This month is Pride Month—a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community and its movements. As a national organization, Native Americans in Philanthropy represents a wide range of Indigenous peoples, cultures, and identities. We also know that the relatives in our communities often struggle with intersectional layers of oppression and underrepresentation.
Two-spirit people are not just a subgroup within the larger Native community, they simultaneously represent an integral part of our traditions and the contemporary practice of affirming one’s identity through the reclamation of Indigenous cultural practices.
As we enter Pride Month, you may have seen the LGBTQ+ acronym expand to include the two-spirit community with ‘2’ or ‘2S’. While the term ‘two-spirit’ and its increasing visibility may seem new, especially in younger generations, the fact is Native American and Indigenous peoples have a long history of recognizing two-spirit people within their communities before colonization.
We want to emphasize that collective language concerning Indigenous people is complex and has important nuances. The following is intended as an introduction and starting point for further education.
Two-spirit is an umbrella term to describe an individual who has both a masculine and feminine spirit and is used by Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender, and/or spiritual identity.
In 1990, two-spirit was officially adopted at a Native American/First Nations lesbian and gay gathering held in Winnipeg. The congregation wished to deliberately replace the problematic and offensive anthropological label “berdache” (which was used for Indigneous people who were queer or gender nonconforming by Eurocentric standards) with a new, pan-Indian phrase.
Two-spirit is not interchangeable with gay, LGBTQ+, or queer. Two-spirit people can also identify as gay, LGBT, or queer, however, their identity as two-spirit is usually rooted in their ethnic and cultural identity as Indigenous people.
Two-spirit does not replace tribal-specific traditional terms in Indigenous languages to describe same-sex attraction or gender variance. It is also significant to note that not every tribe, culture, or traditional language has a word or phrase to describe two-spirit and/or queer individuals.
Two-spirit only describes Indigenous peoples. It should not be used to describe non-Native members of the LGBTQ+ community.
We hope this guide helps you as you expand your terminology for Native peoples. We also hope it is a good starting point for further education and exploration about our rich people, nations, and cultures.