The following piece was originally written for the NEIU Independent.
The film Two Spirits is a sad but empowering film about a hate crime committed against Freddie Martinez, a Two-Spirited transgendered Navajo youth in Colorado. 16-year-old Freddie was brutally killed by being repeatedly hit in the head with a large rock. Unlike the Matthew Shepherd case in Oct. of 1998, the Freddy Martinez case got little media attention. The film, and the visibility, was inspired in part by a renewed awareness of Two-Spirit traditions.
The film, in addition to details about his life and death, also contains interviews of Two-Spirit persons and tells the history of how, prior to colonial times in the land that we now know as the United States of America, LGBT people were respected, and at times even honored or feared, for their powers as Two Spirits.
The Two Spirits were considered the ceremonial leaders, the healers and sacred people of many tribes. They acquired names and clothing that identified accepted, even if liminal, gender identities. They were known as winkte by the Lakota, as lhamana by the Zuni, or as nadleehe of the Navajo nation, and by many others names. In order to coin an English word that approximates to the many terms used in the Native languages, in 1990 at the 3rd Annual First Nations Gay and Lesbian American Conference, which was held in Winnipeg, Canada, LGBT Native Americans decided on using Two-Spirits as the pan-tribal English term for their tradition.
Prior to this, anthropologists had labeled the phenomenon as berdache, but this term was linked to a history of human trafficking and of kept-boys and many considered the term an insult. Two-Spirits, in aboriginal tradition, were weavers, storytellers, caretakers of the orphans, healers, ritual leaders. A male-to-female Two-Spirit known as Wewha, who was beloved by her people, had been an ambassador of her people to the District of Columbia at one point and was quite respected by the politicians of her day (many of whom probably didn’t suspect she was a biological male).
In Mexico, some of the conquistadors hated the Two-Spirits so much that they fed them to wild dogs according to one chronicle, but then in modern-day Oaxaca, Mexico today a similar tradition to Two-Spirits known as muxhes flourishes. Its region of Juchitan, known for its muxhes tradition, happens to be one of the regions with the highest proportions of indigenous in the country. Many nations used to entrust their Two-Spirits with keeping spiritual folklore, which leads one to suspect that the systematic killing of the Two-Spirits (which was documented both in Mexico and the US), like the near-extinction of the buffalo, also had the effect of dismantling the lore, the ritual cycle, and the cosmovision of the aboriginals.
In the documentary, some of the Native leaders mention in passing that Two-Spirits also married people of the same gender. At times, a female chief would live her life as a male warrior, even taking on her own wife. Or a male chief would have multiple wives, and among them count a male-to-female wife.
It’s an irony of history that this had not been woven into our demoralizing and dishonest national narrative about gay marriage: so invisible are Native Americans, and so trivialized their culture, dismissed as if it wasn’t part of our heritage, that the Christian Right’s assertion, almost mantra, that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman” has never been challenged in a significantly public manner by someone with just a basic knowledge of Native American history.
Illinois has finally assumed a place in modernity by becoming one of the states where gay marriage is legal. But one should not forget that we are returning rights that were enjoyed for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Traditions of same-sex marriage had been practiced for centuries and were as American as any other American tradition.
History gets told by the conqueror but let’s get history straight, for once. Marriage was not always between a man and a woman. It was oftentimes between a man and many wives, in parts of Africa between a woman and many men, and in our continent it was often between two people of the same gender. Monogamy (both opposite-sex and same-sex) was a late-comer. But these were all marriage traditions, and they’ve always changed to reflect societal attitudes towards gender.