Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous “Two Spirit” People in Trans Politics: the Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy

When I say that transgenderism is culture bound, don’t get me wrong: I think every gender role and presentation is, in fact, dependent on culture.  The entire idea of gender, the roles that are developed and called “gender,” are based on the sex binary.  That’s why almost always, when you see gender roles, even if there are more than two, you can bet money that it’s just a matter of reclassifying people who don’t fit into a culture’s otherwise rigidly defined sex roles.

Which brings us to the indigenous people of North America.

I have a special kind of rage for any white person who claims to identify as a “Two Spirit” person.  It’s like wearing a hipster headdress: it proclaims loud and clear that you’re a white person who likes to appropriate American Indian culture while having little or nothing to do with the culture you’re appropriating.

The version of this that’s less enraging but more prevalent (think of it as the “dreamcatcher” of appropriation–common, misunderstood, and talked about in gross ways by all kinds of white people) is the white trans person who points to American Indian cultures as some kind of more accepting place for people with dysphoria/GID, because many of these cultures had a “third gender.”  This represents a misunderstanding of what, precisely, being two-spirit meant culturally, economically, and socially for many two-spirit people, and also represents a very limiting, naive, “all these people look the same to me” view of American Indian nations.

Before we start: lumping all non-gender-conforming people in indigenous North America into a single “third gender” or “berdache” or “two-spirit” label is problematic.  The cultures of pre-Columbian North America were incredibly distinct from each other, with significantly different gender roles to be observed even in Indian nations that were very close to each other.

What gets even more interesting when you look into the two-spirit phenomenon is where it doesn’t pop up–or doesn’t pop up with the same frequency.

The Iroquois Confederation historically had no two-spirit people in spite of keeping significantly more detailed documentation of the lives of its people than many other American Indian nations.  For that matter, neither did the Apache, who treated two-spirit people respectfully and cordially when they met them but did not themselves have two-spirit people as part of their culture.

What would make the Iroquois and Apache different?  It’s not a matter of genetics.  That’d only be possible if there were no intermarriages between American Indian people from different nations, and that’s simply not true.

The Iroquois had one of the most politically egalitarian societies for men and women in the world, at the time when white folks set out to destroy them systematically.  Women had significant amounts of political power, and the society was not simply matrilineal (which can sometimes still involve huge patriarchal gender role issues–hello, Orthodox Judaism!) but involved real equality of authority.

The Apache were famed for their skill in battle, which may mean you’ve never heard one of the most fascinating parts about their culture.  Because war was a near-constant fact for Apache adults, while adults tended to have sex-segregated roles in society, children were actually given a very non-gendered upbringing.  Girls were expected to know how to do “boy” things, and vice versa.  Why?  Think about the home front during World War II.  It’s a good idea if all your people know the basics, just so that when there are war parties gone, or a sex imbalance after raids, you don’t lose all of the missing/dead people’s knowledge and skill base.

Neither of these societies–which have in some ways more progressive and egalitarian places for women and/or girls than contemporary societies–had two-spirit people.  Was this because they were evil and repressive?

Let’s take the Lakota, one piece of the Sioux nation, as an alternate example.  Please note that I’m speaking about the Sioux nations from the perspective of someone who has taken time to learn a great deal of a Sioux language and has studied these cultures both in historical and contemporary contexts.  The Lakota have a longstanding tradition of two-spirit people, documented as far back as the written record goes.  Among the Lakota, polygyny was accepted, and gender roles were extremely clearly established for boys and girls from an extremely early age.

The Lakota two spirit people are never born women.  Almost all of them, historically, have been men.  Claims of intersexed/hermaphroditic people from the 19th/early 20th centuries should ALWAYS be taken with a significant grain of salt, because of the trouble Europeans in this era had distinguishing between homosexuality and hermaphroditism (both male and female homosexuals were often thought to have hermaphroditic qualities–a historical fact we’ll talk about in another entry!).

Were no Lakota women “born this way” while men were?  Let me postulate a different theory: that it’s men in power who impose gender roles, and that Lakota men’s patriarchal society had to have somewhere to put “men who don’t ‘act like’ men” because of male gender policing. Lakota people put two-spirit men in the part of the camp where women and children lived, which was generally not as well cared for and considered not as prestigious because of the patriarchal way that they lived.

While there were occasionally women in the Lakota and other Sioux nations that became part of war parties, they were not regarded as “male” in any way relating to their oppressed status at home.  There was no need for the patriarchal Sioux to create a category for gender non-conforming women, nor to give them special status or specific supposed talents (Lakota and Dakota two-spirit people are said to be excellent namers of children and are thought to be able to see visions of the future).  That’s something men do for men, because just by dint of having a penis, gender non-conforming men deserved to be able to have their own group and identity.

You see this in large numbers of patriarchal American Indian cultures: societies where there’s a firmly established “third” gender that men can elect to participate in (sometimes as older people, sometimes from an early age), while women’s gender roles are firmly entrenched and allow for little variance.  What’s amazing is that many people are invested in the notion that third gender was egalitarian.  Check out how careful this website is to show us both male and female two-spirit people–in fact, having more stories of female two-spirit people–while making no mention of the fact that female third gender individuals were incredibly rare compared to male ones.

Let’s take another example of a society that had a significantly different conception of gender and what it meant to be two-spirit.  The Dene people of Alberta are a First Nations group that historically believed children could be reincarnations of deceased relatives.  So far, so good, lots of cultures think that–hell, sometimes my own mother tells me I’m the reincarnation of my great grandfather.  But in Dene culture, if your parents saw the spirit of a woman enter your mother’s body when she was pregnant, regardless of your birth sex you could be referred to as “my daughter” by the man who believed his daughter’s spirit had been reincarnated into you.  You wouldn’t have to live as the sex of the person that you were thought to have been before, but would always be considered to in some way have a foot in each gender from your reincarnated past.

The Dene, it’s worth noting, forced women to go hungry at their husband’s discretion whenever the tribe was low on food.  Women in this society were among the most oppressed women in all of indigenous North America.  These supposedly progressive ways of viewing gender don’t come from cultures that actually treat women progressively.  Not once.

It’s very strange to watch the contemporary trans movement attempt to incorporate American Indian cultural conceptions of gender-nonconformity, because it’s so clearly an attempt to shoehorn people of the past into contemporary cultural labels.  In some third gender societies, two-spirit was simply a way to handle homosexuality within the group: homosexual men were considered not fully men, a halfway gender that wasn’t quite “normal.”  In others, it was a way to handle intersexed people in societies with rigid sex binaries.  In still others, it was for men who specifically preferred women’s work and roles, like weaving and cooking.

In almost none of these societies did two-spirit people born male identify *as women*.  We have no documented cases (in spite of documentation of other activities and feelings of “berdaches”/two-spirits in history) of two-spirit men anguishing over an inability to be fully recognized as a woman or to have a woman’s body.  They tended to identify as a different type of man, or something between masculine and feminine.

To systematically deprive historical two-spirit people of their own thoughts regarding their gender and what the historical record shows was their place in society–to misrepresent these people, who were often oppressed within their groups rather than lauded for their non-conformity, in spite of the all-too-common hagiographic contemporary notion of American Indian nations as places free from oppression–is to erase the nuance of real history in favor of a conception of history in which really, everyone’s just like you, you lucky 21st century son of a gun who has it all figured out.

The continuous use of two-spirit people as a way to show that transgenderism has existed in all societies–and the incredible lack of knowledge of the basics of indigenous North American cultures shown by many trans people who casually refer to there being transgender people in American Indian societies–is appropriative behavior.  It is taking the parts of a society that you think you like, without studying them much or looking at their origins, and deciding that the culture they’re from must really be deep and would really get you.  It’s de-contextualizing and de-humanizing, and erases differences between American Indian cultures as well as the fundamental ways those cultures historically were different from anything we have on the planet today.

What’s instead true is that American Indian nations that had more rigid gender roles and assigned women less power historically felt the need to strip male/female identities from non-conformers, while more egalitarian societies with less gender socialization lack two-spirit people because of, rather than in spite of, their lack of emphasis on sex-assigned gender roles.

 

–Deirdre Bell

56 thoughts on “Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous “Two Spirit” People in Trans Politics: the Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy

  1. An interesting post, which leaves me with mixed feelings regarding ‘appropriation’ I agree that quoting half-truths about ‘Native-American’ stereotypes of gender is a weak justification for perpetuating western ones, I’m not convinced this moves us forward in eliminating ‘gender’ as an idea though: looks like a diversion to me. In particular, the comparison between American and ‘American’ notions of gender looks like a blind alley if both cultures are 99% in agreement that diffrerent standards apply on the basis of sex. In the link to nativeappropriations.com there was a reference to colonization and ‘our land’ which I found unsettling: land is never ‘ours’ and this conceit (with regards to women, land and the Earth in general) is a common thread underpinning patriarchy across cultures. Acknowleging and respecting cultural difference is fair enough – healthy and moral, even – but not at the expense of sidelining universal female oppression. And as a music lover, the universal appropriation of African-American music, as unfair as it might be – albeit under patriarchal terms of ‘property’ – has undoubtedly enriched the world.

    It’s not insignificant that ‘culturally-different’ societies’ condemnation of each other often comes down to ‘the way they treat their women': but where’s the real difference? As long as we all prescribe differing roles, dress, thought, behaviour etc on thebasis of biology we’re all as guilty as each other and women will lose out. The author on nativeappropriations.com still talked about America as ‘our land’ which is a patriarchal conceit whichever way you look at it: as Hundertswasser said, we are guests of nature http://www.artbrokerage.com/artist/Friedensreich-S-Hundertwasser/You-Are-a-Guest-of-Nature–Behave-42919

      • Just teasing. As a woman who dresses like a man, I reckon it would be a crying shame if “woman” and “man” ceased to be relevant categories for me to play with.

      • Well here’s a thing, my girlfriend and I were watching Tim Minchin on telly the other day and we both agreed he looked good, that there was nothing wrong with a straight guy mixing ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ affects in creating his stage persona (see also David Bowie, Mark Bolan, Kiss, Annie Lennox, Michael Stipe etc etc). On a more sinister note, I read a recent story about a girl in Israel who was heckled with ‘boy’ and ‘lesbian’ before being pelted with stones by some boys/young men and badly injured from what I recall. Another feature awhile back (on Gender Trender or Pretendbians, I forget which) reported on a gay guy who was accused by Transwomen of ridiculing them by wearing a skirt. So on the one hand, I quite agree that all forms of sartorial expression ought to be valid choices for persons of any gender, and I don’t doubt that the sense one is ‘transgressing’ some unwritten code adds a certain frisson; but when such a code is so rigidly ingrained into the collective psyche of a culture that people (males mostly) actually feel threatened by another’s choice of hairstyle, clothing or sexual partner…

        So if you’ll excuse my labouring over what is a fairly obvious point, do you think you’d make the same sartorial choices if standards of dress weren’t so typically gendered, if what you describe as ‘dressing like a man’ was just dressing?

      • If the world were a completely different place, I can only assume I’d make completely different choices. If we were in ancient Rome I’d probably cross dress by wearing a toga (if I could get away with it). I certainly can’t say I’d invent a sports jacket, tie, and button down shirt so I could wear them. If clothing signaled nothing about gender, I assume it would still signal something, and that my choice of dress would be closely related to what I wanted to signal. Power, authority, self-assuredness, and other things linked in our culture to “maleness” would probably come into it, but it’s difficult to speculate.

    • Guls, i dont like the way you have imposed your patriarchal notion of land-ownership on us Natives, we never owned land, when a Mi’kmaq, such as myself, calls it our land, its because we have been on the very land under my feet for 11,000 years, it was because of Prophecy we allowed the newcomers to settle in our lands. We never were conquered, never seceded any land thru Treaty, we have Legal Title, then after specific acts of genocide the Mi’kmaq were dispossessed of our lands, pushed onto concentration camps called reservations/reserves. I call Holy Family Church – My church; but i dont own it, i call UNB my university; but i dont own it…

      • Renagayde, thank you for your comment.

        I find it hard to conceive of any sense of land ownership that isn’t at its heart, patriarchal.

        On the flipside, my sympathy for Jayson is increasing.

        His apparent innocence makes a refreshing contrast to his defensive, precious detractors. You think your traditions and practices are so goddam special that an ‘outsider’ couldn’t possibly learn them? Wake up boys. Or to put it another way; your shit stinks too. Get used to it or get nose-plugs…

        Racial and cultural norms and conflicts shift and change over time; sex is constant: females can do something we can’t and we can’t live without, the world over and for all time.

  2. Oh yes appropriation and faulty analogy swiped from other cultures, so glad you brought it up.
    The only way the T narrative can have any inkling of legitimacy, is to hijack. To that end the civil rights movement is used as a historical precedent that relates to them, ditto-gay rights. The most ridiculous and offensive which serves as chilling example of the narcissism and the disconnect from reality, is the concentration camps narrative. I mean think about it. Some guy buying wigs and new clothes at malls and talking to therapists and then talking hormones in the plush appointed rooms of the 1st world is like people who were rounded up put in sealed cattle cars and gassed at the other end of the line. That is some serious disconnect. But they also say a women can have a penis.

    All the appropriate is a kind of build up to
    Ta da. Voila. Woman. (can’t even touch the F2T)
    To even say they are women really requires women to abandon all reason.As far as anyone knows there is not precedent for this. No recorded of any ancient culture were men claimed to be women trapped in men’s bodies. They could say they were just that radical(special) the all cultures so narrow(bigoted) that it was too taboo. Well cannibalism is taboo; we have a record of that. Incest, record of that. Screwing a goat recorded in detail. Humankind has no fear of recording taboo subjects. This is made up by men for men. And does not threaten men at large one wit—maybe gives some the hibbygibbies but is only a threat to women.

    The T movement takes other cultures narrative because the truth of their own is a whole lot less compelling. And based in psychosexual compulsions that they try to dress up as having any history or authority. They are demanding in most cases that a obsessive male sexual fetish be validated celebrated and seen as some new social cause. And people will because conformity is overpowering and we live in a non critical moment in history–not unlike pre Nazi Germany.

    The fact is that historically across cultures sex roles and gender role are not all that rigid and in the real world rather flexible. What is not flexible is biology. Whatever chemical or surgical approximation can be done is crude—needs a dream catcher. next narrative should read—abandon all reason ye who enter.

    • Can you name a recorded/ancient culture where men claimed to be exclusively attracted to other men and to create families of two men?

      Can you name a recorded/ancient culture where women claimed to be exclusively attracted, NOT BY THEIR OWN CHOICE, to other women and to create families of two women?

      Note: there *is* ancient precedent for the “political lesbian” choice and separatist community. There is also very wide precedent for what the modern West calls bisexuality. But the “born this way” typical Western G/L narrative? Quite culture-specific, just like trans.Or you have proof otherwise?

      • Given the predomininance of patriarchy thru recorded history, it’s axiomatic that lesbianism – and there’s a culture-bound term if ever… – is going to carry a political significance absent in other ‘family arrangements’. It’s really striking, actually. Choice is a relative concept, I think – I know both lesbians and gay men who claim that their predilections to be innate and others who have chosen same-sex relations of their own volition. In a way it makes no difference – in societies where there was no concept of ‘proper’ gendered behaviour, choice of sexual partner would be a matter of little significance – much less a significant component of ‘identity – unless reproduction was a desired aim of the relationship. It’s precisely – and apologies for preaching to the converted here – because patriarchy requires a constant supply of ‘rape fodder’ and ‘cannon fodder’ to survive, that reproductive (PIV) sex is so aggressively-normalised, at the expense of gay men, lesbians, trans*, the infertile, the post-fertile. Nonetheless, it’s fairly obvious that women, as a group and regardless of sexual-orientation are penalised more thus. It’s also notable that sexual orientation can be objectively evidenced – by actual sexual activity – in a way that ‘gender orientation’ can’t. I’m bixexual – tending towards hetero – but as a biological male, patriarchy benefits me either way, irrespective of my choice in that regard.

      • Guls, seeing as you agree that “lesbian” is a culture-bound term, we don’t appear to differ in this regard. All I was saying is that any invalidation of trans identity based on it being “culturally bound” leads logically to invalidation of gay and lesbian identities for precisely the same reason. (And I’m not here to argue about your other statements re patriarchy).

        Also, note the thread about cultural appropriation below. If it is assumed wrong to want to join a radically different culture – I won’t argue about that as I’ve not even *met* a Native American, me being in Europe and all, and the only cultures I encountered closely are all part of the big European family and thus not so different – then why not embrace one’s own, including what it believes about personal choice and personal identity?

        If one says BOTH that appropriating other people’s culture is wrong and that embracing culturally bound identities of one’s own culture is wrong, this creates a double bind requiring one to abandon any culture whatsoever. I can only think of the Zentradi – for those who have not watched Macross or Robotech, that’s basically a race of giant humanoid aliens who were forbidden from any culture in order to be perfect warriors. This did not end well.

        Can’t agree with your notice – “sexual orientation can be objectively evidenced – by actual sexual activity – in a way that ‘gender orientation’ can’t”. If – that’s a big if – we take voluntary personal activity as objective evidence, then “gender orientation” can be evidenced by transition (whether entirely social, hormonal, or surgical). If we don’t, we don’t. In fact, transition is harder to obtain than sex of any orientation, so, if anything, it can be seen as more objective (simply because sexual activity can be a matter of experimentation, conditioning by specific situations, or even, in some cases, political beliefs).

  3. Trans* flinch not at all at outright theft, appropriation and erasure, be it of Native culture, or of the Female.

  4. Is there no room for white people to find truth in aboriginal culture and incorporate that path into their lives if that pursuit is based on respect, openness and honesty? I live in a First Nations community and find more truth and more of who I am in Anishnabek ceremony, teachings, and culture than I do in the traditions of my own Scot/Irish heritage. I am not native, will never identify as native but still feel my spirit wanting to walk the red road. Should I be denied this path because I was born white?

    • You have got to be fucking kidding me, Jayson. A white dude who wants to “walk the red road”? No. There isn’t a place for you. Go live out your Dances With Wolves fantasy if you must, but you’re fucking vile and appropriative even when you just say a few sentences about your charming lifestyle.

      • I’m curious about Jayson’s question cbg. specifically, I find myself thinking ‘if, when Europeans had arrived in Amerika, what if they had abandoned their Scots/Irish/German/Spanish… traditions and willingly integrated into the local culture’? We’d be looking at a very different ‘USA’ today, no? Not necessarily a better or worse one, but surely different.

        I realise that making analogies between local/national cultural traditions and universal/gender-based (i.e. patriarchal) ones is problematic at best, meaningless at worst: your observations about varying attitudes to gender between different tribes is enlightening and also instructive, though. If we have good historical records left by cultures who maintained a more healthy relationship between the sexes is there not a mandate for us to try and apply their lessons to our benefit? I’m referring less to the Anishnabek that he mentions but rather the Iroquois in your post, but either way, I felt Jayson was attempting to be respectful; he was clear that he didn’t claim to be any kind of ‘Trans-aboriginal’. I defer to your feelings on the matter – you’re clearly the authority here – but it didn’t feel like aggressive appropriation to me.

      • I did not mean to offend and don’t think that I deserve your condascending and dismissive response. I only asked because I see truth in what I learn from Anishnabek elders I work with. I only seek a better understanding and respect for a path that rings true and accurate and real in my heart and soul. I will not apologize for following that path. It is not tokenism, it is not appropriation and it is not on a romanticized “Dances With Wolves” ideal if one feels it to be true and respectful.

        I’d like to know more about your background, your connection to the culture you so spitefully advocate is only meaningful for aboriginal people and why you think it is dangerous for non-aboriginal people to see the teachings as powerful and something of meaning? Did the Creator create only people of aboriginal decent? If the Creator created all, then why do you deny me the opportunity to learn? If the Creator did not create all, who created me, a white Canadian of Western European ancestry? If non-native people cannot follow the “red path” then what becomes of the many mixed-ancestry people on this continent who live in aboriginal communities, live in aboriginal families and see truth in their daily lives?

      • Mixed-ancestry people are still living in the framework of reduced opportunities and privilege caused by white oppression. Your use of terminology suggests more of a “noble savage” view of indigenous people than I am remotely comfortable with. In my own experience in Dakota and Lakota communities, white people who talk like that get mocked behind their backs, because dude, you’re ridiculous.

    • As an opponent of the blog owner, and also a member of another religion, I would like to propose that questions regarding any religion be raised on its own forums. I’m not sure what a “red path” is – if it has any connection to “red skin” then it is racialist baloney, but perhaps “red” has some other meaning here. In any event I am sure that any particular religion prominent enough among Native Americans to attract your attention also has at least one forum or blog where its educated members can answer your questions.

      Why “CBG”, who for all we know can be an atheist (and I apologize if that proposition is insulting, this is NOT my intention), should decide on who created what baffles me entirely.

      Oh, and religious choice is a big thing in Western (in the wide sense of the word) culture. So culturally you prove yourself Western, European, whatever simply by engaging in individual path-seeking outside your birth community. And that’s great. In fact, the ability to propagate and integrate teachings originating outside of it has always been its strong point. So – culturally you are Western, which is all that matters in any connection to this blog. Who you can be religiously is a matter for some other place. Does it actually say anywhere at the entrance to an Anishnabek ceremony that you can not participate if you are a member of Western culture? (I don’t know the answer).

      tl;dr: you can seek for what you think is truth wherever you wish, this seeking is a part of being culturally Western, you will not be culturally anything else, what you will be religiously is very much off topic. Oh, and if you want MY opinion on where to find said Truth, I’ll need to find a way to answer elsewhere, because it also would be off topic.

  5. I work with ONLY First Nations students. I see their struggles and success, I attend their funerals and their celebrations, I mourn and celebrate with them, I smudge and dance and drum and laugh and cry and live with them. They are my neighbours and my IMMEDIATE family.

    If, for one second, you think I believe in the noble savage, the drunk, the supernatural shaman, the stoic Indian, the Indian Princess or ANY other stereotype, you misjudge me and are guilty of dismissing the parts of my life I value deep in my soul, deep in my heart and deep in my vision for the world.

    You didn’t answer my question. Who made me? Is my Creator different than yours?

    • To tell you the truth, it just doesn’t surprise me much that a white dude would show up on a radical feminist blog demanding to know answers to questions about god, instead of trying to actually engage with the topic at hand. Doesn’t surprise me at all. If my lack of courtesy has thrown you for a loop, consider how discourteous it is to show up here and essentially change the subject away from the actual topics of this blog (gender issues and their intersectional expression) and toward your own experience as a white man who thinks he should be able to “walk the red road.”

      Part of the reason I assume you’re getting laughed at behind your back is because you show up in a space where you’re clearly not welcome and keep persisting in asking off-topic questions and making it all about you, you, you.

      • He definitely gets laughed at behind his back. And I’m sure he has a sense of superiority when dealing with first nation people.

    • You are a racist if you only work with Native Americans and no one else. Not only that, but there is no ‘creator’ evolution happened, get used to it.

      • I googled “two-spirit” and your essay about appropriation came up. You seemed intelligent and could think fairly and critically so I asked the question. It is obvious that you and I speak of two completely different concepts of “two-spirit.” You understand it as a gender term or something historical. I understand it as a term of self-identity and spirituality, an understanding that each of us possess a masculine and feminine energy.

        If you feel that I’m a bumbling white dude who has stumbled into your little den of vitriol and seething anger, I apologize. I apologize for having white skin, a penis and a genuine desire to learn. I suppose you want me to fit the stereotype and not be interested in learning about first nations culture or to question my own gender identity?

      • You think that I’m a racist because I teach in a first nations community school? You know so little about me but feel that you have enough to level the term racist at me? I know nothing about you except for one character trait: you’re quick to jump to conclusions and assign labels without asking questions. Beyond that fact, which you provided the evidence for, I wouldn’t level any judgement against you Brunhilda.

    • Jayson if you really want an answer to your question look here >www.neagefraud.org< you'll need to do your own legwork, i will post the Introduction to their website

      "Do you think you are "Indian at heart" or were an Indian in a past life? Do you admire native ways and want to incorporate them into your life and do your own version of a sweat lodge or a vision quest? Have you seen ads, books, and websites that offer to train you to be come a shaman in an easy number of steps, a few days on the weekend, or for a fee?

      Have you really thought this all the way through? Have you thought about how native people feel about what you might want to do?

      Please think about these important points before you take that fateful step and expend time, money, and emotional investment:

      Native people DO NOT believe it is ethical to charge money for any ceremony or teaching. Any who charge you even a penny are NOT authentic.

      Native traditionalists believe the ONLY acceptable way to transmit traditional teachings is orally and face-to-face. Any allegedly traditional teachings in books or on websites are NOT authentic.

      Learning medicine ways takes decades and must be done with great caution and patience out of respect for the sacred. Any offer to teach you all you need to know in a weekend seminar or two is wishful thinking at best, fraud at worst.

      Most of these FRAUDULENT operators are not the slightest bit reputable. Some, such as Robert "Ghostwolf" AKA Robert Franzone and Forrest Carter, have actually been convicted of fraud. Some are sexual predators who prey upon their followers. "Sun Bear" AKA Vincent La Duke was a serial rapist who was facing numerous charges when he died, including the rape of girls as young as fourteen.

      Women should be extremely wary of any " teacher" who claims sex is part of an alleged "ceremony." Most of these FRAUDULENT operators have been caught making complete fantasies of what many whites WISH natives were like. Another way to say it is that they are outright liars and hoaxers. Some, like Carlos Castaneda, were exposed as long as three decades ago.

      You probably are asking yourself, "Aren't any of these people for real and a good way for me to learn?"

      We (native people and our supporters) realize that most of you do not know any better, at least not yet, but we hope you learn about these matters from more reputable sources and in a more respectful manner.

      If it says New Age or Shamanism on the cover, it's not a good source for learning about natives. Find out which authors can be trusted before you pay money to operators who harm us all.

      Please understand the following points about native spiritual ways:

      Native belief systems are COMMUNAL, not focused on the individual's faith like Christianity, and are TRIBE-SPECIFIC. There is NO "generic Indian" form of spirituality. There are as many differences from tribe to tribe as there are between Hinduism and the Church of England. No one would think of teaching those two as the same and calling them "Indo-European," yet many of these FRAUDULENT operators teach a thrown together mishmash of bits and pieces of different beliefs.

      TRADITIONAL elders are very cautious about changing rituals and mixing different customs, it does happen, of course, but only after lengthy discussions that can take decades. FRAUDULENT operators are very casual and haphazard in what they do, in a manner that shows they have no understanding of or respect for the sacred.

      TRADITIONAL elders DO NOT believe that any ceremony can be done by anyone who feels like it. It's that same caution and respect for the sacred. Yet these FRAUDULENT operators will let anyone do their inaccurate version of a ceremony if they have the money. Vision quests, for example, are intended for young boys age 12 to 14, but boys don't have much money, so these FRAUDULENT operators sell "quests" for hundreds or thousands to mostly middle-aged men and women.

      There is also the matter of telling people they can be shamans and charging them for it. If you were interested in Judaism, would you pay money to someone who said he could make you a rabbi in just one weekend seminar? If someone did this and then claimed Jewish objections were foolish, we would recognize he was anti-Semitic. Think about the lack of respect these operators show to native people and beliefs, and to their own followers, by defrauding people.

      Native people DO NOT use the label "Shaman."

      Think also about how it makes it harder for natives and whites to get along when whites have been given an untrue picture of native cultures. We have to learn to get along and we can't do that as long as whites give support to operators who push a fraudulent version of what we are like."

  6. Jayson, I’m native. I understand you as one of those white “nice guy” rescuer racists. And two spirit? I understand that as a patriarchal/new age resurrection of homosexual erasure. Your problem is you’re so busy “teaching” that you’ve learned nothing. Par. Stop appropriating my culture. It’s insulting, and makes you look like an asshole.

  7. I would *really* appreciate it if you would e-mail me, or give me a contact for you. I have some questions about this subject.

  8. I don’t understand why it’s so awful that a person who is not native identifies as Two Spirited. Why is it not possible for a white person to be two spirited. Gender Identity is something we choose for ourselves. We choose our own labels and if someone sees the term “two spirit” and goes “that is how I identify” then why is that offensive? Is it truly just you seeing it as them appropriating American Indian culture? Or is there a reason in your religion or culture as to why a non native person can not be two spirited?

      • That’s totally not the same thing at all. You can’t identify as a race. You’re born with your race. You’re not born with your gender. That’s an awful response.

      • Wait, wait. You’re NOT born as your gender? Because that’s not what the trans* folks I have met here and elsewhere have said. They say their gender identity is an immutable characteristic set at birth.

      • It also offends a whole bunch of people of Native heritage–some of whom have taken the time to message me privately with long, detailed, heartfelt messages about their feelings on this subject. Don’t act like I’m just someone who’s out there alone on this. White folks who claim two-spirit identities piss off a whole lot of folks on the rez.

  9. A friend referred me to this post. I wanted to share a few thoughts about it based on my experiences with gender and decolonization as well as my close relationships with Indigenous activist and traditional people.

    First, the modern system of gender and transgenderism (gender difference enforced by medical models of transition from one gender to another) need to be decolonized.

    But so too does the idea that all gender is culturally based. The spiritual aspect of gender and sexuality feels completely erased in this discussion, and that aspect of gender is not structured by a culture of human people, but given to a group of people by the animal or spiritual relatives of these people as part of their living culture in order to help maintain health and balance between human communities and other forms of life who share a place.

    This is not to infer that the original sacredness of these roles is preserved or respected by human people – we are really good at falling out of balance with each other. But the hypothesis that gender roles are solely determined by a culture of humans does not actually reflect the spiritual understandings of the way in which the universe works held by many Indigenous peoples.

    For example, I know from my considerable direct experience with Lakota traditional people that your description of gender roles within Lakota society is not accurate so I don’t believe using it to support your hypothesis is helpful.

    Second, I share your frustration in the use of the term “two-spirit” by gender non-conforming non-Natives. I have also challenged individuals and groups who use this term in a way that appropriates Native culture and erases authentic Indigenous voices. I don’t share your vitriol however and here is why.

    One reason is that the process of decolonization is difficult and without much guidance for people of European heritage an others who wish to explore a more decolonized understanding of their life and way of living in this world. Frankly, we are going to make mistakes and probably alot of them. The question is do we have the integrity and perseverance to apologize for our mistakes and learn from them as we grow deeper into our decolonized understandings of ourselves and our ancestors? If we are not given the space to make mistakes, learn, and then further our decolonization – the place of healing between Natives and settler/colonizers will never be able to occur. Because, as much of the decolonizing literature accurately attests, these healing conversations can only occur when settler/colonizers have achieved enough decolonization to be able to truly listen and understand Native people, as well as begin to heal our own wounds from our complex past.

    I also need to call out something I see in the comments to Jayson. While its certainly fair to challenge Jayson on his desire to adopt a culture that is not his own (I would ask Jayson to put in the energy and effort to find his own Indigenous European lifeway through decolonization), many of the comments greatly assume that he has not been invited or accepted into this culture by Natives in this community. So to assume that he hasn’t, also erases the voices and wishes of Native people who may have accepted him into their family and culture. Those people (and their Elders) are the only ones who really have the cultural authority to accept him or reject him. Many cultures have a ‘making of relatives’ ceremony. Are we saying they are wrong now to do so?

    Another reason is that in my own conversations with some groups and individuals who use the word “two-spirit”, I’ve found that there are some people of Native heritage. It becomes not so black and white in this case. I’m happy to initiate hard conversations when its necessary, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of policing people unfairly.

    Finally, I see value in Brook’s question because most people of European heritage (in particular) have decolonized so little, that historic language, words, and the spiritual understandings of these words have been asleep and yet to be reawakened. But in the meantime, they may be experiencing or finding meaning in the world beyond the vocabulary or concepts that exist within modern western concepts. Adopting the words of another group still under oppression from colonizing society isn’t the answer – but what are we doing to point them to a better way of doing things? When do we put down our sharp words that often perpetuate societal wounds, and offer them a more powerful insight that allows decolonization and healing to occur?

    Thanks for listening.

  10. I get that it offends people. I’m not trying to offend you or anyone else. But I want to learn why it’s offensive because I really don’t understand. You haven’t given me any answer as to WHY it’s offensive. Just that it is. Is there actually any part of your culture anywhere that two-spirit is something that only applies to native people and that it would somehow be blasphemy for a person of non native heritage to identify as Two-Spirit?

    • Brooke, I recommend reading up on the political implications of cultural appropriation. It’s not that Native people’s traditions explicitly state that no white people can participate in them – because their cultures developed and flourished prior to the arrival of white settlers to this land – it’s that you and I, as settlers of European heritage, are part of the colonial legacy that has oppressed people indigenous to this land, and which privileges people like us in society to this day. How do you even have access to Native American cultural practices? I’m guessing internet, books, movies, and other media are the source, probably none of which were created by actual Native people for your consumption. If you are ever in the position of relating face-to-face with Native people at a cultural event, trust they will let you know exactly when and how it is appropriate for you to participate, if at all. Be careful of Native men who may share cultural practices with you in order to gain sexual access to you. These people’s actions do not represent the consent of their communities as a whole. If it is unclear to you why Native American people would not want you appropriating their cultural practices, you need to study up on the history of genocide, lies, broken treaties, etc perpetrated by your very ancestors, and/or people who look like you and share your privileges, on this land. And please, please, please don’t ask a person of Native heritage to educate you about this or demand that they explain why you shouldn’t take any more from them than has already been taken. Look into your own ancestral history and culture for spiritual connection, guidance and cultural identity. It’s an amazing journey and I promise you won’t be disappointed :)

      • Must we all be slaves to the actions of our ancestors? Shouldn’t we be judged and considered as individuals with unique motivations and ideals that are apart form any collective group, in the past or present?

  11. “when white folks set out to destroy them systematically” I think you mean white MEN. Name the agent please.

  12. I just learned more about the concept of two-spirits today from the PBS documentary about Fred Martinez, which is told from a Navajo perspective. Though his story is tragic, I found the documentary to be very inspirational and moving. I love the idea of multiple genders and it’s something I’ve discussed at great length about a certain person who isn’t transgender, but moreso a perfect combination of both masculine and feminine traits. He has passed on and though he had a truly blessed existence, it was also met with a great deal of vitriol and adversity from people who just didn’t understand him and sought to label him as things he was not. The hate that was foisted upon him is what I believe ultimately resulted in his death. (I wonder who can guess who I’m talkin’ about, lol)

    I like to think of him as a two-spirit because I believe it truly feels right – within his soul and in his blood, it fits better than anything else I’ve ever heard. If someone feels this way about themselves and is not native, I don’t see why it’s so terrible for them to identify as such. I feel like I myself could be two-spirited and I’m mixed race, with a black father and white mother with German roots. I don’t know anything else about my heritage beyond that, but the aspects of many different cultures interest me even though I’m not a part of them.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing, to use and cultivate positive traditions of a culture, while leaving behind the the more oppressive ideals. I mean, that makes sense to me, and it’s pretty much what everyone does or *should* do, in my opinion. Every culture and nation has it’s dark corners but there will always be beauty to be found. We should acknowledge the darkness and embrace the beauty.

    I don’t claim to be well-versed in native traditions or history, but I just think the concept of a person having the spirit of both a man a woman harmoniously in one entity is a beautiful one. Androgyny has fascinated me ever since I understood what it meant. I’m attracted to people and concepts and art that showcase an equal degree of masculine and feminine characteristics, and the notion that some cultures have even found androgyny divine is pretty darn cool to me.

    • Dear me, replying to a critique of cultural appropriation with “but I like cultural appropriation”. Great. White folks already have words for that… like the horoscope of Gemini.

      • I don’t think the concept of cultural appropriation is so black and white. A lot of people declare it as some some heinous pox on civilization, but people have been blending cultures for eons with positive results. All art is inspired by something and every person is also inspired. I don’t think anyone has a right to dictate what someone is influenced by and everyone’s different. Some people are respectful and others are not, generalizing everyone as a culture vulture seems so skewed to me.

        I can’t say that I belong specifically to any culture. I’m half African-American but I don’t define myself based on “blackness”, to me that is ridiculous. I love people and art and food and music from around the world and my ideas and dreams are molded from the impressions I have. I identify myself based on what clenches my heart and triggers me to be passionate. As long as the interest someone has in a culture is stemming from a place of love, what is the point of condemnation? We are all people with unique and expressive ideas, and a lot of us are not adverse to sharing and instead encourage it.

        One day I’d like to visit Japan and I wish to study art in China, but as long as I’m not claiming to *be* Asian, what is the problem? I’ve seen some rather radical associations made here that make no sense, like a white person calling oneself a two-spirit would be like calling oneself black – uh, okay. Gender can be fluid, but race is one thing that you are born and die with – but it is certainly not an indicator for the person you are or are supposed to be. One of the greatest black history teachers I’ve ever had was a white man, but he most certainly held an honest and genuine passion for black history and civil rights.

        It is entirely possible for a person to relate with and understand another person, even if they are not the same creed – because we are all human beings and the plight and experiences of one group affects us all. It’s in the same way that a male feminist can be just as effective as a female one – there should be no lines drawn when it comes to honesty and authenticity in spirit.

        I don’t make it a habit of discussing cultural appropriation, but as an example, I know that some black people dislike the seemingly white appropriation of R&B music, such as Justin Timberlake mimicking Michael Jackson. In my opinion, I think anyone has the right to pursue the style of music they most resonate with regardless of skin color, but I do think it is important to give credit where it is due. (Justin Timberlake doesn’t do a great job at that, which is why someone would be justified in criticizing him, but not just because he’s a white guy singing black music – no, I do not agree with that idea at all and I’d say most artists don’t.)

        When a person genuinely loves and cares about something, they *do* make it known. When you’re influenced by something, you like to talk about it and share that inspiration with others, you acknowledge where it came from. That to me is *not* fake, not appropriation, When someone seeks to mimic with no respect or interest in the source material, and claims everything they’ve found as their own ideas, *that* is appropriation.

        I’ve seen many examples of native appropriation that is most certainly offensive, such as the insignia used for so many sports teams, and I don’t think it’s the greatest idea for someone to dress in faux native regalia on Halloween. But I do think it’s possible for a non-native to be kind, respectful and enthusiastic about a tribe’s culture without coming off as an ***hole, and I know for a fact that there are natives that would agree – because, everyone of a particular race/culture does NOT share the same opinions and ideals, obviously.

        Just my opinion. I suppose I ascribe to a rather “live and let live” attitude. If the love is there, that’s what matters most.

  13. And, really, you know, maybe this isn’t the place for me to comment on, because I don’t exactly share the views of this blogger. I just got excited about two-spirits and dug for more and ended up here. I was a bit deflated to see someone attack the notion of non-natives using the term.

    I’m most drawn to it because the idea of gender being attached to spirituality is something that resonates with me. “Two-spirit” as a term in and of itself really speaks to me in ways that “queer”, “gender fluid” and “androgynous” do not. I’m not religious in any sense, but when it it comes to talking of the spirit, I’m more inclined to believe these forces exists, or at least, I want to. In terms of gender identity, it really just makes so much sense to think of it in such a way.

    After watching and reading about native people coming together in a celebration of two-spirits, I have to take this blogger’s words with a grain of salt. While not all native people may embrace the concept, there certainly are those that do and I believe there are also those who would invite anyone to do so who ascribes to what two-spirit represents. It seems like two-spirit may mean different things to different people, even within the same native community, and I think that’s fine and probably as it should be. If a trans-person believes in their heart that it is right for them, so be it. Even if trans-people were not documented in the past, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist or weren’t acknowledged.

    While there may have been men who identified as feminine males, there may have also been men who seemed similar yet felt like women rather than a man who was merely feminine. It seems very likely that this was the case. Like homosexuality, I don’t believe transgender people are a new phenomenon. We just have new technology, new freedoms and new ways to broadcast voices.

    “It’s very strange to watch the contemporary trans movement attempt to incorporate American Indian cultural conceptions of gender-nonconformity, because it’s so clearly an attempt to shoehorn people of the past into contemporary cultural labels.”

    Perhaps it’s not an attempt to shoehorn people of the past into something new, but moreso the embracing of old traditions while also acknowledging the gains we’ve made as a society. It’d make no sense to precisely follow old teachings that have little relevance in a progressive world. This a problem that a lot of devote religious people have, unfortunately. They can’t seem to reconcile ideals of the old with what we’ve learned over the years and understand today.

    The use of the word “two-spirit” seems to be a way to incorporate the most positive aspects of the original two-spirit tradition into an ideal that would be beautiful, benevolent and inclusive for everyone in the modern era. In such a way, the LGBT presence in the native community would have a way to continue fostering togetherness and understanding while also getting the younger generation in touch with their native roots. It’s also a way to show people that homophobia and transphobia are relatively new constructs, rather than ancient principles that we should base our morality on.

    If people who aren’t native can identify with this movement, what in the world is wrong with that?

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