Two-Spirit History: Building Cultural Bridges
CB Freedom Lovetribe Apr 24, 2008
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I sat in a Seattle café with Raven HeavyRunner, the founder and leader of the Northwest Two-Spirit Society. As we sat and drank our overpriced urban Morning Glory Chais, we began to speak about ancient traditions, legends, myths that weren’t myths after all. Raven described a spiritual world to me, and explained to me what it meant to be Two-Spirited, in his personal experience. In the most basic European terminology, to be “Two-Spirited” is to be both indigenous to North America and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer). Raven said that to be Two-Spirited is also “A responsibility to people and the community, and to understand that we are a part of them as a whole”.
Raven began to unfold the hidden history and traditions of the misunderstood Two-Spirited people, and I began taking notes.
Raven, a Blackfeet Two-Spirit who is highly regarded for his academic articles about Two-Spirit issues, told me that, historically, Two-Spirits were respected healers, peace-keepers, story-tellers, leaders and prophets. Depending on the tribe, female-bodied Two-Spirits regularly took on traditionally “male” or “masculine” roles, such as being a hunter, vision quest guide, trader, council member, prophet, medicine person or chief. They were also known to lead peace missions. According to Raven (and many other sources), “Two-Spirit” is the English translation for the Ojibwa words “niizh manitoag”, meaning “two-spirits.” Nearly every tribe in North America had a name for the members of their community that were Two-Spirited. There were thousands of terms used to describe the LGBTQ Native American, or "Two-spirit". Raven is A'kiihka'si /Aki Skassi, Blackfeet for “woman-like”. Male-bodied Two-Spirits, along with their roles as healers, medicine people and prophets, were also known for being orators and keepers of sacred songs, and tribal historians. They were commonly sought out to arrange marriages and give sacred names to newborns, something particularly interesting, since in present-day colonial America, same-sex marriage and adoption is illegal.
Most Two-Spirit history has been lost, overlooked or forgotten, even in tribes that used to revere Two-Spirits as holy people with a sacred spirituality. It seems that most people have forgotten who Two-Spirits are and how important, even vital, their roles are in society. “There was a young Lakota Two-Spirit”, Raven began, “and he was sad and embarrassed because his peers kept teasing him”. The young Two-Spirit told this to an elder, “They tease me and call me ‘Winkte, winkte, winkte!!!’. I am sick of it…”. They were calling him “winkte” in a mean way, as if being winkte were a bad thing, something to be ashamed of and hidden. The elder asked the young Two-Spirit, “Do you know what winkte means?”. “No,” replied the frustrated young man. “Winkte means, ‘They who connect us to the spiritual world’. It is a sacred word, and a sacred life, and it is not something to be laughed at about”. Raven HeavyRunner went on, and told me that after the young Two-Spirit learned what it meant to be a “winkte”, he was proud and happy to be a winkte. “That was now 4 or 5 years ago …”, recalled Raven.
The word Two-Spirit is meant to describe individuals who are “often viewed as having two spirits occupying one body.”(1) Two-Spirits historically had the gift and the ability to see life objectively, with no gender bias or prejudice. In other words, they were able to see the world through the eyes of both a male and a female spirit, simultaneously! Raven told me that “To be Two-Spirited is having and knowing your place in society”. Nearly every tribe in pre-colonial North America had distinct gender and social roles in their tribes for Two-Spirited people. Tribes that were indigenous to North America often viewed a Two-Spirit person as a leader, a spiritual being who could heal, see the future and connect with the Great Spirit/Universe.
Because of the standard social education/conditioning in America’s public schools, we’re taught to be more comfortable with time schedules, bottled water and money than with nature, our own lives and bodies. We’re definitely not taught about Two-Spirits, working class struggle or International Cultural History. We’re taught to ignore our innermost desires and spirituality, in order to “fit in” with (homogenized) social groups. So many important roots, ancestral histories and legacies have been forgotten, or not taught (about) in schools. As a Two-Spirit person, I feel it is essential that I provide some resources for any Two-Spirits out there that need them. Raven recommended the following books for re-connecting and learning about Two-Spirit people: “Spirit In the Flesh” by Walter Williams and “Two-Spirit People”. Stories about houses created specifically for Two-Spirit activities, workshops and story-telling flooded out of Raven’s mouth and into my eager ears and mind. Did you know that, in some indigenous tribes, there were 3, 8, 16 or even more different genders and gender identities? Neither did I, until I met Raven HeavyRunner.
May is foster care month, and I believe this article is very relevant because when you lose your culture, heritage and history, you lose your cultural identity and therefore may feel like a “cultural orphan” with no roots to ground you. The devastation of losing your cultural community can be confusing, painful and hard. While researching this article, I was re-connected to a spiritual and cultural identity that I never knew existed, or had perhaps temporarily forgotten about. Finding my cultural roots helped me grow and realize that anybody could be Two-Spirited, just like anybody could be Buddhist, Christian, Rastafarian or any other kind of spirituality. Spirituality and cultural identity are personal, you are what you are. Whether you are Black, White, Asian, Mexican or Tibetan, you could be Two-Spirited … it doesn’t matter how you look on the outside, it’s how you feel within your heart and soul that matters the most. Being Two-Spirited is acknowledging the inherent spirituality that comes with being LGBTQ. Being Two-Spirited is realizing, through your gender neutral eyes, that love is the bridge to all relationships, partnerships and romances.