Native Americans Acknowledged 5 Different Genders Before Europeans Forced Gender Roles

Androgynous people were held in high regard by Native American cultures until Europeans forced gender roles.

Modern culture is generally pretty obsessed with gender roles. You can see these forced distinctions everywhere you go. From the brightly hued pink or blue rows of children's clothing racks to the colors advertisers choose to market to men versus women, we are a culture that values hard distinction in this area. From the moment parents find out the gender of their blossoming baby, they begin to purchase items that solidify those gender roles. Gender-reveal parties have permeated our culture, and many of the reveals feature colors and symbols that are considered to be either masculine or feminine, depending on the sex of the baby.

Photograph by Wikimedia Commons

These truths make the fact that many Native American tribes from the Plains, the Great Lakes, the Southwest and California historically acknowledged five different genders before Europeans stepped in to force gender roles all the more fascinating. These Native Americans held intersex, homosexual and androgynous people in high esteem. Whether it was an especially feminine male or a masculine female, people were often well-regarded, sometimes imbued with the moniker "two-spirit" and respected for their spiritual gifts.

As described on Wikipedia: "Two-spirit (also 'two spirit' or, occasionally, 'twospirited') is a modern, pan-Indian, umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe certain people in their communities who fulfill a traditional third-gender (or other gender-variant) ceremonial role in their cultures."

Something important to note is that "LGBTQ" and "two-spirit" are not interchangeable terms, as the former is in reference to mainstream western definitions of sexuality and gender identity, and the latter only makes sense when contextualized within the framework of specific Native American or First Nations tribes.

The following were all considered to be genders by many Indigenous American tribes: male, female, two-spirit female, two-spirit male and transgender.

Photograph by Wikimedia Commons
Quinn Dombrowski

In many Native American cultures, everything that exists is thought to have come from a spirit world, and because of this, homosexual, transgender or androgynous people are thought to have been blessed two times because they possess the spirit of the male and female. Because of this, they were often given roles as teachers and religious leaders. Basically, many of the people misunderstood or shunned in today's strictly gendered society would likely have been revered in indigenous culture. That was before Europeans stepped in to force their strict gender codes upon the native people.

When the Jesuits, and French and British explorers and traders came to the New World, they came back with stories of men who dressed as women and women who had wives. Because of their religious beliefs, Europeans looked upon these native people as sinners. Their prejudice even led Catholic monks to destroy the majority of the Aztec codices as a means to get rid of the history and beliefs of the natives. This includes the two-spirit tradition.

Unfortunately, the two-spirit culture had to be hidden away for fear of being threatened and endangered by bigoted Europeans who could not wrap their minds around this way of living. Many two-spirited people were given a choice to either live in hiding or end their lives. Many marriages were also considered null due to strict laws surrounding same-sex marriages in Euro-American culture.

Photograph by Wikimedia Commons

Due to the Red Power Movement in the 1960s, the two-spirit tradition did have a resurgence and has been even more accepted by tribal communities today. Western culture is also working on its own ability to understand different gender identities and sexualities but the strict adherence to seemingly outdated gender roles still plagues us.

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