For centuries, Two-Spirit people have had to carry on Indigenous traditions in secret. Now they are “making their own story”. – New VCUs


The two-spirit community in Aboriginal culture has a centuries-old history. “Two-Spirit” is a modern generic term, an English translation of the Ojibwe “niizh manidoowag”, which refers to a person who embodies both male and female spirits. Although the term Two-Spirit is a modern term, the knowledge and roles associated with it date back centuries. Today, Two-Spirit people use the term to describe fluid gender identities and sexual orientations, but their ancestors also assumed important social and spiritual roles in their respective Indigenous communities prior to the European colonization of North America in 1492.

For historian Gregory Smithers, Ph.D., who discovered Two-Spirit people in Indigenous nations as an undergraduate student in the 1990s, it’s a story that hasn’t been told with much respect.

“When I came to college in the early 2000s, historians had made very little effort to take the term ‘two-spirited’ seriously or incorporate it into their accounts,” said Smithers, a professor in the department of story of Virginia. Commonwealth University College of Humanities. “What really troubled me – and continued to trouble me early in my career – was that the one or two landmark books on this subject tended to rehash stereotypes and offensive terms.”

As Smithers began to study the written histories, art, and storytelling of Two-Spirit people, who secretly carried on centuries-old traditions despite oppression and threats of violence from European colonizers, he recognized what had been lost in the historical research that had preceded .

(Courtesy of Gregory Smithers)

“Historians often write dynamic, interdisciplinary books, but on Two-Spirit history, the cautious, sometimes heavy-handed nature of the profession tended to prevail,” Smithers said. “I found this frustrating because anthropologists, scholars of the literature, and people working in the health field have produced impressive work that continues to deepen our understanding of Two-Spirit people and culture. I thought it was time for historians to contribute to these important conversations.

Smithers explores history and modern perspectives in her new book, “Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal and Sovereignty in Native America,” (Beacon Press) due out this week.

VCU News spoke with Smithers about the book, how Two-Spirit people see themselves within the LGBTQIA+ community, and how Two-Spirit people have persevered through colonization to reclaim their history.

What challenges did Two-Spirit people face when colonizers arrived in the United States? What was their role in Aboriginal resistance to colonization?

The Europeans targeted Two-Spirit people almost immediately. Beginning with the Spaniards in the early 16th century, Two-Spirit people were targeted with labels like “sodomite,” “hermaphrodite,” “berdache”—a term with Arabic roots that described a “slave” or boy kept at pederastic purposes – and more. This language was itself a form of violence because it shaped the written archival materials that scholars use to write their histories, and it distorted how non-Indigenous people interpreted gender expression and gender fluidity. indigenous.

Physical abuse was also a feature of European encounters with Two-Spirit people. This violence has often reached the level of genocide. In fact, I point out in the book that the genocidal violence that targeted Two-Spirit people beginning in the early 1500s was no accident. Europeans recognized that Two-Spirit people played an important role as trusted elders in their respective communities, served as healers, educators, and storytellers, and took on a myriad of other roles. In other words, Two-Spirit people were, and still are, knowledge keepers.

So when the Europeans targeted Two-Spirit people with violence, they were actively working to destroy a vital link in the cultural, social, and linguistic knowledge of nearly 200 Native American communities.

Tell us about how Two-Spirit people are reclaiming their history and culture in the 21st century. How did they persevere, keeping history and traditions alive in the face of denigration and erasure?

It was not easy and considerable amounts of knowledge were lost. Sometimes my students think I’m exaggerating when I talk about the enormous human and environmental toll that colonialism — especially settler colonialism — continues to have. In North America, Indigenous communities have lost knowledge for millennia, their sacred sites have been destroyed or desecrated, and their knowledge systems and languages ​​attacked. In other parts of the world, a similar story continues to unfold. Take, for example, Australia. Since 1788, when the British began colonizing Australia, Indigenous communities have suffered levels of physical violence and cultural loss, government officials have stolen children from their families, and Indigenous communities have seen fragile ecosystems fall ill. – a fact attested to by Australia having the worst species extinction rate in the world.

Gregory Smithers sitting on the steps in front of a wooden door
Gregory Smithers, Ph.D. (Courtesy of Gregory Smithers)

But whether in North America or Oceania, indigenous peoples have remained resilient, creative and determined to remake their communities. In what is now the United States, elders in Native American communities helped keep Two-Spirit traditions alive. Sometimes this has meant keeping knowledge systems private and out of sight of colonizers. At other times, it has meant being creative and articulating new traditions, knowledge and cultural expressions. Through their own writings, songs, stories, arts and ceremonies, Two-Spirit people continue to reclaim and renew their place in Indigenous communities.

How do Two-Spirit people view themselves in terms of gender identity and how do they view their connection to the LGBTQIA+ community?

There is no single answer to this question. As I detail in the book, Two-Spirit people have endured racism and bigotry within the LGBTQIA+ community as well as in the culture at large. And as some Two-Spirit people have confided to me, these problems persist.

That said, there is a desire among a number of Two-Spirit people to educate and form alliances with non-Natives. I met some incredibly intelligent and dedicated Two-Spirit people while researching the book, who left me in awe of their energy and in awe of their ability to bring people together from all walks of life. In fact, it’s one of the many roles that Two-Spirit people have long played in Indigenous communities. But it is hard work. As one elder recently told me, “It’s exhausting having to constantly educate white people. »

As you delve deeper into this topic, what did you learn? Was there anything you learned that surprised you?

Two-Spirit people reclaim and shape their own story. I don’t want this to sound romantic; they are under no illusions about the challenges they and their communities face. But what they taught me is that to write meaningful history, we cannot simply rely on the dusty, imperfect written records that historians rely on to write books and articles. History is written in dance, art, oral storytelling and community. It’s written in the regalia that Two-Spirit people wear at powwows, in their relationships with the community, and in the struggle for a brighter future for today’s Two-Spirit youth. Increasingly, Two-Spirit stories are written in poetry, novels, films, and digital spaces that they use as canvas to reflect on their personal identity and their relationship to America’s colonial past and present.

Are there any other messages you hope readers will take away from your book or from your experience studying the history and stories of Indigenous cultures?

I would say be open, be vulnerable and listen to aboriginal people. I think there’s still a tendency in academia and popular culture to prescribe boundaries and make assumptions about Native America. Personally, I would like to see a shift in which we listen more actively to Indigenous perspectives and are led by Indigenous ingenuity. It means respecting the sovereignty of Indigenous nations, trusting Indigenous stewardship of national parks and local ecosystems, and recognizing that the male-female binary is not a natural invention but a historical one – something that Two-Spirit people remind us of. .


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