By: Rachel Carroll
To this day, Native peoples and Tribes are still impacted by the long-standing effects of Colonialism. Although the LGBTQIA+ movement has been relatively recent in Western society, the concept of gender and sexual identity have been part of native cultural practices and social conventions long before the first colonizers arrived to North America. Parallel to this western social movement, has been the effort on the part of Tribes and Native people to reclaim their identity, cultural knowledge, and traditional practices. One way the two movements overlap is through the identity and role of the Two Spirit people spanning various Tribes across the country. However, Two Spirit is not a “New Age” movement in the same way the LGBTQ+ movement is, because these roles and identities existed prior to western religion and society where Indigenous communities recognized more than two genders.
One common misconception regarding Two Spirit people is that all Native persons who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community are subsequently Two Spirit as well. In other words, a Two Spirit person may be gay, but a gay person may not be Two Spirit. Although the LGBTQIA+ community and the Two Spirit identity overlap (in fact it is common for Two Spirit people to refer to themselves as part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community), the latter ultimately transcends the westernized concept of binary gender identities to serve as spiritual leaders in their communities. Often, Two Spirit people dressed in both men and women’s clothing and were known as the keepers of tradition, storytellers, and healers. In many Tribes, Two Spirit people were considered neither man nor women, instead occupying a distinct, “alternative” gender status. However, it is important to keep in mind that the role Two Spirit identity encompasses varies from Tribe to Tribe, and this identity is not recognized by all Tribes.
Two Spirit people experience compounded trauma – they are part of two marginalized communities whose identities have been historically suppressed. Particularly, Two Spirit people experienced rampant violence and suppression through Indian boarding schools. The Two Spirit notion of gender fluidity did not conform with European colonizer’s Christian, heteronormative views. When they were sent to live in boarding schools, both their Native and Two Spirit identities were stripped from them, forced to conform to traditional male or female roles.
Today, Two Spirit people continue to suffer stigma, violence, and abuse from not only western society, but sometimes their own communities. Research in both the U.S. and Canada show that Two Spirit people are more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as substance abuse. Additionally, suicide rates are higher amongst Indigenous people as compared to the general population, and within Indigenous communities, Two Spirit people are at a higher risk of suicide. Much like transgender persons today, Two Spirit people experience violence from partners, family members, and community individuals that sometimes results in their murder.
In present-day society, there are a myriad of legal shortcomings that affect the Two Spirit community. The failure to respond adequately to or prevent sexual violence, the lack of codified protections for the LGBTQIA+ community, limited access to health resources such as gender affirming care, and the general diminishment of tribal sovereignty from recent decisions such as Castro-Huerta all pose threats to the existence of Two Spirit persons and their identity. Not only are Two Spirit people fighting for their rights as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, they are also fighting for their rights as Indigenous persons. As such, advocacy for the Two Spirit can take multiple forms and mirror both the efforts to preserve tribal sovereignty and the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights.
For those interested in exploring legal advocacy for Two Spirit people, the National Congress of the American Indian Policy Research Center released a report titled “A Spotlight on Two Spirit (Native LGBT) Communities” that provides helpful resources. Within the report, there is a link to the “Tribal Equity Toolkit 2.0,” which provides examples of comprehensive resolutions tribes can pass to protect and support Two Spirit and LGBTQIA+ tribal members. Additional tools to spread awareness can be found in the PBS documentary, “Two Spirits: Gender as a Spectrum, Not a Divide,” as well as on the National American Indian Court Judges Association website.
Rachel (she/her) graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and a B.A. with honors in Rhetoric and Writing. She is currently a 2L in the Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. As a citizen of The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she is interested in issues surrounding Tribal Sovereignty. Additionally, she identifies as part of the LGBTIA+ community, and is eager to explore social justice issues specifically involving queer native persons. When Rachel is not in law school, you can usually find her exploring her local cultural centers, coffee shops, and restaurants. Occasionally, you may even find her singing Fleetwood Mac songs during Thursday karaoke nights.