Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tony Enos on Understanding the Two Spirit Community

Above: Tony Enos, pictured earlier this year in front of the Two-Spirit Nation camp at Oceti Sakowin. (Photo: Tony Enos)

The Wild Reed's 2017 Queer Appreciation series continues with words (and music) of insight and hope from Tony Enos (right), a Cherokee and Native Philadelphian singer/songwriter and dancer who identifies as a Two Spirit person.

Enos is dedicated to fostering healing for the Two Spirit community and educating those beyond this community about Two Spirit people and the integral part they have long played in tribal social structures. In 2015, as part of his mission to heal and educate, Enos released the single “Two Spirit,” which he describes as “a song for the movement, welcoming Two Spirits from all Nations back into the sacred hoop.”

In the following excerpt from a recent Indian Country Today article, Enos presents eight misconceptions and/or things that are important to know about Two Spirit people. Such awareness, he says, may help foster a better understanding of the Two Spirit community.


Two Spirit is not a contemporary “new-age” movement

While the term Two Spirit was coined in 1990 in Winnipeg, Canada as a means of unifying various gender identities and expressions of Native American/First Nations/Indigenous individuals, the term is not a specific definition of gender, sexual orientation or other self-determining catch-all phrase, but rather an umbrella term.

Two Spirit people have both a male and female spirit within them and are blessed by their Creator to see life through the eyes of both genders.

The term does not diminish the tribal-specific names, roles and traditions nations have for their own Two Spirit people. Examples of such names are the winkte among the Lakota and the nadleeh among the Navajo people.

These names and roles go back to a time before western religion. Two Spirit is not a “New Age” movement, but rather a reclamation of Two Spirit’s rightful place in Native culture.

We have proof of Two Spirit individuals in historical photos

A quick google search will render black and whites from decades ago with Two Spirit tribal members from various nations, such as We’wha [right], a very well-known and documented Two Spirit of the Zuni people, who crossed over in 1896.

Gay is not an interchangeable term with Two Spirit

Being a gay native is oftentimes confused with being Two Spirit. While the two may have parallels and intersections, they are not the same. Gay specifically is about attraction to a person of the same sex. Two Spirit is more about the embodiment of two genders residing within one person.

A Two Spirit person may be gay, but a gay person is not necessarily Two Spirit. Claiming the role of Two Spirit is to take up the spiritual responsibility that the role traditionally had. Walking the red road, being for the people and our children/youth, and being a guiding force in a good way with a good mind are just some of those responsibilities.

Above: Two Spirit Dancers prepare, from the film Two Spirits.

The Two Spirit Road is a road of long held traditions, prayer and responsibility

Living as a Two Spirit is not all pride parades and hot pants. To be of service to our elders and youth with our very particular medicine is paramount. If we lose our traditions, our songs, our medicines, and our languages, and make no effort to restore what was lost, we doom ourselves.

In 2016 Two Spirit nation at Oceti Sakowin built the Cannonball River prayer pier, to be used for water ceremonies. Knee deep in mud on a cold 2016 November morning, the Two Spirit camp worked till sundown, so that our women and elders could have a place to pray the following morning. Actual events such a this are now part of our modern history as Two Spirit people and should never be minimized. As with all of Native culture, Two Spirit is also a living culture.

Two Spirit people held significant roles and were an integral part of a tribal social structures

Two Spirit people held a meaningful place in the sacred hoop. In many tribes Two Spirits were balance keepers. Thought to be the “dusk” between the male morning, and the female evening. As the role has evolved over time as necessary, the tradition is still alive. At Two Spirit gatherings and communal events, we can be found saying prayers that have needed to be said for decades, and fostering healing to all present. Restoring much needed balance to spirit.

Above: Tony Enos (center), the activist and educator, with other members of the East Coast Two Spirit Society at New York City Pride 2016. (Photo: Cliff Matias)

Two Spirit Does Not Indicate Colonized Boxed Definitions of “L”, “G”, “B”, “T” or “Q”

We can be all of these, or none of these. A western mindset categorizes based on standards of ‘norm’ and ‘other’ in a kyriarchal (to rule or dominate) type structure. This mindset imposes a series of boxes to fit into (you’re either gay, you’re a lesbian, etc.) rather than being comfortable with gender fluidity, Two Spirit acknowledges the continuum of gender identity and expression.

Above: The East Coast Two Spirit Society at New York City Pride 2015.

Two Spirit is a term only appropriate for Native people

Two Spirit is a role that existed in a Native American/First Nations/Indigenous tribe for gender queer, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming tribal members. If you don’t have a tribe, you can’t claim that role.

Two Spirit People face compounded trauma’s on top of inter-generational trauma

Imagine going from your nation where you’re a celebrated Two Spirit individual, to a boarding school where you’re assigned your gender, with any push back about it being beat out of you. For a lot of our boarding school survivors (and those who didn’t survive), this was their reality. As a result, there is still healing from much internalized socio-political stigma, phobia, and lateral oppression to be done in the Two Spirit community.

The resilience, strength, and sheer indomitable will of Two Spirit people is something to be shared with all nations. When you watch the sun rise every day, the sun set every evening, and the moon come out each night, remember the miracle of Two Spirit people. Not unnatural, not evil, or perverse, just all things in balance, and everything in divine order.


Above: Tony Enos – the singer, dancer, and model – in a 2015 promotional photo.

Said Enos in a 2016 interview with Lisa J. Ellwood of Indian Country Today:

[I]t was difficult growing up [and] being “different” from other kids. I was outnumbered by bullies and I got teased a lot for being a native two-spirit with my body type. My father, who is part Cherokee, never wanted to discuss our Native lineage. Whenever I pushed the issue it turned into a huge argument, which is one of the reasons why our relationship is still on the mend today. I felt very isolated and being disconnected from my Native culture was hard, which is why I cherish it so much today.

I always knew I was “different” from other boys as far back as I can remember. I just had an innate awareness of myself and everyone around me pretty much knew I wasn’t your typical kid. At 11-years-old I came out to my family and I can’t say that anyone was shocked (lol!). Although once I confirmed who I was to them, there were some family members who found it more difficult to accept than others.

. . . We're two spirits but one heart;
One love, one voice.
We're all different but the same,
so difference shouldn't stand
in the way of love.
Celebrate me, celebrate you.

Related Off-site Links:
Queer Arts Festival Reflects a Vision of Two Spirits – Holly McKenzie-Sutter (The Georgia Straight, June 14, 2017).
Joining the Annual Gathering of the Two Spirit Society in Montana – Chadwick Moore (Out, November 24, 2016).
Photographic Portraits of Two Spirit Native Americans – Luke Gilford.
Before European Christians Forced Gender Roles, Native Americans Acknowledged 5 GendersNative American Stuff (2017).
Gender Variance Around the World Over Time – Lucy Diavolo (Teen Vogue, June 21, 2017).
Two-Spirit People, Body Sovereignty, and Gender Self-Determination – Alexandria Wilson (Red Rising Magazine, September 21, 2015).
Gender Variation and Same-Sex Relations in Precolonial Times – Neel Burton (Psychology Today, July 12, 2017).

UPDATE: Then and Now: 7 Amazing Two Spirit, LGBTQ Natives You Should Know – D.A. Navoti (Indian Country Today, August 24, 2017).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
Clyde Hall: "All Gay People, in One Form or Another, Have Something to Give to This World, Something Rich and Very Wonderful"
Quote of the Day – November 12, 2011
John Corvino on the "Always and Everywhere" Argument Against Gay Marriage
Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"

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