“The New World.’ This romanticized term inspired legions of Europeans to race to the places we live in search of freedoms from oppressive regimes or treasures that would be claimed in the name of some European nation.Those who arrived in the Native American Garden of Eden had never seen a land so uncorrupted. The Europeans saw new geography, new plants, new animals, but the most perplexing curiosity to these people were the Original Peoples and our ways of life. Of all of the foreign life ways Indians held, one of the first the Europeans targeted for elimination was the Two Spirit tradition among Native American cultures.” D. Brayboy, ICTMN
At the point of contact, all Native American societies acknowledged three to five gender roles: Female, Male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male and transgendered. LGBT Native Americans wanting to be identified within their respective tribes and not grouped with other races officially adopted the term “Two Spirit” from the Ojibwe language in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1989.
Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few.
As the purpose of “Two Spirit” is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa.
The Jesuits and French explorers told stories of Native American men who had ‘Given to sin’ and ‘Hunting Women’ with wives and later, the British returned to England with similar accounts.
George Catlin said that the Two Spirit tradition among Native Americans ‘Must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.’ In keeping with European prejudices held against Natives, the Spanish Catholic monks destroyed most of the Aztec codices to eradicate traditional Native beliefs and history, including those that told of the Two Spirit tradition.
In 1530, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his diary of seeing ‘soft’ Native Indian males in Florida tribes dressing and working as women. Just as with all other aspects of the European regard for Indians, gender variance was not tolerated. Europeans and eventually Euro-Americans demanded all people conform to their prescribed two gender roles.
Osh-Tisch, also known as Finds Them and Kills Them, was a Crow Badé (Two Spirit) and was celebrated among his tribe for his bravery when he attacked a Lakota war party and saved a fellow tribesman in the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876.
The Badé were a respected social group among the Crow. They spent their time with the women or among themselves, setting up their tipis in a separate area of the village. They called each other ‘sister’ and saw Osh-Tisch as their leader. The elders told the story of former B.I.A. agents who tried to repeatedly force him to wear men’s clothing, but the other Indians protested against this, saying it was against his nature.
The Native American belief is that some people are born with the spirits of both genders and express them so perfectly. It is if they have two spirits in one body. Some Siouan tribes believed that before a child is born its soul stands before The Creator, to either reach for the bow and arrows that would indicate the role of a man or the basket that would determine the role of a female.
When the child would reach for the gender-corresponding hand, sometimes The Creator would switch hands and the child would have chosen the opposite gender’s role and therefore casting its lot in life.
The Two Spirit people in pre-contact Native America were highly revered and families that included them were considered lucky. Indians believed that a person who was able to see the world through the eyes of both genders at the same time was a gift from The Creator.