Native American Viewpoint
This is a post by Angela Brightfeather reprinted here with permission from the Durham Gender Alliance Yahoo Group clarifying another member’s understanding of the Native American concept of people known as “Two Spirits.” This is not presented as LDS doctrine but to show LDS members how other societies have reacted to the presence of the transgendered in their midst. The main point to highlight here is that each person in these Native American tribes was respectfully allowed to state which gender they identified as. It also clarifies that issues of gender identity are separate from sexual orientation, and also that transgenders/transsexuals are not the same as cross dressers or transvestites or female impersonators or drag queens. If these Native American tribespeople are descended from Book of Mormon peoples then it can’t hurt to be informed of their viewpoints on this important issue.
In an early effort to legitimize being GLB, a number of progressive gay people and sources who are Native American (NA), back in the 70’s decided to call themselves Two Spirits, noting that it was their right to be gay because gay people had always been known of in NA tribal life that way. This was of course a falsehood and what it actually referred to was the gender diverse people in the nations that we now refer to as Transgender, who also may have happened to be gay as a sexual afterthought. In other words, they were born as one gender, but lived as another gender.
This came directly from different tribes and in different ways; i.e., the Navajo practice that before a child has declared who they want to be, they must go through a ceremony, usually around puberty. Up to that time they are never referred to as “he” or “she.” They are called the first or third child or the youngest or oldest member of a family, on a day-to-day basis. However, any male-or female-born person who gives any indication as being the gender opposite their birth sex, is noted by the family and given a chance to choose how they wish to live their life. At the right time, the family invites the entire family and tribe to what we might call a naming ceremony or rite of passage ceremony. They have a big party and feast and gather sagebrush into a large circle, in the middle of which is a bow and arrow or a club and a wicker basket or a clay bowl. The child is put inside the circle and the circle is set on fire. Before the entire circle goes into a blaze, the child picks the object that defines how he or she wants to live for the rest of their life. If it is a male and he picks the clay bowl or basket, which are female items, then he becomes a she from that moment on and is taken to a hogan and dressed as a woman and named by one of the family, usually a grandmother. The opposite is true for a girl. After that time they are known by their official tribal name and work with either the women or the men. They are known within the tribes as a “Nadle” (Nad-lee).
In the Lakota Sioux tradition, there are similar ceremonies.
In the Zuni and Hopi traditions there are more complicated ceremonies that revolve around the same outcome.
Lakota Trans people are known as Winkte. Their job, among other things, is to name the children when they become old enough to understand Lakota “Ways” which are sacred to the Lakota and not spoken of to outsiders. They are given a child at four or five years old and live with the child for a period of time to get to know each other. After being known, the Winkte gives that child their sacred name, which is never to be told to or known to anyone but three people: the child, the Winkte and Their God, Wakantanka. It is a prayer name and can only be said when offering sacrifices and prayers up to Wakantanka. Like the buffalo, Winktes are known by the Lakota to be Wakan, or holy. They are very special and protected people.
In the Zuni tradition, Trans people are known as Fllammanha. They are taught to remember and teach all the tribal customs and symbols dating back to the very beginning, thousands of years ago. They are passed from mother to daughter in the Zuni tradition, but the Flammanhas of the Zuni are known for their weaving and skills with clay. Two years ago I visited the Smithsonian in DC and their special NA archives section where I arranged a special meeting for myself, Yvonne Cook Riley, and Jane Fee so we could examine and offer sacrifices to the sculpture work of We-Wah, a noted Trans Fllammanha who lived in and around 1830 on the Zuni reservation. Yvonne and I both practice Celtic and NA Shamanism and we were very moved by We-Wah’s story and work. You can read about her life in a book written by Will Roscoe called We-Wah The Zuni Princess, available at Amazon Books. I highly recommend it, but Roscoe was a gay man from LA, who I have met and talked to and he is a bit transphobic. I have accused him in the past of kidnapping a Transgender story and trying to make it into a gay story, even though it was never, ever proven that We-Wah was gay in any way. His book started a lot of the conscription of the Two Spirit tradition by the gay community.
Many of the Pueblo tribes also had Trans people in them. In the Smithsonian, I personally reviewed many pictures in the archives of Trans people in many of the tribes taken by Smithsonian anthropologists dating back to 1825. They had some of the first cameras that were ever invented to document other cultures back then. Not everyone can see Trans people in these pictures. You have to be able to know the difference in each tribe about what men and women wear. Sometimes it might be the way they do their hair or the beadwork they are wearing or symbols that they have on their clothes to know who they are. But there are lots of them.
When at the Smithsonian, we wanted to meet with the head curator to discuss the labeling of the pictures they have on display and in the records. I objected to people like We-Wah being labeled as “Transvestites,” a word invented by Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany back in the late 1890’s. We asked him to change all of the records to read “Transgender”, which he has done and promised he will continue to do. It was a great visit and we all left feeling that we had really changed history and the way people will look at us in the future.
The biggest thing that I have noticed about all of the tribes is that for the most part they valued Trans people to the point that they would not kill or capture them in battle; they raised them to a very high place among them and respected and valued them above almost anyone else except the chiefs. Even the chiefs relegated special powers to them. They were directly in touch with many of their Gods, because they were the archival history of every tribe and knew all the “ways” and how to conduct yearly ceremonies for the change of seasons, when to plant, when to harvest, etc. They usually orchestrated the tribal ceremonies. They were the only people in the tribes who could run and keep up with the warriors on a raiding party before there were horses in American (brought by the Spaniards in the 1400’s), but also knew the womens’ ways and how to use healing plants and poultices to mend the wounded. They were invaluable members of every tribe, often settling
differences between married couples because they had their feet in both male and female ways. So they ended up being the very first family therapists. Kind of ironic I think, because now the therapists think we have a mental disorder.
The common factor was that they had jobs to do that meant they were very important to their people. They were the foundation of Shamanism and even in lands like Africa or China it is not unusual to find Trans people who performed as witch doctors and healers or Shamans. They had WORTH.
Today, it is Judeo/Christian theology and values that make us have no worth in our society. We are labeled as mentally ill and told that we are not doing what God wants us to do and because of what is between our legs we MUST determine how we live based on only that and we have no choice in the matter, even though they insist that we have “free choice” and control of our lives. They lie, and they cheat us of our humanity as Trans people and revel in our being killed and hounded like “it’s,” while claiming that our rights are “special rights.”
Then we have the GLB’s who claim they are Two Spirited, based upon tribal history. I have to laugh sometimes at the ignorance out there and the gall of those who conscript our lives and our worth by bending and warping history and then denigrate us and list us at the end of their little line of who needs human rights the most.
And to all on this list, I say: be proud to be Transgender. Transgender people were among the most valuable of all people who lived before and still are today if we are willing to claim our rights as human beings. Transgender people lived before any surgeon touched a blade to any of us and they lived with pride and purpose.
Thank you to Angela Brightfeather for allowing us to post this here. It has been edited slightly for spelling and punctuation and whittled down somewhat for length and presentation on this website while maintaining the integrity of Angela’s personal post.