Dictionary.com

two-spirit

[ too-spir-it ]
/ ˈtuˌspɪr ɪt /
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noun

(in some American Indian tribes) a person, especially a biological male, who adopts the gender identity, dress, and social roles traditionally assigned to a different sex.
a person who adopts some combination of male and female gender identity, dress, and social roles, or who identifies as gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.
a culturally distinct gender apart from the male and female gender.

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OTHER WORDS FROM two-spirit

two-spirit·ed, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does two-spirit mean?

Two-spirit is a third gender found in some Native American cultures, often involving birth-assigned men or women taking on the identities and roles of the opposite sex. A sacred and historical identity, two-spirit can include but is by no means limited to LGBTQ identities.

Where did the term two-spirit come from?

The term two-spirit is an umbrella term across American Indian and First Nations cultures for a person who embodies both male and female spirits within them, hence two-spirit. It originated at a 1990 conference for gay and lesbian Native people to replace the hurtful, derogatory, colonial term berdache (French for a “young male kept for gay sex”), used for gender-nonconforming individuals.

Two-spirit concept, however, is an ancient and traditional one in Native cultures, and not just a Native equivalent for queer or LGBTQ. It especially referred to birth-assigned men who took social identity and dress of women. It took diverse forms (and terms) within the hundreds of tribes across the Americas. Two-spirit identity frequently involved special work roles in society (e.g., weavers, healers, caretakers), sacred status, roles in ceremonies, same-sex relations, and cross-dressing.

Historically, two-spirited people especially suffered under white colonization and the abusive American Indian boarding schools in the 19th-20th centuries, which made them choose a gender and its roles rather than live as a third gender.

Two-spirit has spread in the 2000s with growing visibility and inclusion of gender diversity in culture. The topic has been featured in several documentaries and films in the 2000–10s, including the 2018 Miseducation of Cameron Post, following a two-spirit person sent to conversion camp.

However, some in mainstream culture have appropriated or misunderstood two-spirit outside of its complex and historic Native American cultural context. It’s important to note that while two-spirit is a term many Native persons use for all LGBTQ Native individuals, it’s not synonymous with LGBTQ.

Pop star Jason Mraz came under fire in July 2018 when he discussed his sexuality in terms of two-spirit, which he says his wife defined in terms of bisexuality. This was seen as a form of cultural appropriation.

How to use the term two-spirit

Two-spirit is used as a gender and social identity in Native American cultures.

While it can overlap with the western LGBTQ community, it takes diverse forms across tribes. As such, it is only properly understood in Indigenous contexts and used by Native persons.

Two-spirit is frequently used in discussions of the rights of Indigenous persons as it overlaps with the rights of gender-diverse people.

More examples of two-spirit:

“Not only did the Native-American population skyrocket in North America, but we’ve gone through a major shift in how Two Spirits are recognized and treated. . Today, dozens of Two Spirit organizations exist across the United States and Canada (North Valley Two Spirits, represent!). We have several of our own powwows, 501c3s and models that help sustain and preserve the Two Spirit way of life.”
—Samuel White Swan-Perkins, KQED, November 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use two-spirit in a sentence

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