Native American Religion and Spirituality

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The history and role of LGBT peoples within Native American religious and spiritual traditions is not well known. Such information is frequently concealed in the primary historical sources. Often, this knowledge is considered by Native Americans to be secret and powerful, knowledge that is generally kept from outsiders. In other cases, information about Native American religious traditions is rendered unreliable by the nature of the source from which it is derived. Such problematic sources include the records of Spanish conquistadors, Jesuit missionaries, and French traders. These Europeans considered the existence of what would later be termed homosexuality and transgenderism to be proof of the uncivilized nature of the Native Americans. They therefore tended to ignore the actions of LGBT people or to describe their activities as "sinful," emphasizing the "savage" nature of the Native Americans.

The role of LGBT peoples within Native American spiritual traditions varied from group to group. Because each Native culture possesses distinct religious beliefs and traditions and because these beliefs and traditions changed over time, it is impossible to assert that there was one overarching Native American tradition, and what is true for one group or era might not be true for another. However, it is possible to speak of general trends and commonalities between groups. Gays, lesbians, and trans-gender peoples, referred to by many contemporary Native Americans as two-spirit people, played active and important roles in the religion, cosmology, and rituals of many different Native American cultures. Two-spirit people may be biologically male or female. However, little is known about two-spirit females. Often, two-spirit people and other LGBT peoples are viewed as special or set apart by nature, and thus are seen as spiritually powerful. In a majority of Native American cultures, two-spirit people are healers. Some use herbal medicine to cure; others engage in chanting, dance, prayer, or other remedies in order to heal their patients. Two-spirit people also often serve as gravediggers and mourners for the dead of the community.

Often, gays, lesbians, and two-spirit people are called to be shamans, individuals who have greater access to the realm of the spiritual. Some groups, including the Navajo and the Lakota Sioux, consider two-spirit shamans to be more powerful than either male or female shamans, as the two-spirit shaman has elements of both genders. Other groups view two-spirit people as seers or visionaries who may be able to foretell the future. Among many groups, two-spirit people are often seen as the recipients of super-natural gifts of some kind.

Lesbians who serve as shamans are also vested with great power, which derives from both their femininity (a power possessed by all women) and from their personal identification with a divinity or spirit. These women, known among the Lakota as koskalaka, can be endowed with the power to influence both the tangible and intangible worlds.

In several Plains groups, two-spirit people play an active role in the Sun Dance, an important ceremony. Two-spirit people are called on to raise and bless the poles used in the dance. In some groups, two-spirit people may also be expected to cook special ceremonial meals or to bless food. Two-spirit people can also be called on to perform particular tasks for individuals. Among the Cherokee and Navajo, two-spirit people serve as matchmakers for young men and women. Among the Oglala Lakota and the Papago, two-spirit people are called upon to give secret names to men or boys. These names are usually sexual or funny in nature, but are considered to be powerful and to ensure spiritual protection, long life, and health for the individual who receives the name. Sitting Bull, Black Elk, and Crazy Horse all were said to have received secret names from two-spirit people.

Gays, lesbians, and two-spirit people also play a role in the stories that make up the oral traditions of many different cultures. Their presence in these stories shows that they hold an important and valid place in Native American society and cosmology. In many cases, super-natural beings appear in oral tradition as two-spirit people.

The creation story of the Navajo includes a set of two-spirit twins named Turquoise Boy and White Shell Girl, who taught the first man and first woman to farm. The twins also taught the people to make other important items such as pottery, baskets, grinding stones, and hoes. A second part of the story demonstrates the value of the labor of two-spirit people. When the men and women of the group quarrel and separate, the twins go with the men, taking their grinding stones and other tools. With the help of the twins, the men live comfortably, while the women are surrounded by turmoil. Finally, the twins help the first man, the first woman, and their children to escape from a flood that is consuming the world by leading them into the Fourth World.

The sexuality of two-spirit people and themes of same-sex love are also examined in oral tradition. In a story of the Michahai Yokuts, a group of young wives who are actually homosexual desire to run away together. They formulate a plan to escape their married life. The women run to a high cliff, where they make ropes of eagle's down that carry them into the sky. There, they became the constellation Pleiades. The women's husbands try to follow them, but are kept from their wives even in the heavens; they become the constellation Taurus.

Today, many LGBT Native Americans identify themselves as two-spirit and freely participate in the religious and spiritual traditions of their group. Currently, the role of two-spirit people in the religious and spiritual traditions of the Native Americans is the focus of many anthropologists and a few historians, who seek to reconstruct this role more completely.


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Tamara Shircliff Spike

see alsochurches, temples, and religious groups; klah, hastÍÍn; masahai amatkwisai; native americans; native american lgbtq organizations and periodicals; native american studies; oshtisch; pi'tamakan; qÁnqon-kÁmek-klaÚla; two-spirit females; two-spirit males; we'wha; woman chief.

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Native American Religion and Spirituality