As of 1991, male and female bodied Two-Spirit people have been "documented in over 130 tribes, in every region of North American, among every type of native culture.
"Two-spirit" originated in Winnipeg, Canada in 1990 during the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. It is a calque of the Ojibwa phrase niizh manidoowag (two spirits). It was chosen to distance Native/First Nations people from non-natives as well as from the words "berdache" and "gay.
These individuals are often viewed as having two spirits occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles. They have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes.
Two-spirited individuals perform specific social functions in their communities. In some tribes male-bodied two-spirits held active roles such as:
In some tribes female-bodied two-spirits typically took on roles such as:
Some examples of two-spirited people in history include accounts by Spanish conquistadors who spotted a two-spirited individual(s) in almost every village they entered in Central America. There are descriptions of two-spirited individuals having strong mystical powers. In one account, raiding soldiers of a rival tribe began to attack a group of foraging women. When they perceived that one of the women, the one that did not run away, was a two-spirit, they halted their attack and retreated after the two-spirit countered them with a stick, determining that the two-spirit would have great power which they would not be able to overcome.
Native people have often been perceived as "warriors," and with the acknowledgment of two-spirit people, that romanticized identity becomes broken. In order to justify this new "Indian" identity many explained it away as a “form of social failure, women-men are seen as individuals who are not in a position to adapt themselves to the masculine role prescribed by their culture” (Lang, 28). Lang goes on to suggest that two-spirit people lost masculine power socially, so they took on female social roles to climb back up the social ladder within the tribe.
Cross dressing of two-spirit people was not always an indicator of cross acting (taking on other gender roles and social status within the tribe). Lang explains “the mere fact that a male wears women’s clothing does not say something about his role behavior, his gender status, or even his choice of partner…” (62). Often within tribes, a child’s gender was decided by depending on either their inclination toward either masculine or feminine activities, or their intersex status. Puberty was about the time by which clothing choices were made to physically display their gender choice.
Two-spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges. However, they also took on female roles such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities. Today’s societal standards look down upon feminine males, and this perception of that identity has trickled into Native society. The acculturation of these attitudes has created a sense of shame towards two-spirit males who live or dress as females and there is no longer a wish to understand the dual lifestyle they possess.
Two-spirits might have relationships with people of either sex. Female-bodied two-spirits usually had sexual relations or marriages with only females. In the Lakota tribe, two-spirits commonly married widowers; a male-bodied two-spirit could perform the function of parenting the children of her husband's late wife without any risk of bearing new children to whom she might give priority. Partners of two-spirits did not take on any special recognition, although some believed that after having sexual relations with a two-spirit they would obtain magical abilities, given obscene nicknames by the two-spirited person which they believed held "good luck," or in the case of male partners, boosted their masculinity. Relationships between two two-spirited individuals is absent in the literature with one tribe as an exception, the Tewa. Male-bodied two-spirits regarded each other as "sisters," it is speculated that it may have been seen as incestuous to have a relationship with another two-spirit. It is known that in certain tribes a relationship between a two-spirit and non-two-spirit was seen on the most part as neither heterosexual nor homosexual (in modern day terms) but more "hetero-gender," Europeans however saw them as being homosexual. Partners of two-spirits did not experience themselves as "homosexual," and moreover drew a sharp conceptual line between themselves and two-spirits.
Although two-spirits were both respected and feared in many tribes, the two-spirit was not beyond reproach or even being killed for bad deeds. In the Mohave tribe for instance, they frequently became medicine persons and were likely to be suspected of witchcraft in cases of failed harvest or of death. They were, like any other medicine person, frequently killed over these suspicions (such as the female-bodied two-spirit named Sahaykwisā). Another instance in the late 1840s was of a Crow male-bodied two-spirit who was caught, possibly raiding horses, by the Lakota and was killed.
According to certain reports there had never been an alternative gender among the Comanche. This is true of some Apache bands as well, except for the Lipan, Chiricahua, Mescalero, and southern Dilzhe'e. One tribe in particular, the Eyak, has a single report from 1938 that they did not have an alternative gender and they held such individuals in low esteem, although whether this sentiment is the result of acculturation or not is unknown. It has been claimed that the Iroquois did not either, although there is a single report from Bacqueville de La Potherie in his book published in 1722, Histoire de l'Amérique septentrionale, that indicates that an alternative gender existed among them (vol. 3, pg. 41). Although all tribes were influenced by European homophobia/transphobia, certain tribes were particularly so, such as the Acoma, Atsugewi, Dilzhe'e (Tonto) Apache, Cocopa, Costanoan, Klamath, Maidu, Mohave, Nomlaki, Omaha, Oto, Pima, Wind River Shoshone, Tolowa, and Winnebago.
It has been claimed that the Aztecs and Incas had laws against such individuals, though there are some authors who feel that this was exaggerated or the result of acculturation as all of the documents indicating this are post-conquest and any that existed before had been destroyed by the Spanish. The belief that these laws existed, at least for the Aztecs, comes from the Florentine Codex. According to Dr. Nancy Fitch Professor of History at California State University,
Two-Spirit and gay Indian men often report accepting female relatives and communities willing to enforce the closet. Native cultures may be considered to have "indiscriminately" adopted European values including sexism and homophobia and it is commonly argued that being "gay" or "cross-dressing" is not "traditional" or not "Indian". The re-adoption of Two-Spirit roles may be seen then as a healing for both Two-Spirit individuals and Native cultures, and modern Two-Spirit identity is fundamentally concerned with tradition.