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Two-spirit World: Transgender Life in The Native American Tribes


The concept of the two-spirit person, or two-spirits inhabiting one body, was widely recognised amongst the native Indian tribes of North America. The two-spirit person (often known by the modern term Berdache) was an obviously effeminate homosexual male or transvestite. Of course, it was more than the simple desire to crossdress. Transvestism is no indicator of how one perceives ones role in society or indeed dictates a persons sexual proclivities and inclinations. The two-spirit was more embedded and perceived as irrevocable. These were men who assumed the role, status, and dress of a woman. 

Of course, attitudes towards two-spirit people could vary from tribe to tribe but in the main they were accepted for whom they were and assigned specific roles within society. They would, for example be the guardian of the tribes oral history, be the tellers of stories and the singers of songs, they would be healers, or the makers of clothes and elaborate feathered headdresses. Often, they would just do the jobs that were traditionally carried out by the women of the tribe. Amongst the Lakota Sioux, where they were known as Winktje, they would be the tribal matchmakers. 

One example of how a young childs future could be determined was by ritual. A male child who had shown a clear aversion to the usual boyhood activity and games, or had displayed overt feminine behaviour and traits, would be made to participate in a ceremony. One such ceremony was to place a male bow and a female basket amid some brush that would then be set alight. The boy would then to be told to rescue just one of the objects. If he returned with the basket then he would enter the two-spirit world and be raised in the appropriate way, and be taught the skills and life of a woman. However, he was still expected to know the life of a man. He could ride, and shoot, and hunt. No doubt he would be teased for being different, boys will be boys, but those boys would be chastised for doing so. Two-spirit men were an integral part of the tribe, they were not castigated for who they were, neither were they cast out. It was understood that this was just the way he was.

Often the Winktje was trained as a Shamen, or a Wakan, an important position within the tribe; and though homosexuality was frowned upon otherness was not. Indeed, it could be considered good fortune to sleep with a Winktje. To have sex with a Winktje saw the transference of magical powers and the ability to transform. Of course, being a Holy Man brought with it responsibilities and Winktje were often blamed for deaths in childbirth, the failure of harvests, and the disappearance of the buffalo.

Not all tribes recognised the existence of a two-spirit world. The Commanche and Apache, for example, frowned upon such people and they were held in low-esteem. Even so, they were largely left alone and permitted to live their lives as they wished.

The truth of the two-spirit world is that it grants a unique perspective on life to those who inhabit it. So many deny this uniqueness to ourselves by rushing headlong to embrace the one at the expense of the other. Whilst Governments continue to legislate in favour of the gay and transgender communities, society itself continues to fail to acknowledge or fully recognise the existence and legitimacy of otherness. In this respect, the Native Americans Tribes of North America still have much to teach us.

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