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The ANA Messenger - Spring Edition

Published: June 6, 2013
Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS), Environmental Regulatory Enhancement

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Gathering of Two Spirit People

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By Harlan Pruden, Director and Co-Founder, NorthEast Two-Spirit Society

We know there are LGBT people all over the world.  We can go out to a bar anytime we want to be around LGBT community.  But when you go to Gatherings, you know that there are others who  smudges, there are others who offer a spirit plate and make sure elders eat first at meals, that prays like I pray, that dances like I dance, that sings these songs. Gatherings allow spirit to soar.”
--Joey Criddle, Jicarilla Apache


Two-Spirit Drum at the 2013 Tulsa Two-Spirit Gathering at Saturday Night’s Pow-Wow
Two-Spirit Drum at the 2013 Tulsa Two-Spirit Gathering at Saturday Night’s Pow-Wow

Currently, there are sixteen (16) Two-Spirit organizations in the country that make up membership of National Confederacy of Two-Spirit Organizations. These organizations work with the Two-Spirit community, an often overlooked and marginalized sub-population of the Native and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities. The work of these organizations is a holistic and culturally appropriate approach that promotes individual and community health and well-being. At the heart of this work is union of an individual’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self.  This unification is often only found at one of the Two-Spirit Gatherings held around the country.

Gatherings are safe, supportive and  alcohol/drug free forums for Two-Spirit people to explore, heal, experience and share a place within a cultural setting that is affirming and nurturing of their Two-Spirit identity, culture and traditions.  Gatherings also provide an opportunity to span the generations and celebrate the talented youth and elders from all over the United States and Canada so there is an exchange of knowledge and teachings. This is often some of the only opportunities where Two-Spirit people build lasting connections and friendship to end isolation and for the Two-Spirit leadership to meet in-person to discuss the future direction of the National Two-Spirit movement. Gatherings also provide an opportunity for health and well-being educational workshops to be offered and at some Gatherings, host organizations have offered HIV/AIDS testing to all participants. Gatherings also strengthen and increase the capacity of host organizations.

imageThis April 19-23, 2013 was the 20th annual Tulsa Two-Spirit Gathering held at the Osage State Park, located an hour north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24-26, 2013 was the 2nd annual Two Spirit Gathering in Indian Canyon, located hour and half south of San Jose, California. This July 18-21, 2013 is the date of the 16th annual Montana Two Spirit Gathering being held in Wolf Creek, Montana, about a 40 minute drive north of Helena, Montana.  The NorthEast Two-Spirit Society (“NE2SS”) is honored to be hosting this year’s 25th International Two-Spirit Gathering in the great State of New York this September 18- 23, 2013 at Camp deWolfe in Wading River, New York, about an hour and half drive east of New York City on Long Island.  The theme for this year’s International Gathering is: Celebrating 25 Years of Resilience, Healing & Restoring Honor.

Gatherings serve as a platform for the learning and sharing, either in structured workshops or informally, promoting the reclamation and restoration of the Two-Spirit role to rightful place of honor in their respective communities.  There is marked difference non-Native LGBT community and the Two-Spirit community when it comes identity.

Both Native and non-Native LGBT individuals have a shared experience with the “coming out” process which is typically a declaration of an independent identity: an LGBT person musters their courage and, anticipating conflict, announces their sexuality to a friend or family member - at the risk of being met with anger, resistance, violence or flat-out rejection or abandonment.

Dr. Alex Wilson of the University of Saskatchewan notes that unlike the non-Native LGBT community, for Two-Spirit individuals there is:

… a final step in the development of their identities as Two-Spirit people, group members recognized that, rather than trying to squeeze into someone else’s established identity, they needed an identity that fit who they were. Two-Spirit identity fits their distinct cultures, histories and ways of being. Unlike mainstream ‘coming out’ stories, in which an LGBT person typically announces and asserts their individual right to be who they are, the narratives of these two-spirit people describe a process of ‘coming in’ and affirming an interdependent identity. ‘Coming in’ is not a declaration or an announcement; it is simply presenting oneself and being fully present as an Aboriginal person who is GLBT.

Two-spirit identity is an empowered identity that integrates their sexuality, culture, gender and all other aspects of who they understand and know themselves to be. By coming into their identity as two-spirit people, they acknowledged their place and value in their own families, communities, cultures, history and present-day world.


Two-Spirit Identityimage
On the land we know as North America, which many NA/AN people call Turtle Island, there were approximately 400 distinct Indigenous Nations. Of that number, 170 have documented multiple gender traditions. Attendees of the 3rd Annual International Gay and Lesbian Native Gathering in 1990 derived the term “Two Spirit” to encompass the range of these multiple gender traditions across their widely different linguistic and cultural groups. They wanted a term that “…reflected the combination of masculinity and femininity which was attributed to males in a feminine role and females in a masculine role” (Lang 1998) that existed in many traditional Indigenous cultures of Turtle Island. It is our male-embodied Two-Spirit people (what the CDC would call MSM) who bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS crisis among Native American populations.

Though encompassing a range of identities commonly referred to in the broader society as “LGBTI”, the Two-Spirit tradition is primarily a question of gender, not sexual orientation. Sexual orientation describes the relationship a person of one gender has with another gendered person. Gender describes an individual’s expected role within a community.

Within traditional Native communities, there was an expectation that women farmed/gathered food and cooked; men hunted big game. Although there was division of labor along gender lines, there was no gender-role hierarchy. Within the Native social construct of gender, a community could not survive without both of the equal halves of a whole. The Native commitment to gender equality opened the door for the possibility of multiple genders, without the idea that a man was taking on a lesser gender by placing himself in a women’s role and visa-versa for Two-Spirit women.

Traditional Roles of Two Spirit People
People of Two-Spirit gender functioned as crafts-people, shamans, medicine-givers, mediators, and/or social workers. In many Native communities, men and women’s styles of speech were distinct; sometimes even different dialects were spoken. The Two-Spirit people knew how to speak both in the men and women’s ways. They were the only ones allowed to go between the men and the women’s camps. They brokered marriages, divorces, settled arguments, and fostered open lines of communication between the sexes.

Their proficiency in mediation often included their work as communicators between the seen (physical) and un-seen (spiritual) worlds. Many of the great visionaries, dreamers, shamans, or medicine givers were Two-Spirit people. In some traditions, a war party could not be dispatched until their Two-Spirit person consulted the spirits of the un-seen world and then gave their blessings. In the Sioux tradition, before any war party’s departure, the party preformed a dance with the Two-Spirit person at the center of the circle to show their respect and honor.

It is traditional to present gifts at gatherings to those who exemplify the “spirit” of the community or who have done the most for the community. Two-Spirit people were respected and honored with gifts when they attended gatherings. They did not keep the gifts, but passed them on to spread the wealth. In this respect, Two-Spirit people were similar to modern day social workers.

When a family was not properly raising their children, the Two-Spirit person would intervene and assume the responsibly as the primary caretaker. Sometimes, families would ask the Two-Spirit people for help rearing their children. This unique role of social worker was specific to Two-Spirit people, for they had an excess of material wealth as a result of the gifts they received.

Theodore de Bry’s “Pizarro suelta los perros” - The dogs of Vasco Nunez de Balboa attacking the gay Native People of Panama
Theodore de Bry’s “Pizarro suelta los perros” - The dogs of Vasco Nunez de Balboa attacking the gay Native People of Panama

The existence of Two-Spirit people challenges the rigid binary view of the world of the North American colonizers and missionaries, not just of a binary gender system, but their entire binary system of “this or that”. The Two-Spirit’s mere existence threatened the colonizers’ core beliefs and the backlash was violent. Theodore de Bry, a 16th c. artist, painted the horrific image of the dogs of Captain Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a Spanish conquistador, being unleashed on the male-bodied Two-Spirit people from modern day Panama. Word of this brutal treatment spread quickly from Nation to Nation. Many Nations decided to take actions to protect their honored and valued Two-Spirit people. Some Nations hid them by asking them to replace their dress, a mixture of men and women’s clothing, with the attire of their biological sex. After years of colonization, some of those very same nations converted to a Western religion that did not accept traditional spirituality and community structures and forgot about and even denied ever having a tradition that celebrated and honored their Two-Spirit people.

Legacy of Colonization
Native peoples must deal with many realities including poverty, substance abuse, lack of housing, and sexually transmitted infections.  Nationally, Native people have the second highest rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis among all racial groups. The rate of AIDS in Native women is four times that of all other races. In addition, a third of Native women are victims of domestic violence.  The historical trauma suffered by Native people has led to increased rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness – increasing the risk of domestic violence and making prevention efforts more difficult. The stigma associated with sexuality and gender within Native communities, along with the nature of these close-knit communities, can make it difficult to confidentially work with community members.

Native populations also regularly deal with health and social issues that make it hard to address problems and issues.  These include the legacies of contact and colonization, homophobia and racism in schools and institutional settings, discrimination, poor communication, forced (often without any consent) sterilization of Native women, and lack of adequate funding.  Stereotypes and stigma due to lack of tribal affiliation often hinder access to services, which can create negative impressions about NA/AN.  Other issues, such as language and culture, gender identity, and culturally based holistic treatment, are also important to trying to address the well-being of this community.

As a colonized population, NA/AN have a long history of mistrust of the government, medical institutions, and service organizations.  Native Peoples have endured such traumas as removal from traditional homelands, divided nations, loss of language and culture through forced enrollment of children in boarding schools, rape, disease, etc. This history continues to influence today’s generation of NA/AN.

Remembering and Honoring Our Traditionsimage
While since the time of colonization many Native people have forgotten the “old” way, there are groups of elders and activists that have quietly kept the Two-Spirit tradition alive. In some Nations that have revived this tradition, or brought it once again into the light, Two-Spirit people are again fulfilling some of the roles and regaining the honor and respect of their communities.

There was a time not that long ago when the Two-Spirit identity and community was not included by both the LGBT community and the Native community. This omission resulted in no data being collected on the Two-Spirit community. With no data, it was nearly impossible to apply for any grants because Two-Spirit leaders could not ‘document’ or ‘validate’ what they knew what was going on in their community. However, these obstacles are beginning to be overcome and now there are two main data sets on Two-Sprit health.

One of these data sets is the State of New York’s Department of Health statewide Two-Spirit needs assessment, “Reclaiming Our Voices: Two Spirit Health & Human Service Needs in New York State.”  The other, with the support and funding of the National Institute of Mental Health, is Dr. Karina Walters’ five-year, multi-site health survey of Two-Spirit Native Americans, the Honor Project. This survey is still yielding much of the data for the Two-Spirit community. The Honor Project survey showed that about a third of all transgender Two-Spirit respondents, as well as respondents that identified as male-embodied men who have sex with male-embodied men (MSM), self-reported living with HIV. These rates of infection are similar to sub-Saharan Africa as well as to those among African American MSM, a community in which there is a declared AIDS crisis.

With the support from University of Iowa’s Prairielands’ Addition Technology Transfer Center, ATTC, (now the National Native American and Alaskan Native ATTC), assisted with the dissemination of the training, "Two-Spirit Then and Now: Reclaiming Our Place of Honor.” This training was developed for behavioral health, mental health, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS care providers to work more effectively with Two-Spirit people. Both Native and non-Native participants are given an opportunity to look at and discuss how historical trauma led to the dissolution of the role and the displacement of Two-Spirit people from within their Nations and native communities. The connection between the displacement of Two-Spirit people from their heritage, and who routinely experience stigma and discrimination in both in both Native and mainstream society, is presented and discussed in terms of the impact on their health and mental health risks, health disparities, and recovery support needs. For more information on this training email training@ne2ss.org.

Since September 2012, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s  Native American Center for Excellence, a national resource to address issues related to substance abuse prevention and behavioral health in Native American communities, has been hosting monthly topical Two-Spirit webinars.

Another success for the Two-Spirit community this year was in the Center for Disease Control’s recently released “Fact Sheet for HIV among American Indians and Alaska Natives” in the section titled, “Prevention Challenges” states the following: “NA/AN gay and bisexual or “two-spirit” men may face culturally based stigma and confidentiality issues that may limit opportunities for education and HIV testing, especially among those who live in rural communities or on reservations.”

Two-Spirit people are a part of the fabric of this land, and we stand here today as a testament of our collective strength and fortitude. By remembering and honoring the traditional place of Two-Spirit people in our communities, we have greater potential for effective prevention and treatment options.

For more information or to make a donation for the 25th International Two-Spirit Gathering, email the planning committee at gathering@ne2ss.org.


Harlan PrudenHarlan Pruden (First Nations Nehiyawewin/Cree) is an enrolled member of the Goodfish Lake Band of the Saddle Lake Indian Reservation located in Northeast Alberta, Canada, and since 1994 has called New York home. Harlan is the Director and Co-Founder of the NorthEast Two Spirit Society based in NYC and works organize the Two-Spirit (LGBT Native) community. After committing himself to sobriety 26 years ago, Harlan was the first person in his family to attend college and now devotes his life to First Nations community organizing and be contacted at harlan@ne2ss.org or 646.351.7360

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Last Reviewed: October 17, 2016