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More on gender, Part 2: “Two-Spirit”

July 15, 2010

This is the topic I was intending to write about yesterday, before I got sidetracked by the More on gender, Part 1: Words post.

As I wrote at the end of that:

Increasingly, I’m finding myself identifying under the “Two-Spirit” umbrella. In spite of that Pan-Indian English label, which I discussed some before; it doesn’t necessarily make much sense to me, conceptually. More on why I find that description/movement appealing in a second post, though that was what I set out to write about this afternoon. 😉

Yep, the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I at least feel outwardly connected to the Pan-Indian Two-Spirit identification/movement. (Though I am far from the only one who has trouble with that English term, and has been confused as to how it’s applied.)

Qwo-Li Driskill* makes sense to me, in hir excellent SHAKING OUR SHELLS:
Cherokee Two-Spirits Rebalancing the World
(emphasis mine):

Specifically, because of the nature of this collection, I want to call together male-embodied Cherokee Two-Spirits to think about the very important obligations we have to rebalance gender systems through working to end sexism, transphobia, and queerphobia in our communities….

And since I brought up terminology, I would like to say to other Cherokee Two-Spirit people that we need to remember that gender systems before invasion and colonization were not the same as they are now. While we subsume same-sex relationships and gender “non-conformity” under the umbrella of “Two-Spirit,” it is difficult to say if these identities were linked together in the past. There are numerous experiences and identities that we shove under terms like “Two-Spirit” or “Queer” or “GLBT.” I’ve heard several different terms to talk about these identities in Cherokee, but I am going to use “Two-Spirit” as my umbrella term here, knowing that not all of us use this term for ourselves any more than all of us use any of the other terms available to us in English. All of these terms and ideas are slippery and complicated, but “Two-Spirit” carries with it a particular commitment to decolonization and Indigenous histories and identities that is at the center of this particular telling.

That last bit? The major reason I find it appealing. I really like the emphasis on decolonizing our own minds and spirits, and hopefully helping other people do so, as well.

One of the reasons I did not really see the term applying to me is the emphasis on queer and gender-variant male-bodied people. I can see how that came about, since they were and are the most threatening to colonizers’ worldviews, and got/get the most attention from both conquerors and anthropologists. (Who have tended not to be nearly as interested in women, anyway.) But, there have always been female-bodied people in similar situations, as detailed in the Two Spirit Women booklet (PDF), from a group in Toronto. An excellent point:

Many Aboriginal cultures had social roles for men and women that were clearly defined and restricted. Meaning that as a ‘career’ a woman might not hunt regularly for large game as men do, but she could hunt to feed her family if she had to. Thus, “female warriors were generally women who strove for masculine (social roles) without giving up their role in gender status”(Lang 303)…

Aboriginal women were the backbone of every Aboriginal culture doing most of the labour for survival (getting water, snaring smaller game, storing food, growing food, gathering food, curing hides, making clothes, carrying loads while moving, raising children, etc), and so it is not surprising that in some cultures, a man’s community standing relied upon his wife. This allowed for a way of life for women who did not want to marry men.11 They could become warriors and hunters and provide for their own family if they wanted, because they could already do most of the work(Lang 269). “In traditional cultures the ‘stay at home mom’ would have been a very cold and hungry woman”(Lavell-Harvard and Corbiere Lavell 5).

We’re looking at very different expected gender roles to begin with, before Europeans tried (too successfully, in most cases) to impose their own ideas on Native people. So much for essentialism, right there. Bear in mind that (mostly European) outside observers have tended to assume that gender expectations were (a) just as rigid as, and (b) similar to, the ones they were used to in their own societies. Just one display of universalism, and interpreting things in light of what you’re expecting to see–in many cases, what Barbara Mann has called ‘”Euro-forming the Data,” or cramming it into pre-existing western schema, whether or not it fits, by lopping off meaning here and denaturing ideas there, until the result feels comfortable to Europeans.’ Unexpected gender setup? Very tempting to Euroform into comprehensibility.

Of course, in some cultures–including my own Tutelo and Tsalagi ones, AFAICT–it wasn’t/isn’t that unusual for women to hunt larger game, too. And some people, regardless of body type or gender identity, just didn’t/don’t want to get married and/or have kids–and that’s OK too. With extended family setups having been broken down to great extent a lot of places, it’s harder to have as good a standard of living these days, whether you marry/live with a partner or not. And, not surprisingly, the economic changes disproportionately hurt women without male partners.

We’re also looking at a lot more fluidity, and room for multiple gender expressions–and genders. In past, the social roles falling under the modern “Two-Spirit” umbrella seem to have had a lot to do with gender identity, not so much with sexuality. To summarize: “a great many were androgyne, meaning they had the gender identity of both a man and a woman — or neither.” A book I found interesting, and would like to read all of: Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (Google Books preview here; I would recommend reading “An Introduction to North American Gender Diversity”):

In truth, the ground American society occupies once may have been the queerest continent on the planet. The original peoples of North America, whose principles are just as ancient as those of Judeo-Christian culture, saw no threat in homosexuality or gender variance. Indeed, they believed people with those traits made unique contributions to their communities. As a Crow tribal elder said in 1982, “We don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift.” [6] In this land, the original America, men who wore women’s clothes and did women’s work became artist, innovators, ambassadors, and religious leaders, and women sometimes became warriors, hunters, and chiefs. Same-sex marriages flourished and no tribe was the worse for it–until the Europeans arrived. In this “strange country”, people who were different in terms of gender identity or sexuality were respected, integrated, and sometimes revered. How could this be?…

Instead of hypermasculine braves and submissive squaws we find personalities of surprising diversity and complexity…

But the significance of native gender diversity is not only in the way it challenges stereotypes. It also undermines many assumptions and theories about the nature of gender and sexuality.

Emphasis mine. That quote fits in well with the more disability/neurodiversity-focused Culture, how we view human difference, and abuse post from earlier this year. Along with the other stuff I’ve been writing on the value of non-interference (which has been an important principle for me to work back into my own head). The more traditional and less harmful view? Everybody is different. Everybody has their own unique gifts, and ways they can contribute to a strong community. (Yes, even queer, autistic, etc. people.) Trying to make another person be someone other than they are? Not only disrespectful and immoral, but ultimately destructive, to the larger society as well as its individual members.

I think anyone who has been on the wrong end of very different attitudes toward human difference can see how that is playing out around us. Everybody gets hurt.

OTOH, this kind of historical view is a good bit of the reason I don’t really identify as even Third/Fourth-gendered “Two-Spirit” within myself. As one commenter on the Driskill piece put it (again, emphasis mine):

While I know it is the nature of our world to catagoize everything – I never have bought into the idea that I am two-spirited. I am of one spirit, but that spirit is many things. I believe in the traditional ways (be it noted the traditional ways that I grew up with, as opposed to the traditonal ways which in a broader scope as belonging to all Cherokee people). My traditional upbringing tought me several things about being a gay person. One, that I am unique and empowered and embodied by a special gift…fourth, and lastly, I would be who I was born to be, and that is that. If you want to call me gay, that is okay. I don’t mind if you call me two-spirited, but I will cringe a little when you do. The only catagory I have is my nationality: Cherokee. I’m not convenced that as Cherokee we need to adopt the modern identity of “two-spirits.” Why, for me it is because I am a tradtional Cherokee, and I know my responsibilities, my roll, my lifeways, and from that I understand myself. I have no need to expand myself to others and their expectations that I will “be” or “act” in a certain way. I’m a Cherokee – my story ends there. The rest is collatoral mataerial to support that fact. Wado Sgi (p.s. No offense to Mr. Qwoli; and, this is very well written)

I don’t know if it’s more useful for me to think in terms of one very complex spirit, as this person, or more in the vein of the “multiple spirits learning to work together” analogy I used in the Gender, sexuality, identity, and binaries. But, two doesn’t describe what I feel.

Getting past the terminology hangup**, I am also very aware that, before all the forced assimilation, my gender and sexuality variation wouldn’t have stood out enough to make me want to take on any female-bodied berdache-like roles in the community. Heck, even after centuries of it, I was happy enough with my agendered self before I ran into a lot of weird-to-me, more rigid expectations based on my body’s plumbing. (The accumulated biphobia? A slightly different matter.)

I have thought multiple times that, had I lived even a few centuries before, I’d have probably done a combination of hunting/warrior stuff, gathering stuff from the woods, and the artsier sort of “women’s work”; nobody with any sense would encourage me to run farming operations or the like, easily distracted and bad with time as I am. I’d have probably waited until I was in my 30s or 40s to settle down with a partner, if I did at all. (Lovers, of basically any description? Not a problem socially, before missionaries showed up.) And I might have been steered into healing and/or medicine work. But, that kind of pattern was not so unusual. A lot of people did similar, without needing to identify as any kind of Third or Fourth gender. Everybody has different talents and interests, and different paths in life. Pragmatism also applies to division of labor.

There’s still a lot more accepted variation in gender presentation/performance back home (SW Virginia), and I’m glad to have grown up with that–even if it made some of the crap I ran into later harder to figure out. :/ (Same with the neurodiversity stuff.) In the dominant culture (US and UK), I get read as butch or otherwise ambiguous a lot, but in my own culture? Not so much. Kinda eccentric and fey overall, at most. There are a decent number of apparently het women back home who come across as very butch, and not that many people seem to make assumptions based on it. (Much less all the value judgments on eccentricity, as long as you’re not hurting anyone with it.) People are different. Similar goes for men, though they seem to have a little less leeway before they’re considered a bit odd; it’s still mostly considered their own business. When I was growing up, I didn’t know anybody who got kicked out of their families for being queer or gender-variant–nor “cures”/pretending suggested–though some Christian family members were not entirely happy about the situation and could say some really nasty things. Plenty of cognitive dissonance, I guess–and plenty of social disapproval still if you disown/kick out your family members, short of maybe multiple murders or blatant child abuse. I only knew one guy who got beaten up by another local person*** for being queer/gender-variant.

Things are far from ideal now, back home, but they could be a lot worse. Still, some decolonization? I hope how soon. It’s not hard these days, but I picked up an awful lot of my internalized biphobia from my mother. (“Bi” is another very approximate label to put on the ambiguity; my brain just doesn’t do gender much.) Attitudes are continuing to change, and not in a good way.

A chillingly good example, elsewhere:

Unfortunately, as you might now, some Native American nations have adopted white christianized beliefs about 2 spirits. I know this has caused great pain, and is a further sign of the sickness which afflicts all people in this modern time.

I was at Treaty Council about a month ago, and 2 Spirit was brought up in a proposed resolution of Treaty Council goals for the next year. The word was discarded following protest, and one woman loudly stated “not ALL Native Americans approve of 2 spirits!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that not more than 100 miles from where we were meeting a Spanish soldier drew a picture of the 2 spirits being thrown to the dogs. These were her ancestors.

I can totally understand why a lot of particularly gay men and trans* people have been enthusiastic about identifying as Two-Spirit. It’s a very palatable alternative to some of the ways they’ve been encouraged to think of themselves, and emphasizes the fact that attitudes toward sexuality and gender variation have not always and inevitably been as nasty, hurtful, and pathologizing as the dominant culture would have all of us think. On sort of a macro level, I do have a lot in common with other people outwardly identifying this way. On a personal, internal level, I’m not sure how useful any label other than “Urocyon” is, though.

In the interests of not writing a book here, I purposely stayed away from a full description of what Two-Spirit describes, and the diverse (and fascinating!) history behind the modern label. If you’re curious, here is a good collection of links from Androgyne Online. I would love to see more about/from women, and am planning to read more from Beth Brant and Paula Gunn Allen in particular.

This strikes me as just one application of a sentence from a book I’ve just been reading, Stephen King’s Under The Dome:

Give a man or woman back his self-respect, and in most cases–not all, but most–you also give back that person’s ability to think with at least some clarity.

Most people could do with more of that particular ability.


* I am loving some of Qwo-Li Driskill’s other stuff. On hir site, there is the excellent 25 Ways to Tokenize or Alienate a Non-White Person Around You (pdf), which zie contributed to. I both laughed and got a headache, remembering some incidents. It includes such gems as:

4- in a big group of many activists, say “black people don’t have the time to care about trees”…
16. pit light-skinned non-white people against each other based on how they identify racially and what you think is most correct…
25. if you’re white and confronted on your racism, cry.

Yeah, things like this would be some of the reasons I tend to avoid groups by now–and this is before gender and disability get involved. Class is already going hand in hand with the race stuff, in most cases.

Also, one of the best summaries ever, from Qwo-Li Driskill and Colin Kennedy Donovan’s “What are you talking about? Why should I cut my dreads? What’s wrong with a Mohawk?” Answers for White People on Appropriation, Hair and Anti-Racist Struggle. (doc):

Being an anti-racist white person is counter-culture. Trying to present a counter-cultural image by appropriating other cultures is not.

“But, but, sometimes it’s ironic. And edgy. And if you keep being mean to me, I’ll cry.”

** I had wondered, too, how culturally appropriate the Pan-Indian “Two-Spirit” thing was east of the Mississippi, as mentioned in an earlier post, but then I remembered one anecdote from my mom. One of my Papaw’s aunts had a longterm lesbian couple as neighbors (in the ’60s, in a working class neighborhood which may as well have been called Indiantown). My mom found it amusing that her great-aunt kept referring to them as “hermaphrodites”, assuming she didn’t really know what lesbians were. I strongly suspect that they just had different understandings there. The general attitude toward them, BTW? “I don’t really understand it, but that’s just the way they are”. At last check, the couple in question were still running a business together, with a bunch of one of the women’s Holiness relatives working in it.

BTW, the great-aunt in question chose not to get married (until she was 35, shit happened, and she married a younger man), and fully intended to take over the family farm. Security through not having what land her family had managed to hold onto transferred into a husband’s name on paper–good way of losing it, when married women couldn’t legally own stuff!–was only a beneficial side effect. That didn’t work out, what with its ending up at the bottom of a lake and all. They never had kids, but lived in an extended family situation where both of them looked after other people’s (including my mom, before she started school). And she was born ca. 1880, when most women in the US did not have that degree of self-determination open to them. My mom’s interpretation, after a couple generations’ more forced assimilation? Maybe she was a lesbian. *headdesk*

*** All bets are off, dealing with recent incomers who tend to feel superior, anyway. I never got beaten up, but was harassed mercilessly, repeatedly groped/otherwise “minorly” assaulted with homophobic insults, etc. when I was in my teens, on the assumption that I was a dyke (among other excuses). And so was my asexual, maybe agender, similarly autistic best friend, generally assumed to be my partner. In that thankfully unusual high school (and whole town!) environment, there was only one person–out of 400 students–who was out. And I felt really sorry for him, and totally understood why he seemed to be angry all the time. This in complete contrast to the situation after I transferred into a still-mostly-local neighboring locality, where a lot of kids were out and not getting tortured. And nobody assumed I was a lesbian, based on my gender expression–or at least didn’t comment on it (the real problem there). And nobody was mentally torturing me, period. For a while there, I kept uncomfortably waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2010 9:37 pm

    Interesting…a lot to think about there. I read it all + have only thoughts – still absorbing it all I guess. I tend to think white ppl identifying as two spirit is an unnecessary way to continue the colonisation actually – they can say bigendered or postgender after all.

    • urocyon permalink
      July 16, 2010 12:27 am

      The appropriation issue was one thing I forgot to mention explicitly. Thanks for bringing it up!

      I hadn’t run across your blog before. Enjoying the comics. 🙂

  2. July 16, 2010 3:45 am

    Well it’s not a whole lot different than new agey types sitting in tipis with dreamcatchers..went to a dyke wedding in johannesburg + wooooop a lesbo went round smudging sage at all the guests in the if we white africans haven’t nicked enough aboriginal culture here… I read a lot about gender + what bugs me most is that the very people who absolutely and explicity shun labels, work so very hard to find new ones. I’m in favour of all of us owning our own identities, but it does get a bit laughable at times.


  1. Two spirit people (native American LGBT) | LGBT Equality

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