Can white people use the term “Two Spirit”?

Q: I’m a white gender non-conforming person and I feel like the term two spirit is the best to describe myself. A friend said that using the term was cultural appropriation but it is the best word to describe my gender and spirituality and I use it with utmost respect for indigenous and first nations people. Is that ok?

A: Thank you for asking. Questioning your use of terms is an important step. The term two spirit is described by Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn on Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society’s website as:

The two-spirited person is a native tradition that researchers have identified in some of the earliest discoveries of Native artifacts. Much evidence indicates that Native people, prior to colonization, believed in the existence of cross-gender roles, the male-female, the female-male, what we now call the two-spirited person.

In Native American culture, before the Europeans came to the America’s, “two-spirit” referred to an ancient teaching. This type of cross-gender identity has been documented in over 155 tribes across Native North America (Roscoe 1988).

Our Elders tell us of people who were gifted among all beings because they carried two spirits, that of male and female. It is told that women engaged in tribal warfare and married other women, as there were men who married other men. These individuals were looked upon as a third and fourth gender in many cases and in almost all cultures they were honoured and revered. Two-spirit people were often the visionaries, the healers, the medicine people, the nannies of orphans, the care givers (Roscoe 1988). They were respected as fundamental components of our ancient culture and societies. This is our guiding force as well as our source of strength. This is the heart of Two-Spirited People of the 1st Nations (2 Spirit Nation of Ontario) This paper explores what we know of the past of two-spirit people, compares that to the present experience and looks forward to the role that two-spirit people could play in the future of First Nation’s people in Canada and across North America.

Samantha Mesa-Miles wrote for Indian Country Today:

Today, views of Two Spirits vary among the more than 800 tribes in the United States and Alaska. Depending on a community’s adherence to religious traditions, Two Spirits may be respected in one tribe but not recognized in another community. To find a sense of belonging, some Native Americans seek support in urban LGBT communities.

As you see from these definitions, Two Spirit is very specific to native and indigenous people. White europeans committed one of the greatest ethnic cleansings in human history when they came to North America and killed as many of the people indigenous to this land as they could. The term Two Spirit cannot be disconnected from tribal life. Additionally, most tribes have their own specific word in their language for two spirit people. First nations people in North America have come together around this term for themselves.

In a recent open letter from the White Noise Collective, they explain (I highly suggest reading this open letter):

If you are not a member of a First Nations tribe, then it is not liberatory to use the term “Two Spirit.” If you did not descend from their ancestors and their struggles, and if you do not understand the history of their tribes or their words, then they are not yours to use and your use of the terms is theft, or what is called cultural appropriation. All too often, we appropriate words, customs and clothes from other cultures without the context to really know their implications.

Our role as white people on this stolen land is to advocate and support the people native to this land (and if you have the power to do so, give them their land back). As the occupying people, taking indigenous traditions and symbols as our own is highly problematic.

There are other options of terms to use that do not appropriate another culture. You can also come up with your own term! That is one of the great things about not conforming to gender norms, you don’t need to conform to language either. Language is changing so fast around gender, the term you come up with might catch on!

There is a pretty good film on PBS called Two Spirits for those who want to find out more.

If you want to support Two Spirit people you can help create welcome and accepting spaces. Part of creating a welcoming space is recognizing the power of colonialism and fighting alongside indigenous communities in your area. You can help make your LGBTQ organization aware of the issues of Two Spirit people, and look at your programing and work to see if your organization is inclusive. You can also connect with Two Spirit run organizations to see how you can work alongside them.

Finally, suicide and murder are huge issues for all gender nonconforming people, and especially GNC people of color. Raise awareness about the these issues.

From Native Out:

Suicide rates among two-spirited, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered First Nations is greater than among heterosexual First Nations.

In 2000, suicide was the leading cause of death among First Nations aged 10 to 44 years, and almost one quarter of all deaths among First Nations youth 10 to 19 years old were due to suicide (Health Canada, 2005). These statistics may underestimate the actual number of suicides because 25 per cent of deaths recorded as being accidental are also thought to be due to suicide (White & Jodoin, 2007).

Read the full report:

There is also a great toolkit produced as a collaboration of the Native American Program of Legal Aid Services of Oregon, the Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program at Lewis&Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, the Western States Center, the Pride Foundation, and Basic Rights Oregon. Click the following for the TRIBAL EQUITY TOOLKIT: Tribal Resolutions and Codes to Support Two Spirit & LGBT Justice in Indian Country

2 thoughts on “Can white people use the term “Two Spirit”?

  1. Wow, this post was spot on…. until the author started making gross generalizations about GNC people.
    Yes, I 100% agree with you that a white person who uses the term “Two-Spirit” is appropriating indigenous tradition and symbols. But by adding in the attached sentences, the author demonstrated a clear insensitivity to the plight of some GNC people who feel a very real pressure to conform to normative language.
    The passage I am referring to is:
    “There are other options of terms to use that do not appropriate another culture. You can also come up with your own term! That is one of the great things about not conforming to gender norms, you don’t need to conform to language either. Language is changing so fast around gender, the term you come up with might catch on!”
    Yes, there are other viable term options for GNC people to use! Yes, GNC people know they can come up with their own term! But many GNC people do not inhabit an environment where that language would either be safe or respected. Many people DO need to conform to language. The quippy line at the end is not charming either. These last three sentences are condescending and pretty surprising given the extreme sensitivity exhibited in the rest of the post.


  2. Miriam: If a very tiny group of people (lgbt Natives) can come up with their own term and make it stick, then surely the much larger and more powerful group of white lgbt members can as well.


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