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You’re Not Two-Spirit Unless You Are Familiar With Your Traditions

Two-spirit is a pan-Indian term

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L to R: Vicki Quintero (White Mountain Apache), Timothy
L to R: Vicki Quintero (White Mountain Apache), Timothy "Twix" Ward, San Carlos Apache, and Vanessa Kristina (Salt River Pima), who all identify as two-spirited. VOA

Growing up, Timothy “Twix” Ward, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, thought he was “normal.” But his family recognized there was something “special” about him.

“It wasn’t until I got older that I knew who I was, that I was different from everyone else,” he said. Ward identifies not as a man or a woman, but both — and neither: Twix Ward is a Two-Spirit.

The term was first devised in Winnipeg, Canada, during a 1990 inter-tribal conference of Native American/First Nations gays and lesbians. Derived from the Ojibwe language, the term was deliberately chosen to serve as a “pan-Indian” term encompassing indigenous people who don’t fit into any normative gender role.

“Two-spirited people are not LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Gender Queer], although some two-spirited people are LGBTQ,” said Ward, narrowing the definition. “You’re not two-spirit unless you are familiar with your cultural identity and your traditions.”

Shown is Timothy "Twix" Ward, San Carlos Apache two spirit, who specializes in the traditional craft of basket weaving.
Shown is Timothy “Twix” Ward, San Carlos Apache two spirit, who specializes in the traditional craft of basket weaving. VOA

Ward lives year-round in a traditional Apache house. He participates in traditional ceremonies. He is also a basket weaver and seamstress, specializing in basketry and making dresses for young Navajo women’s coming-of-age ceremonies.

“I try to teach the girls what the dress is for, the meaning behind it in their ceremony,” Ward said.

But not everyone in the community accepts him, and he admits to loneliness.

“I still carry the traditional [two-spirit] face markings, the traditional attire,” he said. “Some people that claim to be traditional are upset with me because they think I’m acting like I know more than them.”

A ca. 1886 photograph of We'wha (Zuni, N.M.), a famous lhamana (“like a woman"), the traditional Zuni gender role now described as two spirit. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration - 523798
A ca. 1886 photograph of We’wha (Zuni, N.M.), a famous lhamana (“like a woman”), the traditional Zuni gender role now described as two spirit. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration – 523798. VOA

This year, the tribal council blocked him from using their facilities to hold a second annual “Miss Apache Diva” beauty contest.

Balancing the male and female

Thirteen hundred miles away in South Dakota, Kellie Bingen also identifies as a two-spirit bisexual. Born on the Lower Brule Reservation, she now lives in Sioux Falls, which makes her an “urban Indian,” serving on the board of the Sioux Falls Two Spirit and Allies group.

“Two-spirits are people who can balance both their male and their female sides,” she said. “I’ve been a ‘tomboy’ my whole life. Dad taught us girls to do anything that a man can do, so we learned how to install sheetrock and to roof, and to fix our own cars.”

But she said she still has a “girlie” side. “I can wear heels and a dress, put makeup on, and go out and be pretty.”

Like Ward, Bingen believes only Natives who are in touch with their traditions can claim two-spirit identity — and the term should never be co-opted by non-Natives.

New York City musician and activist Tony Enos offers a slightly different interpretation.

“Two-spirit is a pan-Indian term for Native people who identify as gender queer, gender non-conforming, gender fluid,” he said.

Born to a biracial family and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he identifies as two-spirit based on paternal Cherokee ancestry.

This October 2017 photo shows Tony Enos during protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline held near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota
This October 2017 photo shows Tony Enos during protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline held near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, VOA

“Before colonization, we were balance-keepers. We were the only ones that could move between the men’s and women’s camps. There was a special role for these gender queer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming tribal individuals who had this special medicine, this blessing to be able to see life through male and female eyes.”

And that’s what the two-spirit movement is all about, he said — reclaiming the special role two-spirits held in pre-colonial tribal societies.

But is that even possible?

Decolonizing the ‘berdache’

"Employments of the Hermaphrodites," an engraving published by Theodor de Bry (1591), after a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, in what is today Florida. In some tribal cultures, two spirits cared for the sick and buried the dead.
“Employments of the Hermaphrodites,” an engraving published by Theodor de Bry (1591), after a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, in what is today Florida. In some tribal cultures, two spirits cared for the sick and buried the dead. VOA

Much of what is known about historic two-spirits comes from accounts written by Western missionaries, adventurers and ethnographers, who referred to anyone who deviated gender norms by the derogatory term “berdache,” derived from the Arabic for slaves or kept boys.

Tribes had their own terms for third (if men) and forth (if women) genders — “like a girl,” “manly-hearted woman,“ “both man and woman,” “fake,” “supernatural” or “instructed by the moon.”

In some tribes, two-spirits were considered sacred and were honored as healers, seers, name-givers, or in the case of the Yokuts and Mono of California, gravediggers, as they were believed to be guided by the dead.

“But not all tribes honored them,” said Wesley K. Thomas, a Navajo anthropologist, professor and graduate dean of the Navajo Technical University School of Graduate Studies and Research. He believes two-spirits tended to be honored only in matrilineal tribes like the Navajo, where descendancy is traced from the mother’s line.

In other tribes, they were merely tolerated.

“There were even some patrilineal tribal societies who committed infanticide of such children [early on] or later in life,” he said.

George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.
George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.
VOA

Whatever their status, the subjugation and Christianization of Indians by Europeans ensured that two-spirits were stamped out.

“As the country is gradually being filled with the Missions, these detestable people will be eradicated and that this most abominable of vices will be exterminated,” wrote Spanish missionary to California Francisco Palou in 1777.

By the mid-20th century, gay Native Americans, facing homophobia and ostracism within their own communities, began to flock to urban centers for safe haven.

“But there, they found themselves marginalized by non-Native LGBTQ communities,” said Thomas. Hence the need to name themselves.

Thomas isn’t critical of the two-spirit movement, which in his words “gives them a sense of belonging, of identity, self-affirmation.”

That said, Thomas doesn’t believe they will ever recover any honor given to them in the past.

San Francisco, California's two spirit contingent marches at the San Francisco Pride parade, June 2014.
San Francisco, California’s two spirit contingent marches at the San Francisco Pride parade, June 2014.
VOA

Also read: LGBT activists in London call for decriminalisation of homosexuality

“It’s not possible,” he said. “We have been distanced too much from our traditional ways and cultures.” (VOA)

Next Story

American Medical Association Urges Americans to Stop Using Electronic Cigarettes of Any Sort

The recommendation followed advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday for people

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American, Medical, Electronic Cigarettes
A man uses a vape as he walks on Broadway in New York City, September 9, 2019. VOA

The American Medical Association on Monday urged Americans to stop using electronic cigarettes of any sort until scientists have a better handle on the cause of 450 lung illnesses and at least five deaths related to the use of the products.

The AMA, one of the nation’s most influential physician groups, also called on doctors to inform patients about the dangers of e-cigarettes, including toxins and carcinogens, and swiftly report any suspected cases of lung illness associated with e-cigarette use to their state or local health department.

The recommendation followed advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday for people to consider not using e-cigarette products while it investigates the cause of the spate of severe lung illnesses associated with vaping.

Many, but not all, of the cases have involved those who used the devices to vaporize oils containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis.

American, Medical, Electronic Cigarettes
The American Medical Association on Monday urged Americans to stop using electronic cigarettes of any sort until scientists have a better handle on the cause of 450 lung illnesses. Pixabay

CDC officials said some laboratories have identified vitamin E acetate in product samples and are investigating that as a possible cause of the illnesses.

Public health experts have not found any evidence of infectious diseases and believe the lung illnesses are probably associated with a chemical exposure.

Megan Constantino, 36, from St. Petersburg, Florida, quit vaping six days ago after hearing reports of the illnesses and deaths related to vaping.

“It scared me into quitting,” she said.

Also Read- Barcelona Could Cut Deaths from Air Pollution and Improve Quality of Life by Implementing in Full Plan

Like many users of vaping pens, Constantino picked up the device after quitting cigarette smoking three years ago, and said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

She added, “I threw the last cartridge away. I took a picture of it and I literally cried.”

Constantino said many people who vape have been “on pins and needles” for the investigation results, and she is concerned that the reports of a link to vaping THC may give people an excuse to ignore the warnings.

E-cigarettes are generally thought to be safer than traditional cigarettes, which kill up to half of all lifetime users, the World Health Organization says. But the long-term health effects of vaping are largely unknown.

American, Medical, Electronic Cigarettes
The AMA, one of the nation’s most influential physician groups, also called on doctors to inform patients about the dangers of e-cigarettes, including toxins and carcinogens. Pixabay

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has faced mounting pressure to curb a huge spike in teenage use of e-cigarettes, a trend that coincided with the rising popularity of Juul e-cigarettes.

“We must not stand by while e-cigarettes continue to go unregulated. We urge the FDA to speed up the regulation of e-cigarettes and remove all unregulated products from the market,” AMA president Dr. Patrice Harris, said in a statement.

Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, which advocates for cigarette smokers to switch to nicotine-based vaping devices, said the AMA should be “ashamed of themselves for playing politics with people’s health and protecting the profits of drug dealers.”

He criticized the AMA for “fearmongering about nicotine vaping products” while not mentioning “the very real risks of vaping illicit THC products.”

Also Read- Spotify to Let Users Share their Favourite Music on Snapchat

Juul Labs declined to comment. Altria Group Inc owns a 35 percent stake in Juul. (VOA)