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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

Spain’s Health Minister to Abolish Gay ‘Conversion Therapy’

Promoting or carrying out conversion therapy is banned in the region of Madrid, regardless of whether the person undergoing it has consented or not. Punishments include fines of up to 45,000 euros ($51,000)

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gay conversion therapy
People protest against the decision of a Brazilian judge who approved gay conversion therapy in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Sept. 22, 2017. VOA

Spain’s health minister called on Wednesday for so-called conversion therapy to be abolished after a report that a branch of the Catholic Church had offered to “cure” gay people.

El Diario, an online newspaper, said a reporter posing as a gay man trying to change his sexuality was told to stop watching porn and masturbate less in a counselling session provided by a diocese of the Catholic Church close to the capital Madrid. Its representatives called the report “fake news.”

Minister expresses regret

But Maria Luisa Carcedo Roces, Spain’s minister for health, consumption and social welfare, expressed regret that the practice persisted, saying it was illegal and calling for it to be “completely abolished.”

“I thought that in Spain, accepting the various sexual orientations was assumed in all areas, but unfortunately we see that there are still pockets where people are told what their sexual orientation should be,” she said at a press conference.

gay conversion therapy
Promoting or carrying out conversion therapy is banned in the region of Madrid, regardless of whether the person undergoing it has consented or not. Punishments include fines of up to 45,000 euros ($51,000). Pixabay

“I regret that this is happening and that a law is being broken,” she said, according to an audio recording sent to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by the ministry press office.

Conversion therapy, which can include hypnosis and electric shocks, is based on the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a mental illness that can be cured.

Promoting or carrying out conversion therapy is banned in the region of Madrid, regardless of whether the person undergoing it has consented or not. Punishments include fines of up to 45,000 euros ($51,000).

‘Fake news’

In a statement on its website the diocese of Alcala de Henares called the report “fake news” and said that while it acknowledged the “respect and love due to all people,” it would offer help to “all those who freely request it.”

Books recommended on the Alcala diocese website include “How to prevent homosexuality: children and gender confusion.”

 

gay conversion therapy
El Diario said the therapist at the Regina Familiae counselling center had told the undercover reporter that she “could go to jail” for trying to help him become straight. Pixabay

The minister also said offering such courses to children would contravene their rights, and that if the law continued to be broken, the Department of Justice would have to decide what action to take.

El Diario said the therapist at the Regina Familiae counselling center had told the undercover reporter that she “could go to jail” for trying to help him become straight.

ALSO READ: One in Five Deaths Globally Due to Overconsumption of Sugar, Salt and Meat

Treatment outlawed

Malta, Ecuador and just over a dozen U.S. states have outlawed conversion therapy, according to the ILGA, a network of LGBT+ rights groups. Countries including Britain, New Zealand and Australia are considering bans.

A fifth of gay, lesbian and bisexual British people who have tried to change their sexuality have attempted suicide, according to a study of the controversial practice in Britain that was released in February. (VOA)