In the Beginning: “Most civilized communities recognize two genders, the masculine and feminine. But strange to say, these people have a neuter. Strange country this, where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females while women turn men and mate with their own sex!”.
Two-Spirit people have long existed in the collective consciousness of Native American societies and are documented in over 155 tribes in North America. Two-Spirit people, known often by terms specific to each tribal group, were once highly valued members of society and entrusted with spiritual knowledge and key roles in ceremonies across many nations as renowned warrior women, spiritual practitioners, and skilled at child-rearing and basket weaving. However, Two-Spirit peoples continue to face multiple forms of cultural violence since ‘first contact’ with settlers. The battle against violence and condemnation is two-fold. Firstly, against a settler society that benefits from the logic of indigenous elimination, more specifically Two-Spirit Native Americans, which some refer to as ‘gendercide’; secondly, alienation from their families and communities due to entrenched homophobia as the result of colonial powers (namely Christian missionaries) who marked Two-Spirit people as sexual deviants and subjected them to physical violence, containment and removal. This created an environment of prejudice and discrimination which became absorbed into the cultural fabric of (some) Native societies; inverting roles of Two-Spirited individuals once held in high esteem to one of shame and ostracism.
This essay will explore the effect of HIV/AIDS for Two-Spirit peoples, interwoven with complex issues of survival, identity and colonialization. Firstly, this essay will explore the history of Two-Spirited people in North America and the issue of language. Then, it will consider the AIDS crisis and the ways in which Two-Spirit peoples asserted their rights by forming groups across North America and how such formations support the survival of Two-Spirit identities and cultural continuity. Furthermore, it will discuss the complications that arise from the two-fold cultural violence and its effect on identity and authenticity in AIDS treatment and wider social acceptance. Finally, we will investigate what ideas, methods and concepts could be applied to the future generation of Two-Spirit peoples; passed down in the stories of elders and survivors of the many seasons of loss for a better future.
Firstly, we must understand the history and significance of Two-Spirit peoples in Native American society. Non-Native historian Will Roscoe writes, “And yet, among the Crows, men who dressed as women and specialized in women’s work were accepted and sometimes honored; a woman who led men into battle and had four wives was a respected chief”. Fr. Geromino Boscana writes in 1846: When the missionaries first arrived … they found men dressed as women and performing women’s duties … From their youth up they were treated, instructed, and used as females, and were even frequently publicly married.”
It is clear from these accounts that gender and sexuality in (some) Native American societies was not only acceptable, but sometimes revered. Indeed, non-Native anthropologist Sabine Long, argues that gender-variation in Native American society could be understood as part of an overarching philosophy that recognizes transformation, change, ambiguity and celebrates difference. Native terms for alternative gender roles and sexuality vary from location and language family. Some terms used to describe Two-Spirit people include ‘nádleehí’ meaning ‘one who changes time and again’ for the Navajo people, as well as ‘gatxan’ which means ‘coward’ or ‘halfman-halfwoman’ for the Tlingit in the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. However, this terminology become generalized following settler ‘contact’ to a single word, berdache, used by travellers, traders and missionaries to describe such people who took on a variety of social, occupational and sexual roles distinct from their biological sex. The word ‘berdache’ has a variety of meanings but perhaps its most offensive is a ‘kept boy’ or male prostitute. In 1993, under increasing political momentum, the term ‘Two-Spirit’ was coined to provide a distinction between the previously offensive berdache, as well as separate Native Americans experience of gender and sexuality from non-Native folk, referred to broadly as ‘queer’ in this essay.
Before Anglo-American sexual categories, a man participating in ‘women’s work’ could be viewed as a public declaration of one’s gender identity; nowadays, individuals may ‘come out’ to their communities using binary notions of gender and sexuality such as gay or lesbian and in doing so, risk violence and ostracism. Long writes: “gender variance and homosexuality [in Native communities is now almost] identical to white ideas and Christianity … two-spirit gender face rejection and discrimination, not only in white surroundings, but also on their reservations”. So, despite a degree of romanticism when it comes to the past reverence and wide social acceptance of Two-Spirited individuals (some even claiming that there was complete acceptance across all nations in North America), it seems that narratives of post-colonial violence perpetrated by Native communities are sadly, the norm. The complex relationship between colonial trauma and two-fold violence of settlers/Native communities is perhaps most evident when it comes to the issues of HIV/AIDS beginning in the late 1970s and continuing to disproportionately affect queer/Two-Spirited indigenous peoples in North America. So now, we will discuss the effect of AIDS on Two-Spirit communities and how they were able to assert their rights to health care and cultural continuity in the face of such a devastating disease.
Seasons of Loss in the so-called epidemic of AIDS: “The unsafe behavior that produces AIDS is judged to be more than just weakness. It is indulgence, delinquency — addictions to chemicals that are illegal and to sex regarded as deviant … a disease not only of sexual excess but of perversity.”
The ‘epidemic’ of AIDS hit Two-Spirit communities already branded as indulgent, deviant and perverse by settler society and Native communities alike, and it hit hard. Susan Sontag, author of AIDS and Its Metaphors, describes AIDS as: “a disease of time … once a certain density of symptoms is attained, the course of the illness can be swift, and brings atrocious suffering”. AIDS does not only cause great physical suffering but is can also expose individuals to harassment and violence, divide communities and tear social circles apart. In response to the escalating death toll and public hysteria, Native American queer/Two-Spirit individuals united to fight against HIV/AIDS in their communities. Before the effect of AIDS had become fully realized, Randy Burns, a Northern Paiute man, and Barbara Cameron, a Hunkpapa woman, founded the organization Gay American Indians (GAI) in 1975 as a place for queer/Two-Spirit people to socialize and seek cultural understanding and companionship, away from the “homophobia of surprising vehemence” from Native communities. However, GAI soon grew from a social club to one of political action; fighting against homophobia and ‘gendercide’. By the late 1980s, GAI was joined by queer Native groups in major cities through North America. However, this political movement and assertion of power was triggering by something far more sinister than a desire to rediscover culture.
The death of Jodi Harry (referenced below in the Native-centred AIDS timeline) was said to be the first known death of GAI community member in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Jodi Harry, a Two-Spirited Miwok (wo)man, death by suicide in 1987 had a profound effect on the members of the organization. They were shocked to learn of the diagnosis, and that he/she took their own life rather than seeking help from the community. Jodi Harry’s death marked a significant turning point in the formal responses to AIDS for Native Americans and, in the same year as his/her death, GAI founded a new organization called the Indian AIDS Project, followed by the American Indian AIDS Institute in 1988, and the Native American AIDS Project in 1997. Things were beginning to change for the better and the shame associated with AIDS became part of a national conversation with the first Native American/First Nation gay and lesbian conference held in 1990.
Despite the increasing support for queer/Two-Spirited peoples in North America, and an international network of activists and writers emerging from the shadows, the death toll and social ramifications of AIDS continued to ravage these communities. This is perhaps due, in part, to continued stigma inside Native reservations, as well as culturally-specific complexities of AIDS treatment which we will now discuss.
Barriers in the Blood Resistance: “My altruistic answer has always been, ‘If I can find answers to the larger questions, maybe the young people will stop hurting; maybe they will stop killing themselves, maybe they will be respected instead of denigrated and beaten up in their communities.’”
AIDS treatment and prevention is highly complex and negatively impacted by colonial trauma and stigma within Native American society. There are many barriers towards culturally appropriate medical treatments, as well as what kind of identity expression is most important to the individual: their identity as a Native American, or as a queer/Two-Spirited person. Formal or institutionalized barriers remain one of the most significant hindrances to health outcomes due to hostility on reservations, as discussed previously, and limited access to medical care such as Indian Health Services (IHS). In the height of the AIDS crisis and GIA’s formation, individuals faced a multitude of increasingly complex barriers to medical care. If individuals were able to access IHS, they often encountered poorly trained staff with little knowledge of AIDS treatment or prevention, as well as breaches of privacy as information on infection status was able to be shared amongst others in the community. Further barriers to accessing IHS included difficulties providing tribal enrolment due to mixed blood/dislocation or adopted native status and issues of authenticity as criteria for a minimum blood quantum or possession of a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood which still exist in Native American communities today. As a result, tribal councils and IHS were forced to “cope with same-sex behavior rather than denying its existence”; a kind of ‘make it up as you go along’ approach. The alternative to seeking care on reservations was to submit oneself to settler medical systems such as hospitals in urban centers. However, individuals were unlikely to seek Western medical care due to intergenerational trauma associated with formal government institutions who had previously incarcerated Two-Spirit people and forced them to cut their hair and dress in clothing in line with settler gender norms. Given this wide range of barriers to AIDS treatment, prevention, education and culturally specific services, it is perhaps unsurprising that by mid-1997, a total of 1,677 cases of AIDS had been officially documented among Native Americans, with the death toll steadily rising.
In addition to medical barriers, AIDS prevention and education among queer/Two-Spirit peoples remain complex. This includes difficulties with language translation, e.g. lack of terms for safer sex practices such as condoms, or specific cultural barriers such as among Navajos whereby to talk about death (AIDS or otherwise) is equivalent to wishing death upon someone. Like their non-Native queer counterparts, Two-Spirited individuals face increased HIV/AIDS risk due to high drug use, promiscuous sex, low condom use and poor mental health. Andrew J. Jolivette, Professor of Native American Studies at San Francisco University, would argue that these increased risk factors are a type of posttraumatic invasion syndrome – a combination of cultural dissolution, intergenerational trauma, race and gender discrimination, sexual violence and mixed-race cognitive dissonance which results in impaired stress-coping and risk seeking behavior. Jolivette’s solution is the process of ‘radical love’ which he defines as “ultimately a theory of communal responsibility, trust, and vulnerability … an undoing of] lifelong invasion”. ‘Radical love’ seeks to discuss AIDS openly in Native communities in the hope to bridge the tension between Native and Western science, and in doing so, work to address the internalized homophobia for queer/Two-Spirit Native Americans and reduce the overall diagnosis and death of their people.
Indeed, a further complication is the issue of treatment and prevention is the significance of identity for queer/Two-Spirit peoples. Long’s anthropological research in the early 1990s indicates that her interlocuters were uninterested in talking about their third-gender/Two-Spirit ancestors, “dead for many decades”, and rather wanted action on HIV/AIDS, as well as decolonization and increased sovereignty from state powers. While the concept of Two-Spirit remains a liberating icon, it does not always reflect the reality of contemporary queer Native Americans who wish to see current and future generations survive and thrive rather than the romanticism of ancestors from long ago. Across much of the literature, Native American Two-Spirit people were quick to emphasize that they were Native American first and their gender/sexual identity was secondary. This is somewhat peculiar given that many leave their homes (reservations or otherwise) due to homophobia. This creates an interesting paradox of pride in their Native identities and shame in their queer/Two-Spirit selves (or a combination of both) and could discourage people from ‘coming out’ to their communities or seeking medical interventions in non-Native health care settings. Yet queer/Two-Spirited individuals consistently affirmed that they have much more in common with heterosexual Native Americans than they do with white queer people, citing shared experiences of colonization, genocide and forced acculturation as more significant than their queer/Two-Spirit identities. Perhaps the saying is true: blood is thicker than water.
Questioning the Horizon, Hope for the Future: “We are the waking healers / talking old words / now translated / into adopted Mother tongues / and spoken from dreams / in a language we can’t speak – except in our blood. We are the lost memories … trying desperately / to remember a past / that glorified our lives / our sexuality / our prize.” The issue of authenticity and visibility is seen across indigenous and queer peoples worldwide. This issue will most likely continue for Native Americans who have the highest rate of interracial marriage across all U.S. ethnic groups and, as such, may continue to battle for the right of their identity vis-a-vis their blood status. Andrew J. Jolivette, a mixed-race man of Creole of Opelousa, Choctaw, Atakapa-Ishak, French, African, and Spanish descent, conducted several focus groups for Two-Spirit individuals who identified as either gay, queer, bisexual or Two Spirit in the San Francisco Bay area (the site of GAI’s formation). One respondent reported the following, “I can’t tell you how much it being called a ‘half breed’ sticks in my craw when somebody says, ‘Oh, so you’re a half-breed.’ It kills me every time. I just hate it.” This brings up issues of authenticity within the Two-Spirit Native American community. The idea that “a bunch of white people who are trying to be Indian, or they’re just like … fake Indians” acts as a barrier in IHS, as well as a deterrent from vulnerable young people to seek affirming communities for both their Native and queer/Two-Spirit identity.
The issue of authenticity is seen across many indigenous peoples in the world including debate about ‘white’ Indigenous Australians identifying as indigenous for so-called personal gain. It has become increasingly clear in the literature that debating issues of authenticity causes individuals to fight against their own people rather than fight against settler society, homophobia or HIV/AIDS. So, while there has been increasing political momentum by queer Native Americans in response to AIDS, this topic could benefit from further indigenous-led analysis and investigation into the intersection between race, gender and sexuality for indigenous people of North America, in particular, people of mixed-race heritage which will only become more common in the years to come.
This essay contends that there is hope for Two-Spirit peoples on the horizon; there is indeed inspiration, energy and creativity for those bodies, gender roles and sexualities on the margins of society. Many are rising to take the mantel of GIA’s founders, Randy Burns and Barbara Cameron. This is evident in the proliferation of groups formed in the last decade such as the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance in the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Red Circle Project in Los Angles and the Rainbow of Truth organization in La Jolla Band of Luiseño reservation in California. Furthermore, events like the ‘Two Spirit Powwow’ seen in the above image show ‘Miss Montana’ and her friend/lover in traditional dress. Furthermore, there is an increasing sense of self-controlled activism, a form of decolonizing methodologies, whereby Two-Spirited folk are visible in their identity such as: academic and AIDS activist Andrew J. Jolivette, the late Paula Gunn, a voice for Native Studies and public queer identity, and Beverly Little Thunder, a Standing Rock Lakota womyn, who founded the first all-women’s Sundance in Vermont, to name a few. Such outspoken activists and advocates demonstrate what it means to be Two-Spirited today with their commitment to furthering research, continuing cultural ceremonies and bettering health outcomes for their people. This is particularly important as indigenous led research on HIV/AIDS remains severely underrepresented. It is important to allow Two-Spirited peoples greater autonomy and control over research processes and, where indigenous led research is not possible, settler agencies must collaborate with Two-Spirit organizations at a local level. There should be a great focus on holistic healing for queer/Two-Spirit people which encompasses both spiritual and emotional healing. This includes the creation of positive stories of what it means resist colonization and the metaphoric colonization of HIV into the blood stream.[image: ]Two-Spirit pride: Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits, San Francisco Pride 2013.In conclusion, Two-Spirit people have existed across many tribal groups and nations in North American before and after colonization. They have formed organizations, collectives and advocacy groups in the face of the AIDS crisis and continue to assert their power in cultural and academic spaces to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be Two-Spirit today. Two-Spirit poet, academic and proud non-citizen Qwo-Li Driskill writes: “From the heavy debris of loss / we emerge … Together we emerge / voices strained and weary from wailing / We emerge in beauty … Our homelands grow fertile / from our blood … But we will be your breath / We will be your song.”
This is a powerful statement in the wake of immense loss. There is hope in the songs, in the emergence of beauty and in homelands fertile from blood. The legacy of the Two-Spirit will continue because of the movement of Native American queer people in response to two-fold violence, homophobia, illness and death. While HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately affect Native American communities, there is hope in both young and old indigenous voices such as activists, academics and poets, as well as cultural events such as Two-Sprit powwows and presence in annual Mardi Gras parades (see above) which remind us that Two-Spirited people are not confined to the pages of history books but are ever evolving and here to stay.