Native American Two Spirit concept explained at Rainbow Center

 In Native American culture, Two-Spirit is an umbrella term for an individual who fulfills expectations of both genders. (Photo by Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus)

In Native American culture, Two-Spirit is an umbrella term for an individual who fulfills expectations of both genders. (Photo by Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus)

Thursday afternoon, as the Rainbow Center’s Out to Lunch Lecture of the week, Sheldon Raymore, an HIV/AIDS awareness advocate and member of the River Cheyenne Sioux Tribe, visited to speak about Two Spirit individuals; Two Spirit is a Native American concept to spiritually describe transgender, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid and genderqueer individuals. The intersectional lecture coincided with Native American Heritage Month and World AIDs Day, which is this Saturday.

Raymore explained how the term Two Spirit originated in 1990 at an Indigenous LGBTQ gathering. A woman attending the conference shared a vision she’d had that introduced the term, which is slowly becoming more widely used. The term highlights the indigenous idea that all bodies have a male and a female spirit which is fluid within the physical body. Two Spirit individuals don’t always identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, but rather which spirit is more dominant within their body.

Two Spirit is exclusively an indigenous identity, according to Raymore.

“When we share our cultures, our history, our tradition, they’re not to be co-opted by others,” Raymore said.

Pre-colonial Native American tribes had a number of different words in different languages to describe these identities. Therefore, in recent years, indigenous LGBTQ community members felt they needed a term under which they could all unify, according to Raymore.

Two Spirit individuals played important roles within traditional indigenous cultures, Raymore said, and today maintain important roles as counselors, story-tellers, medical experts and more. Although during the colonial period, outside influences changed the perception of these community members, traditionally they were not stigmatized within their communities like LGBTQ individauls have faced in American culture.

“I’d never heard of how influential Two Spirit people were in history,” seventh-semester communications and history student Carina Zamudio said as a member of the audience. “It was really interesting to me that they were honored, not looked down upon.”

Raymore also included a lot of specific examples of Two Spirit individuals both from recent and more distant history. He shared a number of pictures, paintings and etchings of Two Spirit individuals, such as Whe’wa, a renowned potter and weaver; Osh-Tisch of the Crow Nation and Fred Martinez, a Navajo Two Spirit victim of a hate crime.

“The big takeaway for me was that hate crimes happen in every minority population,” first-semester biology major Josie Hamilton said from the audience. “As a black person, I always focus on the hate crimes that happen in my population, but that little boy was attacked because of his identity.”

Raymore also spent a significant amount of time talking about his work with HIV/AIDs Awareness. He’s recently been working on a project to raise awareness and reduce stigma of the disease within the Native American community through a record-keeping form of indigenous storytelling called “winter count,” or in his native Lakota language, “Waniyetu wowapi.” This practice chooses events by which to remember different years, pairs them with a symbol and traditionally paints them onto buffalo skins. Winter counts date back all the way to the 700s.

“I’ve found a way to communicate with my ancestors from another time period,” Raymore said of existing winter counts.

Through his work, Raymore has created a winter count that focuses on HIV/AIDS related events, like when the first Native American community member died of the disease, or when certain awareness events were held. The entire winter count can be found on his website.


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent/staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.

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