Gender and Sexuality in the Indigenous Americas Before and After Colonization

Before the arrival of white people on what Indigenous people call Turtle Island, Indigenous nations had their own rich understandings of gender and sexuality. In many Indigenous societies the people whose gender and sexuality seemed the strangest to white European settlers were at all “non-conforming” within their own cultures. They were accepted and respected in their own societies. In some nations, those people were understood as sacred and given specific cultural and spiritual responsibilities.

For example, in Lakota, winkte means “to be as a woman” and refers to people born with penises who live feminine lives

Nadleehi, in contrast, is a Dine (Navajo) word that means “those who transform” and refers two four different genders across a spectrum of gender.

These two different examples show us that while there are Lakota and Dine understandings of gender and sexuality have elements in common, they’re also specific and unique. Indigenous genders and sexualities can’t be readily summarized nor put into the terms that non-Native people use. Each nation’s culture deserves to be understood and respected on its own terms.

Today, the term Two-Spirit is often used to describe these members of Indigenous communities. Two-Spirit is an umbrella term – it refers to a wide-range of culturally-specific genders/sexualities from different nations. It’s also a bridge – it is a term that Indigenous people selected to communicate across nations, creating a Pan-Native understanding, and with non-Indigenous people as well. Two-Spirit refers to another accepted gender role, different than men and women, common in many Indigenous nations on Turtle Island. To learn more about Two-Spirit people, I strongly recommend this incredible video.

Are Two-Spirit people transgender? Not necessarily. The concept of transgender comes laden with white European culture assumptions and is defined, in part, as an expression of non-normativity (being outside the norms of a society). Two-Spirit, in contrast, is characterized by acceptance. Cherokee scholar and poet Qwo-Li Driskill explains it this way: “I’m not necessarily ‘Queer’ in Cherokee contexts, because differences are not seen in the same light as they are in Euroamerican contexts. I’m not necessarily ‘Transgender’ in Cherokee contexts, because I’m simply the gender I am.… It is only within the rigid gender regimes of white America that I become Trans or Queer.”

Some Native people identify as trans (like this doctor), some as Two-Spirit (like elder Ma-Nee Chacaby), and some as both. Two-Spirit, however, is broader and more complicated than transgender and highly specific. Significantly, it includes concepts to sexuality as well a gender, often linking the two together (to understand that idea better, I recommend this video).

So why talk about Indigenous gender and sexuality in the context of transgender history? First, Indigenous traditions deserve understanding and respect from all of the people living on Indigenous land. Second, the violent repression of Indigenous gender and sexuality set the stage for the way that genders understood by white people as aberrant became understood as perverted and lesser. Settler colonization creates the gender binary as white America knows it today.

Native scholar Deborah Miranda argues that we should understand settler colonialism as involving “gendercide,” the deliberate targeting of gender for punishment and death.

For example, in 1513, Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa encountered about forty indigenous people he saw as men wearing women’s clothing and enjoying romantic relationships with each other. He then commanded that his soldiers throw them to his giant mastiffs. The Spanish often used dogs as weapons against Native people, especially those they saw as gender non-conforming.

The impact of this “gendercide” was two-fold. First, it destroyed Native communities, causing a loss of cultural traditions. To save themselves, some Native communities distanced themselves from their community members that most inspired Spanish anger and disgust; eventually, over time, some Native individuals became homophobic and/or transphobic as a result of this cultural loss and division.

Second, the violent imposition of the gender boundary influenced the way that Europeans understood themselves. They saw masculinity as righteous and as inherently linked to colonization and whiteness. Thus, gender became linked to race, in complicated ways that we will keep exploring.

What can we learn from this history? Here’s what I’m taking away. First, there is nothing natural or inevitable about transphobia. It has everything to do with history and with settler colonialism. Second, settler colonialism impacts everyone here on Turtle Island.

There is so much more to learn about this topic. Let’s all, especially us settlers, make a commitment to listening deeply to Two-Spirit people.