Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People

We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers

We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Sociology and anthropology have long used the experiences of “third sex” cultures, such as the Native American Two Spirit people, to teach students about the social construction of sex and gender. In many cultures around the world, people are allowed to live their lives beyond conventional binaries; they need not adhere to the biological sex they were born into. These people are usually revered and there are special circumstances where individuals are allowed to shift their gender position. These groups, including the Two Spirit people, are used as examples in the sociology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) issues. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this practice, demonstrating that social scientists are applying Western concepts to misappropriate the Two Spirit phenomena.

My post gives a broad overview of the social science concepts of gender and sexuality. I then discuss the spirituality, gender and sexuality of Two Spirit people as well as the history and culture that informs their social position. Let me put my analysis in context: I am not Native American nor am I a transgender person. I identify as a non-white, cis-woman (that is, my biological and gender identity align). As a sociologist who has researched, published on and taught gender and sexuality courses, I seek to explore how Western social scientists, queer theorists and other social activists have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience to highlight social causes.

I propose that social science needs to move forward from our dominant understandings of the Two Spirit experience. My aim is to start a conversation about how we might expand sociological understandings of gender and sexuality using this case study. How do we best communicate the social construction of gender and sexuality to students and to the public? I argue academics and activists need to be mindful that, even with the best of intentions, misappropriation of cultural traditions of minority groups is dangerous. This perpetuates historical practices that have silenced Indigenous experiences. There are better ways to appreciate and form solidarity with Other cultures. This begins by listening to the way minorities speak about their own experiences, rather than projecting our seemingly-progressive perspective onto Others.

I begin by giving a background on what inspired this post as an example of public sociology. Public sociology describes how we produce sociology for mass audiences outside academia. My focus here is on how we use sociology in the classroom and in social media. It is vital to the longevity of our discipline that sociologists explain our key concepts to general audiences. At the same time, I see it important that we publicly own up to, and invite a public discussion about, the changing dynamics of power which influence social theories. We also need to take responsibility for the way we teach and publicly discuss social science ideas. This means being more critical about the ways in which social science ideas are produced and disseminated, especially via social media. 

Public Sociology of Gender & Sexuality

My post today is expanded from my post on Science on Google+. The initial post was inspired by Sean Kinney. Sean is an American teacher with a keen interest on science and alternative modes of thinking. Sean posted a meme on Google+ (right) about the Two Spirit Native Americans. The meme depicts an unnamed elderly Native American person, with text advocating same-sex marriage. The text reads as if from the perspective of this Indigenous person, saying that “gay marriage” has been sanctioned in “our soil […] for hundreds of years […] Your ‘homosexual’ was our Two Spirit people… and we considered them sacred.”

Sean reached out to Science on Google+, a community run by over 20 scientists with PhDs in various disciplines. The community exists to provide a platform to share quality science with the public, to encourage interaction with qualified experts, and foster interdisciplinary collaboration. I am a Moderator for the Social stream, along with psychologist Chris Robinson (who also created and leads the community). Sean saw this meme and posted it, finding it interesting. Looking for a reference, he linked to Wikipedia. The post was then brought to my attention. Was this an acceptable example social science interests?

On the surface, the general topics being conveyed were social science: minority cultures and gay rights. The source, Wikipedia, is not an acceptable scholarly reference for our major Community categories. While teachers such as Sean may prefer not to link to Wikipedia, this is an accessible reference. The information is not locked behind a paywall that the public can’t get to (unlike much of social science journal articles and books). The material is relatively easy to understand because it is written in jargon-free language. The problem with Wikipedia is that it is edited by volunteers and the information is not always correct. In this case, the information is incomplete, as the Two Spirit people entry currently does not include any of the scholarly disputes I discuss below (something I aim to fix over the coming week).

As a sociologist who specialises on studying minority cultures and Otherness, it would have been easy to ignore this meme as well-meaning albeit sociologically incorrect attempt at public education. I could see Sean meant to spark a dialogue, which I wanted to encourage, but I could also identify many problems with the image and the message. First, the person in this image is represented as a Two Spirit person given how the text is written in first person, but they are not specifically named. It is vague whether the person in the photograph identifies as Two Spirit. Second, while the text alludes that  it presents a direct impassioned plea for gay rights, I have the distinct impression that this was not likely written by a Two Spirit person (for reasons explained below).

I suspect that this image may not have been produced by a Native American activist, scholar or leader who can speak from an informed community perspective. This comes across to me as one of the many memes I’ve seen all over social media, created and reposted by passionate and well-meaning activists who aim to give voice to Indigenous people. These are people who are eager to make connections between the historical struggles of minorities to current social movements, such as LGBTQI consciousness.

Here’s why I didn’t simply dismiss this meme. First, the dedicated team behind Science on Google+ spends a lot of time thinking and discussing how to improve public engagement with science. We are trying to elevate quality posts as well as increase informed public debate. For this reason, I wanted to engage with a critical reading of this image.

Second, in researching the origins of this image, I have since seen this image posted on other sociology sites, with poor discussion.

Problems of Teaching via Social Media

Sociological Cinema posted the above image on their Facebook page in September 2012. To their credit, the team notes that the image depicts “Pretty Shield (1866-1944), who was a medicine woman of the Crow Nation,” and they add that “To the best of our understanding, these are not her words.”

To date, this post by Sociological Cinema has been “Liked” by over 300 people and shared almost 250 times. In the comments, presumably mostly by sociology students, people praise the image uncritically. One person writes that it doesn’t matter whom the quote was written by:

this isn’t the first time someone gives a voice to someone else. Happens all the time in art , literature , movies , etc. To each, his own. [sic]

This is a problematic position to see on a sociology site. It is not okay to appropriate minority cultures even if it’s in the name of social justice. The sociological imagination suffers as a result. This isn’t a criticism specific of SocyCinema; scroll through the Tumblr Two Spirit hashtag and you will see this image reblogged enthusiastically, through different networks without critical engagement.

I note the biographical book about Pretty Shield uses the same image on its cover, but the blurb does not identify her as Two Spirit. In an interview, Pretty Shield speaks of Native American women who fought alongside men in battle, but she never uses the term “Two Spirit,” nor does she identify herself as Two Spirit. I cannot presently identify the origins of the meme, but it may have been created as a postcard that can be bought online.

Sociological and social science public outreach needs improvement; this includes the images, articles and other resources that we make available to sociology students, as well as the communication of social science ideas and research to the general public. As such, the image on Google+ prompted me to initiate a discussion about the Two Spirit people. Who are they? What do do their experiences tell us about gender and sexuality? How can we improve the way we analyse these experiences? The following case study aims to show how can we improve the visual communication of social science ideals to new audiences, without “Othering” minority cultures.

Definition of gender and sexuality

A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures. By PBS.

A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures. By PBS.

In sociology and anthropology, gender and sexuality are very different to every day understandings. Briefly, we make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to biological or bodily traits that distinguish “men” and “women.” Gender describes the social experiences, norms, values and subjective position that people use to describe their experience of “masculinity” and “femininity.”

In the common sense understanding, the appearance of our bodies, outward genitalia and chromosomes determine whether we are seen as either “men” or “women.” A wealth of empirical evidence from the social sciences shows that biological definitions of gender are not only rigid, but they are the outcome of cultural, historical and legal institutions that vary across time and place. The interactive map (above right) shows some of the cultures that do not adhere to two simplistic models of gender.

In the social sciences, we use the concept of gender to describe how people’s social experiences, personal interactions, and social institutions shape our understandings of femininity and masculinity. We talk about gender as a social construction, because when we look across history and in other cultures, we see that gender is organised in different ways, and these do not always match up with narrow ideas of genitals and outward physical cues.

Similarly, we do not study sexuality in an essentialist or in a rigid biological understanding, but rather we see sexuality on a continuum of cultural, historical and social experiences. Sexuality is a social construction because its meaning takes shape through a complex interplay of cultural experiences, social sanctions, and personal positions on our identities.

Take for example the concept of homosexuality.

Social Construction of Homosexuality

Two men 1894  via Tuscon Gay Museum

Two men 1894 via Tuscon Gay Museum

The word “homosexual” did not exist until the 19th Century. Prior to this, while men may have been having sex with men and likewise women with women, there was no word to describe these practices. Behaviours did not automatically become viewed through a prism of gender and sexuality. A man sitting on another man’s lap did not necessarily lead to the presumption that they were engaged in a sexually relationship. Physical expressions take different meanings from their cultural and historical settings.

During the Victorian era, the Queen ordered her physicians to investigate the sexual practices of the male aristocracy. The actions of this inquiry eventually led to the medical definition of homosexuality as a psychological pathology. It was only then, with the invention of homosexuality, that the concept of heterosexuality evolved formally. Before the creation of the category homosexual, the term heterosexuality did not exist. This was the first time in Western European history that heterosexuality became medically defined as a “natural” and “biological” phenomena. From here, we start to see behaviours and identities being reshaped as homosexuality is defined in opposition to heterosexuality.

The Law

It became enshrined in law that being homosexual was illegal while heterosexuality was not criminalised. This legacy reflects not some inherent biological discovery, but rather the interests of the elite; specifically the values of Queen Victoria. As the Queen had a problem with men having sex with men, this was outlawed. The Queen was not willing to believe that women would also have sex with women, so female homosexuality was not punished in the same way. Through the spread of colonialism Queen Victoria’s legacy continues to shape the way Western societies think of sexuality in the present day.

Many nations around the world have laws that prohibit male to male sex but there may not be any laws criminalising female to female sex. Homosexuality was outlawed in Australia until the mid-1970s and the ban was not formally lifted in the state of Tasmania until the late 1990s, following a drawn-out appeal.

If you look at the age of consent laws around the world, many nations have a higher age at which heterosexual-sex is allowed compared to homosexual sex. In Australia, three states make male-to-male sex permissible two years after male-to-female sex (16 years for heterosexuals, 18 years for homosexual men). Four states have no laws dictating female-to-female sex, even though there are age of consent laws for male-to-female and male-to-male sex. Again, this reflects the Victorian edict that homosexual men present a larger threat to elite interests than lesbian women (although the law denies the human rights of all LGBTQI people when it comes to marriage, child rearing and so on). Histrionically the upper classes perceive lesbian women as dangerous when they are overtly sexual and openly enjoying their bodies.

Given that social institutions such as the law, medicine and other agents of socialisation shape how we define sexuality, social scientists acknowledge that there are several gender experiences beyond simply being male or female. For example, we study intersex and queer identities around the world, as well as the “third sex” phenomena, which is where the Native American concept of the Two Spirit people are usually discussed.

Two Spirit People

Historic photo of Navajo couple from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico, 1866. Via ITVS

“Historic photo of Navajo couple from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico, 1866.” Via ITVS

Native American notions of identity are communal. They depend upon community context, status and history. In many ways, gender is more fluid in Native American cultures in comparison to the rigid binary concepts of male-female that we know in Western societies. In the PBS documentary “Two Spirits” (which you can watch further below), Navajo scholar Wesley Thomas explains that Navajo culture has four genders:

  1. Given that Navajo culture is matrilineal , the first gender is feminine woman (asdzaan). They are born biologically female and function socially as women;
  2. Masculine man (hastiin), are born biologically male and adopt the role of men;
  3. Feminine man (nádleehí) are born biologically male and function socially as women; and
  4. Masculine woman (dilbaa) are born biologically female but function as men.

Canadian Cree-speaking blogger âpihtawikosisân attempts to translate Two Spirit terms from her culture, noting that English translations are not straightforward. She writes:

  • napêw iskwêwisêhot (nu-PAYO ihs-gwayo-WIH-say-hoht), a man who dresses as a woman
  • iskwêw ka napêwayat (ihs-GWAYO ga nu-PAYO-wuh-yut), a woman dressed as a man
  • ayahkwêw (U-yuh-gwayo), a man dressed/living/accepted as a woman. I can see the ‘woman’ part of this word, but I am confused about the possible meaning of the rest of the word. Some have suggested this word can actually be used as a ‘third’ gender of sorts, applied to women and men.
  • înahpîkasoht (ee-nuh-PEE-gu-soot), a woman dressed/living/accepted as a man. (also translated as someone who fights everyone to prove they are the toughest? Interesting!)
  • iskwêhkân (IS-gwayh-gahn), literally ‘fake woman’, but without negative connotations.
  • napêhkân (NU-payh-gahn) literally ‘fake man’, but without negative connotations.

As you can see from these examples which represent only two of a multiple cultural, historical and linguistic traditions, Native American cultures don’t construct gender as the singular possession of one gender or another. They don’t have the Western binaries of “men are this way; women are that way.” Instead, Native Americans of different cultures generally believe that all humans and animals possess both feminine and masculine qualities. This is part of their spirituality. At particular points of time, Native American tribes have a sanctioned practice that allows a person to swap genders. There are strict cultural codes that govern this transition. Not everyone is allowed to simply swap genders on a whim.

Gender, Sexuality and Spirituality

Crow Two-Spirits, 1928. Via âpihtawikosisân

Crow Two-Spirits, 1928. Via âpihtawikosisân

Two Spirit people often take on wives and husbands of the opposite gender, but not always; they may have diverse sexual experiences with both men and women. Nevertheless, the Two Spirits are not regarded as homosexual, bisexual or even transgender. Anthropologist Walter Williams notes that, throughout history, Two Spirit people were expected to conform to gender roles of their reassigned gender, with “feminine” Two Spirit people being matched with a “masculine” husband.

Simplifying this complex practice, Two Spirit people are seen as having a biological sex that does not match their spirit gender. They are usually regarded as having special sensory qualities; they see, hear, taste, smell and feel things others can’t. This is because the Two Spirit people are seen to be linked to their ancestral spirits. They interpret visions. They are peacemakers. They exist to honour all living things, past and present, as sacred. As you can start to see, their identity is not specifically about sexuality, nor really even about gender per se. Their role serves a social and community function; to fulfil cultural and religious duties.

More significantly – these people are historically chosen by their elders to fulfil these roles.

Williams notes that Christian missionaries outlawed these marriages in the 20th century, and they actively sought to remove this practice. During the cultural revolution of the 1960s, Native American activists re-embraced the Two Spirit legacy, and this movement grew in the 1990s with Native American lesbian and gay activists adopting the Two Spirit identity. These activists removed themselves from the colonialist term bernache, which had negative connotations from early French explorers, although in other Indigenous accounts this term has made a resurgence.

There is a rising scholarship by social scientists who are beginning to recognise that Western academics and LGBTQI movements have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience.

Rethinking Two Spirit People as a LGBTQI “Poster Child”

In sociology and anthropology, The Two Spirit people are studied as examples of transgender culture, which some Native Americans have been refuting. A small but growing number of scholars are beginning to re-examine how Native Americans culturally conceive of the Two Spirit people from an Indigenous historical perspective.  In 1998 anthropologist Carolyn Epple argued that Western scholarship feels a need to categorise Navajo culture in terms of existing frameworks (“gay” and “alternate gender”). Even when attempting to pay homage to Navajo terms, they re-appropriate these outside of their Western colonial meanings (“berdache” and “Two Spirit”). This speaks to the narrow frames of reference of the Western social sciences and social activist movements. We need to rethink our intentions and their consequences on minority cultures.

Many Native American scholars would doubtless support and stand in solidarity with LGBTQI movements, and some Indigenous LGBTQI activists adopt this term (for example, see the Bay Area American-Indian Two Spirits; the Native Youth Sexual Health Network makes available a Two Spirit resource). Nevertheless, the Two Spirit people are not the “poster children” of gay experiences. This is because the very meaning of “gay” (or homosexual) is culturally defined.

We see this within the LGBTQI movement itself; some people do not want to position themselves as being gay or lesbian, so they prefer to call themselves queer, which is a separate category of belonging and identity. Similarly, some Two Spirit people may not identify themselves as gay or lesbian or queer, since the original conception of this term was about embracing the spirituality of two genders.

In general, Western political activists tend to appropriate Indigenous cultures in memes with the best of intentions – to advocate for environmental or sexuality issues – but this is something that Native American scholars and activists want to stop.

“Other” cultures have their own understandings and histories. From a Western social activist perspective, we may see Indigenous issues as being the same as our minority politics, but they are not. As I’ve explained here, the cultural position of the Two Spirit people is not about gender and sexual politics per se, nor about their sexual preferences. Instead, the Two Spirit people hold a symbolic place of honour in their societies.

As âpihtawikosisân argues, Native Americans do not need privileged white academics and activists to teach them how to respect Two-Spirit people. Native American culture had already conceived of gender and sexual equality in their own ways, independent of Western liberal definitions of equality.

we already have those teachings. Reclaiming them and redefining them for the 21st century is a difficult, but beautiful undertaking. And perhaps the words we use in our own languages will be new, if they did not exist before. Perhaps they will be new because we have lost the words. Perhaps we never lost them. Perhaps they are merely waiting for us to use them again, properly. Hopefully soon I will look at the Cree words that have been suggested, and settler connotations will no longer colour my view of these words.

This is not work non-natives can or should do for us.

Colonialism dislodged the social status and rights of the Two Spirit people. In trying to find solidarity for social movements in the West, such as LGBTQI politics, academics and activists are unwittingly perpetuating colonialist practices. By misappropriating Native American culture, by not seeking to see their practices within their own cultural context, activists subsume the historical struggles of Native Americans.

Gay marriage is an important cause that social science advocates. Gay marriage may indeed help to restore the marriage rights of Indigenous people, but not at the expense of reducing the image of Two Spirit people into mouth-pieces for white-led causes. The LGBTQI community is not cohesive; people of colour are not treated equally. Intersections of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and class matter just as much in LGBTQI movements as they do in academia and in wider society.

Who has authority to speak on behalf of whom, where, when and how? The power of representation in images matters. All of these historical and social issues are effectively whitewashed by memes that appropriate Indigenous culture. White privilege is at work, even within minority social movements.

Rethinking the Sociology of Sex and Gender

Western sociologists happily teach that our role is to find the “general in the peculiar” and “the strange in the familiar.” The first phrase stems from Peter Berger Invitation to Sociology. The second is an extrapolation of Berger’s argument that, “The first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem.” I have taught these phrases to students in the past, as many sociology lecturers continue to do. It’s a great pedagogical device. At the same time, we need to reflect what this means in practice. In this case, when we teach about “third sex” cultures, we are effectively making the unfamiliar familiar. But at what cost?

Western scholarship transplants Western concepts of gender, transgender and sexuality onto Other cultures. Rather than viewing the Two Spirit phenomenon in its own cultural meaning, we make it “familiar” by reconstructing it as a political identity aligned with transgender and gay rights. This may be the case for some Two Spirit people, but not all. Even when Two Spirit people adopt transgender and gay labels, this position is the outcome of complex socio-cultural and historical struggles that affect Native Americans distinctly.

A study from October 2012 surveyed 6,456 transgender and gender nonconforming people. The survey finds that almost one quarter live under the poverty line (living on less than USD$10,000 annually). This is six time the rate for the general American population. Over 3.2% of the Native American sample were HIV positive and a further 8% did not know their HIV status. In comparison, 2.6% of non-Indigenous transgender and gender non-conformists from other ethnicities were were unaware of their HIV status. Furthermore, 56% of the Indigenous respondents had attempted suicide in comparison to 41% of non-Indigenous people.

Thirty-four percent of the Indigenous sample had been refused medical treatment due to discrimination and a further 65% had delayed seeking medical treatment due to fear of discrimination. Eighty-six percent of the Indigenous participants had faced physical harassment at school; they had more than twice the rate of unemployment compared to the national average (18% versus 7%); and they experienced six times the national rate of homelessness (40% versus 7%).

The aforementioned PBS documentary on Two Spirit people centres on the murder of Two Spirit Fred Martinez, who was the victim of homophobic and racist violence.

These figures on discrimination and violence suggest that Native Americans who identify as transgender and gender non-conformist experience multiple disadvantages that go beyond their sexual and gender identities. Holding up Native American Two Spirit people as LGBTQI poster children for gay marriage is problematic on several fronts. It privileges one cause (marriage) over institutional racism, sexual and racist violence, socio-economic disadvantage, health, and other ongoing effects of colonialism.

We need to respect the cultural traditions and struggles of other cultures, by becoming more aware of the concept of Otherness and how this frames our understanding of the world. The notion of the Other illustrates how dominant cultures define their own experience as the default human position. Dominant cultures perpetuate colonialist practices by using their own cultural values and traditions to make sense of, and judge, how we view Other cultures. In effect, academics and activists have Othered the Two Spirit people, by inscribing their own politics and interests onto this practice, and not approaching Native American culture from their own historical and social perspectives.

Moving Forward

As this post shows, the social sciences are no different than other fields of study. There are alternative ways of understanding social phenomena in response to new ideas and emerging data. Our knowledge and theories change or are adapted as we forge new synergies with other scholars. Just as legal and social definitions of sexuality and gender have changed over time, social science concepts and theories change and adapt in the face of new empirical evidence. With the case of the Two Spirit people, social science needs to reconfigure how we study these cultures as a monolith experience, and do away with a singular Western lens.

So how do we stop contributing to the Othering of Two Spirit and other diverse gender minority cultures? First, we need to rethink our own cultural position. Do we belong to the minority culture being discussed? No? Then rethink your choice to speak on behalf of that culture, or to use their image, culture or traditions to advance your own personal cause. You mean well, but without meaning to, you may be doing that community more harm than good. Second, we need to be open to life-long learning and critical engagement with other cultures. Do we know enough about a particular social experience to make comparisons to another society? You can only answer “yes” if you are an expert in a given field; otherwise, seek out alternative and reputable sources to broaden your understanding of human experience.

Even then, don’t succumb to making direct analogies. It is better to position yourself clearly: “I am a white/ non-white sociologist; from my training and the available evidence, this cultural practice can help us to think about gender in this way…” Then read your data critically, taking into consideration how your cultural position of privilege informs your methods and conclusions.

Don’t let the conversation stop once you publish that article/blog post/image/meme. Make yourself available for respectful discussion. Speak up when the conversation heads in the wrong direction. Remain self-reflexive; this is the duty of sociology, to always question our position and knowledge, to change and adapt and grow public awareness.

Public sociology has been a prevailing theme in journals, books, and conferences. In forthcoming posts I will discuss this further, but in the mean time, it’s high time that we start practising a critical and reflexive public sociology. Producing visual content to debate social issues is important. Let’s start thinking about how to do this better in our classrooms and for public consumption.

Learn More

Navajo construction of gender, PBS “Two Spirits”

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People

  1. Pingback: The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science | The Other Sociologist - Analysis of Difference... By Dr Zuleyka Zevallos

  2. Pingback: Two Spirit People | Children Of Light.

  3. Pingback: Letting Women Shine: Undoing Gender Inequality in Education | The Other Sociologist - Analysis of Difference... By Dr Zuleyka Zevallos

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