5 GENDERS: THE STORY OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN TWO-SPIRITS

Prior to Christian intervention, fluid gender identities of the Native American Two Spirits were seen as a gift from the gods, says Pearson McKinney

Celebrated Lakota Two Spirit Osh-Tisch (left) with his wife.

It wasn’t until Europeans took over North America that natives adopted the ideas of gender roles. For Native Americans, there was no set of rules that men and women had to abide by in order to be considered a “normal” member of their tribe.

In fact, people who had both female and male characteristics were viewed as gifted by nature, and therefore, able to see both sides of everything. According to Duane Brayboy, writing in Indian Country Today, all native communities acknowledged the following gender roles: “Female, Male, Two Spirit Female, Two Spirit Male and Transgendered.”

He goes on to describe how: “Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to two spirits as nádleehí (one who is transformed); among the Lakota is winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), niizh manidoowag (two spirit); in Ojibwe, hemaneh (half man, half woman), to name a few.”

As the purpose of ‘Two Spirit’ is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa.”

The Two Spirit culture of Native Americans was one of the first things Europeans worked to destroy and cover up. According to people like American artist George Catlin, the Two Spirit tradition had to be eradicated before it could go into history books. Catlin said the tradition: “must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.”

And as Brayboy also notes: “Spanish Catholic monks destroyed most of the Aztec codices to eradicate traditional Native beliefs and history, including those that told of the Two Spirit tradition.” As a result, Native Americans were forced to dress and act according to newly designated gender roles.

One of the most celebrated Two Spirits in recorded history was a Lakota warrior fiercely named Finds Them And Kills Them. Osh-Tisch (see main image) was born a male and married a female, but adorned himself in women’s clothing and lived daily life as a female. On June 17 1876, Finds Them And Kills Them earned his stripes when he rescued a fellow tribesman during the Battle of Rosebud Creek, an act of fearless bravery.

It’s an example of how in Native American cultures, people were valued for their contributions to the tribe, regardless of the gender attributes they exhibited. Parents did not assign gender roles to children either, and children’s clothing tended to be gender neutral. There were no ideas or ideals about how a person should love; it was simply a natural act that occurred without judgment.

Without a negative stigma attached to being a Two Spirit, there were also no inner-tribal incidents of retaliation or violence toward the chosen people simply due to the fact they identified as the opposite or both genders. If anything; “Traditional Native Americans closely associate Two Spirited people with having a high functioning intellect (possibly from a life of self-questioning), keen artistic skills and an exceptional capacity for compassion,” writes Brayboy.

We’wha (1849-1896), of the Zuni nation. We’wha was biologically male and engendered with a female spirit.

Once outside religious influences brought serious prejudice against “gender diversity,” openly alternative or androgynous people were forced into to one of two choices. They could either live in hiding, and in fear of being found out, or they could end their lives. Many of whom did just that.

Imagine a world where people allowed others to live freely as the people nature intended them to be, without harm, without persecution, without shame. Imagine a world where we are truly free.

This article originally appeared on Bipartisan Report. For further reading visit Indian Country Today.

BEAUTIFUL, MYSTICAL, MOVING: PLAIN INDIANS EXHIBIT AT THE MET

When Gabriela Herstik happened upon the Plain Indians exhibit at the MET, it was a fashionable reminder of her own awakening to  MYSTICAL spirituality. Main image: Karolina Daria Flora

I’m all about synchronicity and the wonderful way our life stories seem to loop together over time. My most recent “moment” came together last week, when for the first time in 10 years I found myself back in the Big Apple. A mandatory trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art was made, and as I was walking up the beautifully grand stairs to the entrance I saw it – the sign that read; “The Plain Indians; Artists of Earth and Sky.”

I first learned about the Navajo and Iroquois tribes in elementary school a decade ago, after my family had moved to Buffalo, NY, from San Diego. Looking back, I can pinpoint learning about the different Indian nations as the entry point to my interest in shamanism and mysticism – a journey that has connected to me to an understanding of whatever it is that truly lies beyond. By learning how the different tribes incorporated a belief in something bigger than them in nearly every facet of their lives, I was inspired to do the same – a way of being that’s seeped into my own life day-to-day.

The exhibition turned out to be an incredibly curated collection of Plain Indian art, displaying both the wonderful spirit of the tribes and the incredible talent of artisans across the nations. There were pipes carved with animal spirit guides and helpers; there were painted animal hides recounting tales of battles; there were exquisite war bonnets and, a favorite, an incredible shield embellished with a Buffalo spirit guide.

A large part of the exhibition, however, was dedicated to the absolutely exquisite and divine (in the truest sense of the word) clothing. There were hand-beaded jackets in dusty blues and vibrant reds; leggings with horsehair fringe and rich, dark blue beadwork; there was an absolutely breathtaking pair of completely beaded brogues with a matching bag from 1901…there was EVERYTHING a girl for whom fashion – self-adornment – and spirituality will be forever entwined. And all very Etro SS2015…

Etro SS15

There were also paintings and photographs of the Plains, with the exhibition designed to chronicle the art of the tribes from the 19th century to the present day – a visual account of the experiences of these tribal nations, ending with different artists’ personal interpretations of what the future of the tribes may look like. A touching spiritual and artistic experience, the Plain Indians exhibit at the MET was beautiful and mystic and moving.

The Plain Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC until May 10 2015