LGBTQ Agenda: Historian looks at queer Native history in Two-Spirit book

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday May 10, 2022
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Historian and author Gregory Smithers. Photo: Courtesy
Historian and author Gregory Smithers. Photo: Courtesy

If anything describes what the discerning historian encounters on a day-to-day basis, it might be this quote from Gregory Smithers'

' target="_blank">new book, "Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America."

"History is not a listing of facts," Smithers writes, quoting Catawba Nation queer artist and researcher DeLesslin George-Warren. "It's a mythology with citations."

Smithers' book, published in April by Beacon Press, contains a great many citations and tackles that mythology head-on, as it relates to the roles of Two-Spirit persons in the histories of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. But Smithers, originally from a small coastal community in Australia's New South Wales but now an American citizen and history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, goes much further, elaborating on the term "Two-Spirit" itself. It is, as many non-Native readers might be surprised to learn, a modern term. However, it's a modern term with very deep roots.

As a historian Smithers, who is straight, is "attracted to topics most other historians have historically not touched, or handled pretty shabbily," he told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview. "I view the type of history I do as contributing to the indigenization of the American landscape ... helping people reconnect with history and cultures, giving them the narrative to become part of larger conversations about Native culture."

Smithers, 47, has authored numerous titles, chronicling not only Indigenous American cultures (including "Indigenous Histories of the American South during the Long Nineteenth Century" and "The Cherokee Diaspora") but Black and Indigenous Australian cultures, as well ("Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America" and "Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780—1940").

Language, particularly Indigenous languages, gives depth to people's understandings and perceptions of locales, he said. Normalizing the sight and sound of Indigenous languages — Smithers himself speaks Cherokee — and hearing them spoken contributes to "indigenizing Native landscapes" thereby helping us to understand those landscapes, as well as the people who inhabit, or did inhabit, them.

A common theme running through "Reclaiming Two-Spirits" is fluidity. Early in the book, Smithers, who has a doctorate in history, describes the fluidity of, not only gender roles among Native Americans, but in their understanding and interpretations of sex, as well. It was a difficult concept for European interlopers to grasp and one to which they frequently responded with violence.

"For colonizers, these initial encounters with Indigenous communities and people whose gendered roles and sexual practices seemed at odds with their own norms ignited feelings of anxiety, contempt and superiority," Smithers writes at the end of the first chapter. "Who were these people, and why did many of them appear to move effortlessly between male and female identities? Were they trying to deceive the colonizers? Why didn't Native people conform to the male-female binary that Europeans increasingly saw as a natural part of life? Perhaps answers to these questions lie in closer examinations of Indigenous bodies."

That fluidity would come to color much of Native Americans' lives, not only the areas where it had already comfortably been part of their cultures before European contact, but in how they were eventually forced to readapt their lives to their changed circumstances. Many Natives, cut off from their own language, either by time or by force, adopted the languages of their conquerors, losing in the process, the very words they had used to describe themselves, their landscapes, and the details that made their cultures unique. The very words that made those details make sense.

Raven E. Heavy Runner, MSW, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet, Montana Two-Spirit Society and co-chair of the Northwest Two-Spirit Society, wrote the foreword for the book. In it, he notes that he wondered what Smithers could add to the history. "Although I've been suspicious of non-Native people doing this work, I realized that a lot of this information would have been lost had it not been for the non-Native people who recorded their journeys through Turtle Island, as Indigenous people call North America," he writes.

"Like those of us who have turned the hurtful words of 'queer' into words of power, we have looked past their ignoble intent to glean the chaff and make for ourselves sustenance to carry on the work intended by our people and our Creator," adds Heavy Runner, who is also a leadership circle member for the International Council of Two-Spirit Societies.

Traditions of sexual fluidity

Native anthropologists have written that there are traditions of gender and sexual fluidity, Smithers told the B.A.R., but the most important aspect is less the sexualized behavior and politics present in the 19th century, and more the roles people played.

It was from this, and other influences to be sure, that Indigenous Americans who might have once identified with the roles that so confounded and infuriated European colonizers, found themselves at a loss.

"In the pages that follow, the term 'Two-Spirit' does, at face value, the work of an English-language noun: it divides people into groups or arbitrary categories," Smithers writes in the book's "A Note about Language." "The goal of this work is explicitly decolonial: to reveal how Indigenous people associate dynamic sets of meaning to words that allow them to actively build on the traditions of their ancestors and create new knowledge for the future."

It was in 1990 that a group of LGBTQ-identified Natives met in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to discuss how they might find within their own histories and cultures, language that transcended "the labels imposed on them by colonial cultures," writes Smithers. They wanted to finally dispense with terms such as "sodomites" or "berdache," a word with Arabic roots that had come to mean "prostitute" or "kept boy" in the vocabularies of the European invaders. They were looking, said Smithers, for a "collective, Pan-Indian identity that was more affirming than labels such as 'gay,' 'lesbian,' or 'transgender.'"

What they agreed on was the term Two-Spirit, derived from the Northern Algonquin word niizh manitoag, "which denotes the existence of feminine and masculine qualities in a single person," wrote Smithers. The term could encompass a far wider range of identities, the group believed. Including those of people who identified as LGBTQ.

The term was not immediately widely accepted but over the past 30 years it has come into its own. Many Natives have adopted the word but often on their own terms, writes Smithers, and others rarely use it, feeling more comfortable with designations like gay, lesbian, trans, or queer.

Even now it illustrates the fluidity with which Natives have characterized their roles and their identities.

"Euphemism runs through the colonial archives when we talk about terms applied to Two-Spirits," Smithers told the B.A.R. "Two-Spirits is trying to undermine that offensiveness and deviance that were associated with terms like sodomites and bedrache."

While already at work on his next book, "Reclaiming Two-Spirits" gave Smithers insight into Native resilience, he said.

"In some Native communities, people have questioned whether 'Two-Spirit' is a Native term or a colonial term imposed on Indigenous people," he told the B.A.R. "It is, as we discussed, an English translation of a Native term. What's important, and what I hope the book conveys, is that in communities with histories of fluid gender and sexual traditions, elders tried to hold on to knowledge of these roles, the people who held them, and how those roles and identities have changed. Sometimes these elders were Two-Spirit, sometimes they weren't. Critically, Native people found ways to keep knowledge of Two-Spirit traditions away from the prying and judgmental eyes of Euroamericans in a bid to keep them alive."

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact Eric Burkett at [email protected]

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