To mark Pride Month, VPM News looks at the history of gender and sexuality in Native American culture. Gregory Smithers, professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of the book “Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal and Sovereignty in Native America”. Smithers spoke with Alex Scribner of VPM News about his recent work and the role of Two-Spirit people in Indigenous communities.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
VPM News: What does Two-Spirit mean and what role do Two-Spirit people play in Indigenous communities?
Gregory Smither: The term “two spirits” refers to people having both male and female spirits within the same person. Historically, Two-Spirit people are among the most important members of Native American communities – among the most important, but also among the least studied and understood in Native American history and culture.
Two-Spirit people have been entrusted with very important cultural and historical knowledge within their respective communities. So in that sense, it’s not, strictly speaking, a term that refers to his sexuality. However, it is possible. You can be gay, but you don’t have to be two-spirited. You can be two-spirited, but not necessarily gay. There is a fluidity and range of roles and identities that people have historically had within Indigenous communities.
It’s a fairly recent term. In the late 1980s, gay, lesbian and bisexual Indians were debating the issue of language – what to call themselves and how to gain visibility within gay and lesbian politics at the time. You must remember that at this time HIV/AIDS is a pandemic that is wreaking havoc in communities around the world.
So you can be gay, but not necessarily two-spirited. You can be two-spirited, but not necessarily gay. There is a fluidity and range of roles and identities that people have historically had within Indigenous communities. Sexuality can be an important part of that, and healthy sexuality across the full spectrum of sexual expression is certainly something Two-Spirit people are talking about today.
Historically speaking, the connection between sexuality and gender roles is only something that really begins to become much more closely linked in Indigenous communities during the 19th century.
As “knowledge keepers,” how have Two-Spirit people contributed to reclaiming Indigenous history? And what about the reconquest of their lands?
It is by fulfilling the roles that are historically associated with Two-Spirit people. So the caregivers, the knowledge keepers, the ceremonial leaders – the people who care for and prepare people for the afterlife. A whole bunch of roles. As Two-Spirit people told me when I interviewed them for the book, people kept doing it. And there was this sort of silent recognition that they were playing roles traditionally associated with two-spirited people.
Your book begins with the first Spanish invasions of North America, noting attempts by colonial writers to erase Two-Spirit people from written history.
There are many euphemisms that exist in colonial records. So you’re going to see terms like “sodomites”, “hermaphrodites”. And there are a whole host of others that are used by European authors to describe people they perceive as what we would understand today as homosexuals or men who are dressed in – I quote – women’s clothing . I put these terms in quotes because they are contested and culturally constructed. But women wearing men’s clothes and taking on men’s roles, that really confused the Europeans. Europeans did not come from a culture where this was necessarily acceptable. And that was becoming less and less acceptable as they went about their invasions.
It is not clear to me from the sources that the Europeans really understood what they saw and heard in general within the native communities. And so, I think we have to be very critical in how we approach the ethnographic descriptions that Europeans left in their diaries, in their official correspondence, and in other documents that we use to recreate history.
You quoted an elder who said, “It’s exhausting having to constantly educate white people. With that in mind, how do the Two-Spirit people you spoke with see themselves in queer communities?
Prejudices have spread through gay and lesbian communities as much as they have spread through American society as a whole. It’s exhausting for people, because there’s this constant need to justify and rationalize their existence, to explain themselves in a way that a white gay man or lesbian doesn’t necessarily have to anymore. TO DO.
It can be exhausting, but the problem is that — and this is what two-spirited elders have told me while researching the book — they are really encouraged by the next generation of activists, social workers , academics and writers. And just by creative people in a whole range of skills.