Two-Spirited People

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Two-Spirited People are found in traditional Native American culture of North America especially in present day United States and Canada. They are people perceived to be a different gender other male or female. A two-spirited person could be a man with feminine traits or a woman who possesses outwardly expressed traits of maleness. Although beliefs regarding two-spirits varied by geography and tribe, they were recognized as a Third gender, or sometimes even a fourth gender in at least 155 documented Native American tribes. Traditional practice revers these individuals, because they are said to be able to see with two perspectives, the male and the female. Because of this wide scope of understanding, two-spirited people were often regarded as powerful visionaries.[1]

Finding a Two-Spirit

Two-Spirited people became recognized as such at special ceremonies, often when a child was in early adolescents. If speculation abounded as to the gender of a child, the tribe would come together to perform “tests” without the knowledge of the child. One popular test involved instructing a boy to enter an area of weeds. In a clearing would be a basket and a bow, one of which he would have to choose to bring back. When inside, the tribe would set the weeds on fire and the boy would come running out, if the boy chose the basket, he would be raised according to the gender of a two-spirit from that point on.[1]

Two-spirits could also be identified based on dreams. For example if a girl had dreams at night of being a warrior, she would take the path of a two-spirit.[2]

Gender Roles

Two-Spirits had their own set of “Gender norms” which differed from that of male and female gender norms. Although recognized only 1/3 as often as two-spirited biological men, biological women who were two-spirited, and thus not of the female gender, are believed to have participated in warfare and sometimes assumed the role of chief.[3] Two-spirit biological males often wore woman’s clothes and were given tasks that were considered both female and male oriented. There have been reports of two-spirited biological males faking menstrual periods by making themselves bleed at the thighs and eating foods that cramp the stomach to mimic pregnancy symptoms.[1]

Two-spirits were often regarded as especially suited to certain roles. They were the visionary leaders, the medicine people and the caregivers. It was considered good luck to have a two-spirited person in one's family.

Two-spirits often married someone of the same sex. However, this was not a hard and fast rule and there was room for much variation. Two-spirit does not refer to a sexual orientation, but rather a gender. [3]

Colonialism and Shifting Acceptance

European colonialism ushered in an era of shifting cultural norms for Native Americans. The European colonizers observed two-spirited people and called them by the name ‘berdache’, French colonial for male Prostitute. Europeans did not accept the notion of more than two genders, and they would make sure the Native populations saw the world from this view. Two-spirted people were rejected, because Europeans saw their way of life immoral and drew on Christian teachings as source material for their views. This new influence in their lives served as a means of extermination for two-spirits. Many went into hiding and with them, so did traditional cultural practices.[3]

Two-Spirits Today


Modern day two-spirits face a double blow, being unrecognized by the mass population and often looked down upon by other Native Americans themselves, who through generations were influenced by original European colonial ideologies.

In addition to biased prejudices, two-spirits must also overcome many of the issues facing Native Americans today. (U.S.)[4]

  • Native American's in 2004 were recognized as the third highest ranked group in the U.S. for HIV/AIDS cases.
  • Native populations are plagued by high rates of illnesses diseases such as: alcoholism and drug abuse, diabetes, pneumonia, influenza and tuberculosis. On average Natives' lifespans are 10 years less than the general population.
  • Native's face the highest rate of suicides among any other group in the U.S.
  • The number one cause of death for LGBT teens is suicide.
  • More than twice as many Natives live below the poverty line than the general population.[4]

Returning to Traditions

Recently there has been a move by Native populations to embrace their cultural traditions, many of which were lost after European contact. As a result, awareness and acceptance of two-spirits has received a boost. However, there is still a long way to go for two-spirited people as they try to overcome discrimination.

Groups such as the North-East Two-Spirit Society and 'Project Interaction' by McGill aim to educate and support two-spirited people and LGBT communities within Native American populations.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society. (2008). Two-Spirited People. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society:
  2. IPSMO. (2010). Two-Spirited Peoples' Struggles. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from IPSMO:
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Scott. (2010). Berdaches - Two Spirits. Retrieved August 13, 2010, from Etransgender:
  4. 4.0 4.1 NorthEast Two-Spirit Society. (2007). About. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from NorthEast Two-Spirit Society:

See Also

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