I recently read: Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, eds. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997). What follows are my initial thoughts on this book, which I have written out in preparation for writing an article about the Cree two-spirit artist Kent Monkman (https://www.artsy.net/artist/kent-monkman-1).
This books resulted from two conferences held by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research dedicated to the issue of gender and sexuality in Native American and Indigenous First Nation populations. The editors acknowledge the originally unpublished manuscript of Beatrice Medicine (Standing Rock Lakota), “Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context” (1979) as a pivotal moment in the scholarship on this issue.
Though the title of the book presents “Two-Spirit People” as the primary matter of inquiry and investigation, the individual contributions never settle on a fixed definition for this key term. While the authorial identities of the contributors—some self-identified two-spirits, some Native anthropologists, and some non-Native anthropologists and ethnographers—ensures that consensus will never truly coalesce, there is a great deal of productivity churning within the dissensual voice emanating from the book as a whole. “Two-spirit” is not a static category, neither is it a label that gives itself over to felicitous translation to and from distinct indigenous languages.
The term two-spirit is, instead, delightfully asymmetrical and unstable. It is not, therefore, a conventional term within the realm of identity politics where identity markers seek to stabilize the identity of minority groups and/or oppressed peoples. It acts, instead, like a promise of sorts, one that calls specific male- and female-bodied indigenous peoples from a number of tribes together in order to obtain a kind of balance. Carry H. House (Navajo/Oneida) calls this a balancing of the male and female, female and male aspects of both individuals and the universe (225). Claire R. Ferrer sees the balance as a straddling between two ages serving the purpose of opening and closing what she calls a “chiasm.” For her, Bernard Second, a Mescalero Apache multigendered singer of ceremonies, opens and closes the chiasm in order to help others understand how the mythic present and lived present are truly the same (247). And yet, any homogenous understanding of the healthful effects of such acts acquires a kind of asymmetry when non-Native people such as myself try to zoom out and understand the two-spirit identity as a Pan-Indian phenomenon.
Sabine Lang writes the following: "Native American gay and lesbian communities all over the United States and Canada are made up of people from various tribes as well as those of mixed descent. Perhaps for that reason, the two-spirit identity seems to be basically pan-Indian; participants at two-spirit gatherings, for example, are united by common symbols and actions, mainly of Plains provenance, regardless of the participants’ specific tribal background" (112). As Medicine adds, however, "The use of 'two-spirit' as a Pan-Indian term is not intended to be translated from English to Native Languages, however. To do so changes the common meaning it has acquired by self-identified two-spirit Native Americans" (147).
Here, again, we run into what I keep referring to as the term’s asymmetrical relation. The identity “two-spirit” joins together a number of individuals from different tribes, thereby enacting a unification and manufacturing a kind of solidarity, and yet by translating the term “two-spirit” back into the distinct tribal languages of these newly unified individuals we end up entering back into a somewhat contentious heterogeneity. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas (Navajo), and Sabine Lang’s introduction clarifies this contentiousness by explaining that, "In some cultural contexts, translating it to a Native language could even be dangerous. For example, if 'two-spirit' were translated into one of the Athapaskan languages (such as Navajo or Apache) the word could be understood to mean that such a person possesses both a living and a dead spirit—not a desirable situation [...] If 'two-spirit' were translated into Shoshone, the literal translation would be 'ghost'" (3). In sum, this book presents “Two-Spirit” people as a disjunctively unified group, and it presents the enterprise of understanding two-spirit culture and belief as a deft undertaking requiring recourse to multiple native languages and epistemologies as well as to fraught historiographies drafted through Western modes of seeing and knowing.
Composed as it was in the early 1990s, this book decides first to plough through the historical ground composed by the word “berdache” that features so prominently in colonial narratives of, for example, men dressing as woman in Native groups between the 16th and 19th centuries. If there is one thing upon which all the contributors to this book agree, it is that the word “berdache” carries a harmful legacy of colonization and enforced homogeneity and should no longer be used by anyone to discuss any type of person. Even once that word is put aside, however, the thorniness of language and naming presents another obstacle.
Tucked within the name “two-spirit,” one finds the words Winkte (Lakota), Nádleeh (Navajo), Kwidó (Tewa), Tainna wa’ippe (Shoshone), Dubuds (Paiute), Lhamana (Zuni), Warharmi (Kamia), and Hwame (Mohave). Each of these words, in turn, leads to contested stories that require the employment of still more contested terms if those stories are to be translated into English for the benefit of Western-trained scholars. So as not to go astray, Western scholars need to adjust the philosophical frames that structures the appraisal of two-spirit stories and histories, as Carolyn Epple writes in her article about the Navajo nádleehi: "How then to define nádleehí? Presently, it would appear to be a nearly impossible task. Western epistemologies do not accommodate persons who are both herself and himself as well as everything else. Instead, we must adopt a different way of perceiving the universe, one that is processual, interconnected, and dynamic" (184). This non-Native perspective is balanced by Wesley Thomas’s observations that a fluid and processual understanding of identity hides beneath the colonizing activities of Christian missionaries who sought to “civilize” the Navajo. Beyond the binary male/female genders so crucial to the Christian morality system, researchers like Thomas find five gender categories, three of which rely on ontological nuances unlocked by the nádleeh, which, properly speaking, is more of a social role than a stable identity category. Even the word “gender” isn’t quite right because, as Farrer points out, “The Athapaskan languages, in which the Apachean languages and Navajo fall, are languages where there are no gender-specific pronouns and where gender is not coded in nouns either” (245). To enter the world of two-spirit scholarship requires a loose grip on the supposed certainties of analytical language as well as an open mind capable of rethinking the functionality of terms like “sexuality” and “gender,” which, upon first glance, seem so necessary in thinking about two-spirits.
What I find in these pages is a necessarily fragmented picture of two-spirit history and contemporary life, one that forces a confrontation with the language I use (and want to use) to identify both individuals and individual expressions. Two-Spirit artistic works, then, offer a tremendously complicated matter of study since the works themselves will surely contain as many asymmetrical and ever-shifting relationships as the word “two-spirit.” Preparing to write about the words of Kent Monkman, I will listen especially carefully to this thought on the term two-spirit from Terry Tafoya (Taos/Warm Springs): “[The term is] Not born but created and, once created for a specific purpose, [it gains] a life of its own, surpassing the intentions of its creator, and eventually providing something life-affirming and nurturing” (193). It is a word belonging to what Cindy Patton calls a “dissident vernacular” in which “meanings created by and in communities are upsetting to the dominant culture precisely because speaking in one’s own fashion is a means of resistance, a strengthening of the subculture that has created the new meaning’ (1990:148)” (cit. Tafoya 193-194).
Scholars of theatre and performance studies frequently wander into the neighboring disciplines of cultural anthropology and ethnography in order to locate primary source material about groups who fall outside of the “Western” subject position. As such, it is highly likely that theatre and performance studies scholars interested in two-spirit people will find this book. For those who do, I think it is important to allow for the disagreements of the individual contributions to ring out and the tension between first-person accounts from Native authors, on the one hand, and third-person accounts of academics, on the other hand, to open up productive spaces of philosophical inquiry.
Will Daddario is a historiographer, philosopher, and teacher. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.