For centuries, Two-Spirit people had to carry out Native traditions in secret. Now, they’re ‘making their own history.’

History professor Gregory Smithers’ new book, “Reclaiming Two-Spirits,” centers the narrative of Two-Spirits in their role as keepers of knowledge.

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The Two-Spirit community in Native culture has a centuries-long history. “Two-Spirit” is a modern umbrella term, an English translation of the Ojibwe “niizh manidoowag,” which refers to a person who embodies both masculine and feminine spirits. Although Two-Spirit is a modern term, the knowledge and roles associated with it go back centuries. Today, Two-Spirit people use the term to describe fluid gender identities and sexual orientation, but their ancestors also took on important social and spiritual roles in their respective Indigenous communities prior to European colonization of North America in 1492.

For historian Gregory Smithers, Ph.D., who first learned about Two-Spirits in Native nations as an undergraduate in the 1990s, it is a history that has not been told with a great deal of respect.

“When I got to graduate school in the early 2000s, historians had made very little effort to take the term, ‘Two-Spirit,’ seriously or integrate it into their narratives,” said Smithers, a professor in the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences. “What really troubled me — and continued to upset me as I started my career — was that the one or two historical books on this topic tended to rehash stereotypes and offensive terms.”

As Smithers began studying the written stories, art and storytelling of Two-Spirit people, who carried on centuries-old traditions in secret despite oppression and threats of violence from European colonizers, he recognized what had been lost in the historical research that had come before.

Cover of the book \"Reclaiming Two-Spirits\"
(Courtesy Gregory Smithers)

“Historians often write dynamic, interdisciplinary books, but on Two-Spirit history, the cautious, sometimes stodgy, nature of the profession tended to hold sway,” Smithers said. “I found that frustrating because anthropologists, literary scholars and people working in health care have produced impressive works that continue to deepen our knowledge of Two-Spirit people and culture. I thought it was time for historians to contribute to these important conversations.”

Smithers explores the history and modern perspectives in his new book, “Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal and Sovereignty in Native America,” (Beacon Press) being released this week.

VCU News spoke with Smithers about the book, how Two-Spirits see themselves within the LGBTQIA+ community and how Two-Spirits have persevered despite colonization to reclaim their history.

What challenges did Two-Spirit people face as colonizers came to the U.S.? What was their role in Indigenous resistance to colonization? 

Europeans targeted Two-Spirit people almost immediately. Starting with the Spanish in the early 16th century, Two-Spirit people were targeted with labels like “sodomite,” “hermaphrodite,” “berdache” — a term with Arabic roots that described a “slave” or a boy kept for pederastic purposes — and more. That language was itself a form of violence because it shaped the written archival records that scholars use to write their histories, and it distorted how non-Native people interpreted Indigenous sexual expression and gender fluidity.

Physical violence was also a feature of European encounters with Two-Spirit people. That violence often rose to the level of genocide. In fact, I point out in the book that the genocidal violence that targeted Two-Spirit people from the early 1500s was no accident. Europeans recognized that Two-Spirit people played important roles as trusted elders in their respective communities, served as medicine people, educators and storytellers, and took on myriad other roles. In other words, Two-Spirit people were, and are today, knowledge keepers.

So, when Europeans targeted Two-Spirit people with violence, they were actively working to destroy a vital link in the cultural, social and linguistic knowledge of nearly 200 Native American communities. 

Tell us about how Two-Spirits are reclaiming their history and culture in the 21st century. How have they persevered, keeping the history and traditions alive in the face of denigration and erasure?

It hasn’t been easy, and substantial amounts of knowledge have been lost. Sometimes my students think I’m exaggerating when I talk about the enormous human and environmental toll that colonialism – particularly settler colonialism – continues to have. In North America, Native communities have lost knowledge millennia in the making, their sacred sites have been destroyed or desecrated, and their knowledge systems and languages attacked. In other parts of the world, a similar story continues playing out. Take, for example, Australia. Since 1788, when the British began colonizing Australia, Indigenous communities have suffered through searing levels of physical violence and cultural loss, government officials stole children from their families, and Aboriginal communities watched as fragile ecosystems became sick – a fact evidenced by Australia having the worst species extinction rate in the world.

Gregory Smithers sitting on steps in front of a wooden door
Gregory Smithers, Ph.D. (Courtesy Gregory Smithers)

But whether we’re talking about North America or Oceania, Indigenous people have remained resilient, creative and committed to remaking their communities. In what’s today the United States, elders in Native American communities have helped keep Two-Spirit traditions alive. Sometimes this has meant keeping knowledge systems private and away from the prying eyes of colonizers. At other times, it has meant being creative and articulating new traditions, knowledge and cultural expressions. Through their own writings, songs, stories, art and ceremony, Two-Spirit people continue to reclaim and renew their place in Native communities.

How do Two-Spirits view themselves in terms of gender identity, and how do they view their connection to the LGBTQIA+ community?

There’s no single answer to this question. As I detail in the book, Two-Spirit people have endured racism and bigotry within the LGBTQIA+ community as well as in the broader culture. And as some Two-Spirit people confided in me, those issues persist.

That said, there is a desire among a number of Two-Spirit people to educate and form alliances with non-Native people. I met some incredibly smart and dedicated Two-Spirit people when I was researching the book who left me in awe of their energy and in admiration for how skillfully they’re able to bring people from all walks of life together. In fact, that’s one of the many roles that Two-Spirit people have long played in Native communities. But it’s hard work. As one elder recently told me, “It’s exhausting having to constantly educate white people.”

As you delved into this topic, what did you learn? Was there anything you learned that surprised you?

Two-Spirit people are both reclaiming and making their own history. I don’t mean for this to sound romantic; they are under no illusions about the challenges they and their communities face. But what they taught me is that, to write meaningful history, we can’t simply rely on the dusty, imperfect written documents that historians draw on to write books and articles. History’s written in dance, art, oral storytelling and community. It’s written in the regalia Two-Spirit people wear to powwows, in their relationships with community and in fighting for a better future for the Two-Spirit youth of today. Increasingly, Two-Spirit histories are written in the poetry, novels, films and digital spaces that they use as their canvas to reflect on their personal identity and their relationship to America’s colonial past and present.

Are there any other messages you hope readers will take away from your book or from your experience studying the history and narratives of Native cultures?

I’d say be open, allow yourself to be vulnerable and listen to Native people. I think there’s still a tendency in academia and popular culture to prescribe boundaries on, and make assumptions about, Native America. Personally, I’d like to see a shift in which we listen more actively to Indigenous perspectives and are led by Native ingenuity. That means respecting the sovereignty of Native nations, trusting Native stewardship of national parks and local ecosystems, and recognizing that the male-female gender binary is not a natural but a historical invention – something that Two-Spirit people remind us of.