I recently read an article about Darren Black Bear and Jason Pickel of Oklahoma City. Darren and Jason are a couple and they wanted to get married. But they live in a state where their marriage is illegal. They say that love will find a way. And their love did. Cheyenne Arapahoe Tribal law (for all intents and purposes) trumped Oklahoma state law in this same-sex marriage case. When I read about this case, I thought, “Right on!” Note: The Princesses are very supportive of equal marriage rights, and gay rights in general. One of the articles about this marriage mentioned the recognition of “two-spirited people” by many Native American cultures.

I was intrigued by the name alone, so I did a little research. Two-spirited is a cultural concept for men and women who express more than one gender role, also called “third gender” identity. The name “two-spirit” refers to male and female spirits occupying one body. According to one anthropologist, two-spirits have been “documented in over 130 North America tribes, in every region of the continent.” (Roscoe, 1991) Two-spirits were / are considered assets to their communities, valuable and unusual. [Note: Not all Native American cultures embraced two-spirits.] The name / concept “two-spirit” is meant to capture the interconnection of sexuality, gender, culture, community and spirituality in many Native American cultures. I’ll do my best to explain further, but my sense is that this concept is complex and varied beyond my understanding of it.

The presence of male and female spirits in one body does not always mean the person is gay; that was not the assumption traditionally, at least. For example, a man that expressed feminine qualities (in dress and behavior) could still go to war, engage in male-exclusive activities, and marry a woman — but he might also gather (vs. hunt) and cook. The person could be homosexual or bisexual, but they did not have to be these to be considered two-spirited. Likewise, a companion that coupled with a two-spirit was not automatically considered gay.

You’ve probably heard of some cultures where babies aren’t named right away. There may be up to 10 days between birth and naming as part of tradition. [For Norse folk, it was 9 days.] You could think about gender identity for many Native American tribes in this same way, but instead of days – the time that passes is years. Indeed, the Zuni did not refer to children as male or female until around age five. In many tribes, a child chose his or her own gender identity and would share their inclinations at puberty.

“Often within tribes, a child’s gender was decided by depending on their inclination toward either masculine or feminine activities, or their intersex status. Around puberty clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice.” — Wikipedia

Once a two-spirit was recognized, s/he had access to special status in many tribes. For  example, male-bodied two-spirits were prime candidates for shamans, soothsayers, or matchmakers in some tribes. I did not find examples of special status for female-bodied two-spirits, though they were sometimes considered “fourth gendered” rather than third gendered like their male-bodied counterparts.

I found learning about this a wonderful and enlightening enterprise. If you know more than me — which wouldn’t be difficult to do — or if I have shared anything incorrectly, please leave a comment so I can amend this post. Have you ever heard of two-spirits before? What do you think about the concept — does it frame your understanding of gender identity in a way that makes sense?

Featured image: Zuni Girl (1926), from “Native American woman of New Mexico” photos by Edward Curtis.