For Two Spirits, An Opportunity To Reclaim Acceptance Across Indian Country

Nov 29, 2018

The term “Two Spirit” in Native American culture often describes a person possessing both male and female spirits.  And they’ve been around well before the Santa Maria or the Mayflower dropped anchor. And while “Two Spirit” has been used for Indians who identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender…many say there’s more to it than that. KLCC’s Brian Bull explores a community that’s finding its voice again after generations of oppression, prejudice, and oversight.

Mockup art for Two Spirit flyer, Portland Oregon.
Credit Alane Golden / Flickr.com

This summer, the annual pow-wow in Siletz, Oregon presented something subtle…yet powerful.

A new sign affirming tribal members could compete in the gender category of their preference debuted at this year's annual Siletz Pow-Wow.
Credit Lisa Norton / Confederated Tribes of the Siletz

Lisa Norton, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, explains.

“It’s a competition pow-wow, so people dance in categories…traditionally male or female.

"So one of the things we wanted to do was ungender that, so we were able to post a sign that said we were an open and affirming pow-wow. And that people could feel free to compete in the category they desired.”

It was the first time such a sign was posted at the event. This pleased Jackie Cloud, a Chippewa who identifies as a “Two Spirit”.

“And I also saw Two Spirit individuals out there dancing. And I was like, “YEAH! Cool!”

Cloud joined the other dancers.

“Y’know there’s that twinge of excitement, exhilaration, oh like…it’s okay.  And I commented to someone that I was with there at the pow-wow, and she said, “That’s where we need to be.  That’s where we need to be going.

Jackie Cloud, a Chippewa Indian living in Corvallis, with a portrait of her late partner Gisela Ingeborg Chavanne (a.k.a "Cats").
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“And so I was very proud of the tribe of Siletz to…to acknowledge that.”

Through the centuries, there are accounts of Indians who dressed differently than their assumed gender role would dictate.  They performed duties opposite those roles as well. A man might wear a dress and help village women weave baskets or gather water, for instance.

Lisa Tatonetti is an associate professor of English at Kansas State University. She says traditionally, the role of Two Spirits was more about occupation than sexuality.

“They would often help with children, so they would take up a role as protector, as helper, and sometimes as figures who were considered having spiritual power.”

As for the term, “Two Spirit”, Tatonetti says it’s relatively new.

“The term itself wasn’t coined until the 1990s, at the Third Annual Gay and Lesbian Conference in Winnipeg,” she says.  “It was purposely done to reject the term “berdache” which anthropologists were using to talk about multiplely gendered, indigenous people.”

In 1835, western artist George Catlin titled one of his works, Dance to the Berdashe. It shows a group of Sauk and Fox tribesmen surrounding one happily dressed in woman’s regalia.

A close-up look at George Catlin's painting, Dance to the Berdashe. While light-hearted in its depiction, Catlin found the event "disgusting".
Credit Smithsonian American Art Museum

Catlin wrote:

“This is one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs, that I have ever met in the Indian country…”

Catlin’s contempt mirrored that of other institutions colonizing North America, including the church and European society as a whole.

“…and for further account of it I am constrained to refer the reader to the country where it is practiced, and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.”

Lisa Tatonetti, an associate professor of English at Kansas State University who's largely studied the cultural aspects of Two Spirits.
Credit KSU

As Western mores imprinted on tribal communities, Two Spirits and others who didn’t conform to Judeo-Christian gender roles were ridiculed, abused, shunned…or worse.

“The traditions of Two Spirit people…some would say by the 1930s and 1940s, had been driven out of a lot of native nations,” Lisa Tatonetti tells KLCC. 

“It became very difficult for people to be overly Two Spirit.  Or gay and lesbian, as we’d talk about those subject positions now.”

Native Americans of transgender, gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation face higher rates of suicide, in a demographic already suffering rates above the national average.

An infographic on suicide rates by LGTB youth and how family support factors in.
Credit NCAI.org

Advocates say family acceptance is key to helping fight feelings of depression and isolation.  In a video about Two Spirits by Basic Rights Oregon, Lummi Tribal member Phillip Hillaire recalls his estranged mother’s visit to his Portland home on Christmas Eve.

“…and Paul and I were decorating our tree,” says Hillaire, trembling. “And the doorbell rang and I went to answer it, and it was my mom. And so she goes, “I just come down to make sure that you’re okay.”  That was always the biggest obstacle of my life…is having her...accept me…”

Support also comes through events, including the International Two-Spirit Gathering (which Eugene hosted in 1991). A Two Spirit Grand Entry was held during the Standing Rock encampment, and there’s a Two Spirit Society in Portland. And since 2011, the largest Two Spirit Pow-Wow has been held every year in San Francisco.

Participants in the grand entry during the 2016 Two Spirit Pow-Wow in San Francisco.
Credit BAAITS / YouTube.org

“For me, the goal is not just to attend a Two-Spirit pow-wow, but to make all pow wows welcoming for people who are Two Spirit or might have a different gender identity," says Norton. 

“We shouldn’t have to travel to San Francisco or Portland.”

Lisa Norton, a Two Spirit member of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Back in Siletz, Norton reflects on her own tribe’s efforts to be more inclusive.  Some members still reject gay and transgender people. But Norton smiles big when she recalls how the new, affirming pow-wow sign was received this summer.

“There were people who were, ‘Can we take pictures with that sign? Can we stand under that sign?’” says Norton.

“And an adult tribal member came up and read the sign and started crying. Then proceeded to tell me about her 7-year-old child who identifies as transgendered. And that was the first time she had felt complete acceptance in the pow-wow arena.”

Recent actions by the Trump Administration including restrictions on transgender military personnel have many in the Two Spirit community wondering if the political climate is becoming less welcoming and safe. 

Corvallis resident and Two Spirit Jackie Cloud isn’t worried.

“We were here, hundreds of years ago,” says Cloud. “And we’re going to be here a hundred-and-some years from now, flourishing, doing the best we can.”

The important thing, Two Spirit advocates say, is to keep talking about identity and acceptance…and recognizing traditions that may have been swept away during centuries of colonization.

Funding for KLCC’s “Borders, Migration, and Belonging” series provided by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.

In a still from a YouTube video, artist Ryan Young (Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa) models a Two Spirit blanket he designed.
Credit EighthGeneration.com

WEB EXTRA: A Conversation with Siletz Tribal member and Two Spirit, Lisa Norton

KLCC’s Brian Bull began the talk by asking Norton how she defined the term, “Two Spirit”.

Norton: I can tell you how I conceptualize Two Spirit. And that is not just about orientation or gender identity, but also about a calling to serve.  And serve people in a variety of ways.

So for me, it’s not just about who I happen to be partnered with, but more about what is my role in tribal society because quite honestly, being from an interdependent society as opposed to maybe dominant culture, when you consider the self as a unique person, individual, the “self” in tribal societies and other kind of interdependent societies, is really the self in relation to others.

So for me, Two Spirit is no something you claim because you woke up one morning, and you…you had maybe an orientation or a gender identity that may not be considered “normal” but it’s also about your calling, what are you led to do in service to your tribal community?

Bull:  Breaking down the term “Two Spirit” though, some people do say you have both male and female spirits within your body.  Would you agree with that?

Norton: I would think to a degree, yes.  And how we choose to perform our identity changes in relation to how we’re walking in the world and who we’re walking in the world with, but I feel it is having the essences of both identities. And so being able to be a good communicator, being able to be somebody who can resolve conflict. Or those kind of things.  You have the ability to relate to both gender identities, if you are of the belief that gender is a binary, yes.

Bull:  Do you consider yourself a member of the Two Spirit community?

Norton:  It’s nothing like I said that I would stand up and say “Hey, I’m Two Spirit”…it’s more like a status that gets placed upon you.  I mean you don’t proclaim yourself to be the best of anything, or those kind of those things. So for me, it was really…"Have I earned that title?” And based on information, and work with my elders, yes. I now claim the identity of Two Spirit.

Bull: How have the Two Spirits been traditionally regarded by native people?  I mean, in the precolonial era before Judeo-Christian or Western mores were introduced.

A man dressed in traditional female clothing identified as Crow warrior Osh Tisch (left) with his wife, in an undated photo printed in an Indian Country Today article about Two Spirits.

Norton:  Sure, and just like with all tribes, it varies.  Roles and gender identities vary.  How they were regarded, also varies. One of the things we commonly have trouble understanding is, just as I don’t speak for all tribal members of all tribes, I would not know the history of Two Spirit.  What I do know is that traditionally, it is my understanding through my teachings, is that they did fulfill that role.

They were considered to be…of the two spirits, having male and female.  So they’re good communicators, sometimes considered handlers of the dead, but then also sometimes in roles of leadership, because they could use both the female and male essence.  That’s my understanding, but of course that varies with each tribe, and how accepted it was.

Bull: So perhaps they were seen as esteemed and competent leaders, mediators, perhaps?

Norton:  Yes, for some tribes I believe that to be true, yes.

Bull: From your own cultural perspective, Lisa, would you say they were held in high esteem, or were they seen as average people who just happened to have these dual spirits, or were they in some ways, ostracized?

Norton: Uhm, yes and all! It’s hard to pin down!  My understanding and my research leads me to draw the conclusion that they were held in high esteem.  Again as I mentioned, there were special roles dedicated to them. But I also believe that there is probably tribes were they were a regular part of tribal society, and it wasn’t looked at as some different, above or below, but just something different, so…

Bull: So we have the period of colonization, and the integration of Western, Christian attitudes towards these individuals, the Two Spirits, as we’ve come to define them in this conversation already.  Do you think when a lot of tribes…including the Siletz…began implementing those Western and Christian perspectives…did that change the fortunes or the outlook for the Two Spirits?

Norton: Oh, absolutely. So once Christianity was introduced as part of that colonization…and let me be really clear: this is about a religion, not about individuals.  Because there are wonderful people of Christian faith.  But in this particular instance, Christianity came with…all of the “isms” that were perhaps not as familiar to tribal members.  So racism, prejudice, colonialism, patriarchy -that’s not an “ism"- but those kinds of things were introduced. 

And so as tribal members were colonized and indoctrinated into that religious society, then they began taking on some of those values and beliefs.  And you still see that some today.  You see some tribal members who do not believe that homosexuality is appropriate or traditional.  So those still hang on today. 

Yeah, the major impact had been, the western view of maybe what people perceived Two Spirit to be became integrated into the culture, and so there was some pushback to the point where…a lot of the history I believe, especially in this tribe because I’ve done the research, is really kinda hidden in order to provide safety for those who were of Two Spirit upbringing. And so to keep them safe, those things were kept under wraps. 

The consequences being, there’s not a lot of documented history of Two Spirit people at least in this tribe.  But there is some.

Bull: When I first came across your name about a year ago, you were giving a presentation for PFLAG near Junction City, or somewhere in the region…is that something you normally do? 

WEB EXTRA: Basic Rights Oregon's video about the Two Spirit Community.

Norton:  Yes, so that was in Yachats, and it was at their first annual PRIDE function.  So yes, Robert Kentta, our tribal historian and I did give a presentation.  And just really just enjoyed that opportunity to really break down what Two Spirit was about. And help people understand.  I mean, one of the things we always run into is, people who…acculturation. We’re always worried about that. And that’s definitely true in the Two Spirit community. 

And that’s like someone who’s not tribal saying, “Oh, I’ve always feel like I’ve been tribal or Two Spirit”.  Or those kinds of things.  And one of the main points in speaking out about Two Spirit was to say, “This is our culture.”  And we encourage other people to find examples of that in their own culture.  Because it does exist in other cultures. It’s understanding where that comes from.  So that you can be proud of your own culture, and we can still maintain ours.

Bull: Do you think attitudes and perceptions have improved towards Two Spirits in the last decade?

Norton:   Y’know…I’ve only been out for about a decade, and my experience was completely different.  But when I think about the stories I’ve heard from Two Spirit elders, definitely.  I’m excited when we talk about youth in middle school or high school, comfortable about expressing maybe a different gender identify or an orientation that might not have been safe 10 years ago.  I have friends in the community who said, they were in high school 20 years ago, and said I’d had never come out.  And yet I can see Facebook posts and have conversations with youth who are in middle and high school, who are out and proud and it’s not even an issue. So yeah.

Bull: I know for some Two Spirits, it’s slowly improving.  But they say there are many in the Two Spirit community who have taken their own lives, or live difficult lives filled with depression or substance abuse.  Have you heard of that from anyone who’s contained, self-concealed?

Norton: Absolutely. I had a conversation about two months ago with an individual who identifies as lesbian. And she had said to me, “I always thought I’d just have to wait until my grandma passed in order to meet somebody and be happy because it was not okay.”  So it still happens.  I know for a fact that this person experiences depression, this person in particular had not expressed a desire to take their own life.  But I do know that does happen. 

My hope is that we are laying a foundation, and that’s another part of that interdependent society, is that we’re laying a path for those who come behind us. So our elders laid that path, and I am now hoping to lay out that path by reaching out, by being vocal, by being out…- not because I want awards or I want people to stand up and cheer- but more because I want to let people who come behind me to know that there’s a safe place.  We can do this.  And we can move that barometer just a little bit for you.  And then the expectation is then you will move it a bit more.

WEB EXTRA:  Kurtis Barker, Self-Sufficiency Program Director of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, on local efforts to be more inclusive.

Kurtis Barker, Self-Sufficiency Program Director for the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz.
Credit Submitted by Kurtis Barker

KLCC’s Brian Bull asked Barker – who identifies with the Two Spirit community – about his personal definition of the term.

Barker: I think it’s different for each person who identifies as Two Spirit.  I’ve heard different versions.  The most common version is sorta like a third gender or a cross between male and female genders for Native Americans.  I view it more as anybody who falls on the LGTBQ spectrum who’s Native American.

And then I’ve heard people specifically say it’s more like trans, for Native Americans.  For me personally, I more identify it as anybody who’s on the spectrum.  Could be even more gender fluid spectrum for Native Americans.

Bull:  Who did you come out to?  Friends, family?

Barker:  Mostly it was friends, extended family.  And I didn’t come out to my extended family until I was 26.  My family is more on the conservative side.  I didn’t want to cross that boundary until I knew that I was completely independent in the case there was some negative reactions. 

So I waited until I was completely financially independent.  I have my house, I have my career, and I have a solid group of friends, and extended family. So if there was anything that didn’t work out…I wouldn’t have as bad a negative reaction, I’d say.

Bull: So you packed your parachute, so to speak.

Barker:  Yeah, (LAUGHS).

Bull: So when you did come out at the age of 26 to your immediate family, what was the response?

Barker:  It was mixed at first. I think there was a lot of confusion on my immediate family’s side.  There was a period of time we didn’t speak or see each other for several months.  And I’m 34 now, so things have improved.  They’re improve to the point where we can talk, and I attend family events.  Go there for the purpose.  So I usually only go there for holidays and birthdays.  Even though they live a mile away from me, I still hardly see my parents…but…

Bull: Is that difficult at all?

Barker:  It can be at times.  But I’ve created a separation in my mind…like when I first came out, knowing there could be a separation at some point.  So I just distanced myself. Not really different from before I came out.

Bull:  One thing Lisa Norton told me was about was a sign at this year’s Siletz Pow-Wow, affirming that people could choose the competition category of their choice.  Traditionally it’s male or female.  And she said the overall response was positive. I was curious to know if that was your impression, too.

Barker:  Yeah, I actually had the sign made. The Change Team within the tribe proposed that.  And I didn’t hear any negative comments about it.  The Pow-wow committee which is the group that organizes the pow-wow was completely open to the idea.  And the staff that are on the Change Team usually receive requests from different tribal members, different ideas on making things more affirming and open.  So that was actually one of the things someone brought up was they wanted to dance in a different category.  But they didn’t know how to approach anybody within the tribe.  We are usually like the first group Two Spirits come to if they need help accessing something.  That was one of the things we did differently this year, was accommodate that change and that request.

Bull: You've mentioned the Change Team a few times already.  Could you please explain what that is, Kurtis?

Barker: The Change Team is group of volunteer staff and a few community members who either identify as Two Spirit or one of the allies.  And it was initially a grant funded by Western State Center, it’s a social justice organization located in Portland. And we’ve participated in several different cohorts with them through the years, so we’re going about 10-11 years now.  They provide us with small amount of funding to promote change within the tribe to make services more accessible. To help with policy development.  One of the major things we did was we did the marriage ordinance, which includes same sex marriage, and a dissolution ordinance within the tribe.  The funding we got from Western States Center allowed us to do that.

Bull: So would you say Kurtis, that the Siletz Tribe is one of the more progressive ones in the U.S.?

Barker: I’d say on many issues, the Siletz tribe is pretty progressive.

Bull: Do you feel that the response from tribal community regarding Two Spirits and LGBTQ, has been overall positive and accepting?  Or are there still rough spots?

Barker:  There is still some rough spots but it’s improved a lot. And we’ve sorta taken different approaches to how we tackle different issues. When first started the Change Team we started out slow, educating community who we are, what we do, we had different coming out stories published in paper. 

It’s still a little bit difficult for the elders so whenever we try to propose something, or do a different activity, there’s usually some pushback.  Quite a bit of pushback when we proposed the marriage ordinance. But the youth have been completely accepting, we have trans youth who come to us asking for assistance at different events.  How do we make different activities more accepting.  So for the youth, it’s very positive.  It’s still a little hard with the elders, but they’re coming around.

Bull:  For someone who’s trying to find and establish their identity, who may be Two Spirit, but doesn’t know how to begin that exploration, do you have any advice for them, Kurtis?  How the may find support?

Barker:  I would say just reach out. There’s different organizations whether it’s your local PFLAG organization through the schools, you can always contact the tribe for different resources that are within things we can offer.  We have our own youth Two Spirit talking circles in the (Willamette) valley.  They usually take place in Salem once a month. The Chemawa Indian School always brings a group, over.  We bring youth up from the Eugene area to Salem to attend those talking circles.  We’re trying to be more prominent in the community by advertising events that are open and inclusive. So I say just reach out, a lot of our staff have been trained to be safe spaces.  So if someone needs to access services, like behavioral health, our programs for self-sufficiency, we have resources and somebody available that anybody can talk to.

Bull:  Lastly, it sounds like the affirming pow-wow sign this summer was a success.  So is it safe to say this will probably be a permanent part of the annual pow-wows from this point on?

Barker:  I definitely hope so. It’s not something I can guarantee.  But with the evidence we can present to pow-wow committee and the it’s council, it’s definitely something that should – and would be supported - in the future.

WEB EXTRA: An interview with Lisa Tatonetti, Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University, about the history and culture of Two Spirits

KLCC’s Brian Bull first asked how the Two Spirit identity is defined, both traditionally and currently:

Tatonetti: What Two Spirit is, is an indigenous gender category for people who may or may not be gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, uhm, so…it can be connected to sexuality, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Because traditionally, these roles were actually about occupation more than sexuality.  So a person who was an identified male at birth, would choose to inhabit, or be asked to inhabit, or have a dream that brought them to inhabit, occupations that were female-identified within their nation. So if we look back historically, we’re talking occupation rather than sexuality, although it could be both today. 

Bull: And if a male was Two Spirit back in the pre-colonial era, what would they look like or do that’d set them apart from other same-gendered members of their tribe?

Tatonetti:  Well, first that would definitely differ by nation.  But one of the things that you’d predominately see, is that people identified at birth, for example as male, would take up female occupations, female clothing, ahm, and it really differed.  So in some cases there are reports of folks who were Two Spirit marrying somebody of the other gender, another gender than them. And then in some cases, like in Illinois, there are some cases that they didn’t marry at all.

In all cases, in tribes…which were most of the tribes where they had respected roles, they would have some position of…..they could be intercessors, they could be namers, they would often help with children, so they’d take up role as protector, as helper, and sometimes as figures who were considered having spiritual power.

But I do want to say because I always worry that folks romanticize the categ – especially non-native folks -- romanticize the category too much. That while in terms of what’s known now, the majority of indigenous nations had…Two Spirit roles, alternate gender roles, of some form, but not every indigenous nation saw Two Spirit people in a productive manner.  So for example, Waltho Williams talks about the Pima in the Southwest as condemning such roles.

Book cover for Lisa Tatonetti's The Queerness of Native American Literature
Credit University of Minnesota Press

So it’s complex, and there’s a complexity among indigenous nations as to how they envision gender, how they envision gender, and Two Spirit people existing that continuum.  So…again, I’ll say the majority of nations had roles that were positive, and even more than positive in many cases, they could be spiritual advisors, or leaders…Two Spirit figures…but that wasn’t universally true. So it’s one of those things, we’re trying not to take indigenous nations and make them monolithic.

Bull:  How were these individuals generally regarded among many tribes? I know that’s a general question…

Tatonetti:   Yeah, it does, I know it’s a general question, but I think in the majority of tribes that we know about, they were…they did have a special place among the people. So I’ve just been looking – for some work that I’m doing – looking back at one of the earliest settler accounts, so a French Jesuit missionary, Joseph Francis (Lapeteau?) he had a 1724 book.  And he talks about seeing a number of Two Spirit people.  And this is his words, or he says “they are honored”.  He’s very puzzled (laughs) by that fact. But he has to admit that they were honored in that role, and I think that you see a lot of that when you’re looking back historically at how Two Spirit people were seen within their nations.

Bull: How did that change with colonization and the arrival of Judeo-Christian values?

Tatonetti: Uhh! (laughs) it changed immensely with the arrival of colonialism. So…you have for example, stories of Two Spirit people being attacked and thrown to the war dogs.  You have really violent suppression of multiple gender traditions in indigenous communities.  So if we go to California, Deborah Miranda, who’s (an) Ohlone-Coastanoan Esselen person, she does some amazing work.  And she talks about…looking back at her own family…at the way the priests and the Spanish soldiers punished those gender traditions and refused to accept them.  And basically beat and raped people into submission.  And she uses the term “gendercide”.  That term’s been used before to talk about women, but she specifically uses gendercide to talk about what happened in the aftermath of colonialism to Two Spirit traditions. 

Native people, er…those traditions were often driven underground. They weren’t erased.  So this isn’t a story…native people survived, and those traditions survived.  They definitely changed and they were suppressed, and Judeo-Christian traditions often turned what had been JUST an accepted part of indigenous people’s cosmologies.  They turned it into something negative.  But those folks were still there, and are still there today. So while the Spanish, and French, and English tried to perform gendercide, to make these people and their genders disappear, they were not ultimately, entirely successful.  And I think it’s important to recognize that.

Artist Kent Monkman's 2018 painting, Study for The Deluge. The acrylic on canvas work is an epic sendup of many romantic Western paintings, featuring Miss Chief Eagle Testickles (shown here saving children in distinctive high-heels).
Credit Image courtesy of the artist. / kentmonkman.com

Bull: Culturally, through say literature and film, are Two Spirits more representation, and finding an audience?

Tatonetti:  Yes! (LAUGHS) So really there are amazing things happening in the arts in terms of Two Spirit artists, writers, and singers, and painters.   It’s just absolutely incredible. So we have people in Canada like Kent Monkman who has… Miss Chief Eagle Testickles, (LAUGHS) so you’d see these what would be classic, massive Canadian landscape paintings, for example.  And if you look closely at it, there’s indigenous…somebody who’d be identified as an indigenous male at birth, in heels and full-on drag.  And so there’s this insertion of – in a very tongue-in cheek way - of Two Spirit folks into the settler Canadian narrative…and they were there!  But it’s done in a very entertaining way.

You have folks…so I mentioned Debra Miranda, who’s incredible…Daniel Heath Justice, who writes fantasy-fiction, so he does this The Way of Throne and Thunder, which is a fantasy-fiction series. Where it’s an allegory for the Cherokee National removal, but you have a third gender character as the heroine, and, ah actually….wouldn’t be heroine, would it? Just a hero! (LAUGHS) And so I want to say there are Two Spirit folks – first of all - in every genre of literature and art. And really being recognized.  So Billy Ray Belcourt, who’s a really young poet in Canada -he’s Driftpile Cree - his poetry book This World is a Wound, just won one of the biggest poetry prizes in Canada. 

So I do think that you see this work and this art being recognized and celebrated, and gaining…not just in queer communities, or in Two Spirit communities, but gaining recognition internationally.  So I think it’s a really exciting moment, in terms of what’s happening both in political organizing and in the art community for Two Spirit people.

WEB EXTRA: Jackie Cloud, a.k.a Little Eagle Woman, Two Spirit member of the Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota

KLCC's Brian Bull began his chat with Cloud by asking her take on the Two Spirit definition.

Cloud:  Ah, it’s an entity compromised of both female and male features. It’s a spirit, it’s not really easy to define in the Anglo Saxon world.  They would refer to us as bisexual.  But I don’t consider myself as bisexual.  Historically, we were really revered in traditional communities, not all of them, but many of them.  But because of the atrocities that happened and once European settlers came to our land here, they didn’t approve of us. They’d beat us and savagely kill us, and so eventually we went underground.

Bull: This must’ve been challenging, because you didn’t reveal yourself as a Two Spirit for a long time. What eventually brought you to come out?

Cloud: Actually it was back after learning of the Two Spirit conference, indigenous nation in…I believe it was Montreal.  They had a convention or conference, and that’s when the Two Spirit name…was utilized again.  And that’s when I decided at that point in time that I would take pride in who I am.  And decided to identify myself as a Two Spirit individual.  So that would’ve been after 1991.

Bull: How old were you back then?

WEB EXTRA: INJUNITY Episode on Two Spirits

Cloud:  Well…omigosh, I was born in ’54.  So that’d be…37 years.  Yes, but I knew that before then that I was gifted.  I had made a one-year journey with a native elder who helped me appreciate who I was.

Bull: When you came out, do you remember who the first person was you came out to, and what their reaction was?

Cloud:  I was actually in residential treatment at the time, when I found the courage to share with my group.  Because there was another lady who was in treatment at the time who identified as a lesbian.  And she and I became buddies when I was in treatment there over two months. And so I shared with her for the first time, then the group.  Then the challenge given to me once I left treatment, was to share with a family member. Who I feared would have mixed emotions about it. 

So I told my foster mother. She said, “Oh, I’ve known for many years.” So all the fear, and pented up stress of sharing that with someone I loved and revered, she had no problems with it. 

Bull: That must’ve made it a lot easier.

Cloud: My foster father was gone at that point in time, I’m not sure how he’d take it.  But she said they both knew, what she identified as “different”.  And I said, “I’m not different I’m special.”

Bull: You were in residential treatment at the time.  Were you being treated for substance abuse?

Cloud:  Yes. For alcohol, yes.

Bull: Do you think keeping your Two Spirit secret status at the time was a factor?

Cloud:   Well, I was struggling at that point in time, in attempting to find out my identity.  I wasn’t happy with dating men.  I knew that, even though I had a couple close friends who were male.  But when I drank, I became somebody else.  I didn’t have to struggle with my identity.  I was happy-go-lucky for a period of time until the alcohol would consume me, and then my personality would change.

And so…and it got me into trouble. I realized that and I had a special friend who demonstrated tough love, who told me that I needed to go to residential treatment.  Which I didn’t want to do at the time for awhile until I sat and really thought about it.  I got a DUI – driving under the influence – in North Dakota.  And I decided then that I did have a problem.  And…it behooved me, in my best interests, to do something about it.  And because my foster mom always said she didn’t want me to grow up and become a drunk like one of her relatives.

Bull:  What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have about Two Spirits?

Cloud:  Wow!  That’s…I believe, like I said earlier…that people believe we…two things.  One, I don’t know if people are really familiar about Two Spirit Native Americans.  Educated enough to understand who we are and that we are and gifted, with two different spirits within us. 

But the other thing that I believe, is…I do not want to say a problem, is them believing that we’re just gay.  And y’know, I will tell people…that I don’t want to go into long discussions with people.  And sometimes I’ll say “I’m Two Spirit” and they’ll say, “What does that mean? “I’m gay”. Make it simple. “Oh, okay”.  And if they really want to know they’ll ask…”What’s Two Spirit mean?”  And then go into further detail, explain it.  And they’ll say, “Oh, I never knew that.”  And I’ll say “Go look online for more information about our people to know more.”

Bull:  It’s interesting, because when I go online there’s a lot of debate online about what constitutes a Two Spirit…loving people of your own gender, or it’s more spiritual, or someone might say it’s more of a philosophical thing.  Or it’s biology.  So within the Two Spirit community itself, there’s just a lot of different interpretations.

Cloud: Mmmhm.  And…I would have to agree. Whatever I’m comfortable with believing.  I believe it’s more spiritual. You know, back in our earlier, historical days when we were living among native people, we were looked to as being wise.  We were caretakers of children.  And so the native community would revere us, because they really believed that we were gifted from our Creator with more vision and with more wisdom.

Bull:  Lastly, Jackie, for any person who is struggling with their identity and believes they are Two Spirit…any advice?

Cloud: Really search your heart. And y’know, honor yourself.  To thine own self be true. That’s what I had to embellish with my own identity, and the coming out, and recognizing who I was.  At that point and who I am today.  And seek out support.  Lots of support groups out there.  Get with individuals.  If you can speak with an elder…that was my saving grace when I was younger.  Spending a year being mentored and coached, and going out and kissing a tree, and hugging a tree.  Smudging.  Learning about…because I didn’t grow up with the native traditions although we went to pow-wows. To learn how we really are.  Historically, people we encountered.  Old Man, he’d walk with me.  Walk in silence.  So young people: search us out, search yourself, search your heart, talk to those willing to be that support and guide to you.  And to….encourage you to be true to yourself.

Reporter’s Notebook:  As with all things “Indian Country”, establishing the definition and regard for Two Spirits is greatly varied.  I don’t purport to have done more than scratch the surface of this community with this feature, but I hope that it at least gives a glimpse of this role that for many, has stayed hidden since the advent of the Puritans, missionaries, and settlers.

Generally, many tribes have spoken of members who adopted the clothing, mannerisms, and chores opposite their assumed gender. Early historians and anthropologists called them berdache, though many contemporary Native Americans consider that a dated – if not derogatory – term, with an etymology that ties the meaning to “slave”.  In the last two decades, “Two Spirit” has become popular.  And while many have associated Two Spirit people with the LGBTQ community, others say it’s less about sexual orientation and more about an individual’s occupational or spiritual bearing. 

Regardless of what definition you support, it has been demonstrated that most tribes accepted – even celebrated – Two Spirit members in the years before Western colonization.  They were called Winkte by the Lakotas, Nadleeh by the Navajo, and Bade by the Crows.  Seen as possessing both the masculine and the feminine, Two Spirits were often viewed as gifted deal makers, negotiators, and capable protectors and caregivers.  Some research suggests a few were even considered sacred.  And even in tribes where Two Spirits were not seen as extraordinary, they were accepted and regarded as any other member of the community.

The fortunes of Two Spirits changed as early as the 1500s.  Kansas State University professor Lisa Tatonetti says when Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the territory now known as Panama, he rounded up and fed 40 Two Spirit captives to his mastiffs. When American painter George Catlin observed a berdache dance by Sauk and Fox Indians, he called it one of the most “unaccountable and disgusting customs” he’d seen yet.  And with the missionary movement teaching Judeo-Christian principles across the North American continent, Two Spirit people found themselves shunned, ridiculed, and even beaten by their own tribes for deviating from the Western gender norms that defined “traditional marriage”, among other standards.

Over half a millennia of Conquistadores, Puritans, Pilgrims, settlers, and the Church, Two Spirit culture all but disappeared.  Those natives who felt compelled to crossdress or assume roles outside their assumed gender – or profess love for someone of the same sex – could find themselves in immediate danger, from their own community if not non-Indians.

But Two Spirits have survived.  And through the last half century, beginning with the rise of American Indian activism and continuing with the LGBTQ rights movement – they are advocating for acceptance once again.

I was surprised to learn that Eugene hosted an International Two Spirit Conference in 1991 (then heartbroken when no evidence of coverage turned up in our audio archives).  The event is one of several prominent ones for Two Spirits.  There are societies and support chapters sprouting up across the U.S. and Canada, and in a few short years the largest drumming and dance event, the Two Spirit Pow-Wow in the Bay Area, will mark its first decade. 

Screengrab of the 2016 Two Spirit Pow-Wow held in San Francisco.
Credit BAAITS

On a more local level, the so-called Change Team operated by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, introduced a new sign this year at its annual pow-wow.  Tribal member and Change Team member Kurtis Barker told me it came from a dancer who wished to compete in a different gender category, but didn’t know how to address it with the tribe.  Barker says he’s not heard of any opposition to the sign, and it may well become a recurring sight for all pow-wows from this point on.

Two Spirit culture has also flourished in books, film, and the arts. Professor Tatonetti shared several examples of Two Spirit/LGBTQ themes in contemporary works, including Kent Monkman’s grandiose yet satirical send-ups of Canadian settlement, often features Miss Chief Eagle Testickles, who wears beaded high-heeled shoes and often appears in drag.  Daniel Heath Justice’s fantasy series, The Way of Throne and Thunder, features a third-gender character as the protagonist. And Driftpile Cree tribal member Billy Ray Belcout – whose works include the poem, “The Creator is Trans” has won the coveted Griffin Award for Poetry for his book, This Wound is a World.

At the same time, traditional Western perspectives on gender and sexuality continue to fuel discrimination and rejection of Two Spirits.  A recent report by the National Congress of American Indians finds high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide among LGBTQ natives.  This is for a demographic that’s already experiencing troubling rates above the national average. Besides facing familial conflicts and ostracization, data also shows they’re at higher risk of unemployment and homelessness.

Adding to the conflict are recent actions by the Trump Administration, which have included calls to remove transgender people from military service, and a legal brief to review whether or not the 1964 Civil Rights prohibits discrimination on gender identity or sexual orientation.

“It’s not enough to be a safe space, you have to announce it,” Siletz tribal member Lisa Norton told me in her office earlier this year.  While acknowledging there are still people in native communities who are intolerant or indifferent to Two Spirits, she says she’s devoted to making tribes open and affirming.  Thinking back to the pow-wow sign displayed this summer, allowing dancers to choose the gender competition of their preference, she says, “If you build it, they will come, right?  So be prepared.”

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