Two-Spirited on Turtle Island - Information and Resources

Two spirit rainbow with feathers


The term "Two-Spirited" was coined at the Third International (Two-Spirit) Gathering in 1990 in Winnipeg, Manitoba during the 3rd Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian Conference.


  • Lakota, Winkte- indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female
  • Navajo,Nádleehí (one who is transformed)
  • Cheyenne, Hemanahhalf man, half woman
  • Ojibwe, NiizhManidoowag– two spirits (this has no traditional or cultural significance as it is a contemporary term) (Mattias de Vries, p. 64)
  • Berdache - comes from the French during colonization, is generally considered offensive

Identifying using the Terms: 

  • Some contemporary individuals self-identify with the terminology specific to their nation or tribal membership (Adams & Phillips, p. 961)
  • Some Indigenous people use the term Two-Spirit to refer to all sexual and gender variance among people of Indigenous [Turtle Island] descent: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer identities (Ristock et al, p. 4)

  • The term Two-Spirit has multiple contemporary meanings and also highlights historical elements regarding the possible positions of Two-Spirit peoples in their communities and their place in the sacred circle (Ristock et al, p. 4)

  • Not all queer native people identify as two-spirit or see their sexualities and genders as connected to two-spirit histories in their communities, just as many people who identify as two- spirit or with tribally specific terms do not identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Still, others identify as both LGBTQ2 and two-spirit but see these identities as inhabiting different social and cultural spheres, and many people shift between labels and terms depending on their contexts. (from Bittner, p. 12)

Use of the Term in Academia: 

  • The term “two-spirit” is currently used in academia to refer to a number of Indigenous Turtle Island identities. These include, but are not limited to Indigenous Turtle Island people who are: 
    • a) lesbian or gay - pertains to sexual orientation
    • b) transgender - pertains to gender 
    • c) who follow some or all of the parameters of alternate gender roles (may include specific social roles, spiritual roles, same-sex relationships) specific to their Nation/tribe or panethnicity - pertains to gender (Adams & Phillips, p. 960)
  • Two-spirit may sound initially simple, but differing accounts of what is meant by the term two-spirit in different cultural contexts complicate the issue greatly (Bittner, p. 12)

  • In literature (academic, adult and YA), genderqueer, trans, and non-gender-identifying individuals are difficult enough to write about in fiction due to the nature of the English language and its reliance on gendered pronouns (Bittner, p. 12)


Considered spiritually strong and connected to the spirits, two-spirited people often performed roles from both genders. In keeping with teachings of the Medicine Wheel, Seven Grandfather Teachings, other cultural teachings around respect and acceptance, and community cultural ethics and rules of behaviour, two-spirited people were included, respected, and loved as they are.

  • Medicine Wheel - Balance, wholeness (spiritual, emotional, physical, mental); reinforced teachings that all are welcome
  • Seven Grandfather Teachings - love, bravery, respect, wisdom, honesty, humility, truth

For the Great Lakes nations, a culture of masculinity centered on warriors and chiefs who were warriors. This reverence for war and warriors echoed the French glorification of courage and strength in battle (i.e. from Samuel de Champlain). Elaborate sepulchers [small room or monument] were made only for the warriors, and “for other men they put in no more than they do for women, as being useless people. Hence but few of these tombs are found amongst them" (Champlain, Voyages, 1632, vol. 4, 179). For the French, the association of femininity and womanhood as the antithesis of the courageous warrior; women and uncourageous men were universally termed as “useless people" (from Slater, p. 42).

For the Chesapeake, while men spent their time "fishing, hunting, [in] wars, and such manlike exercises," the women often did the rest of the work including the necessary agriculture. This behaviour contradicted English assumptions about women’s place in society and the home. The role of women and the gender systems present in native Chesapeake society incurred scorn from the English. Women who possessed valued masculine characteristics, such as strength and a dedicated work ethic, could no longer be women but were desexualized through the rendering of them as masculine. (Section paraphrased and quoted from Slater, p. 40).

The two-spirited people served to challenge understandings of male identity in both colonial and native society in a way that their European counterparts—who occupied a marginal and heavily condemned place in society—did not (Slater, p. 46). 


Two-spirit Osh Tish (Finds Them and Kills Them) on left, with wife

Lakota Two Spirit Osh-Tisch (Finds Them and Kills Them, on left) with his wife.


We Wha, Zuni, Two-Spirit


We Wha, Two-Spirit, Zuni

(Above two photos: We Wha, a Zuni (1871-1896). Biologically male, with a female spirit)


Two spirit Navajo couple

(Navajo two-spirit couple: Photographer Bosque Redondo, 1866, Museum of New Mexico)





Video Resources:

1. Two Spirits, One Voice (Egale Canada) (4min)  

Summary Points from "Two Spirits, One Voice": 

  • Each person is essential, offering purpose, value, and a responsibility to their community 
  • Embody the strengths of both male and female energy
  • Held with esteem for the vital contributions they had to their communities
  • Respect, inclusion, stewardship 
  • Social roles within Indigenous societies, cannot be compared to western gender norms as social positioning develops out of individual skill, spirit, ability, and age, as gifted to them by the Creator
  • Colonization 
    • disrupted Indigenous paradigms, by enforcing limiting gender binaries and heteronormativity
    • inflexible idealism 
    • notions of patriarchy and sexual expectations and social roles of male and female
    • Hetero-patriarchy – aims to disempower and devalue two-spirit people who once held high honourinto their community
    • Identity with many intersections

2. A Two-Spirit Journey: Finding Identity Through Indigenous Culture (United Way Ottawa) 

Summary Points from "A Two-Spirit Journey": 

  • Gina Metallic, Mi’gmaq
  • Image of who she felt she had to be – sought help from traditional healer who informed her about two-spirited
  • Two-spirit – a cultural connection; helpers of the community who stood next to the warriors


Text Resources (books, articles): 

Book cover, Ma Nee Chacaby Two Spirit Journey


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