A SHORT REVIEW of Gregory D. Smithers’ Reclaiming Two-Spirits would report that he presents an LGBT-affirmative history of gender fluid Native Americans and how they had been valued as shaman healers within Indigenous communities. Centuries of European colonization and Christian evangelizing replaced this reverence with homophobia. Since the 1960s, brave LGBT Native activists and artists have battled homophobia within their families and racism in the dominant LGBT movement to reassert their sexuality and culture with its deep spiritual roots in the Two-Spirit tradition among First Nations.
A longer treatment is going to be politically bumpier and conceptually more complicated. The term “Two-Spirit” was only adopted in 1990 at the Third Annual Intertribal Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The attendees wanted an alternative to the term “berdache,” which had been applied by Europeans in reference to Native American boys who dressed as girls and performed in sexual rituals. “Berdache” had also been adopted by some gay Natives and anthropologists. The delegates also sought a pan-Indian English term for over 150 words in different Indigenous languages for diverse phenomena involving people whose gender and sexuality (to use Western concepts) shift between female and male. They transition from one gender to another, inhabit an intermediate gender (sometimes called “third sex” or “third gender”), or are fluid in their gender through their lifespan.
Since 1990, the term Two-Spirit itself has come to mean many things.
Vernon Rosario is a historian of science and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA.