Native Americans’ Views on Gender vs. Those of the United States Today

Gender roles in America have never exactly been a question — rather, the way Americans divide in gender is pretty cut and dried. You’ve got your men, the breadwinners, and your women, the delicate flowers. Then, of course, you’ve got the few strange exceptions, those who don’t fit neatly into this strict gender binary(how dare they!). Anyone who pushes the boundaries of what men and women are supposed to look like cause a little bit of a hiccup everywhere they go. While the gender binary has long been the American standard, the people who lived here prior to the birth of the United States acknowledged a much wider spectrum of gender identity.

Most Americans recognize two main genders — male and female — and both have specific roles and characteristics they are expected to fulfill(1). This is how the American people have been categorized since the birth of this country, and it has only been a few decades since we began to challenge these fixed expectations. However, long before this country was established, its indigenous people had a different idea of what gender meant and how it correlated with a person’s position in society. Before the days of men at work and women at home, Native American civilization was comprised of men and women doing work of equal weight and difficulty, and, in turn, both received equal respect. Additionally, these societies recognized and even honored those who blurred the lines of the gender binary. North American Natives now acknowledge those who were not strictly male or female as “Two-Spirit” people, typically displaying characteristics of both genders. This term often referred to a masculine woman or a feminine man, but it also covers anyone who exhibited traits and behaviors that did not align with their assigned gender identity(2). It replaces the outdated term berdache, which was a label used to describe gay men specifically and did not accurately represent the diverse gender spectrum in Native American culture(3).

One of the most honored Two Spirits, We-wha of the Zuni Pueblo tribe.

While “Two-Spirit” is the most commonly used Native American term for gender-varying people, there were many denominational identifications between tribes. One of the more common labels, Nádleehí(spelling varies), comes from the Navajo culture, and translates literally to “one who is transformed”(4). Navajo people typically used this word to describe people born biologically male, yet expressed themselves as female and often married masculine men. Although, understandings of Nádleehí vary across the wide range of Navajo culture(5), this label often encompassed any gender-variant person whose expression was out of the “norm.”

These transgendered people were not ridiculed or shamed, but rather received the highest respect. They were often considered gifted, as they had the ability to experience the world from the perspective of two genders, therefore possessing wisdom beyond those who fit into one or the other(6). These people could freely express themselves, dressing in the clothing they preferred and even being with the partner they chose, regardless of gender.

Native American Two Spirits

Two Spirits were considered holy people(7), revered for their gift of containing the spirits of both a man and a woman. One reason Native Americans held Two Spirits in such high regard is due to their cultural separation between sex and societal role. These tribes would judge people for the work they contributed to society, rather than setting social expectations for them based on their physiological make-up(8).

They performed roles of high honor in their tribes, such as medicine men/women, traditional teachers, and emotional counselors(9). Most importantly, Two Spirits became the caretakers of orphaned children, given the responsibility of loving them like they would their own(10). This view of non-gender-conforming people is far different than that of Americans today. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser shared her thoughts on transgender people interacting with children in her article titled “The hypocrisy of Springsteen’s transgender bathroom crusade”:

“The thought of allowing anatomical males inside public school facilities used by young girls is enough to keep you up at night”(11).

Lately, as transgender issues are on the rise in America, more and more individuals are encouraging the misconception that non-cisgender people are strange, have a mental illness, or are a threat, as exhibited in the above quote. Knowing there once existed a culture in which transgendered individuals were not only accepted, but highly regarded, proves how far Americans have digressed in this aspect of society.

The Native Americans’ opinion of genderqueer people is unmatched in America today, where they are still considered outside the norm. While we have made significant improvements in the treatment and acknowledgment of transgender people, there is still a prevalent lack of respect and recognition for those who do not identify with their given sex. While many claim to support and advocate for transgender rights, when it actually comes to treating transgender people the same way they would treat cisgender people, they will most likely find a complication. This might be due to our society that ingrained cisnormativity, or the assumption that all persons are cisgender, in American people’s heads for centuries.

There has been an ever-present acceptance of two genders with set societal roles and little wiggle room for those who don’t fit the mold. There is still inequality amongst the two genders society recognizes, let alone the ones who are still struggling to gain acknowledgment. For someone who identifies as a woman, I sometimes struggle with feeling inferior when compared to a man. Just think — if I experience these apprehensions as a cisgender woman, I cannot fathom the struggles that those who are not cisgender endure as they strive to feel respected.

For hundreds of years, people outside the binary were worshipped and honored, until such open-mindedness was lost in the midst of European settlement. Our view of gender roles did not always exist on this soil, it was introduced and ingrained in our minds, allowing us all to accept gender inequality for far too long. Not only does gender equality entail equal opportunities between men and women, it means the recognition that there are human beings who exist outside the binary that have a right to that same equality. It is about time that we take up the outlook of those who thrived in this country long before us, and embrace Two Spirits as the unique, respectable people they are.

To become more informed on Two Spirits and Native American gender roles, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSpIGER0vEU to watch the full documentary, Two Spirits.


References:

  1. Janet T. Spence and Robert L. Heimrich, Masculinity and Femininity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978), 4.
  2. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Sabine Lang and Wesley Thomas, Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 2.
  3. Zachary Pullin, “Two Spirit: The Story of a Movement Unfolds,” Native Peoples Magazine, May-June 2014.
  4. Duane Brayboy, “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders,” Indian Country Today, January 23, 2016, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/opinions/two-spirits-one-heart-five-genders/.
  5. Carolyn Epple, “Coming to Terms with Navajo ‘nádleehí’: A Critique of ‘berdache,’ ‘Gay,’ ‘Alternate Gender,’ and ‘Two-Spirit’,” American Ethnologist 25, no. 2 (1998): 271.
  6. Walter L. Williams, “The ‘Two-spirit’ People of Indigenous North Americans,” The Guardian, October 11, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/11/two-spirit-people-north-america.
  7. Carolyn Epple, “Coming to Terms with Navajo ‘nádleehí’: A Critique of ‘berdache,’ ‘Gay,’ ‘Alternate Gender,’ and ‘Two-Spirit’,” American Ethnologist 25, no. 2 (1998): 271.
  8. Walter L. Williams, “The ‘Two-spirit’ People of Indigenous North Americans,” The Guardian, October 11, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/11/two-spirit-people-north-america.
  9. Duane Brayboy, “Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders,” Indian Country Today, January 23, 2016, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/opinions/two-spirits-one-heart-five-genders/.
  10. Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez. Documentary. Directed by Lydia Nibley. 2009. USA: Riding the Tiger Productions. DVD.
  11. Andrea Peyser, “The Hypocrisy of Springsteen’s Transgender Bathroom Crusade,” New York Post, April 22, 2016, http://nypost.com/2016/04/22/the-hypocrisy-of-springsteens-transgender-bathroom-crusade/.