It’s a story we’re familiar with: A young boy and girl are placed before a box of toys, and they plow with a mindless vigor, selecting Barbies or G.I. Joes, tea sets or slingshots, plastic hammers or baby dolls that really pee.
Some parents assume their boys will naturally select the guns, hammers and soldiers, while the girls will be more drawn toward the kitchenware. This is not the case with all children; some girls want to be G.I. Joe, while some boys want to be Barbie.
There have been disastrous results when parents or doctors try to reverse that – most notably George Rekers’ government-funded “sissy boy” experiments at UCLA in the 1970s. Little do they know the practice has been going on for centuries in Native American communities that celebrate the fluidity of gender.
“Many Native American tribes, if they observed a boy playing with girls and learning feminine skills, they may have a ceremony to guide him in that direction,” said Alistair Bane, a Denver resident and descendent of the Shawnee Tribe.
The ritual is often known to the Great Basin Tribes as the “basket and the bow ceremony,” in which parents or community leaders would offer a young boy or girl of pubescent age the option of a bow or a basket, his or her selection determining the role they would play in the community.
If the girl chooses the bow, or the boy the basket, this person may be believed to have both a male and female spirit, known today as the pan tribal designation of Two Spirit. A biological female could dress as a man, take on a wife, and participate in the hunt or battle, while a biological male could dress as a woman and take on a husband.
“It’s not only a sexual identity, but a cultural role,” Bane explained. “Every single person is born with something they’re going to contribute to their community, and what a Two Spirit person is going to contribute is going to be different.”
Born of both Irish Catholic and American Indian heritage, Bane’s own experiences give light to cultural variances. “There was nowhere to go,” Bane described discovering his sexuality at a young age, yet having no acceptance in the Church. “You face the two worst rejections you could face: rejection from your parents and being told the being who created you rejected you.”
While Catholicism was a tradition of Bane’s mother, Bane’s father was a descendent of the Shawnee tribes, who originated in the eastern United States and were some of the first Natives in contact with European settlers. “About two-thirds of our people were wiped out by the late 1700s. In 1905 there were only 68 people left. We experienced nothing short of genocide.”
In addition to murder, torture and displacement, the Shawnee and most other Native American peoples were subject to government assimilation efforts forbidding them from practicing their traditional spiritual rites and ceremonies, with many of these laws remaining on the books through the late 20th century. Top of the list were sexual and gender practices that were considered immoral to white settlers. “The missionaries and the U.S. government came and heavily persecuted Two Spirit people,” Bane explained. “They wanted Two Spirit people who dressed like men to dress like women. And so if someone you love is persecuted for being who they are, you begin to be secretive about who they are.”
Like many LGBT young people today, many Two Spirited people had to express their true natures in secret, for fear of violent persecution toward themselves and their partners.
Yet while there are parallels in the persecution of both Two Spirited and LGBT persons by religious zealots, it is important to note distinctions between the two.
“In European traditions, you can think of it as a stick with male on one end and female on the other; sexuality is the same stick but with different ends,” explains Terry Fafoya in the documentary Two Spirit People. “And that’s the trap they get caught in, the either/or: straight or gay, male or female. But if you take the two ends of that stick and make a circle – as Native American people are much more into circles than lines – then you end up with an infinite amount of points on that circle. And people change during different times in their lives, and you’re not trapped into one way of thinking or being.”
The phrase “Two Spirit” itself has almost no historical context. It was developed in the 1980s as a replacement for the academic term “berdache,” which by then was seen as offensive as it originated from French colonists as a term for a slave who was kept for sexual purposes. The role of Two Spirit has been documented in more than 130 Native tribes spanning across North America, with varying terms and cultural roles being associated with it. And while it consistently deals with the issues of gender, the duality of Two Spirited people was also, among many tribes, a duality of the physical and spiritual realms, or human and animal realms.
“The labels that western culture use – gay, lesbian, bi, transgender – none of those exactly describe our understanding of gender and sexual orientation,” Bain said. He went on to explain that if a man had sex with a Two Spirit person of male biology, it wouldn’t make him gay, nor would it make him Two Spirit. (Interestingly, in some cases it was considered unnatural was for a pair of Two Spirited persons to partner up – viewed as a kind of incest.)
“For my friends who are gay or lesbian, or intersex or transgender, they see themselves very much just like everyone else,” Bane said. “In fact, they might be offended if you suggested they were different. For us, a lot of the words our tribes used, denoted that we were special as a person. The creator had made us different; for us, the word ‘different’ wasn’t a bad thing.”
After centuries of cultural genocide, homophobia had crept into many native tribes, with many young people, who would’ve once been recognized as Two Spirit, being banished.
“It can leave you with anger and confusion,” Bane said, “but you realize that if you learn about our traditional ways, hatred and anger toward other people isn’t something you can sustain.”
But Bane discovered the Two Spirit tradition of his and other tribes. During the gay rights movements of the 1970s, many native people were learning about being Two Spirited, finding a place for themselves not only in modern, sociological context, but in a historical and spiritual one, as well.