Thank you for taking the time to read this. This letter was written by white allies in support of certain Native members of our community who have already put a lot of time and energy into trying to explain why it’s a problem when people without Native/First Nations heritage use the term “Two Spirit” to describe themselves.
We know that you care deeply about this issue because you are still reading this letter. This means you have not yet closed your mind to what we are saying. Let us begin by acknowledging that we live in a world in which we collectively face so many adversities – wars, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the list goes on. One of the hardest challenges we face is understanding our privileges in the face of our oppressions.
In our culture, trans and gender non-conforming people have very few options with regards to how to identify. Socially visible gender non-conformity is slowly being reforged after so many generations of violent and forced conformity to very rigid gender roles. Many white people who use the term “Two Spirit” are doing so out of a desire to resist the dominant binary and find a way to describe a feeling deeper than words. There is nothing wrong with this impulse. The impulse to find and create language is an act of resistance and resilience. Language often comes from the colonizers, and can become its own prison if we are not constantly creating new words and uncovering ancient ways to describe our reality. It only becomes a problem when we are stealing, rather than creating or reclaiming these words. It is especially troubling when white, US-born people, without Native lineage, steal words or ideas from Native/First Nations tribes and people – because our entire existence on this land is already based on centuries of theft (not just of words, but of land, resources and lives) and very current imbalances of power.
Whether or not you choose to identify as “white,” if you appear white, then you are probably treated as if you are white by those you encounter. This means that you have something called white-skin privilege and do not wake up every day having to brace yourself for the inevitable and extreme racism you are likely to encounter – everything from the increased chance of police violence to the higher level of pollutants in your neighborhood. However, if you have white-skin privilege and are of European ancestry, it also means you likely wake up in a vacuum every day, void of your deep ethnic heritage and without first-hand knowledge of the customs of your people. European cultures were the first ones colonized hundreds of years ago in the rise of capitalism and Christianity.
One of the main methods of colonialism/colonization is to force people to give up their unique cultures in order to assimilate. The benefit of this assimilation could be safety, economic-prosperity, or simply survival. Though many European cultures included space for non-binary gender identities, and even idolized them, these were demonized by the Church as it increasingly relied on the use of patriarchal governing styles and violence against non-conformity to achieve control. This resulted in the western culture we have today – one where gender and sexuality is defined in terms of strictly enforced binaries.
Our queer, trans and gender-fluid ancestors were murdered in the Inquisition, the Witch Hunts, and many lesser known instances of violence because their subversion was seen as dangerous. Dual-spirited gods and goddesses, once worshiped as doubly powerful in many cultures, were transformed into consorts of the devil. Check it out:
- In Europe, MTF priestesses served Artemis, Hecate and Diana. Early traditions thrived longest in Greece, and the mythology of the day incorporated tales of cross-dressing by Achilles, Heracles, Athena and Dionysus, as well as literal and metaphorical gender changes.
- The blind prophet Tiresias is often mentioned as a figure who had lived many years of his life in each different gender, and was said to have possessed acute wisdom for it.
- The tale of an FTM character, Kaineus (Caeneus), who was viewed as a “scorner and rival of the gods” and was driven into the earth by the Centaurs, is an example of Greek mythology attempting to subvert earlier trans-oriented legends.
- And Cupid was a dual god/dess of love, originally portrayed as intersex…
- The Amazons, a group of warriors often in conflict with Greeks and later mythologized, seem to have been thought of as trans, and Pliny the Younger referred to them as the Androgynae “who combine the two sexes.” They carried double-edged axes which may have been symbols of intersexuality, as were those carried by the South American tribe that inspired the naming of the Amazon River.
- In the Klementi tribe of Albania, if a virgin swore before twelve witnesses that she would not marry, she was then recognized as male, carried weapons, and herded flocks.(http://www.bilerico.com/2008/02/transgender_history_trans_expression_in.php)
We offer this history because we know that to take something away without putting something in its place leaves a big, empty hole in our identities/spirits. Our intention is not to take something away from you, but rather to invite you to give something up willingly that someone else developed as an act of cultural resilience. What we are asking you to give up is attachment to the term “Two Spirit,” because it is a term sacred and specific to Native/First Nations people. And it also comes with its own deep history of gender violence, patriarchy, resistance and reclamation.
If you are not a member of a First Nations tribe, then it is not liberatory to use the term “Two Spirit.” If you did not descend from their ancestors and their struggles, and if you do not understand the history of their tribes or their words, then they are not yours to use and your use of the terms is theft, or what is called cultural appropriation. All to often, we appropriate words, customs and clothes from other cultures without the context to really know their implications. Of course we are not saying that the term is or should be patented in some way, but we are asking you to consider the similarity between using this term and, say, wearing a headdress. Consider the impact, rather than your intention.
However, what white people do have is centuries worth of gender non-conforming ancestors to start reclaiming and infinite possibilities of words and terms to create! This is just the beginning. Let’s work together to find new words. (In addition to already established terms like genderqueer, gender nonconforming, transgender, and androgynous, how about we add dual-spirited, non-dual gendered, multi-gendered, transcendent gender… What else? Leave ideas in the comments section!)
Here are a few links offering more history on European (and other culture’s) gender non-conformity:
- Transgender History: A 6 Part Series
- Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman
- We Are an Old People, We Are a New People
Also, there is a lot of great reading available to further inform you about Tribe-specific and spiritual beliefs related to Two-Spirit identity:
- Two Spirit Is Not For White People – It is Appropriation
- Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People
- Two Spirit: My Journey Home
- Two-Spirit People of the First Nations
- Life in the Between: The Beauty and Importance of Two Spirit People
- We had previously included a link to another article, but have chosen not to continue encouraging folks to link to it due to transmisogynist language that it included. Thank you for your comments about this.
“I have Native/First Nations heritage, but I am mixed and/or have ‘white-skin’ privilege. How does what you are saying in this article relate to me? Or, I am a non-Native person of color.”
This article is not written for or about you. This article is only addressed to white folks with non-Native heritage.
“But the term Two Spirit is in English. Why should I be told not to use a term in my own language?”
There are plenty of terms in English that we choose not to use because they are hurtful or harmful to others. The question itself also demonstrates something called ‘entitlement,’ which is a part of the training white people are given to expect that everything in the world ought to be at our disposal. Here’s an article about it. But let’s get deeper, and recall that one big violent thing that happened during the colonization of the US was that Native people were forced to learn English and were repeatedly punished for using their Native languages. Part of being colonized is forced assimilation – not being allowed to maintain your own culture, language, customs, or religion. It happened in Europe before it happened in the US and elsewhere. So, if Native folks decided to use the language they now speak and have in common because of colonization, in order to begin the process of reclaiming intrinsic parts of their respective cultures, that were also suppressed by colonization, let’s not further the legacies of colonization by now stealing that term and erasing the cultural context they were trying to give it. Let’s use this language that we now share to come up with new terms. Sound fair?
This letter was not written alone, but in collaboration with several queer, white folks in the SF Bay Area community. It is shared here in order to support ease of online access for others in our community.
We are including all reader comments to this article that include non-trolling language, whether or not we agree with you, as a way to support conversation. We encourage you to read through the comments, as many of them add dimensions, context and history to this conversation, beyond what we feel qualified to include. We were especially touched by the comments from Ogichidaakwe, MastincalaSapa, Shodo, mija, Harlan Pruden, Monty, and Dominique.