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In Indigenous communities, some Two-Spirit people are reclaiming their roles

For hundreds of years, Europeans systematically tried to wipe out Indigenous cultures. On the frontline were tribal members who held a sacred status because they had both feminine and masculine qualities. Today, they call themselves Two-Spirits.

VCU professor Gregory Smithers has written about the history of gender and sexual fluidity in Native American history and culture in his new book, “Reclaiming Two-Spirits."

The modern concept of Two-Spirits goes back to 1990, when a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Indigenous people derived the name from a Northern Algonquin word. "Niiz manidoowag," says Raven Heavy Runner, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana.

He wrote the forward to Smither’s book. "In our language there was a couple of names. One of them was aakii’skassi. It meant 'that person who sees in both directions.' Then there was another term, Aawoowa’kii, 'the ones that go back and forth.' And there were other terms that were similar as far as gender fluidity goes. One was manly-hearted woman. A person who was heterosexual could still have that term but it just meant they had a lot of honor and were able to participate in some ceremonies that were just males."

Historically, Two-Spirit people had important roles in their communities – cultural, religious and spiritual. "They were the ones that kept the knowledge of our people," Raven Heavy Runner says.

But these sacred tribal members were seen quite differently by European explorers and colonizers who targeted them as part of their effort to destroy Native communities. "Often you would find those people, not unlike medicine people, men and women, who live at the peripheries between what seems to be at the outskirts of town to colonizers. In the woods," author Gregory Smithers says. "Which to colonizers is a dangerous place. Dark, evil spirits there."

So, they murdered them. "From the very beginning, Spanish, French, English, other Europeans used different technologies of colonization that were available to them. So attack dogs. The Spanish used mastiffs to attack and target Two-Spirit people," according to Smithers.

Gregory Smithers (left), author of "Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America" and Raven Heavy Runner (Blackfeet)
Pamela D'Angelo
Gregory Smithers (left), author of "Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America" and Raven Heavy Runner (Blackfeet)

Today, not all Indigenous communities accept this history. "There’s even still today, some people who are very colonized, even with our own community," Raven Heavy Runner admits. "I have uncles that are all preachers, on my mother’s side. They look at me and they’re like, m- mmm. You know. My husband is not allowed to go to any family event that they put together."

But both men have hope. "Historically what we’re talking about are people who are very spiritual," Smithers says. "This is why spirituality is in the subtitle of the book. But it’s also about the spiritual connection to each other and to nature. I think one of the beautiful things about the contemporary movement is that Two-Spirit people are really reclaiming those roles. That sort of place in ceremony and spiritual leadership. And that bodes well for the future, I think."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.