A Letter to White People Using the Term “Two Spirit”

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.
  • tiresiasThe 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.

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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:

Also, there is a lot of great reading available to further inform you about Tribe-specific and spiritual beliefs related to Two-Spirit identity:

FAQ

“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.

89 thoughts on “A Letter to White People Using the Term “Two Spirit”

  1. Good article. However the headline and opening paragraph should be changed to indicate that you mean that white people should not refer to THEMSELVES as two-spirit, because otherwise it appears that you are saying that white people cannot use the term to refer to native people who identify as two-spirit.

    • Fortunately, the term two-spirit will continue to be used by those who indentify as such. It is a beautiful term and nothing is going to keep anyone from using it because all beings are an expression of the Great Spirit-that which transcends all dualism and constructs. Therefore, all have the innate right to enjoy life without limitation, especially pregedice. Do yourself a favor and let go of your limiting beliefs, those old ways of thinking and being. Let go of trying to control those around you. It sounds like the only people who are being negatively impacted by the use of the term two-spirit is you and those who continue to hold onto outdated beliefs. I’m going to make sure that everyone i know is informed that regardless of one’s ethnicity and gender preference, to remember that each one of us is a beautiful expression of Great Spirit first and foremost.

      • Certainly a person should be encouraged to be themselves regardless as for what anyone else sees for how one portrays/reveals of themselves.

  2. As a Native American man who identifies as Two-Spirit, I thank you for your thoughtful and respectful words. I was part of the group of Native North Americans and First Nations people who engaged in the dialogue about what term we could use to describe our community. We felt a kinship across our tribal boundaries and we all agreed it would not be appropriate to use one Tribe’s name in preference to another tribe. We realized the common language we share was North American English. Subsequently- we decided on the term, “Two-Spirit” with the understanding that it was not a word to be translated back into a Native
    word. Because, if you do this, in my native language, it would mean “Two-Ghosts” So, it is never to be translated into Native word although some Native Two-Spirit people insist on doing this. Oh well, there intent is to connect the word with their culture. In any case, your letter is thoughtful, though-provoking, and your respectful intent in totally clear. Pidamayayedo (thank you) Michael

    • Two spirit comes directly from a Native language. Anishinaabemowin. It is a literal translation of Niizh Maanidoowag. Your theory of it is interesting Michael, but just not historically true for the native tribes that Europeans co-opted the word from. It may not translate in your culture or native language, but it exists and is a literal translation from other native cultures.

  3. What about Metis and mixed blood people? This article makes some incorrect assumptions. It says if you appear white you are likely not connected to your heritage?? This is a bullshit statement. I look white, but I am half anishnaabe and carry many of the teachings that come with that. I have a very deep connection to my anishnaabe heritage. So don’t presume to tell me that my skin tone dictates what I do or don’t know about myself.

    • Thanks for pointing out how this section is being interpreted. We’ll work on clarifying the text to better align with the intention.

      • This was also the statement that caused me pause. I am Shoshone, Cherokee, Choctaw, Blackfoot, and Irish. I grew up very near the Hoh Reservation in Washington State, in the EXACT same housing, and Socio-economic conditions. I spent an entire childhood, not pink enough for one side of my family, and not brown enough for the other. (I have grey eyes, and freckles, straight dark hair OBVIOUS Native bone structure, and body “shape” but depending on the light, can appear white, or dark…) Being gay on top of that did not help. I have extensively studied ALL sides of my heritage, and have great respect, and reverence for them all. BUT that leaves me excluded none-the-less, as I cannot logically claim any of them as “mine.” For you to assume that I am treated with any kind of “privilege” and/or do not face discrimination, or violence based on my skin color is ludicrous! I have been assaulted physically several times, mostly in my childhood, and MOSTLY by family members. I was forced to go on SSA at the age of 28 due to brain damage, and PTSD caused by a severe assault, by a group of men with baseball bats. To further exclude persons like me, is not only racist, it is cruel, and to accuse a person of “stealing” a term that more accurately, and respectfully affirms a part of that person is selfish, and petty. You only wear buckskin? You never drink coffee, or speak English? You never refer to yourself, or anyone else you know using English terms?

        • Please note that we are not addressing this to folks who have Native heritage. We tried to explain that in the blog, and have added a FAQ to further clarify.

  4. Excuse my ignorance for saying, and with all due respect, “two spirit”, are English words. i.e. a “white people’s” language. What gives you the right to tell us what we can and can’t use from our own language? I can understand if we used native language, but, this is English.

    • The people who invented the word, “Two-Spirit” is a translation, learn to respect other cultures terms and quit whining that “it’s english”

  5. Thanks for this important piece. However, the third article you link to at the end (“Toward an end to appropriation…”) is from a deeply transmisogynistic website. Not cool.

  6. Thank you very much for this cultural explanation and defence of heritage of peoples. This is exceptionally well-written and very easy to understand~

  7. As an aboriginal person I am appalled by the reverse ignorance being promoted in this article! Instead of recognizing that aboriginal ‘had a way’ that was so much more than current misconceptions of our gifted two-spirited people of this world and that way is a gift to this world, this article is overflowing with a guilt driven victim consciousness ready to wipe out a beautiful gift from a culture by calling it a theft. Anyone who thinks that Creator sent those gifts for one nation is not only kidding themselves but truly dishonouring that gift and nation. Indigenous people know this as well, it’s imbedded in our culture. Instead of trying to make this gift of interpretation some fight between belonging, why not honour the nation that came up with it instead! That would do a lot more for the people and culture than this. Indigenous people don’t need help being seen as different, they need to recognized and celebrated for their interpretations!

    • Thanks for adding this perspective. We wrote this in response to requests from certain First Nations folks in our communities who put out the request and have been engaged in these conversations. We understand that not all First Nations people of this land will feel the same way. Our intention is for it to be less about guilt or victimization and more about building awareness about patterns of colonialism. However, we do agree with you that we all need to honor and give reparations to Indigenous people, culture, and nations no matter our relationship to the two-spirit identity!

      • Being of Irish ancestry, I found your article very informative and educational, in a very personal sense. You’re very considerate of alternative points of view and have let go of any tendency to be insulted or angry at countering responses. Being so open and understanding is impressive.

    • I agree. If one embraces the concept of the sacred dichotomy of the universe, present in many Native American spiritual traditions and cosmologies, then you understand that Two Spirit is not a cultural tradition or a shared history. It is not like regalia, or war bonnets, or songs, or stories, or cultural identity. Two Spirits simply IS. And the gift of two spirits is not bestowed based on race, ethnicity, geography, or any other restrictive criteria. The Creator blesses whom the Creator blesses.

  8. Hey there! I love so much of this and think it will help many people sort out their thinking. I have also seen several indigenous people I know be hurt by a view that you have included in this piece and I thought that as one white settler to others that I would suggest a rethink on the definition of white skin privilege that you have used. the people who have expressed hurt about this in my hearing are regularly read by others as white but they are not white. ..tho colonial society would want to deny their indigeneity they are indigenous with strong ties to their identity and communities. Their experience of being read as white is one of erasure and pain and of things like hearing white people trash their family members and their home reserves or their urban indigenous communities…and that is a radically different experience than my experience of being read as white…for me it reflects my political location within settler colonialism accurately. I have white privelege they have conditional access and these are not the same thing. They are read as white but they are not white and defining their experience as one of white privilege helps do colonialism’s genocidal work of erasure. I know that is not at all what you are wanting to do but your article makes no space for them as indigenous people with a legitimate claim to their identity and the term two spirit . I was hoping you would reconsider this and perhaps do an edit. Again…thank you for a great article and I hope that maybe it can be made even more nuanced and useful. if you would like to continue the conversation i would be happy to. Feel free to email me. Warmth – Kalamity

    • Thanks for this. Our intention was definitely to address folks who have European settler heritage, but who still choose not to identify as white, as a form of denial. We will think about how to adjust the language of this letter so as not to imply that First Nations folks who might be read as white would feel this is trying to speak to them.

  9. I am white. It is not my place or heritage to use words that people of other cultures use. My ancestors have done many things wrong since landing on this soil. I have learned from the mistakes from my ancestors past and I do not and will not repeat those mistakes. To me it all boils down to respect. I respect and have fun with my friends of all cultures. My friends from other cultures help make me a better person and that is all I want to be. I cannot correct the the mistakes of my ancestors but I can sure help make things better here for everyone that I meet.

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  11. I use the term Two Spirit to describe myself and while I may appear white and was not raised in a tribe I have the DNA profile that verifies my “Native” heritage , as well as the past life memories that confirm my feelings. for many I’m sure it’s the same .as gay or transgendered people trying to find there way I don’t see how a word or term when used positively is an issue. I’d say worry about those who mean harm and embrace those who don’t. after all unless you speak only your native language and don’t use European terms to describe anything it’s simply the same thing.

  12. Thank you for pointing out this important issue. I am certain that i have ancestors that have stolen things and/or disrupted sacred places out of greedy ignorance and arrogance.
    I vow to learn the ways of respecting and honoring First Nations Peoples.
    Theresa Owen

  13. Can you mention any sources on the gender diversity in ancient Greek religion, especially regarding MTF religious officials?

  14. I find this rhetoric to be completely inappropriate and annoying.

    The term “two spirit” refers to breaking a boundary built on dualism that native peoples coined. Hallelujah that other people’s/cultures/non-native races are embracing this term and making it pervasive by uttering it again and again in a multiplicity of circles and contexts.

    How can we embrace non-duality if the legislation on words and cultures that you propose here is upheld? By your own logic, neither word, nor food, nor ritual nor dress would ever be adopted by those outside of the originating culture. How sad and pathetic if we all lived in such a cultural bubble. This proposal of yours to “give up what you don’t own” is not progress, but regress.

    I wonder if you’ve given the term “spirit” much thought before writing this rather obtuse and verbose article?

  15. Really enjoyed reading this..Iam. Cherokee ,my ppl r from N.C…please continue to keep everyone informed. thank u

  16. No one tribe, culture, or people, including white people, can ‘own’ any word or language. Language is alive and ever-changing, and usage sets the meaning, not the colour of someone’s skin. You suggest that if you even appear white, you should not use the phrase “Two Spirit”. What if you look white but are a member of the First Nations? My suggestion to the writers is that when people who look white to them use the phrase 2-spirit, they should know it is not the same thing they mean when they use it in the context of their First Nations culture, history and language. We freely use Namaste, having borrowed it from its cultural and historical meaning and specific followers of Budhism. When someone says it to their friends on leaving the party early, it’s not an infringement or slur on their own sacred definition when true followers believe it. Because it’s obvious within the context that the usage means something different, in the former meaning something more like, “Good bye, have fun, I have to leave early but wish you all peace”.

    • Thanks for this. We are not suggesting that folks who look white but are a member of the First Nations should avoid using the term. And we agree that the appropriation of terms like Namaste is also worth investigating.

  17. One point to add: the use of native terms for non-natives is problematic partly because the non-natives really don’t know what the terms signify. Since they don’t know, they are using the terms to describe something other than the true meaning. The native term is diluted by this use, and using it for things it was not meant for results in the loss of the use of the term for the things it is intended to signify. English is voracious to other languages. We anglos assimilate and repurpose everything. The natives are identifying and preserving their endangered languages and cultures. Our use of terms that are not ours is indeed theft, because in time and with repetition, the definitions change, and the terms become less useful, indeed, even tawdry.

  18. Thank you for this rich and thoughtful post. Just to add that, as with many traditions presumed to be lost or erased in the Americas, so too in Europe some traditions survive in living bodies as well as memories: burrnesha (sworn virgins) remain alive in Albania . Elvira Dones’ novel (soon to be a film) Sworn Virgin gives an insight into the continuation of this tradition under Communism .

  19. I must say, I have the utmost respect for the native American people, who have seen struggle for survival since the white people came to claim their land. Seeing a letter like this, does seem to me, a white European transgender, a bit much, at first glance. Looking deeper, I can understand where this is coming from. The feeling of slowly loosing one’s identity as a nation makes one want to hold on to traditions even more.

    However, if we continue this line of thinking, we should all go back to just those things we (as a people) originally had. That means, loosing all of our multi-cultured progress, the positive and sometimes negative things we have assimilated from other people and cultures. We should all go back to our original beliefs, drop all foreign enrichments of our languages etc. That would not enrich us, but it would leave us empty and alone.

    Every morning that I wake up, I face a struggle within. I struggle against the need to be myself and the demands and limitiations society places upon me. I cannot be the person I am, because society puts limits on how we present ourselves. Because it will cost me my marriage. Sure, she knows and interacts with both my identities. Both my spirits.

    I am not just one gender. I am not two personalities, I am one person, who happens to present as two genders. I actually DO present as two different people to the outside, but I am the same person inside. I am strong and protective as a man and soft, gentle and thoughtful as a woman. I have two spirits inside me. I am two people in one, yet still the same person, without having the split in personality one would have as if I had MPD. My two sides, one male and one female, co-exist inside me and make me whole. They help me find a balance inmy life and my spirit, that I have not been able to reach as just one of the two (that is male, which I have been for 50 years)

    That being said, although I feel I am a two-spirited person, I will refrain from useage of the term as such. I will just see myself as someone who has the blessing of having received traits from both sides of the gender scale. I am by no means a native American two-spirit, as I am no holy person, no medicine person, no native American. I am native Dutch. In our language, we have no term for this. We do now, as we are being typified as (trying to translate) sissies, Queers, fagots, freaks, sick people, schizoids, dirty perverts. But also as people. I am not holy. I am just blessed with insight, I am, without me wanting to, asked for advice and guidance by many. Due to my keen intellect and my insight in both sides of the gender-binary.

    If this term is solely to be used by those to whom it originally belnged to, so be it. Use it with wisdom. Don’t use it as another example of white people clubbing you down. Fighting the white people is a loosing battle. Not because they (we) deserve to, but because we are afraid of everything that is foreign. Because white people always seem to thinks they are right and have every right to. Although I am caucasian, I am not WHITE. I change colour with the exposure to the sun. My spirit is white. Not racial white, but this colour comes from God. It has been placed as a warning for others, not to touch as I am His. In that respect, a two-spirit is like me (or I like them), set aside by our God for special purposes.

    Peace and wisdom to you all.

  20. Very well, and respectfully, written. As a transman who is clearly not of aboriginal ancestry, I would never refer to myself as two spirited. I would consider that to be somewhat offensive because it comes from a culture and history that is not mine.

  21. The deep sense of loss is how I feel as a woman,lesbian woman when trans people take my culture , history and heroines and claim them as their own. Wearing non trad clothes does not make you a man or women. Growing up with the culture and history of women and watching that culture being transmogified is by trans people is sad and incredibly oppressive. First we get a voice, then it’s stolen from us.

  22. When one is trying to find and create an alternate way in a world already confusing and conflict filled to begin with, it can seem easier to adopt/adapt to another’s terminology to craft a feeling of belonging to *something*, but it’s not always the best thing to do. I appreciate this letter for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it does offer ‘something in the place of”, in pointing out a starting place to go look for other cultures’ traditions and language. The tone of the letter is a firm but polite “This is ours, and needs to stay ours, let us help you find your own.” It demonstrates an increasingly rare maturity of attitude, and a welcome one.

  23. I understand what you are saying, and I do not use the term myself, but I disagree that white people should be disallowed from using the terminology of other cultures. Nowadays, speakers of nearly every language borrow terms from other languages and cultures. I hold a degree in German Studies, and I have encountered many instances of Germans borrowing English terms and English speakers borrowing German terms. It is not appropriation; it is linguistic development. One may say that because white people have done horrible things to Native Americans, it is a different situation. However, Germans have done horrible things to English speakers, for example during World War II. Therefore, I submit that the borrowing of terms ought to be viewed as welcome, regardless of the history between peoples.

  24. Hau, mitakuyepi, Akicita Hoksila emaciyapelo. (Hello, my name is Defender Boy) Le Mniconju Lakota, na Scottish hemaca heca yelo. (I am Mniconju Lakota and Scottish.) I have read your good words, and understand your point. However, the term Two spirit belongs to the creator not the creation, there for it belongs to all mankind. I speak for my tiyospaye ( my extended family) yes there is a lot of retaliation racism that is spat back at white people but, that really isn’t our way, in our Sundance altars there have always been a place for white people, we knew of your existence be for you came here. And we knew that at some point we would have the knowledge that you craved. All things in creation belongs to Wakan Tanka, all life on earth was created by this compassion this love. Let us endeavor to share not to say that this belongs to this and that belongs to that because it all belongs to Wakan Tanka. And the words of a few people do not cover all five hundred nations so, please do not offer blanket statements such as this. Let us conspire to live with the power, and love unconditionally. Hau, Mitakuye Oyasin.

    • Thank you for this comment. (Disclaimer: I am a very mixed straight person. I have ancestors all over the place. I have known for a while that I have some kind of Indian heritage, though even that is frustratingly mixed… I am defaulted to white/caucasian.) I was very curious to how more people from the tribes might respond to this. I am an English major and very interested in language itself. Tracing everything and thinking deeply about how language evolves and morphs and develops, we all technically speak dialects of the same language in the end. I very much appreciate your view of the creator making everything for all of mankind(and I agree that the creator mustn’t have made the world to be split) Though I wish to respect that which has significant meaning and value to those who it comes from, I have not yet made up my mind that words should be locked away completely from those it does not belong. How are we to grow as humans if we do not share ideas? Yet, it is also understandable that some people would wish to protect their cultural, traditional, and historical words… I hope more voices are spoken and heard about these and many other issues. Thank you!

  25. There is no other phrase in English that describes my gender identity better than “two spirit”. I sometimes use “genderqueer” as common parlance, but I do identify more as two-spirit. (It is rare that I share that with people.) The English word “spirit” is important to me to convey the transcendent essence of my relationship to gender. My body is female; my gender expression is masculine, my spirit is two.

  26. I have a few issues with this “request”,
    First off what you are doing is privatizing language, saying that one group of people has more rights to a term than another group of people. It’s fucked up when oppressive groups (read: white people) do it, and its equally fucked up when oppressed groups do it. I do not recognize any one groups claim to words. Period.
    (I will only mention the fact in passing, that unless meso-american populations in the 13th century were speaking English, you are essentially claiming the rights to a phrase in every possible language which is completely ridiculous.)

    I would have been FAR more receptive to the argument that the phrase is already in use, thus for language clarity’s sake we should choose another term so that we all understand the phrase when it is used. The “cultural sacredness” of phrases is off-putting to any cultural other than the one calling it sacred.

    So, in conclusion, I think that yes we do need to pick a new phrase for the sake of language clarity. But your claim of “theft of cultural property” is completely absurd.

  27. In response to a readers comment you allege that you do not mean to say that a tribe affiliated native person or persons that pass as white in society should not use this term, but upon my first reading and re-reading of this article- that is exactly what it clearly states. To deny heritage based on a paler skin and not DNA data and cultural rearing would be the genocidal colonialist ideal. In this article it clearly states that if you pass for white that cultural identity of your ancestors does not belong to you and that you are free of racism and race-related problems. I strongly suggest the article is rewritten to state European people’s using the word should cease using it and not muddy the issue by insulting a less stereotypically darker-skinned NDN. Ridiculous

    • GiLi – There are two separate points being made in this paragraph:

      “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 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.”

      the above is true, that white supremacy means that those with lighter skin are afforded more white privilege, and is only a lead-in to the next part of the paragraph, in which we do clarify European ancestry. we did this because there are many people who are white, are not connected to Native ancestry, and still deny that they have white privilege or even that they are white. we were trying to make a general point. But look at the next line:

      “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.”

      Please leave a comment or email us with your specific ideas of how we could re-write this paragraph to achieve the intention, but not keep getting misinterpreted by folks. this was/is a collective effort and a living process!

  28. While I can appreciate the goals of this article I have to disagree with its conclusions. First off, it can hardly be theft of a native American term when it is in the English language. It is an approximation or translation of the original name from the various original languages. Second, non-native Trans people who self identify with the term are in no way trying to encompass the whole history of the tribes or appear to be of a native origin. They are simply using a term whose nuances match their life experience. That’s like telling someone of African desent that they can’t use gay to describe themselves since they didn’t originate the word! Instead of theft, I feel the use of two-spirit by caucasians is an honoring of the long tradition of some native tribes to include their Trans members in positions of respect. Simply the use of a term from another culture is not disrespectful. If you warp it’s meaning or use it in a derogatory way then yes, THAT would be disrespectful.

    I do thank you for this thoughtful discussion.

  29. As a Two-Spirit leader, thank you for writing this; the use of our term of Two-Spirit by non-Native people of this land, it highly problematic on a many fronts.

    Background/Context:
    On the land we know as North America, there were approximately 400 distinct Indigenous Nations. Of that number, 170 have documented multiple gender traditions. Two-Spirit is a contemporary term that came into being at the 3rd Annual International Gay and Lesbian Native Gathering in 1990. The attendees at the gathering organized a talking circle and came up with the term “Two-Spirit”. They wanted a term that “…reflected the combination of masculinity and femininity which was attributed to males in a feminine role and females in a masculine role” (Lang 1998) that existed in many traditional Indigenous cultures of Turtle Island.

    The existence of Two-Spirit people challenges the rigid binary view of the world of the North American colonizers and missionaries, not just of a binary gender system, but a binary system of this or that, all together. The Two-Spirit’s mere existence threatened the colonizers’ core beliefs; the backlash was violent. Sketches, housed at the New York City public library, depict Two-Spirit people being fed to colonizers’ dogs. Word of this brutal treatment spread quickly from Nation to Nation. Many Nations decided to take actions to protect their honored and valued Two-Spirit people. Some Nations hid them by asking them to replace their dress, a mixture of men and women’s clothing, with the attire of their biological sex. After years of colonization, some of those very same nations denied ever having a tradition that celebrated and honored their Two-Spirit people.

    The Two-Spirit tradition is primarily a question of gender, not sexual orientation. Sexual orientation describes the relationship a person of one gender has with another gendered person. Gender describes an individual’s expected role within a community.

    Within traditional Native communities, there was an expectation that women farmed/gathered food and cooked; men hunted big game. Although there was division of labor along gender lines, there was no gender-role hierarchy. Within the Native social construct of gender, a community could not survive without both of the equal halves of a whole. The Native commitment to gender equality opened the door for the possibility of multiple genders, without the idea that a man was taking on a lesser gender by placing himself in a women’s role and vi-versa for Two-Spirit women.

    Gender Roles of Two Spirit People:
    People of Two-Spirit gender functioned as crafts-people, shamans, medicine-givers, mediators, and/or social workers. In many Native communities, men and women’s styles of speech were distinct; sometimes even different dialects were spoken. The Two-Spirit people knew how to speak both in the men and women’s ways. They were the only ones allowed to go between the men and the women’s camps. They brokered marriages, divorces, settled arguments, and fostered open lines of communication between the sexes.

    Their proficiency in mediation often included their work as communicators between the seen (physical) and un-seen (spiritual) worlds. Many of the great visionaries, dreamers, shamans, or medicine givers were Two-Spirit people. In some traditions, a war party could not be dispatched until their Two-Spirit person consulted the spirits of the un-seen world and then gave their blessings. In the Sioux tradition, before any war party’s departure, the party preformed a dance with the Two-Spirit person at the center of the circle to show their respect and honor.

    It is traditional to present gifts at gatherings to those who exemplify the “spirit” of the community or who have done the most for the community. Two-Spirit people were respected and honored with gifts when they attended gatherings. They did not keep the gifts, but passed them on to spread the wealth. In this respect, Two-Spirit people were similar to modern day social workers.

    When a family was not properly raising their children, the Two-Spirit person would intervene and assume the responsibly as the primary caretaker. Sometimes, families would ask the Two-Spirit people for help rearing their children. This unique role of social worker was specific to Two-Spirit people, for they had an excess of material wealth as a result of the gifts they received.

    Remembering Our Traditions:
    Since the time of colonization many Native people have forgotten the “old” way. Many converted to a Western religion, which did not accept traditional spirituality and community structures.

    However, there are groups of elders and activists that have quietly kept the Two-Spirit tradition alive. In some Nations that have revived this tradition, or brought it once again into the light, Two-Spirit people are again fulfilling some of the roles and regaining the honor and respect of their communities.

    The Two-Spirit tradition is a very rich one that deserves a closer examination. The LGBTI activists engaged in achieving equality for all should remember that there was a time when people who engaged in same-sex relationships were accepted and honored for their special qualities.

    Two-Spirit people are a part of the fabric of this land, and we stand here today as a testament of our collective strength and fortitude.

    Cultural Appropriation of Indigenous Two Spirit Identity:
    There are many reasons why non-Native people should not use the term ‘Two-Spirit’. Below are a couple of the main reasons:

    1. First and foremost, Two-Spirit is term/identity that acknowledges our ethnicity, Native American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Indigenous Peoples, First Nations People, and/or Aboriginals, and our sexual orientation/gender, lesbian, gay bisexual and/or transgender identified. This modern term is to honor our collective history, cultural and traditions that celebrated a world view of more than two genders. In many of our traditional languages, there is no word for ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’ because that didn’t exist. Male-assigned Two-Spirit would take a heterosexual male as husband and the female-assigned Two-Spirit would take a heterosexual as a wife. If either of these relationships would end, the heterosexual would go back into the pool of eligible bachelors or bachelorettes.

    2. The term Two-Spirit does not make sense unless it is contextualized within a Native community/setting. At the root of the term as articulated by Lang 1998, it is gender. Gender is socially defined and dictates one’s place and role with one’s community. And, therefore, Two-Spirit is a Native identity and does not easily translate or equate to ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. If non-Native people use the term ‘Two-Spirit’ then that core component is stripped from its intended meaning.

    3. If anyone and everyone to uses the term ‘Two-Spirit’, then the mission and working of the Two-Spirit organizations becomes impossible on a number of fronts:

    a. Could you image if non-Native people started showing up at our meetings and gatherings and because they identified as Two-Spirit and wanted to partake in our ceremonies? How does one to reclaim something that is not culture?

    b. How then do we tailor programs and services to this community if anyone and everyone can use it?

    c. If I could use Montana Two-Spirit Society or Denver Two-Spirit Society as examples of organizations that in many ways have won the trust and respect of the broad Native community, all this hard work could be quickly undone by a few, who are not Native, and decide to use the term of Two-Spirit and do not know our traditions, history and roles.

    4. If an organization that is not Native is raising money under our community’s name – it set up a very odd dynamic. If your organization does raise money under Two-Spirit and is successful, then what do we make of the recent report on USA foundations giving to LGBTQ communities grew significantly, from $97.2 million in 2010 to $123 million in 2011, an increase of 27%. These dollars were distributed by 383 U.S.-based grantmakers, who collectively provided 3,728 grants to organizations and projects devoted to LGBTQ issues.

    The overall 27% increase was not extended to the LGBT/Two Spirit Native Americans (“Two-Spirit”) community; funding for this community remained flat at 0.13% from 2010. In 2011, only 13 grants were issued nationally to this community.

    Therefore, people who are not indigenous or not-partnered with a Two-Spirit person have no right to claim Two-Spirit as an identity. However, at the same time, I fully support non-Native people wanting to come up with their own term if they don’t like or support the current non-Native/western terminology of gender and/or sexual orientation.

    5. Our work is to restore and reclaim our (Two-Spirit) rightful place of honor within our respective Tribal communities. The Two-Spirit and Native community have a completely different perspective AND history/experience from the LGBT community/movement. The LGBT is creating equality, based on a social justice, civil rights and/or human rights frame; the 2S community is working to restore and reclaim. Because of the this huge difference, the discussion and organizing efforts is completely different for the dominate (non-Native) LGBT community.

    For these very reasons listed above, I feel that I must defend and challenge anyone who is not Native from using the term/identity of Two-Spirit.

    I hope this is of some use.

    Harlan Pruden, First Nations Cree – Saddle Lake Reservation – Treaty 6

  30. Thanks for the article!
    I would like to take a little time to point out that two spirit is an english term that replaces the names lost/taken from many indigenous folks during colonization. I am talking two spirit people were fed to dogs lost/taken.Two spirit is also not just an identity. Being two spirit is/was about our purpose, our role in our community. When two spirit is used by non-native/indigenous folks it furthers our erasure. Please, just call yerself something else.

  31. Thank you for this. I’ve been upset over learning that I’m not allowed to use the term Two-Spirited when that’s how I’ve identified since I was 12 years old. As a kid in 2002, that was the only term that I could even find to describe me. I’m 25 now and still feel as though I have the spirit of both a male and female. I never wanted to hurt anyone, but I didn’t have any other options for what to call it and that made me feel like if I wasn’t a Native, then my identity wasn’t valid. Feeling like your gender identity isn’t real because of your race really hurts. I’ve been trying desperately to find a rhyme or reason to use the term and that lead me to this article. After reading this, I completely understand now why I was wrong, because you explained how it hurt your culture instead of just yelling at me. I also never realized that people like myself were allowed to come up with our own words for it. Now I know and I think multi-gendered will be what I use from now on. It gets the point across without hurting anyone. Again, thank you for this. It opened my eyes, taught me something and changed my life. <3

  32. Thank you for this. As a white person of non-binary gender, this is something I have struggled with personally. The term as it is often described seems to encapsulate my personal sense of gender identity more so than any other. A few years before the term “Two-Spirit” was adopted, and before I even recognized myself as trans* in any way, I thought of myself as having a male and a female spirit who coexist. But I also recognize that it’s disrespectful and frankly incorrect to try to divorce the term from its cultural context.

    I think one reason I felt such a longing for that term is that my feminine aspect comes to the fore prominently in certain dreams and when practicing religion (I am a pagan) and magic. But there are many traditions worldwide of magicians and holy people transcending the gender binary, from Sufi who consider themselves all female in the presence of God, to Norse magicians (and Odin Allfather himself) practicing womens’ magic despite “unmanly” being a deadly insult.

  33. I posted these questions on another blog article on the same topic. I deeply resonate with the concept, and have researched it thoroughly. I understand its origins and have great respect for the native cultures from which it originates. That having been said, here are my questions:

    Why couldn’t someone who was not born of Native blood have with the same inherent identity, orientation, etc…?

    Native culture may have accepted and cultivated the concept. European and other cultures may not recognize or “use” the concept. But just because a person’s culture doesn’t recognize a concept, doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be individuals of that culture, born into that inherent state of being. Just because you aren’t born of certain ethnicity, doesn’t mean that a mental and spiritual idea can’t apply to you, right?

    What if someone is a deeply spiritual person, has researched and understands the concept, and has great respect and reverence for the idea? (Basically, someone who is not appropriating the term in a shallow way).

    Not everyone who appropriates something from another culture does so lightly; contemporary Buddhists for example. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian spiritual traditions also allow individuals to “convert” to that spiritual framework. Because anything spiritual, by design, is supposed to be open to all human beings, regardless of birth ethnicity or culture. Why would this concept be any different?

    My understanding is that traditionally, a person born two-spirited was raised accordingly, and in most cases, given some measure of choice in what communal role they filled. If so, isn’t it also possible that individuals born of other ethnicity/culture might identify and serve the same spiritual and cultural roles if given the opportunity?

  34. Also:

    What if someone cannot find a contemporary gender identity/concept name, other than two-spirit, that accurately represents their gender and spiritual identity?

    Human beings are human beings. If the idea is two-spirit is a natural human concept, shouldn’t his spiritual and gender identity “option” be available to anyone who deeply feels this represents who they are?

    Other religions and spiritual practices accept the idea that who you are, and what you believe, are what matters in choosing a spiritual identity. If you truly respect, believe, and practice a cultural and spiritual belief system, why can’t you just call yourself “that”? If you converted to being a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, they would never say you were appropriating that label, just because you weren’t born into the culture from which the idea emerged.

    What about Black folks like me?

    A lot of the complaints I have read about seem to center around appropriation by White/European folks. For really good reasons, like lack of respect for the oppressive experiences of Native peoples by Europeans and such. As an African-American, I CERTAINLY understand the idea of historic oppression, mistreatment, and cultural misappropriation by European types. Though the specifics may be different, it’s all certainly similar for us. And it’s still going on just the same. I do not have white-privilege. Would this be one factor in making it more appropriate for a Black person to identify this way?

    • As I was taught by my elders, “Two Spirit” is more than a gender identity or sexual orientation. It is a role within a Native American/First Nations culture — a role held by someone who is differently-gendered, and/or has a non-hetero sexual orientation. But your gender identity/sexual orientation is just where it begins.

      Being Two Spirit is about the roles we hold within our Indigenous cultures and families. It’s the teachings that our Native communities charge us with holding and passing down. It’s the roles we take during ceremonies. It’s the places we have within our families, and the specific obligations we have to our relatives. It’s the special dances that we dance, and the songs we sing.

      Someone can be LGBTQ and Native without being Two Spirit, especially if they are not embracing their traditional role in their community. (I’ve even heard — though I don’t I agree — that we LGBTQ Native people who don’t live on our reservations, within our traditional communities, do not have any business claiming the term “Two Spirit.”)

      So in my understanding, it’s not about skin color, appearance, or blood quantum. It’s about your connection to your tribe, and your role within it. If being Two Spirit is about holding a specific cultural role, the idea of someone who doesn’t have a tribe being Two Spirit is just really confusing to me.

      When non-Indigenous people use the term “Two Spirit” to describe themselves, I feel like they don’t fully understand the enormity of what they are claiming. What Native community are you affiliated with? What Two Spirit role are you filling within that community?

      If you are just using Two Spirit as a shorthand for your non-binary sexual orientation/gender identity, you might want to look a little more closely at the history. You will find that in many Native cultures, the roles for Two Spirit people often fall within a pretty strict binary. (For example, you might be able to change your gender, but then you have to follow the rules for your new gender pretty strictly – it’s not gender-fluid at all.) And the other obligations that often come with Two Spirit roles (ceremonial leadership, keeping traditional teachings, etc) are often a pretty heavy load, and can be all-consuming — not something to be taken on lightly.

    • I don’t think so. You face similar oppressive experiences, this I acknowledge for certain, but you /do not/ have the same cultural context. Two-spirited people found their place in so many aspects of their existence, not just identity, but as a place in their community. As an Indigenous person noted above, it signifies a very purpose in life in their culture(s).
      So, technically, the term’s use may be more entitled to the people who used it so passionately and deeply rather than something to be juggled upon the idea that oppression = cultural “access”. Culture and its survival has to do a lot with oppression ripping and tearing it apart, but that isn’t /all/ it has to do with.

  35. I agree that appropriation is a fair judgment of non-native use of the term two-spirit. I’ve studied and participated in native traditions for years but have done so with the constant awareness that I’m a visitor in that world, for I’ll always be a white kid from Saint Paul.

    I use the terms gender-fluid and ambigendrous and find them sufficiently affirming that I don’t need to take another culture’s concept and wear it on my sleeve as a merit badge.

  36. Why are we talking about racism while pretending that only two races exist and that it’s only wrong when white people do it? Heck, white Americans can be first generation immigrants and thus not colonizers, and assuming that anyone who descends from colonizers carries their guilt is pretty gross. Nobody is responsible for the crimes of their ancestors, no matter how bloody those crimes were.

    We need to stop talking about race as though it’s white vs (fill in race of choice here). That won’t get us anywhere towards equality.

  37. Thank you so much for a gentle, enlightening blog. I’m kinda sick of what I term apologists, ranting and raving against people they don’t like or don’t agree with.

    This gives us some knowledge and wisdom, and was accompanied by a gentle invitation to identify differently. And I really appreciate that.

    My spiritual path for the last 14 years has been the Red Path. I took the name Two-Spirit for the longest time. I then realized that it didn’t fit me. I believe that I am both male and female, but also neither. So for me, Walks Between fits better. I wish there were a Norse or Celtic word to use. It is a shame that Christianity destroyed the beautiful stories and records of those of us who simply do not fit into the binary.

    Again, thanks for this awesome blog.

  38. Dear white people: stop appropriating terms you know nothing about, other than the fact that it “sounds cool.” It is bad enough that your ancestors single handedly wiped out the First Nations into the small enclaves that exist today. Now you want to wear their headdresses, use their fabric patterns, and aesthetics. When you start claiming their cultural traditions, you have crossed the line. I don’t care about how you “feel.” There are plenty of better terms that can be used to describe yourself. Your ancestors forced their language unto this part of the world, start using it. Thanks.

  39. I must say I understand your argument. You are correct that being a white person gives u a degree of privalege. Unless u are MTF like me. Then we enter into ur territory. I use the term “two spirit” because I fully understand your culture. I fully understand the meaning behind it. I also believe it to be correct. Not only to suit my needs now, but felt it in my heart since I could understand such things. So as much offense as it may bring you..I will still use and refer to myself by this term. Because that really and truly is the point between peace and love. This country is built on theft and lies, but spiritual ideas don’t come from culture no matter how you spin it. They come from knowing your heart and the knowledge that the world you live in is beautiful and has purpose and the driving force that gave it that purpose.
    I don’t kno if others like me who use this term believe it like do. I can only speak for me. But I will not alter my beliefs and conviction because I’m the wrong color to have it. Because I don’t believe that’s what spirituality is about, and as much I know about your cultures spiritual beliefs…neither are yours.

  40. Hello,
    Thank you foy your text. I’m a white european trans (i feel full man and full genderqueer at same time) assigned female at birth. When I was a child, in my dreams and role games, I identified myself like a Lakotas’ boy (not two spirit). I remember i won’t cut my long black hair to look like a Lakotas’ boy (it was a problem because it is a girl feature in europe…). I never identified myself like a Two-Spirit (i knew this concept recently). But I wonder if it is appropriation if i choose a boy Lakotas name that represent a lot of thinks to me (boy gender identity, secret expression of my real gender identity when I was a child and signification of the name). What do you think about it?
    Thanks
    K

  41. Out of respect for the peoples who may be offended if I use the term two-spirit, I do not use it to describe myself. That said, I would illustrate a couple of reasons why White transgender people are drawn to using it.
    Trans is very clinical terminology and has been used unfairly to denote pathology. It also has a long history of being used in derogatory fashion. It’s a difficult term to embrace even with it’s changing connotations.
    Being white will not protect you if your are trans. Much of white culture is still openly hostile to trans people and an alternative sexuality can lose a person a lot of “privilege”. It is hard to find your identity in a culture that is so hostile towards you.

    • thanks for your comments. i appreciate the way you centered respect for the term and culture while simultaneously offering empathy for and awareness about the oppression and violence still faced in our gender non-conforming communities. holding multiple truths.

  42. From my understanding of religion and of trans issues, it seems to me that the term “Two Spirit” implies a theological connotation rooted in the ancient indigenous religions. Obviously, religion in the ancient times was a lot more identity-exclusive than it is today (which is certainly not to say that’s not a persisting factor). But I guess it’s the religion student in me that’s curious to understand how statements of indigenous faith should impact the wider theology world.

    If indigenous faiths acknowledge the presence of “Two Spirited” people, why must this prevent other schools of theology from adopting that into their respective dogmas or creeds? Religions branch off from one another all the time, as do cultures and subcultures, and of course, language. And that’s why even with respect to religion’s longtime identity status, I don’t see how usage of that term can be confined to a single group.

    Which leads me to another question: if that term is off-limits, then what can non-Native peoples use to convey a similar meaning or spiritual principle? Is it the task of Abrahamists/Baha’ists/Sikhs/Buddhists/Hindus/Pagans/spiritualists and hybrids to invent their terminology?

    Thank you.

    • Upon reviewing several older comments, I see that some people’s questions hit similar bells as mine. For the record, I fully understand and appreciate the struggle of oppressed indigenous peoples to retain their culture. I do realize why minorities would be angered by the prospect of “absorbing” pieces of their culture in everyday Western life. I suppose my questions were more theological than anything else, and so I may have picked the wrong place to ask them. Please forgive me in that regard.

  43. Two Spirit is a combination of English words. Words are a vibration. As a person who shares both genders I know that to be one with your ancestors you must vibrate to their vibration so please use the language of your ancestors.

  44. I began calling myself two spirit because when I was around my Native American friends, when I referred to myself as gay they said we don’t have a word for gay in our culture you are two spirit. I have been studying with them. They are teaching myself and my partner the native ways and how to survive what is coming. If it’s offensive to anyone Native American I will stop. Thank you for your article I had no idea.

  45. My great-grandfather was Native American, one parent was Creek and the other Cherokee. My Grandfather looked Native American, but his children (my mother and two aunts) do not, nor do I or my children. My two youngest daughters have an ancestor that was Shasta on their fathers’ side, though I’m not sure how far back. I’ve always been proud of my Native American ancestry, and I have always held immense respect for Native American people and culture. Although I’ve longed to over the years I’ve never participated in any Native American gatherings or ceremonies (with the exception of a funeral) or school activities for fear I wouldn’t be accepted because of my appearance, my lack of knowledge and spiritualism, etc. I found this article through a link from another article that explains the term Two-Spirits and its origin. As the mother of a daughter who identifies as both male and female, who struggles to find a term to identify herself, I thought here was a beautiful definition of who she is and couldn’t wait to share it with her. Then I read your article, and I feel like I’ve been slapped in the face for even considering it. Thanks. Your comments about ‘white skin privilege’ confirm that something else has taken over your culture, one that was, apparently, once a culture of acceptance. As a ‘white’ woman living in Alabama, I experience a fair bit of ‘reverse’ discrimination from African Americans who seem to think I have some kind of privilege. Not really. It’s kind of the other way around. I’ve been passed over for scholarships and higher work positions because of my ‘white skin privilege,’ and though I treat everyone I meet with pleasant respect, I’m often met with rudeness and indifference for it. But I’ll be culturally sensitive and abstain from appropriating your terms. I’ll just be over here on my side of the line you drew.

    • Please note that we are not addressing this to folks who have Native heritage. We tried to explain that in the blog, and have added a FAQ to further clarify. It sounds like you are very connected to and proud of your Native ancestry, and our goal and our place is not to take that from you. We are glad to hear you are examining the idea, and we encourage you to seek your answers within your Native communities. There were also several enlightening comments below about Two Spirit being not just about your gender identity, but also about your role within your tribe. It does sound, however, like you are very removed from this heritage and tribe, and so perhaps this is a valid issue for you to be exploring.

      It is true that as white people, there can be a feeling of anger we feel towards us from folks of color, and perhaps a thread for you to explore for your own healing is the training in white privilege that encourages folks with white skin to see themselves as individuals and not as representatives of their ‘race’ and therefore not accountable for the legacies of violence committed by white people. I know it has been helpful for me to think about where that anger comes from and what legacies of violence and racism still need to be addressed, and it has helped to think about it systemically rather than individually.

      Here are some articles that were helpful for me, that you might appreciate:
      http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person-shesaid/
      http://crackingthecodes.org/
      http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/12/how-to-talk-to-someone-about-privilege/

  46. I would like to ask, with all respect, if a non-indigenous person had entered/lived within your society (pre colonial) and fit within the ‘two spirit’ paradigm, would they have been accepted and recognised as ‘two spirit’?

    If your answer is yes, then I would think it is a universal and shared concept.

    • That’s a great question. If only colonization had not happened, then we could know. Unfortunately, white settlers rarely tried to live within Native cultures and paradigms, instead, they demonized and destroyed them. We have to recognize when there are power imbalances or historical legacies that would affect what might otherwise be a universal concept.

  47. Thank you for this beautiful article, and for your responses to those who offered corrections. I wanted to call myself Two-Spirit but eventually recognized that I should not. The book “Another Mother Tongue” by Judy Grahn was helpful for me in understanding my place in many cultures. There’s no way to know how I would identify if there had been space for me growing up – it’s worked to say lesbian, but I would like another term. It’s not the center of my spiritual/personal life any more, so I simply wish well to those doing this work.

  48. Until today, I have identified as two-spirit. I am white. Personally, I don’t understand how English words are offensive when native English speakers use them. I am also saddened that Native American two-spirit people would choose to identify me more by my skin color than by my shared gender identity. But, OK, I’ll find another way to describe myself.

  49. Thank you for this. My son is exploring his gender and has said that Two Spirit perfectly encapsulates how he feels about himself. I’d like to offer him the alternate term “ambigendrous” as another way to express himself. And herself.

  50. okay so I am 99% white, I’m aware of the so called white-skin privilege (whis to be honest often make me feel weird, but that doesn’t mater ath the moment) I’m very intrested in coulture of native people (I don’t know if thats the right therm, my mothertounge is German and in German we say “Naturvölker”)
    anyways.
    what I’m going to say: I’ve searched for a loong time for something that expresses the way I feel about my gender, and because of that I’ve read about a lot of like… LGTB-Stuff and articles like that, and then I saw “Two Spirit” and I was like “Hm whats that, never heard of it…” and I googled it and i read the wikipedia article and I felt so happy to finally know what the fuck i indetify with, and I finaly found what or who I am, and it felt like rocks fell off of my heart and like after years of wandering around u finaly find a place which feels like home, that’s how I felt.
    now I saw your bloggentry and I understand that, I fully respeckt it, but my problem is to find other words for it…
    like… when somebody asks about my Gender I tell them “I’m like two spirited, but I’m NOT because ONLY native american people are able to be that! and only those are alowed to call them self two spirited!” (I’m sorry if thats wrong, and if yes please tell me)
    now, many people don’t understand that… and for months I’m searching how I can name my Feelings about my gender, like how I could call it…
    like something like Two Spirited (which I can’t be because im white, I’m totally fine with that,) that would explain how I feel about my Gender but is okay for white people to say…
    since I’ve read this here I tell people im genderqueer, which doesn’t feel right so say about myself. I’m NOT genderqueer! It DOESN’T feel right… “Two Spirited” would exactly explain how I feel… but I am NOT two spirited because I’m as white as snow (sadly tbh).
    I don’t know exactly know how to say what I want or what I feel… and I hope somebody here can help me name my gender or can give me idears… because I’m totally lost… and frustrated…

  51. Thanks for such a thoughtful and compassionate article. I feel I must share some thoughts and feelings in this dialogue.

    My mother is Jewish and my father is from Ireland. Neither of them received a notable cultural inheritance precisely because their parents assimilated the dominator culture without sharing their indigenous culture. For reasons of shame, fear in the face of oppression, as well as cultural hoarding — conscious and unconscious.

    To wit, I’ve reclaimed my dual heritage from teachers who are often neither Jewish nor Irish. Would Jewish identity have survived 2,000 years after the destruction of its capitol cities without somehow infiltrating other cultures? No. What are any of us without an advocate, without allies? Why do we continually draw lines in the sand here?

    The concept of culture as property is moot in my opinion. It is a language unto itself, and language is so damn fluid, it being that humans so urgently wish to connect with one another in spite of all boundaries and hindrances. I believe cultures vanish and die when they cease to be communicated, shared.

    It is clear that not all members of the First Nations agree as to whether articles of culture should be shared outside the community or not. I appreciate your respect for those in your community with/for whom you composed this thoughtful article. By no means does my argument rest on a denial of the great Betrayal that the First Nations have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of the Powers That Be and their complicit serfs.

    However, this particular topic, Two-Spirits, pertains to things of the Spirit. Who can lock away the riches of the Spirit? It is up to the Spirit to decide where she goes. If Spirit transcends Time & Space, why would not Two-Spirits transcend culture? Once upon a time, the “Holy Spirit” was Jewish, and “blarney” was Irish. But they describe something greater, and the world is happy to have inherited a better way to identify these mysterious things.

    Put another way, every nation has its own kind of music. And that music expresses universal human feelings, but in very distinct ways. But we cannot control where a song goes, how it travels, or how many people fall in love with it & pass it on through the generations. Why would we want to, if it’s good and beautiful?

    I’ve given away two aspects of my ethnic heritage, but it’s worth mentioning that it still is not too safe to assume what I look like. I hope I’ll be judged on my words and not whatever attitude you may presume I posses due to accidents of genetics and class.

    It is not our skin that is complicit in the deeds of evil people, but our mind and heart. The worst evils, when it comes to complicity, are ignorance and fear. These are the impediments to peace and love in our communities. So let’s stay sharp and have courage, and stick together in so doing.

    I hope my words are of true value to this dialogue! Thanks.

  52. I decided to take the challenge do some research on what other words I could use as a white person to describe how I feel.

    Since the English language is mostly a mashed up mix of Greek and Latin, I came up with a word that we can build our own welcoming cultural home around; Dianimous. It isn’t a word that is in any dictionary, and I find that it is a new piece of vocabulary we can build the way we feel around and add something positive to our own culture. The Greek roots are: Di- meaning two, and Anima- meaning spirit, breath, life. It is the feeling of having two spirits within oneself and how those spirits interact. I would describe it as being a Womb Twin Survivor (I suggest looking into that) which has a big impact on how I express myself and whom I’m attracted to. I think that us we need to look more towards ourselves and not steal from other people’s culture which we do not identify with. Create something from within instead of stealing from others and making it our own. I love other peoples culture, but when it comes down to it, my people loves to take things and use them for political power, viewing things as choice and using the things that are most admirable to climb the social tower while ridiculing the others at the same time. Cutting down all but one tree in a forest does not make that tree any bigger, it makes a wasteland surrounding it. This pattern is similar to bullying, one belittling others to make it feel more powerful, but it really isn’t. I wish to be the person who isn’t blindly ignorant, and just takes things for my own because it is free domain, I want to understand things and know what wisdom they have to offer and building everyone up instead of tearing things down. I get that the culture I come from is pretty messed up, even before we landed on this continent. Only consuming and “correcting” others culture, we even do that today. I want to change the way we think, but that can only start with me. I don’t want to steal from others anymore, belittle the things and make fun of things that were considered sacred, and believe myself to be taller if I cut everyone around down. It just makes me and everyone else around me weaker. I wish to be less ignorant of others, fill other people’s innate needs, filling my own needs. Creating instead of destroying. Making this world a better place. Filling it with love, and gratitude. I love you, and I hope my new word would become of new use to you. I hope that we can build up ourselves with love from ourselves and others instead of this pain which we all have carried through generations. Help me break that chain. Thank you. :)

  53. I am a monastic, a sacred gay man. My life is devoted to the ancient teachings of the Hayamoni (an ancient word that predates Sumerian..it means “The Two Spirit Ones” or “Sacred Light.” I used the term two spirit as it aptly describes our divinity whether we are a gay man or woman or a transgendered being, each of us holds this sacred gift of Two Spirits. My teachers are what can be considered “gurus” in Western understandings, holding an ancient wisdom and message for all people who hold this gift, in all places, in all lands, in all cultures. The truth is an awakening that is akin to a force of nature is happening for Our People, the Hayamoni. The time is come and is now for our unique perspective, our unique gifts, our unique celebration of life to weave together now and help the people in all lands, come together to a place of peace and acceptance and an understanding of the connection we are that is the One Life. Please feel free to respond if you wish. I would greatly embrace an opportunity for dialogue. Namaste…..Brother Lomi, Society of the Compassionate Heart, Boise, Idaho.

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