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D I S C OV ER I ES

Carm Little Turtle


Native American, born 1952
Day Dreamer, 1985, printed 2001
Hand painted sepia-toned silver print
David M. Solinger Fund
2002.007
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HANNA LIPSHULTZ

Berdach to Two-Spirit: The Revival of Native


American Traditions
There is a certain departure from the human that takes place in order to start
the process of remaking the human. I may feel that without some recognizability I cannot live. But I may also feel that the terms by which I am recognized make life unlivable.
(Butler 34)

Michael Red Earth is a Sisseton Dakota and a Polish American


who grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Michael recounts his life as
an American Indian in an autobiographical essay to raise the public
awareness of the problems that he and others have faced with gender
identity as Native Americans. His mother attended an Indian boarding
school where assimilationist and white cultural practices were taught to
the Native American children. Consequently, Michaels childhood was
greatly affected by white cultural views. At a young age, Michael recognized that there was something different about him. He was teased in
school, being called a girl on various occasions. The elders of his tribe
referred to him as a winkte, which his mother, because of her white
assimilationist education, translated into homosexual. However, the
elders said this without judgment, as if being a winkte was something
lacking cause for alarm. When Michael visited his grandparents in the
summers he would partake in womens jobs such as beadworking and
child-care.
However, as Michael aged, problems arose within his family as
their views became split along assimilationist and traditionalist lines.
I became a source of conflict, an example of the contradictions between
the assimilationist and traditionalist views. The assimilationist view
would believe that because I was gay I was bad, but the traditional views
of the importance of family and respect for a persons spirit helped them
see that Michael is good. The assimilationist would feel that effeminacy is bad for a boy, whereas the traditional way allowed my interest
in beadwork and feminine behaviors to be nurtured.
(Red Earth 213)

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Although the traditionalist way accepted gender variance as the norm,


Michael felt that he could not live in a society with conflicting views
on sexuality and gender. In following his notions, Michael dropped out
of school and immersed himself in the white gay culture. He began to
define himself as a gay man and let that become his identity because he
felt that the only way to succeed as a gay man was to be a white gay man.
As Michael gained more confidence as a gay man, however, he
realized that he was missing some part of himself: his Native heritage.
By joining Native American gay and lesbian groups, Michael soon became acquainted with the elements of the Native American heritage
of the other genders, such as winkte, nadleeh, berdaches, and twospirits, that had remained hidden from him during his childhood because of the pervading assimilationist teachings. These gender categories are different from the white gay and lesbian identities because they
recognize the persons significance and role within the community, not
just their sexuality. This reacquaintance with the gay and lesbian traditions of the Native American community has brought a resurgence of
Native culture and appreciation for the traditions that once prevailed.
Michaels story is significant in that it shows this resurgence based
upon individual effort to reconnect with the past.
In todays world, it is easy to become confused by titles: gay, straight, bi,
winkte, or queer. For me, once I realized that my family was responding
to me with respect and acceptance, and once I realized that this respect
and acceptance was a legacy of our traditional Native past, I was
empowered to present my whole self to the world and reassume the
responsibilities of being a two-spirited person.
(216)

The process of self-actualization described through the story of


Michael Red Earth suggests a path to preserving the Native American
culture and opening the doors for the comfort and acceptance of other
Native two-spirits.
***
As Red Earth found his path through reaffirmation of a Native identity so did many other Native gays and lesbians. The reaffirmed Native
identity was based on the concept of gender variance. Gender variance
was a transformation that pre-colonial Native Americans accepted as a
process that one was expected to experience in their lifetime (Lang 93).
Gender variance included taking on masculine qualities as a biologi26

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cal female or feminine qualities as a biological male with the ability to


drift between the two. People who changed genders were classified as
neither a man nor a woman. Some tribes developed their own terminology for this other gender, such as the Cheyenne who called women-men
heemaneh, or the females of the Pueblo of Zuni who took on masculine
roles called katsotse (93). Although many terms existed to describe
the neither male nor female gender, there existed no universal term
to categorize them within the Native American community. The lack
of a universal term to describe this gender is characteristic of the attitude that existed within the Native American community toward the
usefulness of gender categorization in the pre-colonial era. Primarily,
Native American gender was used to categorize personhood, spirituality, and specific, complex identities deriving from the experience of
being Native American (93). This attitude did not include a persons
sexual behavior, race, or ethnicity as a basis for classification.
The emphasis on a persons spirituality raised the neither male
nor female gender to a venerable position in the Native American
community. These people were thought to embody both the feminine
and masculine spirits, sometimes as a result of cross-sex reincarnation (Goulet 684). The effeminate-males distinct social roles played in
their community included healer, medicine person, and the conveyer of
oral traditions and songs, while the masculine females roles included
chief, council, trader, and hunter. Some tribes even believed that these
people held supernatural powers and as a result allowed them to play
an important role in ceremonial traditions (Lang 95).
Gender variance, however, is not the same as homosexuality.
Gender variance is rooted in the different roles that men and women
held in the Native American community and the ability for a single person to play these many roles throughout their lifetime. Homosexuality,
contrastingly, is rooted in the concern with what sexual role one will
play; who one will have sex with. Pre-colonial Native American tribes
were not concerned with a persons sexuality; in fact many did not
even recognize other genders as queer. Children who showed signs
of this other spirit were recognized and raised to uphold this spirituality. The possession of this other spirit was something revered and
respected. This view contrasts sharply with modern views. The change
in attitude can be traced back to the European and Christian colonization of North America and the imposition of their beliefs on homosexuality within the Native American communities.
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In comparison, traditional European views of homosexuality are


deeply rooted in the Christian notion of homophobia. For example,
Leviticus 18:22 states: You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a
female; it is an abomination (Christianity and Homosexuality).
Early Christianity, around the time of the colonization of North
America, viewed homosexuality as sinful, largely due to the predominant view of heterosexism. In some cases, homosexuality was viewed
as a counter-rational force undermining morality, religion, and society
itself, and in need of strong suppression lest it spread even and especially among clergy (Christianity and Homosexuality). The Christian
view of homosexuality was based solely on a persons sexuality and
whom they had sexual relations with. It did not take into account the
multi-dimensional persona of a homosexual person. The traditional
Christian view of homosexuality as a problem and a counter-rational
force can be traced as the main cause for the shift in Native American
perception of homosexuality and the consequent change in treatment
of the other genders in Native American society (Christianity and
Homosexuality).
The term berdache is a European-given name that directly correlates with the European view of homosexuality and the perceived negative role it plays in society. Berdache is derived from French, Spanish,
Italian, Arabic, and Persian terms that are used to describe a derogatory
being, such as kept boy, male prostitute, prisoner, and wound
(Two-Spirit). The use of the term berdache is indicative of the Western need to categorize individuals without respect to their individual
ontological cultural categories. In pre-colonial Native America, the
classification of a third-gendered person relied solely on what tribe
they belonged to. For example, the Lakota tribes third gender were
called winktes, the Navajos were called nadleeh, the Zunis were
called lhamana, the Cheyennes were called heeman, and the Inuits
were called sipiniq, among many others (Two-Spirit). Each term listed
above indicates a unique role played in the given tribe. Based on differences in spirituality within each tribe, these terms cannot be combined
as one. European colonizers, however, did not see the differences in
these gender categories and labeled them collectively as berdache.
Berdache merely describes the observation and existence of an
alternative gender category and reduced these Native Americans to
being identified as homosexuals as opposed to being categorized in
terms of their roles in their individual tribe. Beverly Little Thunder, a
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Lakota Womyn, states her discomfort with the term berdache: As I


heard the word berdache used, I found myself wondering, Where am I
as a womyn in this word? Its meaning had no place in the description
of my life . . . I am a Lakota womyn, and I know that my own people
have a name for me (Little Thunder 203). The colonial act of labeling
Native American homosexuals as berdaches reduced them to their state
of sexuality; the traditional importance of spirituality, power, gender,
and identity was lost.
Due to the invasive feeling of homophobia and the loss of tribal
gender autonomy, post-colonial Native American reservations have
lost acceptance of gender variability and have become controlled
by the heterosexism associated with Christianity and colonization.
Because the reservations have become small and tightly knit, a feeling
of restrictiveness pervades. There is very little chance for a person to
deviate from his or her expected role on the reservation. Therefore,
coming out as being gay is very difficult and not fully accepted. High
moral density is associated with small population groups where everyone knows everyone else so that deviance in role performance by
one person affects all the rest (Medicine 150). Deviance in role performance became almost unacceptable and consequently marginalized
most gay and lesbian Native Americans. The inability to function within their tribal community forced many to move off their reservations
and seek refuge in the gay and lesbian communities in urban areas.
Many voluntarily moved away, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated others in the 1940s and 1950s (153). This led to a loss of their
cultural identity because being gay or lesbian did not encompass the
Native American spirituality associated with gender and sexuality.
The story of Michael Red Earth alludes to the loss of self associated with the assimilation of gay and lesbian Native Americans into
the gay and lesbian white urban communities. Many contemporary
Native Americans have no recollection of the importance that other
gendered people once had in their tribes because of the assimilationist
practices spread throughout the tribes. Seeking refuge in the white gay
and lesbian communities is all that they know as far as finding acceptance based on their sexuality. However, as Michael Red Earth came
to realize, these communities of white gays and lesbian do not foster
or recognize the special spirituality once associated with the Native
American alternative genders. As a result, many discouraged Native
Americans searched for support groups specifically for Native Ameri29

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can gays. In Michael Red Earths case, attending the Second Annual
Native Gay and Lesbian Gathering helped him reconnect with his Native heritage (Red Earth 214).
There have been similar feelings of frustration from gay Native
Americans who have urbanized. Beverly Little Thunder is a Lakota
womyn and a follower of Christianity. She stated, I felt torn between
Christianity, which was part of my life, and the traditions in which I
was raised. I did not seem to fit into the Christian world, yet I was also
aware of the homophobia in the world of my people. I could not find
peace in being who I was (Little Thunder 20506). Her divided loyalties led her to partake in the American Indian Movement to educate
herself about her Native past and the spirituality it encompassed. She
participated in the Sun Dance Ceremony, but realized that she would
never truly be accepted because there was still a pervading notion of
homophobia, even within this proud Native American community.
Beverly Little Thunder was told by elder Lakota wimmin that our
people have trouble remembering the place of honor that my kind once
held. I was told to go and have a ceremony for others like myself. I
was told to listen to Spirit (206). Beverly held her own wimmin-only
Sun Dances where the spirituality of the Native people was remembered and captivated (207). This quest for self-actualization is what has
defined many contemporary gay Native Americans who have migrated
to urban centers and what has brought them peace in living within the
urban areas of America.
Contemporary Native Americans discomfort with being categorized as gay or lesbian has led to their self-actualization by
renaming themselves as Two-Spirits. The term Two-Spirit
originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It
comes from the Ojibwa words niizh manitoag (Two-Spirit). This name
was given in order to separate Native/First Nations alternative gendered
people from non-Native gays and lesbians, as well as from the Europeangiven word berdache (Two-Spirit). This word is significant because
it is a self-proclaimed term, not one forced upon them like berdache
was previously. Two-spirit differs from berdache in that it is an allencompassing term that recognizes the differences of gender categorization within each tribe based on differences in spirituality. Its use
has been beneficial particularly in urban communities for it provides
a sense of community and support for Native Americans who choose
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to move off of their reservations. It is especially significant in that it


has helped gay and lesbian Native Americans integrate into the greater
gay/lesbian community. Two-spirit organizations in urban centers have
formed as a way for people to reconnect with their spirituality and also
to become reeducated with their Native American past. It has brought
much of the spirituality back into the lives of gay/lesbian Native Americans and has also acted as a way to maintain the pre-colonial Native
American acceptance of gender and sexual diversity. The formation of
two-spirit organizations is a way to uphold the strong Native American
traditions.1
Judith Butler asks, Does it turn out that the I who ought to be
bearing its gender is undone by being a gender, that gender is always
coming from a source that is elsewhere and directed toward something
that is beyond me, constituted in a sociality I do not fully author?
(Butler 16). To answer this question in the affirmative, the history of
the Native American culture can be referenced. Butlers theory of the
undoing of gender by the very act of being placed in a gender category directly parallels the story of the Native Americans. The berdache
gender has undone not only the Native American gender system, but
also their tradition of acceptance altogether. The reconstruction of the
Native American third-gender category and the Native American
culture depends greatly on the revival of their traditional spirituality
and the reeducation of the Native traditions. Two-spirit, a self proclaimed term assigned by Native Americans to recognize the traditions
among many Native American nations and promote acceptance and
celebration of the diversity of human gender, spirituality, and sexuality, is a sign of progression. The term two-spirit provides hope for
the future of the Native American gender and culture in its acceptance
of diversity.
!
Note
Many two-spirit organizations exist in urban areas, including
the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS), the Two Spirit
Society of Denver, the Minnesota Two Spirits, the Northwest TwoSpirit Society, the Oklahoma City Two-Spirit Society, and the Tulsa
Two Spirits Society, among others (BAAIT-S 2006). The general mission of these organizations is to provide support, community outreach,
1

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cultural education, and plan for action and social change in the reeducation and revival of Native traditions (Two Spirit Society of Denver).
Works Cited
BAAIT-S. 2006. Retrieved May 1, 2006 <http://www.baaits.org/>.
Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.
116.
Christianity and Homosexuality. 22 April 2006. Retrieved May 1, 2006
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and Christianity#
The_Bible_and_homosexuality>.
Goulet, Jean-Guy A. The Berdache/Two-Spirit: A Comparison of
Anthropological and Native Constructions of Gendered Identities
Among the Northern Athapaskans. In Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute 2 (4) (1996): 683701.
Lang, Sabine. Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits: Homosexuality
and Gender in Native American Cultures. In Female Desires.
New York: Columbia UP, 1999. 91116.
Little Thunder, Beverly. I am a Lakota Womyn. In Two-Spirit
People. Eds. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang.
Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1997. 21016.
Medicine, Beatrice. Changing Native American Sex Roles. In TwoSpirit People. Eds. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine
Lang. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1997. 14555.
Red Earth, Michael. Traditional Influences on a Contemporary GayIdentified Sisseton Dakota. In Two-Spirit People. Eds. Sue-Ellen
Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. Chicago: U of Illinois
P, 1997. 21016.
Religion and Homosexuality. 28 April 2006. Retrieved May 1, 2006
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_homosexuality
#Christianity>.
The Two Spirit Society of Denver. 2006. Retrieved May 1, 2006
<http://www.denvertwospirit.com/index.php>.
Two-Spirit. 17 April 2006. Retrieved May 1, 2006 <http://en.
wikipedia.org/wiki/Berdache>.

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