Queer Indigenous Language and Identity: North America

Osh-Tisch, one of the last Crow bote’. (Author and date unknown. Retrieved from: http://thefemalesoldier.com/blog/osh-tisch). Accessed: December 19th, 2018

As someone born, raised, and living in North America, it is important that I recognize that I live on stolen land and take the time to try to understand the implications of settler colonialism. This led me to look into how the language used to describe queer Native American and First Nations people has changed over time due to cultural belief systems and other systems that impact language use and evolution (Douglas Fir Group, 2016).

In many pre-colonial societies in North America, gender identities and sexual orientations who fell outside of Western concepts of heteronormativity and genderconformity were not only respected, but revered. People from these communities who exhibited both male and female qualities were often healers and warriors. Different Nations used different terminology to describe these identities. Botes, or bades, played a big role in Crow society (Morgensen 2011) and asegi were revered in Cherokee Nation (Driskill, 2011). It was not until much later, in the postcolonial third space that an umbrella term was created to encapsulate non-heterosexual and gender variant identities.

It is important to note how intrinsically linked queer and transphobia is with settler colonialism, When colonizers from Europe came to North America and witnessed gender expression and expressions of sexuality that did not fit into white, Western, Christian, cisgender, heteropatriarchal “norms,” it was used as validation for their conquest (Morgensen, 2011). Colonizers and settlers saw gender variant people and same-gender relations as things that needed to be eradicated in order create a more civilized society (Morgensen, 2011).

One of the many ways that colonizers established dominance over queer Indigenous people was through language. They began to refer to sexual and gender-variant people as berdaches, meaning “kept boys” or “boy slaves” (Morgensen, 2011, p. 36) a French slur that had previously been used as a means to validate violence by Christians against Muslim and Middle Eastern men (Morgensen, 2011, p. 36).  Berdache was a term with great power in that it became the term to refer to all queer Indigenous people in North America well into the twentieth-century.  As non-Native people in North America, such as Christian missionaries, used berdache in written accounts, it was the term that was most accessible to non-Native historians and anthropologists (Morgensen, 2011).   

In the 1970s, the height of the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, white LGBTQ historians and anthropologists were particularly interested in what they continued to refer to as berdache because they saw it as a means to validate the fact that queer people had always existed in North America (Morgensen, 2011).  In addition, the predominately white, gay, male back-to-the land movement used images of berdache and Shamanism as symbols of their movement and validation for both gay liberation and living off the land (Morgensen, 2011).  Appropriation of non-white language, culture, and identity continues to be prevalent among white, cisgender, gay men. 

Whereas settlers from before the 20th century saw gender and sexually variant Indigenous people as validation for colonization, 20th century white LGBTQ activists, historians, and anthropologists saw it as validation for, essentially, themselves.  Once could argue that this approach placed the wants of above the lived realities and needs of queer Indigenous people.

During this time, Indigenous LGBTQ people worked towards their own liberation, acknowledging that their needs were not the same as white LGBTQ people.  Many LGBTQ Indigenous people moved to big cities with the hope of more liberation and acceptance, but still found themselves isolated and discriminated against in many queer spaces.  Indigenous LGBTQ people knew of the impact that race, class, and other impacts of colonialism had on their experiences.  This lead to the formation of activist groups such as the Gay American Indians (GAI) (Gilley, 2006).  Such groups provided services such as creating social spaces and sexual health resources.  They worked to create a sense of solidarity and belonging among LGBTQ Indigenous people. 

One underlying discrepancy, however, was the language that queer Indigenous people had to identify themselves.  Some Nation-specific identities, such as bote, were lost as a result of white, Settler, colonialism (Morgensen, 2011).  This led to the creation of a sort of postcolonial third space (Rutherford, 1990; Bhabha, 1994, Bhabha, 1996, cited in Meredith, 1998) which incorporated elements of pre-colonial terminology and acceptance while acknowledged the impact of colonialism and .  At the 1990 International Gathering of American Indian and First Nations Gays and Lesbians in Winnipeg, the term Two-Spirit was first introduced as an umbrella term for queer Indigenous North American people.  Two-Spirit came from the Northern Algonquin term for people who encapsulated both masculine and feminine qualities, niizh manitoag which translates to “Two-Spirits” (Morgensen, 2011, p. 81).  This term encapsulated an identity in which is as much queer as it is Indigenous.

Many, but not all, queer Native American and First Nations people continue to use the term Two-Spirit to identify themselves.  Some might use the term depending on the people they are with (Driskill, 2011) or use additional terms, such as “gay” or “queer” interchangeably (Davis. 2014).  Others may describe themselves using a “‘both/and’ approach” (Davis, 2014, p. 4), where they identify themselves as Two-Spirit in addition to a sexual and/or gender variant identity that is specific to their nation.  For instance, a Dine queer person may refer to themselves as both nadhle and as Two-Spirit  (Davis, 2011, p. 4).  Still others may avoid the term Two-Spirit all together (Driskill, 2011).  Regardless of the specific terminology LGBTQ Indigenous people use to identify themselves, language remains a tool to self-affirm, to empower, and to connect with others. 


Works Cited

Davis, J. (2014). “More than Just ‘Gay Indians’”: Intersecting Articulations of Two-Spirit Gender, Sexuality, and Indigenousness. In L.Zimman, J.Davis, & J. Raclaw (Eds.) Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford Scholarship Online.  DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199937295.001.0001

Douglas Fir Group. (2016). A transdisciplinary framework for SLA in a multilingual world. Modern Language Journal ,100. (Supplement), 19-47.

Driskill, Q-L. (2011). D4y DBC[1] (Asegi Ayetl): Cherokee Two-Spirit People Reimagining Nation. In Q-L Driskill, C. Finley, B.J. & S.L. Morgensen (Eds.) Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature.  (pp. 97-111). Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

[1] These symbols are the closest on a standard keyboard to the term asegi ayetl as written in the Cherokee alphabet

Gilley, B.J. (2006). From Gay to Indian. Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. (pp. 25-49). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved from: https://muse.jhu.edu/.

Meredith, P. (1998, Jul. 7-9). Hybridity in the Third Space: Rethinking Bi-cultural Politics in Aotearia/New Zealand. Paper presented at: Te Oru Rangahau Maori Research and Development Conference, Massey University. Retrieved from: http://lianz.waikato.ac.nz/PAPERS/paul/hybridity.pdf

Morgensen, S. (2011).  (Ed.), Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. DOI:10.5749/Minnesota/9780816656325.00&1.0001

Neptune, G. [them]. (2018, Dec.11). What Does “Two-Spirit” Mean?|InQueery|them... Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4lBibGzUnE.

Rymes, B. (2014). Communicative repertoire. In C. Leung & B. Street (Eds.), Handbook of English Language Studies. (pp. 287-301). New York, NY: Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s