Native American two-spirits were male, female, and sometimes inter-sexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two spirits. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status. In tribes where male and female two spirits were referred to with the same term, this status amounted to a third gender. In other cases, female two spirits were referred to with a distinct term and, therefore, constituted a fourth gender.
Although there were important variations in two-spirit roles across North America, they share a some common traits:
Specialized work roles - Male and female two spirits were typically described in terms of their preference for and achievements in the work of the “opposite” sex or in activities specific to their role. Two spirits were experts in traditional arts—such as pottery making, basket weaving, and the manufacture and decoration of items made from leather. Among the Navajo, male two-spirits often became weavers, usually womens’ work, as well as healers, which was a male role. By combining these activities, they were often among the wealthier members of the tribe. Female two spirits engaged in activities such as hunting and warfare, and became leaders in war and even chiefs.
Gender variation- A variety of other traits distinquished two spirits from men and women, including temperament, dress, lifestyle, and social roles.
Spiritual sanction- Two-spirit identity was widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams and sanctioned by tribal mythology. In many tribes, two-spirit people filled special religious roles as healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders.
Same-sex relations- Two spirits typically formed sexual and emotional relationships with non-two-spirit members of their own sex. Male and female two spirits were often sexually active, forming both short- and long-term relationships. Among the Lakota, Mohave, Crow, Cheyenne, and others, two spirits were believed to be lucky in love, and able to bestow this luck on others.
Every tribe had its own terms for two-spirit individuals. In Crow they were called boté (bō-TAY); in Lakota, winkte (wing-TAY); in Zuni, lhamana (LHA-mana); in Navajo, nádleehí (NAHD-lay). Some of these literally mean as “man-woman,” but many cannot be easily translated. The Navajo term, nádleehí, for example, literally means, “the one is changing,” in the sense of undergoing constant transformation.
The term “two-spirit” was adopted by native people in the early 1990s as an alternative to Western labels, such as “homosexual,” “gay,” and “transsexual.”