Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as “Two-Spirit” people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred to as “berdache” by early French explorers in North America, who adapted a Persian word “bardaj”, meaning an intimate male friend.
Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. American Indian traditionalists, even today tend to see a person’s character as a reflection of their spirit. Since everything that exists is thought to come from the spirit world, androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman. Thus they are honored for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.
Therefore, many Native American religions, rather than stigmatizing such persons, often looked to them as religious leaders and teachers. The Two Spirited persons were also Name Givers, Healers, fortune tellers, Sexual teachers, master craftsman, powerful warriors, and considered a Gift from the Creator.
Rather than the physical body, Native Americans emphasized a person’s “Spirit”, or character, as being most important. Instead of seeing Two-Spirit persons as transsexuals who try to make themselves into “the opposite sex”, it is more accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender status that is different from both men and women. This alternative gender status offers a range of possibilities, from slightly effeminate males or masculine females, to androgynous or transgender persons, to those who completely cross-dress and act as the other gender. The emphasis of Native Americans is not to force every person into one box, but to all for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities.
Two Spirit people were respected by native societies not only due to religious attitudes, but also because of practical concerns. Because their gender roles involved a mixture of both masculine and feminine traits, Two-Spirit persons could do both the work of men and of women. They were often considered to be hard workers and artistically gifted of great value to their extended families and community.
A feminine male who preferred to do women’s work (gathering wild plants or farming domestic plants) was logically expected to marry a masculine male, who did men’s work (hunting and warfare) Because a family needed both plant foods and meat, a masculine female hunter, in turn , usually married a feminine female, to provide these complementary gender roles for economic survival. The gender-conforming spouse of Two-Spirited people did not see themselves as “homosexual”, or as anything other than “Normal”.
Because of this tradition of respect, in the 90s many gay and Lesbian Native American Activists in the United States and Canada rejected the French word berdache in favor of the term Two-Spirit people to describe themselves. Many non-American Indians have incorporated knowledge of Native American Two Spirit traditions into their increasing acceptance of same-sex love, androgyny and transgender diversity. Native American same-sex marriages have been used as a model for legalizing same-sex marriages and the spiritual gifts of androgynous persons have started to become more recognized.
By John Hawk Co-Cke’, Leader of the Tulsa Two Spirit society Osage, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Blackfeet and Co-Chair of HEART Coalition, Inc. with information provided from “The Spirit and the Flesh” by Walter L. Williams.
Make plans to attend The Tulsa Two Spirit Annual Two Spirit Retreat April 19-22, 2013. For more information, contact John Hawk Co-Cke’ at firstname.lastname@example.org.