not only lack Indigenous inclusion, but often accept sponsorship from entities that are actively harming Indigenous communities. Washington D.C.’s Capital Pride Parade came under scrutiny in 2017 by the No Justice No Pride coalition, which led to numerous protests, marches, and the blockading of the parade three times.
DeLesslin George-Warren (Catawba Indian Nation) was one of the participants who blocked the Wells Fargo float in the Capital Pride Parade. When asked how he sees Indigenous LGBTQIA2S representation in the mainstream community, he gave a pained reply regarding the devastatingly high rates of Native teen suicide, particularly for LGBTQIA2S teens:
I can’t express the sense of heartbreak and hopelessness this situation has created in many of the youth I’ve worked with. We are in the midst of a devastating tragedy and where is the HRC? Where are these national organizations who have millions of dollars to put towards marriage equality? LGBTQIA native people are dying and WHERE ARE THEY?
Two Spirit People in Contemporary Native Community
As a result of colonialism and assimilation policies, some members and leaders of tribal nations have forgotten their multi-gendered relatives and have adopted heteropatriarchy, a combined institutional oppression based upon white, Christian ideas of gender and heterosexual roles. One example of this is the passage of the now-overturned Cherokee Nation Marriage and Family Act, by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. This law banned marriage between two people of the same gender despite the fact that Asegis have long been a part of the culture and Cherokee marriages pre-invasion were not based upon heteropatriarchial notions of gender and sexuality.
As Cassity noted in an interview though, “We have to remember that lateral violence is one of the consequences of having one’s culture decimated; it’s an expression of trauma.” While painful and not traditional, the bigotry that Two Spirit people experience from some Natives is due to all that Indigenous people have suffered under white settler colonialism. The boarding school era, criminalization of spiritual practices, the replacement of our traditional ways of governing with the white man’s democracy, and more have contributed to the loss of our traditional ideas of gender has resulted in lateral violence that is now all too common in our community.
Two Spirit People Completing the Circle
Two Spirit people have always been active participants in our tribal nations and community. We are artists, healers, teachers, organizers, health-care advocates, warriors, and so much more. Where there are Indigenous people, we are present. Nowhere in recent history have we been more visible than at the Two Spirit Camp at Oceti Sakowin. Courage (Oglala Lakota and Mestizo) founded the Two Spirit Camp when he first visited Oceti Sakowin. Brings Plenty took the seed that Courage planted and grew the camp into the Two Spirit Nation. Under her direction, Indigenous LGTBQIA2S people played an important role in the spiritual aspects of the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as in the daily operations of the larger camp. Since the closure of the camps at Standing Rock, many of the Two Spirit people have traveled to other campsites in order to resist other resource extraction projects.
In the words of Brings Plenty, “The front line is wherever you’re standing because your oppressors are everywhere, as long as you are still here trying to maintain your Indigenous identity.”
Reviving our stories, traditions, and roles as multi-gendered Indigenous people is how we resist our oppressors. It’s how we will overcome settler colonialism and complete the sacred circle.