Gender Diversity: Two Spirit

Yesterday, I wrote about gender diversity around the world. “Two spirit” is a particularly important term in North America, but it is still an umbrella term.

Two spirit is a translation of an Ojibwe term, but the English translation was selected by Native Americans in 1990 as a Pan-Native term to be used instead of a pejorative, French word (the b-word) that had been used by anthropologists and other cultural outsiders.

While two spirit does not have the pejorative connotations of the b-word, the legacy of this intervention remains complicated, including:

  • Reduction of “two spirit” to LGBT Native people.
  • Non-native people claiming “two spirit” as their own identity without more than a superficial experience of indigenous culture (if any).
  • The “two spirit” umbrella term being confused with the actual, culturally specific gender identities. Obscuring specific traditions reinforces patterns of cultural genocide while playing into the  “noble savage” trope.
  • Mismatch between the implications of “two spirit” and some culturally specific  Native gender identities.

While there are many similiarities between the cultures of various tribes and nations, there is no actual pan-Native culture. As such, there is also no pan-Native two spirit identity.

Of course, people of indigenous ancestry may still identify as two spirit and it can be a useful category to talk generally about Native American gender diversity. Yet, it is important to understand the nature of term, with all of its limitations.

Indigenous peoples around the world have fought back against colonization and invested endless labor in bringing back terms and traditions that colonizers had tried to erase or demonize. Establishing “two spirit” as an umbrella term to replace the b-word and open up pan-Native solidarity has been an important part of that process.

Those of us grounded in European, Christian, and/or Western culture also have work to do in terms of reclaiming our roots and honoring our ancestors. It can be tempting to ride the coattails of others who have done this work in their own cultural context, but decolonization is not a project for the lazy. We must do our own work if we are to be in authentic solidarity with others.

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on October 10, 2019.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.

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