How do north american native people (first-nations, indians) view gender and gay/lesbian orientations? I went to read what regular people had to say about this on web forums and the like, intentionally ignoring “accepted” historical facts and anthropological views. The “ndn” voices that I found interesting are at the end.
I started by finding the term “two-spirited” applies to the whole LGBT umbrella, or so it seemed, and wondered why there wasn’t a lot of differentiation or specificity. That led to getting an inclination of a whole lot of deeper things that are quite different between the western and indian ways of knowing and structuring knowledge. Different languages don’t just have different words for the same things; they have different things. I’m relying here on natives using English to say things that English historically doesn’t name, so I’m sure I’m just touching the very edge of the topic.
The indian voices communicated to me that a person is primarily a spiritual being with a (temporarily) physical form, and thus what you see of a person is just a glimpse into their wholeness; we see only the bit of the person that’s showing in our world, and we don’t see all the rest. Therefore there is never a sense of capturing the whole person in any sentiment; you can’t lasso a person and describe them. They have mysterious and unrevealed parts. This seems to be connected to a kind of honor or respect that I don’t see as much in western thinking.
If you look at western debates on education, the main voices have a functional worldview – asking what our children need to know and be able to do, and how to make them into what is needed. It’s highly invasive, functional and reductionist in the sense that it doesn’t see a child as a temporarily physical form of the infinite spirit. If we did see a child that way, we wouldn’t be focused on questions of curriculum and behavior goals.
What I’m used to in my culture is a sense of wanting to capture and define other people, especially children, make policy that assumes we know the whole person. This seems to be connected to seeing a person as a cog in the machine; maybe the person “has” a soul but they are essentially a physical being only with functions. What you can and can’t do is highly important in the culture. There’s a struggle to be honored at a basic level; it isn’t automatic by being alive.
The indian way appears less about naming and classifying what other people are. This is attractive to me, especially when other people routinely invalidate my experience of my own life.
2. The LGBT variables
In our progressive language, “orientation” is who you are attracted to. Straight people might often have an assumption that being gay is a choice (they may have been educated to understand that it is not a choice, but it remains a baseline assumption, one that people have to be educated out of). So, we can think of orientation as an isolated variable, and it is part of the public debate on marriage and other things; people use the variable of orientation to oppress the minority.
There are videos and pamphlets going around lately with the aim of decoupling all the variables relevant to the LGBT scene – sex, gender, and orientation being the main ones. So the logic of those videos is that everyone is unique in many different ways – a person can have a female body and present androgoynously while identifying as male, and be bisexual, all at the same time. Within each of those variables there is a norm and a degree of variance, so a person can be dissected and graded on scales, so even though it’s “progressive” to be inclusive of all these variables, it is still feels medicalized and made into an atheist worldview, one that is reductionist: people are composed of functional parts.
The variables about a person with respect to sex that seem to be important to indians are limited to their body type and their role. The body type is just there, not always perceived to be highly determining, but it is the shape taken by the clay that we have to work with in this lifetime. The role played by a person in the family and tribe is the more important part. I saw over and over that those variables were mentioned as relevant and the other ones were ignored or questioned as not relevant.
3. Private and public
In the indian voices, I frequently saw people saying that orientation is private and has no business being discussed publicly. I feel like they honor the public space (or to invent a word, publicy, as opposed to privacy), and they want non-public issues to stay out of it to keep it clean. We westerners respect privacy (or at least talk about it), but the indians seem to respect publicy more, and maybe aren’t really concerned with privacy for its own sake.
Western concepts of orientation and identity are perhaps too invasive to be brought into public words, where language might have a tendency to codify and dissect a person. So those variables are much less a part of how indians describe other people.
4. Making an issue
A thing related to publicy I noticed was the protection against making up issues. While westerners seem to love to invent distinctions to create walls between people, the indian voices resented when non-indians did this on their forums. I felt a sort of sigh and a “why did you bring this up”, meaning the thing in question was peacefully sleeping and the act of bringing it up makes it into an irritant, which now has to be dealt with. It’s disrespecting publicy.
On forums when people ask specifically about lesbian issues, the overwhelming response is that other native people don’t get what the problem is. The responses ask things like “why are you manufacturing this issue?”
5. Roles and spirit
When we say “role” we don’t just mean who fixes the roof and who changes the baby. They mean the spiritual role – how their invisible infiniteness manifests itself in things like ceremonial dances. I saw in indian voices that people talk about dances to describe a role that a person plays. People didn’t bring up dances as a mere example of role-taking the way we might describe gender roles at a square dance. It’s more than just an example; the dance is an actual manifestation of the spirit. It’s where the person acts their spiritual role on earth. (I don’t know these things from studying them; I’m just seeing this in the voices I read today.)
That’s so big that it makes me cry.
The person has a gift, they have a role in all their spirit dimensions that the rest of us cannot see, and the role they play in the dance brings their earth-gifts and spirit together; I think maybe the role someone plays day to day is the same thing, only in a less ceremonial way. So… the person chooses to dance, or they feel they must dance because of their role. I saw several places where people choose a different role than others expect. The elders don’t stop them from doing it. This is where LGBT comes in. They are two-spirited if they have more than one role. Roles are spirit.
I have the impression that what we westerers call a butch lesbian who takes a traditionally male role in her family (as an example) would be seen more as two-spirit, while a feminine lesbian who takes a female role in her family would not be. Because who she loves is not in the public realm, but her role is.
Westerners have a big connection between moral behavior and LGBT issues. But in the indian voices, I didn’t see any original notion or morality as a concept connected to LGBT things. They only responded to non-indians bringing in morality. It appears that morality of private behavior is private and therefore not worthy of public comment.
Now, here are excerpts of some of the indian voices I was reading. I’m adding my questions and observations about what some of them said.
1. “I have met a TS Mi’kmaq who identified a word and role that comes from within the culture. The challenge is to find linguists who can identify the words that have essentially been deleted from the contemporary version of the language and oral tradition. The problem is that today’s societies have adopted a western view of gender, i.e. male and female, which undermines and invalidates the recognition of third and fourth gender identities. If people accepted the pre-contact worldview which was inclusive of diversity, they would have to re-think everything else, so the status quo is maintained and tolerated.”
I’m reminded that being anthropological and reducing/naming in a western way in this essay. The western mind cannot reduce and name and at the same time be “inclusive of diversity” in the full spiritual sense.
2. [The way I can describe it is that] “Pow Wow Spirits [one-spirited] are more grounded to Mother Earth and their sacred pipes to Sweat Lodges and the Medicine Wheel. I think they are more closer to Mother Earth with thier dancing skills and more informative. Potlatches [two-spirited]? Well that’s my people. They seem to do more Super Natural dances. Like the Bukwas-Saushquatch. Or the Crooked Beak Of Heaven. I guess our people were more of a spirit beings individuals the way we perform our potlatches. We dance inside a building around a fire…”
This person loosely defines people by their dances – what role they take when acting the spirit on earth. I am not sure if they are talking about the same thing (what we would call LGBT).
3. I guess we can also see it this way as nightfalls into daybreak? …We that’s sort of a way to see what the world we live in the daylight surrounded by this endless blue sky. Out onesided thinking are in total awe isn’t? Sunrise to wake up to. The nightlight? Well that’s completely different performance now. Stars everywhere and the moon of course. We think differently at night then we do on day. It’s a bedtime story here. There’s a 2-spirited thinking for us all to ponder. Life is full of questions and we learn from them as we look into the sunset.
I wonder if this person is using English in a parody of how poorly it is suited to what they are saying. Do not try to parse, grok, or systemetize this statement.
4. I think most tribes have their own views of “gay/lesbian” people, but I can only tell you what I know about “our” Winkte. These were men who did women’s work, and dressed and behaved like a woman. I know that a few of them would live together and keep house together, but as is EVERYONE’s right, their sexual life was never NEVER EVER a topic of discussion. That was between them, if they wanted to, just like any heterosexual person. But, since these Winkte were more women than men, I don’t image they would be intimate, like in a Homosexual way, but then again, who cares!!!!????!!! Gah, I can’t believe I’m talking about this…..Got the indian blush going on now…..
I don’t think that the European/Wasicu way of looking at people with different lifestyles can be directly applied to our cultures, regardless of what tribe you are from. Their was is very judgemental and full of fear. In my own tribe, men worry about men things, women worry about women things, and when they had to get together and worry about the tribe, I don’t think that anyone’s sexuality was a factor in who had a voice or rights, and who did not. The Winktes I know are extraordinarily gifted in beadwork, sewing, quillwork, or singing and dancing. They are also good horsemen (people??), and from my own experience, they make the best, the VERY best babysitters…..but oooooweeeee….the winktes I know sure can gossip….even more than ME!!
The person crossed the line into invading publicy and expressed shame for it. Noting fear goes with being judgmental and naming and classifying.
5. So we are talking about “two spirits” on this thread. Not a problem unless you have questions about your own sexuality. If you are comfortable with who and what you are, a two spirited person should not concern you at all. Yes there are two spirits in our native community. Every other community has them too. It’s just part of life. A two spirited person can usually see both sides male and female. That makes them good people to help exchange idea between the sexes. Role reversal was and still is common. Some just keep to themselves because of what the white society has taught them. It’s sad because a two spirit has so much to offer the community. I know this for a fact because I have learned much from a native two spirit who happens to be an employee and a good friend of mine. I didn’t hire her because she was a two spirit. I hired her because she was good at the job she does. She is also dedicated and reliable. Sky is one of my best audio engineers. That’s a fact!
I’m reading a focus on gifts and roles, and no discussion that invades or speculates about the other person’s “orientation”. Instead there is a plea for public role performance, not retreating.
6. When I was young and somewhat dumb…..Our NDN student association was having a powwow, so I attended a powwow meeting. Much to my suprise there were several people (non-Indians) who attended the meeting and offered support…..hey that was fine, no problem….BUT as we went around the room and introduced ourselves. A woman explained how she was a member of a group who encountered similar racist and ignorant “isms” that skins experienced….As she continued I sat there wondering where she was going with this? Eventually she said she was a Lesbian….well I said I was young and somewhat dumb…..I cut her right off and asked; “what does your sexuality have to do with me being Indian?” Mind you my delivery was by far not sugar coated…..Looking back I did not have to be so extreme, but again I was young and naive….
I’m wondering if she feels that being indian is a public matter while being lesbian is a private matter.
7. 500 years ago, two spirits in our culture were no different then they are today except for the influances taught by other invading cultures. Those teachings were stuffed down us by oppression. It caused a lot of us to be just like the cultures that show intollerence to others. Remember they all came here and attemted to distroy our culture. (there still trying) We didn’t invade them. In the old days each member of the community had a place and job. Everyone worked together. It didn’t matter who or what you were, you had a part. Because of invading cultures, the two spirit people have been forced to go underground so to speak. Is that fair to them? Is that fair to us as well? For hundreds of years out two spirited people have been forced to hide because of invading cultures that were out to distroy them. For all these years a part of our people and yes other cultures have been forced to hide. Look at all that a two spirit does for our culture. Look at all that was lost because of other cultures that have damaged ours. Every person has a purpose in this life!
More focus on roles and contributing gifts publicly over exposing the inner life.
8. When you love another person that means you love everything that makes them them. You can’t state that you love one part of a person and despise another part. That makes no sense, and it is not truly love. I have seen first hand what happens when a person is made to feel like they have to pretend they are something they are not, and when they are taught to hate something that is unchangeable about themselves. To do this to another person is a form of murder, it is completely destructive to that persons spirit, and no one who truly cared or loved that person would do that to them.
9. The western mind is taught to think in dichotomies (white/black, master/slave, NDN/non-NDN). And those of us who have experience being in-between in one way or another know the world is a much bigger place than that and we know the diversity of the human family is much wider in scope than most care to imagine. Traditionally, we Native people have always been good at being able to deal with and understand 2 or more seemingly opposing realities being true or not negating each other.
10. What is the purpose of even creating this debate? I have known Mr. Anderson since I was a young child. I have great respect for him. But why is he wasting his time with this issue, when many of our people need so much.
This comment refers to a forum comment made about someone’s sexual orientation. Indian voices on web forums feel remarkably calm to me at all times except when there is a sense of invasion of publicy – a sense of the forum itself being polluted.
11. I’m a woman and I get a lot of disrespect for dancing Men’s traditional. There are those that say it is not traditional for a woman to dance this way. I am saddened at the ignorance when it comes to the tradition of the Two-spirit. The Cherokee word is Ski-Gin (that way) in Lakota we are called the Winkte (two spirits) to be a two spirit is to be a person who bi, les, gay etc. What’s sad is most (not all) native cultures highly respected people like me who were two spirits. I guess I’m just nervous, I’m headed to a inter tribal pow wow tomorrow and its going to be so hard for me, I know that there will be looks and frowns people thinking I am not traditional or that perhaps I’m simply doing it for attention or to disrupt tradition. … Even though I’m Winkte and its tradition for me to dance either womens or men’s traditional I always ask permission before entering the circle. I don’t agree with switch dancing as its a mocking of heritage and culture. I dance men’s traditional because it is what I am supposed to do, it is not a laughing matter.
12. Two spirit is a modern term. You must be whatever your tribe/culture calls you. You cannot be a winkte, that term was used only for men who assumed the gender roles of women. There was no Lakota gender form of a woman who assumed the roles of men. Too many contemporary homosexual pick and choose terminology from tribes they are not a part of to justify a modern lifestyle that has no direct connection to an historic form. I am not trying to be negative, I am trying to be honest with you. If you are cherokee, then be cherokee.
This was a response to the previous excerpt.
13. [M]y understanding of two spitit is one of gender identity, not sexual orientation. two spirit equals transgender in my opinion. i know, im transgender. when i came out as it were, the native side of my family accepted me as is.the white side of my family chose to shun me, they still do. this has a lot to do with why i chose to live on the indian side of the road. i can easliy pass as white, i chose not to. people go where they are accepted. today i no longer have my fathers surname i have my mothers, legally. knowledge of the two spirit tradition helped me accept myself to cease all self harm behaviors, and love myself.