Here's What It Means To Be 'Two-Spirit,' According To Native People

The term has been culturally appropriated by non-Indigenous people.
Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits hosts their annual Two-Spirit powwow for queer indigenous people in San Francisco, California.
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images
Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits hosts their annual Two-Spirit powwow for queer indigenous people in San Francisco, California.

You may have heard the term “Two-Spirit” tossed around without actually knowing the meaning behind it — perhaps because it’s often been co-opted by non-Native people.

Two-Spirit is a modern umbrella term to describe Indigenous people who embody both a feminine and masculine energy and have traditionally held a number of important social and spiritual roles in their tribes.

“As it’s been told to me, if the morning is male and the evening is female, then Two-Spirits are the dusk,” Cherokee Two-Spirit musician Tony Enos told HuffPost. “We were then, and are still, the balance-keepers in our living Indigenous cultures.”

The term was coined by Elder Myra Laramee in 1990 at a Native American and First Nation LGBTQ conference in Winnipeg, Canada, (though the concept has existed in Native cultures long before that) to unite the various queer identities and expressions among Indigenous people.

“The term was intentionally introduced by Native people with the goal of finding common ground and helping educate about traditional teachings in a contemporary context,” Passamaquoddy Two-Spirit artist Geo Neptune explained in a video for Them.com.

Tribal nations have their own terms for and understanding of what it means to be Two-Spirit. Some individuals prefer to use words from their Indigenous languages, rather than adopting the pan-Indian term “Two-Spirit,” according to the Indian Health Service website.

Before colonization, Native communities embraced the Two-Spirit identity. But the Europeans’ homophobic attitudes and binary understanding of gender led to its erasure.

“The traditional place and role that we held among our people was taken from us and deemed an ‘abomination,’” Enos said. “The modern Two-Spirit movement is a reclamation of that traditional role and place among our people.”

The role of Two-Spirits

Historically, Two-Spirit people were honored members of their tribes, and occupied roles such as visionary, artist, healer, matchmaker, counselor and warrior. These individuals often carried out duties that were traditionally assigned to both men and women.

Matthew Reed, a Two-Spirit from the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, told HuffPost that according to his father, Two-Spirits in their community would live and dress “according to who they were called to be.”

For example, a Two-Spirit person might hunt and go to war, while also taking on domestic tasks like cooking or child-rearing.

Being Two-Spirit is also about “the spirit of our connection to our history, our culture, our traditions, and the lands in which we live,” human rights activist Albert McLeod, co-director of the Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, told USA Today, “but also the spirit of inclusion in our families, our communities, and our nations.”

“A lot of people assume it is particularly about gender identity or biological sex,” he continued. “But myself, I think it’s a more deeper meaning to it in terms of spiritual connection to the land, and to our peoples.”

To Reed, being Two-Spirit is about honoring traditions and being of service to others, he said.

“It is not necessarily a statement saying ‘I am here,’ but rather saying, ’how can I be of service?’” he said. “Whatever roles were taken from us during the conquest are not for others to give back but rather for Two-Spirits to resume in their communities. For me that means taking part in our traditional ceremonies [and] preserving our heritage by learning and teaching.”

Enos also cited the Two-Spirit gift of being able “to see the world through the lens of both a male and female spirit.” For him, he said, being Two-Spirit is also about “caring for our youth and elders.”

It’s important to note that with hundreds of Indigenous tribes come “hundreds of different traditions, languages, songs, prayers, and even roles for Two-Spirits,” Enos added. “We are not a monolithic people.”

PSA: The term is reserved for Indigenous people only

In a 2018 interview with Billboard, singer Jason Mraz opened up about his sexuality and the experiences he’s had with both men and women, using the word “Two-Spirit” to describe his identity.

“It was like, ‘Wow, does that mean I am gay?’ And my wife laid it out for me. She calls it ‘two spirit,’ which is what the Native Americans call someone who can love both man and woman. I really like that,” Mraz told the publication.

He later apologized on Twitter “for misunderstanding and misusing the term.”

Two-Spirit is “not a poetic way for non-Native LGBTQ people to express themselves,” as Neptune explained in the Them.com video.

Reed said that non-Indigenous people claiming to be Two-Spirit is “reminiscent of colonizers and conquerors taking our identity away from us.”

“We welcome allys but Two-Spirit is for Indigenous peoples only,” he said. “A non-Native would or should not claim to be of Navajo descent because they felt a kinship.”

MORE IN Relationships

MORE IN LIFE