top of page

Legends of the Two-Spirit People

Updated: Jun 19

Once upon a time, in cultures around the globe there were some very special people. Although the term “two-spirit” is quite new, the revered existence of these people is as old as humanity. Those of two spirit have long been regarded as special.

Before the Middle Ages gender was not correlated with biological sex. Many cultures accepted that people were not defined by their birth assignment. As a matter of fact, it has been very common for cultures throughout the world to not only recognize, but to also revere and integrate more than two genders.

Congratulations! It’s a Baby!

In our modern Western culture companies make a LOT of money selling items made specifically for boys or girls. Interestingly, once upon a time light blue was a girl color while pink was for boys. Pink was considered a lighter shad of red while blue was often related to a robin’s egg and something delicate. Between the 1500s-1900s boys even wore gowns until the age of two-eight! It was impossible to determine if a child was a boy or a girl! But that is poor marketing and things simply had to change!

Indigenous Tradition

It is from the Indigenous tradition that the term Two Spirit originated. While there are many tribes and traditions, each has their own cultural background regarding two-spirit people. For example, the Diné (Navajo) culture recognizes nádleehí. The nádleehí are often recognized in four distinct areas: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, and masculine man. Even more interesting is that such individuals may represent differently from day to day. Such people may hold sacred positions within the tribe that only they can fulfill.

According to the Indian Health Service, “Native American two-spirit people were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status.”

Hawaiian Culture

Native Hawaiian culture consists of the well-respected māhū. Mahu means in the middle. The māhū embody both the female and male spirit. As such, they perform vital religious and spiritual functions. Before colonialism, they were healers and teachers.

As teachers they taught hula taking on the role of the goddess in temples where women were not allowed. They were the keepers of cultural traditions and parents asked for the māhū to name their child. These individuals are still a respected and vital part of Hawaiian culture.

Hijra of India

Hijras have been documented in Hindu religious texts and have played a prominent role throughout the history of South Asia. They are also referred to as aravani, aruvani, and jogappa. The hijra identity is rooted in a distinct culture, as hijras often depart from their homes in order to join communities that provide guidance to newcomers in matters of spirituality. Within Hindu culture, hijras assume a religious function and are involved in the performance of rituals such as weddings and births. Many believe that hijras possess the ability to bestow blessings or curses upon others.

Impact of Colonialism

Anthropologists have long documented cultures around the world that acknowledge more than one gender. Some of these findifindings as far back as the Copper Age (3500 to 2300 BCE). Gender nonconformity is not new and rather, was quite the norm. That is until Colonialism. Colonialism began right around the same time that gender and biological sex were equated.

The extensive anthropological and archaeological evidence of diverse gender expressions throughout the world since ancient times is frequently disregarded, but the fact remains that non-conformity to gender norms has existed within human society since its inception and shows no signs of disappearing.


References

Schnebly, B. R. A., 2022-06-13, P., Nichols, C., Schnebly, Arizona State University. School of Life Sciences. Center for Biology and Society. Embryo Project Encyclopedia., & Thursday. (n.d.). Biological sex and gender in the United States. Biological Sex and Gender in the United States | Embryo Project Encyclopedia

Public Broadcasting Service. (2024, March 14). Interactive map: Gender-diverse cultures. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/ Estrada, Gabriel (2011). "Two Spirits, Nádleeh, and LGBTQ2 Navajo Gaze" (PDF). American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 35 (4): 167–190.

Kaua'i Iki, quoted by Andrew Matzner in 'Transgender, queens, mahu, whatever': An Oral History from Hawai'i. Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 6, August 2001

"India Recognises Transgender People as Third Gender". The Guardian. 15 April 2014.

Comments


bottom of page