Sunday, January 11, 2009

On the Co-Opting of the Term 'Two-Spirit'

There's a discussion going on about this topic on a Yahoo! group for trans people of color. And because I'm ridiculously anal about researching things like this before I open my (electronic) mouth, I did some digging around and came up with the below post. If it appears weird, my apologies in advance; Yahoo! formats things in a funny way and I've tried to strip as many of the strange line breaks as possible.

Given that the term originally was coined as an anti-colonialist move to reject the now-pejorative term berdache (from Arabic, which originally referred to an anally receptive male prostitute but was used by European colonialists to refer to Natives who didn't fit the prescribed gender binary), it is extremely ironic that that term would be co-opted by non-Natives/non-Aboriginals the way it has been, an irony that hasn't gone unnoticed:

'There is deep, epistemological irony, for example, in the term, "two-spirit people." The term was originally coined by Native American gay activists in the early 90's who wished to distance themselves from white, gay male culture, but was quickly appropriated by the white gay community as a symbol of freedom from oppression (Jacobs, 1997).Whatever the motives driving the curiosity of non-natives, the romanticization of Native sexualities obscures the harsh realities experienced by contemporary sexual minority American Indians. Gutierrez (1992) asks, for example, "How do we reconcile the ridicule and low status the berdaches had in Zuni society with the high status and praise others [especially non-Indian gay males] lavish on them?" (p. 66). Jacobs (1997) captures this incongruity in the following quote, "The irony is that as the "bedarche" became an honored figure in the reconstructed romantic history of Native American cultures, lesbian, gay, two-spirit, and transgender people of various American Indian heritages were being beaten, disowned, and disavowed on their reservations" (p. 22). '

In a sense, it's a lot like the sexual exotification of black men (i.e., the Mandingo complex that permeates popular culture) and the mammy/whore dichotomy thrust upon black women (i.e., the popular view of black women being primarily restricted to being a mammy or being a single woman with many kids by several men, which violates numerous social mores in Western society). I think that perpetuating the appropriation of this term does a disservice to ourselves as people of color because we've already been victimized by the same thing. Hell, we still are affected by it to this day.

More from the aforementioned article:

'The current fascination with "two-spiritedness" in the dominant gay community may be yet another instance of distortion, exotification, and exploitation of Native traditions by European Americans. European American travelers, missionaries, and anthropologists have long been fascinated with the sexual practices of Native Americans (see Jacobs, 1997 and Wright, Lopez, & Zumwalt, 1997 for more comprehensive discussion of discontinuities between Native and European American constructions of gender and sexualities). Thayer (1980), for example, illuminated the historical overemphasis on the sexual aspects of Native individuals classified as "berdache," "due, no doubt, to an obsession with primitive and sexual `odd customs'" (p. 293). Reductionistic Euro-centric classifications distort the wide diversity in Native American constructions of sexualities, and levels of acceptance of sexual diversity across tribes and over time. Little Crow, Wright, and Brown (1997), for example, contrast the Dakota "winkte" [not­woman] who was relegated to non entity status, forbidden to interact with members of his family or tribe, and considered dead by the community; with the Lakota "wicasa wakan" [healer, performer, wizard] who was revered and considered an essential member of Lakota society.'

Upon digging a little deeper, I found a couple of interesting things, including a journal article about this very topic. I can't access it at the moment, but it's titled "Two-spirited Aboriginal People: Continuing Cultural Appropriation by Non- Aboriginal Society" and it was published in the journal Canadian Women Studies in 2005 if anyone wishes to find it. I don't have access to a college online library at the moment or I'd be all over it.

I also found "We are Part of a Tradition: A Guide on Two-Spirited People for First Nations Communities," from which these two passages are excerpted:

"In 1988, contemporary Natives coined the term Two-Spirit. It refers to "a Native American who is of two spirits, both male and female." The term doesn't necessarily have a sexual meaning; some transgendered heterosexuals identify themselves as Two-Spirit but not as gay. Naming ourselves distanced us from colonial words like berdache. Based on histories from anthropologists and elders, we were able to gather stories of our roles in the indigenous cultures as healers, teachers, and leaders. Many of us embody this history through our work as health educators in Native communities. We still share this knowledge through an annual forum called the International Two-Spirited Gathering, which occurs in various locations throughout the U.S. and Canada. Indigenous Two-Spirit people come from all over the continent to socialize and share histories in a safe, sober, and healing environment. As we learn through these gatherings, our identities are constantly renewed. It is a process that binds us to each other and to our diverse cultures."
'The gathering is not an educational forum for learning about the Two-Spirit concept. It is restricted to Native Americans, due to infiltration by confused non-Natives searching for identities, and New Agers claiming to be Native in their past lives. Due to this sort of cultural theft, Anguksuar, a.k.a. Richard LaFortune (Yupik, Eskimo), and organizer of the first gathering, issues an admonition: "We are taking a risk in letting you know about our many diverse cultures.
While we hope that you can benefit from our knowledge, we are wary of cultural appropriation and we expect you to respect our place, as this continent is our home. This is your responsibility."'

In a sense, when we condone things like this, we're giving our tacit approval to continued cultural colonialism/imperialism and taking from others what is not rightfully ours in the first place. Just as I'd have an issue with a person of European descent calling himself a Zulu warrior (even if it was in a "past life", a term I think reeks of bovine excrement but that's neither here nor there), I feel it is incumbent upon me as a person of color to respect the struggles of other minorities and their right to keep what is rightfully theirs.

Arguably, use of the term by non-Native Americans constitutes a form of genocide in that it usurps a traditional cultural term and replaces it with a whitewashed, Anglicized, New Agey 'Dancing With Wolves'-esque definition.

I'll be posting more original material here in a day or so; I just cross-posted this (for the most part; the parts that only make sense in context have been excised) because I think I made my case pretty well.

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