Monday, February 20, 2012

Two Spirit

My final quarter at college, I was required to write a dossier for my class on Native American playwrights.  We were allowed to pick any topic and write about it.  I remembered vaguely the character from Little Big Man who was, I thought at the time (though now I know better) trans, and was curious.  My professor also mentioned some Native American tribes that had five, six, even nine genders and so the matter was settled for me.  I did my paper on Native American non-binary genders.  I did months worth of research and literally read thousands of pages in books.  I went far beyond the scope of the original paper, but I checked with my professor and she didn't actually mind.

Below the break is the paper.  It's extremely long (9 pages when single spaced), but it's that length because I had so much information to write about, not because I was bullshitting in order to hit the page requirement.  I think at the end it gets a little bit...over-reachy in it's conclusion about plays about non-binary genders, because in truth, there wasn't a ton of material out there about it.

Why am I posting this?  Because I learned an incredible amount and this isn't information they just teach you in schools, but it's so interesting and important.  Hopefully this doesn't read like this:

Reclaiming Native Sexuality from Western Culture

Sex, gender, and sexual orientation: what are they and how are they expressed through artistic expression?  In recent years, gender studies has been popularized as a field of study, yet the fact remains, that many people do not know the difference between the three categories above.  Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are often related, but by no means are they the same.  Sex refers to a person’s biological features: man, woman, intersex –what previously was referred to, incorrectly, as hermaphroditism (Case 2-3). Gender, despite the common western perception, is not inherently tied to a person’s sex.  The commonly known Western genders are male and female, but as this paper will explore, many other societies, numerous Native American tribes among them, are not bound to simply two genders.  The final category of sexual orientation is not as fixed as people would believe and pairings of same sex, opposite sex, same gender, and opposite gender are only some of the options.  Western culture is bound by an idea called the gender binary, which is the strict binding of biological man to a male gender and biological woman to a female gender (Erickson 2010).  This paper seeks to differentiate the Western belief system from the more fluid Native system.

Historically, the majority of Native American tribes had institutionalized third and fourth (or more) genders.  The people who identified as these genders were frequently revered by their individual societies (Lang 1998).  Unfortunately, as the indigenous people of North America were “Westernized” by incoming settlers, this gender tradition became abhorred and little used (Williams 1986).  Recently, American Indian peoples have reawakened to this tradition and sought to reclaim it through many means, theatre and performance art included among them (Gilley 2005).  Ultimately, despite people of nontraditional genders historically holding a place of influence and respect in Native American cultures, Western culture has focused, both consciously and unconsciously, on eradicating this way of life; however, recently Native American theatre has worked to restore prestige to those that do not conform to the gender binary.

While gender is by no means as rigid as Western culture makes it out to be, it does have many components.  As Sabine Lang says in regard to gender,
[Gender] has three basic components.  Gender identity reflects a person’s subjectively felt experience of being masculine, feminine, or ambivalent.  Gender role is the observable expression of gender identity in the social context. And gender status is the social position of an individual with reference to the other members of his culture as a woman, man, or someone belonging to additional gender status separate from both.  (Lang 1998:47)
These categories are important because they help establish a vocabulary for gender change.  Gender identity is the hardest to identify from the outside, because it is internally decided, but gender roles and gender status are both observable, and thus useful when determining an individual’s gender, in this case, an individual in Native American societies.  Many Native American societies allowed for both permanent and temporary changes of gender roles and also allowed a full institutionalized change of gender status.

In historical Native American society, the male gender role typically included hunting, warfare, shamanism, and medicine.  The female gender role included craftwork, farming, cooking, child care, and, frequently, property ownership.  Like Western culture, each gender did have different spheres of domain, but in American Indian society the roles were rather more flexible.  Even Inuit tribes, who did not have institutionalized gender role changes in any form, traditionally allowed women to change genders when men were scarce and their tribes needed hunters (1998:280-282).

There has been much debate over what to call Native American people that are not of the feminine or masculine genders.  Recently, it has been decided they will be called two-spirit, but this term applies more to present day peoples, and thus I will call historical two-spirit people by Sabine Lang’s terms woman-man and man-woman.  A woman-man is a person who was born biologically a man but identifies as female and a man-woman is a person who is biologically woman but identifies as male.

Women-men are much more heavily documented than men-women, and thus there is inherently more information available about them.  Women-men typically performed everyday tasks that were traditionally in the women’s sphere of domain and generally were renowned for performing the tasks well, frequently even better than the female women of the tribe.  It was through these means that women-men accumulated great wealth.  The Navajo women-men or nadleeh, were among the most profitable in their tribes because of their skills in the female domain, such as rug weaving (1998:68-72). 

In addition to every day female tasks, women-men almost always had a spiritual component associated with them.  Since the women-men did not have children of their own, they were expected to serve the community, specifically children.  They did this frequently by becoming medicine men or shamans (Williams 1986).  Among the Araucanians and Mapuche of central Chile all shamans were women-men, but when Spanish colonials started to destroy that tradition instead of making men shamans, women took over the job of shamanism.  Williams states, “So strong was the association of femininity with spiritual power that if androgynous males could not fulfill the role, then the Indians would use the next most powerful persons” (1986:41).

As well as cross-acting in the form of women’s activities and shamanism, women-men also frequently cross-dressed.  Cross-dressing was actually one of the components that fluctuated most between tribe to tribe.  Much of the data indicates that most women-men from most tribes did cross-dress.  Yet, among the Nevada Shoshoni an institutionalized woman-man tradition did exist, however their women-men did not cross-dress (Lang 1998:61).  In addition to the Nevada Shoshoni, there were several other tribes that had no instances of women-cross dressing, thus showing that for a person to be a women-man, cross-dressing was not essential.  At other times, cross-dressing was the only aspect of being a woman-man taken up by a person.  For instance there was a Peigan medicine man name Four Bears who received a vision that told him he must dress as a woman, or else his power would be taken from him (1998:64-65).  There was also a renowned warrior who received a vision saying he must become a women-man, but the man could not bear to give up fighting, so he wore women’s clothes while within is tribe but doffed them when the time for fighting came (1998:62-63).   These examples show that while cross-dressing could be a part of being a woman-man, the institution of the women-men was not strictly defined by cross-dressing, and was not considered an integral part to the practice, unlike the Western term transgender, which general carries with it the association of cross-dressing.

As I have mentioned previously, most Native American tribes had an institutionalized status of women-men, and that institutionalization came about through many different ways.  At times, children and, less frequently, adults had visions that spoke to them telling them that they were a woman-man.  From the time of that vision onward, the person then took on the characteristics of a woman, acting like one and frequently dressing in women’s clothes.  At other times, the community took notice of a child that was different and gently guided them toward the path of being a man-woman.  The Yuma peoples had a tradition of offering their children a choice of toys.  If a boy child chose the feminine toy, then they were guided toward the path of a woman-man (Beauchemin, Levy, Vogel 1991).  Sometimes adult men would receive visions telling them to change gender, though this was rarer.  Nevertheless, regardless of when a person became a woman-man the position was generally respected.

In contrast to the impressive amount of documentation on women-men, the documentation on men-women is significantly less.  Part of the reason for this is that men-women were not as institutionalized as the status of women-men.  There are many accounts of women hunting or participating in warfare, but less on how those people participated in day-to-day society.  Sabine Lang calls these women who hunted and went to war: independent women; meaning, that although they participated in some manly pursuits, they did not necessarily fit into the gender status of man-woman.  A man-woman was very similar to woman-man because they performed male tasks such as hunting, warfare, shamanism, and marrying women.  Like women-men, men-women also frequently cross-dressed and chose from the time of childhood to follow the path of the woman-man.

While both women-men and men-women are often considered homosexual or transsexuals by Western standards, these standards are falsely applied.  For instance, a Lakota winkte said of the matter, “A winkte has two spirits…As a winkte I accept my feminine nature as part of my being.  I dress as a man, but I feel feminine and enjoy doing women’s things.  I would be terribly scared to be considered a man” (Williams 1986:196).  A historical woman-man or man-woman would consider it offensive to be called gay because their partners were of a different gender than themselves (Lang 1998:208).  As stated previously, gender and sexual orientation are not the same.  The Western concept of homosexuality simply does not apply to women-men and men-women because homosexuality implies the couple are of the same gender.  Native American cultures did not generally permit same gender pairings.  However, as long as the genders were opposing, Native Americans allowed men-women and women-men to marry their partners.

Another important factor in particularly a woman-man’s relationships, were that they were always expected to take the passive role in sex.  Though they did not take the active role, women-men were believed to possess sexual power, which was transferred to their partners during sex (Lang 1998:209).  Less is known about men-women’s sexuality, but accounts do exist in regard to both gender categories stating that their relationships and sexual orientations were of a more transient nature.  Women-men and men-women were of a more ambivalent gender status and while it is true that women-men more frequently paired with men and men-women more frequently paired with women, this was not always the case.  The biggest constant is that there are no documented instances of a man-woman pairing with a man-woman or with a woman-man pairing with a woman-man (1998:211). 

In more recent times, Native peoples sometimes identify as both two-spirit and gay.  One modern Lakota man proclaimed that the historical term of winkte no longer applied to him and instead identified as gay.  He said,
As I learned more about winkte and their historical role, I learned that the description did not fit me.  According to the information to which I had access, if I was winkte I was submissive in sex, cross-dressing, and responsibilities defined by female gender roles…What I did find that matched me was the expectation that I would be ‘in service’ to my community. (Red Earth 1997)
In contrast, Doyle Robertson did identify as winkte, but also identified as gay: “I am proud to be a first-generation, off-the-reservation, mixed-blood winkte…[but] I am not, nor do I want to be, the stereotype of a cross-dressing, man/woman, sexually anal-passive individual best suited to sewing, beading, and carrying wood in for the fire on which to cook supper” (Robertson 1997).  In truth, the issue has become much more complicated in modern times, but even American Indians who identify as gay, as opposed to two-spirit, hold the historical institution in respect.  And, despite that Westerners gave men-women and women-men the title of homosexual, and some modern two-spirit people also identify as gay or lesbian, using the term homosexuality to describe men-women and women-men is incorrect.

Though the tradition of men-women and women-men persisted throughout the years, Western societies did their absolute best to eliminate the practice.  This systematic eradication of beliefs began with the Spanish settlers in Central and South America.  Like many North American native peoples, the natives of Central and South America believed in more than two genders, and the Spanish were one of the worst civilizations that could have dealt with more than two genders.  Spain was staunchly Catholic and had some of the harshest laws against sodomy of the 1500s.  “Sodomy was a serious crime in Spain, being considered second only to crimes against the person of the king and heresy.  It was treated as a much more serious offense than murder” (Williams 1986:132).  It was with this frame of mind that the Spanish people dealt with the natives of Central and South America.  If they caught two people of the same biological sex engaging in sexual activities then the people were killed, frequently by being fed to savage dogs.  Spain’s offense at the crime of sodomy was so great that they used this reason as part of their excuse to invade Central and South America.

As the Spanish, and later other countries, began to colonize North, Central, and South America the men-women and women-men went into hiding.  Though, despite the pressure, men-women and women-men did not completely lose their acceptance.  Today in some regions of Central and South America, such as Yucatan, there exists a high degree of acceptance for same-sex relationships (1986:142-151).  The pressure to assimilate to white culture was nearly overwhelming for indigenous people however. 

Once colonization was well under way, missions began to be established, which served as the first attempt by the white man to assimilate indigenous people, as opposed to kill them outright.  Though the missions did not kill American Indians outright, they were also not adverse to them dying.  For instance, at Acoma pueblo the missionaries made the Native Americans carry fifty foot trees from the forest far away to Sky City, on top of a tall cliff in order to build a church.  If the logs ever touched the ground than the log was decreed no good, and the Native Americans were forced to start over.  Many native peoples died during the process of erecting this church (Chapman 2011).  In addition, like all European people, the missionaries despised sodomy and anything they viewed as homosexual relations, so they did their best to stamp out women-men and men-women.  One commissioner of Indian affair for the Hopi Indians stopped a Hopi ceremonial dance when a Hopi clown displayed a huge artificial penis.  The commissioner said, “I went up to him and stopped the performance…and told him that if he ever did a thing like that again, I would put him in jail.  He told me that he did not know it was wrong, that it was a Hopi custom” (Williams 1986:178).  The Western suppression of sexuality confounded most Native Americans, who simply did not realize that most expressions of sexuality were considered sinful in Christian, Western cultures.

Once Christianity had firmly taken root, Indian Bureaus were established, which, on face value, were supposed to help relations between the white man and Native Americans.  These Bureaus were generally filled with corrupt officials, who made it no secret that they hated the people they were meant to help. (Lang 1998, Williams 1986).  One Crow bade (woman-man), Osh-Tisch, was arrested by an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs named Briskow in the late 1890s.  Briskow cut Osh-Tisch’s hair and forced manual labor of the bade.  It was not until the Crow’s chief intervened that Osh-Tisch was released.  It was shortly after this that the bade tradition died out entirely (1986:179).  This incident was by no means uncommon, but it is the most documented.  One pioneer ethnographer commented on the situation, “An Indian agent has absolute control of affairs on his reservation…more nearly absolute than anything else that we in the country know of…the Courts protect citizens; but the Indian is not a citizen and nothing protects him.  Congress has the sole power to order how he shall live and where” (1986:177).

After the Bureaus were established, the use of boarding schools for Native Americans became common practice.  These boarding schools were intended to take American Indian children and “civilize” them.  They took the children from their families at a young age and shoved them together, divided by gender, into dormitories.  Walter Williams recounted a tale of a Native American woman-man in a boarding school,
What happened…is indicated by a Navajo woman who remembered being taken to Carlisle Indian School, in Pennsylvania.  Her cousin, a nadle, was also taken there.  Since he was dressed as a girl, school officials assumed he was female and placed him in the girl’s dormitory.  The Navajo students protected him, and he went undiscovered.  Later, however, there was a lice infestation.  The white teachers personally scrubbed all the girls, and were shocked when they found out that the nadle was male…He was taken from the school, and he never returned again…The family still does not know if the boy was sent to another school, or prison, or was killed. (1986:180)
Boarding schools were completely devoted to assimilating and acculturating young Native Americans into Western society.  This acculturation led to the younger generations having no knowledge of women-men and men-women.

The missions, Bureaus, and boarding schools all preached Christianity and actually had a fair amount of success by the late 1800s with converting many Native Americans.  This conversion of Native Americans created a divide between traditionalists and assimilationists, which was the single biggest contributing factor for the near extinction of the institution of men-women and women-men.  When missionaries converted Native Americans, those Native Americans no long spoke of the man-woman and woman-man traditions.  One Hopi convert, Talasnimtiwa, said this to a bureau official of his tribe’s sexual practices, “I am telling these awful things about Hopi Indians only because I have become Christian and I want these evil things known to the Government, so they might be stopped among my peoples” (1986:188).  Another Christian man, from the same Hopi tribe said: “There is nothing good in the Hopi religion.  It is all full of adultery and immorality.  I cannot tell all the dirt and the filth that is in these ceremonies” (1986:188).  So thoroughly did many converts repudiate the practices of their people that many moved off the reservations or no longer associated with those who kept the traditional ways on the reservation. 

This created the initial divide between the new assimilationists and traditionalists, but the split was accentuated when children were taken to boarding schools.  Growing up in boarding schools, young Native American children were never, or only briefly, exposed to the traditions of their native backgrounds.  This meant that they never learned about the tradition of men-women and women-men and the knowledge began to fall by the wayside.  It was only later, when some of the children of this generation grew up and found themselves struggling with their sexual identities that the older generations explained about men-women and women-men.  One Lakota winkte said, “…His grandmother wanted to accept him but felt that her Christian beliefs told her he should be heterosexual.  His grandfather (who was not Christian) was accepting” (1986:190).  The stories of grandparents being more accepting than parents are extremely common.  What is often the case is the parents grew up in boarding houses, while the grandparents were raised in the traditional way on the reservation.  This dichotomy often cause the most recent generations to go running to the oldest generations for support, rather than their own parents. 

Frequently having no place to turn to and having no knowledge of the traditions their heritage held, young Native Americans sought acceptance in gay right groups.  However, the vast majority of the people in these groups were Caucasian, and native peoples felt out of place. It was for this reason that Randy Burns and Barbra Cameron founded Gay American Indians in San Francisco in 1975 (1986:210).  Gay American Indians (GAI) was the first group of its kind and countless other groups sprung up, following GAI’s lead.  Barbra Cameron said of GAI, “We were the first and foremost group for each other…bringing gay Indians together is our most important task” (1986:210).  GAI and the creation of other groups like it was really the first step that younger generations of American Indians took to take back their sexual heritage.

This increasing awareness of the man-woman and man-woman led to a conference being held in 1992 called The Wenner-Gren Revisiting: Berdache North America Empirically and Theoretically.  Throughout white America’s history, the white man had called women-men and men-women the disgusting term: berdache.  The term berdache comes from Persia and originally meant a young, male prostitute.  It was later applied the Native American men-women and women-men.  A large part of the reason the conference was called was to discuss the use of the word (Beauchemin, Levy, Vogel 1991).  Out of this conference, the term two-spirit was adopted in place of berdache.  It was taken from the Ojibwe term from women-men and men-women Niizh manidoowag, which translates directly as two-spirit (Jacobs, Thomas, Lang 1997).  The term two-spirit does differ from the historical man-woman and woman-man.  Historically, men-women and women-men were in an institutionalized position, meaning that that they had to fulfill certain roles in society in order to be considered a man-woman or woman-man.  Two-spirit, in contrast is mostly self-proclaimed and does not require the fulfillment of certain roles within society.  Doyle Robertson, a modern two-spirit man had this to say of the matter, “I find it a bit problematic that there seems to be an insistence in defining two-spirit people in terms of the past.  Two-spirit is a term contemporary Natives, myself included, have chosen for ourselves as identifiers” (Robertson 1997:223).  The idea of two-spirit gives Native peoples a concept with heritage and most Native people find it preferable to using the Western term, homosexual.  There are, however, many people who choose to call themselves both gay and two-spirit.  People often feel that homosexual describes their sexual orientation, but two-spirit describes their gender and their spiritual connection to their people.  Though the adoption of the term two-spirit was certainly a step in the correct direction, I do believe that it does imply homogeny of peoples from all tribes.  Two-spirit traditions are different within each tribe, so the term two-spirit does fail to take into account this fact.  Nevertheless, the adoption and creation of the term two-spirit was the second step in native peoples taking back the tradition of breaking the gender binary.

The final, and currently ongoing, step to native peoples reclaiming and respecting their two-spirit heritage is reclaiming it through artistic expression, particularly theatre.  After the conference in 1992, many artists, including playwright Muriel Miguel, began to call themselves two-spirit (Tousey, Eustis 2008).  The first gay Natice American playwright actually began writing long before the Native American theatre movement began.  Lynn Riggs was a closeted gay man, as evidenced in his plays: The Cream in the Well and The Year of the Pilar.  In The Cream in the Well a major in the Navy receives a dishonorable discharge for prostituting himself to men and in The Year of the Pilar a man from a Spanish family is supsected of having same sex relations with a Mayan farmer.  The fact that Lynn Riggs was gay is not well known, but in July 2004, The Oklahoma Press attempted to create an anthology of Lynn Rigg's plays. Leo Cundiff, Lynn Rigg's grandson, who holds the rights to many of his plays, threatened to withold these rights should the Oklahoma Press divluge the fact that Riggs was gay.  If a person reads the plays mentioned above, it is fairly evident that Lynn Riggs used gay themes in his works, so it is not a huge leap to assume that Riggs was also gay.  (Womack 2005:113).  Despite this however, Rigg’s grandson still felt so ashamed, even seventy years after the plays were written, that he refused to admit his grandfather was gay.  Had Lynn Riggs been writing today, it is liking he proudly would have declared himself two-spirited.

Lynn Riggs was by no means the only playwright to address sexuality and gender in his plays.  Beginning in the seventies, Muriel Miguel and her sisters, Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo, created the Spiderwoman Theater Company, which began putting out progressive pieces of Native theatre.  Muriel Miguel is an openly gay woman and this was apparent even in her early work.  In Sun, Moon, and Feathers it is talked about how Muriel brought home women as opposed to men, which initially shamed her sisters.  From that point, Muriel’s acceptance of her sexuality only progressed because she created two shows: Hot n’ Soft and Hot n’ Soft II which purely addressed her life as a gay woman.  Neither play pulled any punches and bordered on the edge of erotic (Miguel 1992a, 1992b, 1993).  Muriel Miguel had this to say of her work, “I’m a two spirit woman. And in Spiderwoman, it’s very important to somehow, in all of our pieces, to talk about that and address that” (Tousey and Eustis 2008).

Spiderwoman Theatre Company was not the only one working during that time to create pieces of theatre that showed alternative sexualities, not commonly seen.  Tomson Highway, though he has never adopted the term two-spirit, is a gay man who has written several plays both indirectly and directly addressing homosexuality in Native American societies.  Both Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kaupksing follow families in which one of the members is discretely gay.  For example, in Rez Sisters one of the sisters, Emily Dictionary, joined a motorbike, but when her female lover killed herself, she returned to the reservation.  Many of Highway’s plays and works address homosexuality, but it is almost uniformly portrayed as something that will get a person killed.  In Highway’s semi-autobiographical Kiss of the Fur Queen two boys, Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, are taken to a boarding school where they are raped by the local priest.  This causes both boys to question their sexuality and, in the end, Gabriel falls into habits of extreme promiscuity and ends up dying of AIDS.  This death parallels the real life death of Gabriel, Highway’s brother, who died under very similar circumstances.  Though Highway does not address homosexuality in a positive fashion, he does address it, and in that was much more progressive than other playwrights of the seventies and eighties.

One interesting thing to note is that it is only homosexuality that Highway tends to treat harshly.  In all three of the above mentioned works, there is a dual gendered trickster character that watched over the characters of the works.  Nanabush, a character in both Rez Sisters and Dry Lips... was male in Rez Sisters but female in Dry Lips…Traditionally, in Cree mythology, Nanabush can be either gender and historically was frequently referred to as two-spirited.  Tomson Highway said he struggled putting this concept into English terms, because the English language is so limiting. 
I'm very angry at the English language. I wrote the book [The Kiss of the Fur Queen] in Cree, really, and translated it as I went along. A character would speak to me in Cree, and I would translate it into English to put it on the page. …Cree has no gender, the concept of god as two-spirited - everything is so difficult to explain in English. And the business of [circular] time doesn't translate. It was such a struggle, every step of the way. (Methot 2010)
Many playwrights struggle with this problem.  The English language is very limited when it comes to expressing gender.  In many Native American languages, Sioux and Navajo in particular, there are no gender specific pronouns.  This means that when writing in their own language, playwrights and authors do not have to deal with the clumsy, gender-narrow pronouns like in English (Epple 1998).

Despite struggles with the English language, an abundance of artists, not just theatre practitioners, have sprung up in the last fifteen to twenty years that deal with the new idea of two-spirit.  Many documentaries have been made about two-spirit peoples, the most famous of them being Two SpiritsTwo Spirits is a movie that addresses the murder of a two-spirit man named Fred.  It seeks to education the general populace about what being two-spirit means (Nibley 2009).  Many powwows historically celebrated men-women and women-men and gave them places of honor in the dances, but this tradition had long died out.  More recently, people have begun to revive the tradition and two-spirit powwows are now frequently held by various two-spirit societies (Gilley 2005).  A final example of the influx of non-theatre artistic expression is various drag shows that have been put on to help celebrate and raise money for two-spirit societies.  The Brush Arbor Gurlz are the most famous of these drag groups and people praise their creativity and the work they do for their society.

Like non-theatre artistic expression, theatre has recently exploded with activity involving two-spirit people.  Hokti, written in 1997 by Annette Arkeketa, does not strictly address being two-spirit, but it does talk about young men and boys being forced to cut their hair in schools.
HOKTI: Are they going to have to cut their hair so they can go to school?
WALTER: Oh, shot down by the school board as usual…, we are going to have to go to federal court.  Oral arguments are February 18, in New Orleans.  We got an injunction so the boys could continue to go to school with braids intact.  When they returned to class the teachers set up partitions to segregate them from the other students.  They couldn’t even see the teacher!  We had to get another injunction from the courts to get the partition removed!
HOKTI: Same battle…second song. (Arkeketa 1997)
Though the play was not directly about issues of gender and sexual expression, the themes were present nonetheless.  The fact that in modern times people were so ignorant that they would not let boys with long hair go to school is appalling.

The most notable new play about two-spirit people I found is called Agokwe.  It is a one man play written by Waawaate Fobister, a twenty-six year old Grassy Narrows First Nations playwright.  It has been applauded critically and toured around both Canada and the United States since it first premiered in 2008.  It addresses what it means to be Agokwe, the Anishnabe term for two-spirited, in today’s Canadian society.  The play has been successful in both native and white crowds, and has finally pushed information about two-spirits to a general white audience.

This push of new theatre about two-spirit people has led to Caucasian people beginning to also write plays about two-spirit people.  Julie Jensen, a native of Utah, recently wrote a play called She was my Brother.  The play is set in the 1800’s and about a real Zuni woman-man named We’Wha (Lamana in the play) and the male, Wilson, and female, Tullis, anthropologists who ultimately fell in love with We’Wha.  The two anthropologists studied We’Wha, and ultimately brought her to Washington DC as an ambassador.  So successfully did We’Wha pass as a woman while in the city, that no one ever knew We’Wha was biologically a man (Hansen 2010).  This play has been the subject of much acclaim and much controversy.  It addresses an issue that has rarely been addressed by white society, but many Native peoples have wondered if it is white society’s place to touch on an issue that is so personal for them.  Regardless of the controversy however, She was my Brother has been extremely successful in educating white society about two-spirit people.

In truth, white society has made huge steps towards education about two-spirit people.  Much of the awful destruction and acculturation that occurred when white people arrived in North, Central, and South America occurred because of the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the Western world.  Native theatre is doing much to try to educate the general public about the two-spirit tradition, both historically and in modern day.  Perhaps, if Native theatre had been around and accessible from an earlier time, then the Western world would not have destroyed so much of Native people’s cultures for simply having a different idea of sexuality.

Traditional Native American cultures, compared to Western culture, have a much more fluid idea of sexuality.  It does not possess a damning gender binary, and thus naturally has less bias and prejudice.  Most Native American societies believe that gender, if not sexual orientation, exists along a continuum.  They admit genders are multi-faceted and can change any time throughout a person’s life.  Native people had given up for a long time trying to teach Western society this, but now, theatre, more than any other art form, is seeking to show Western society these beliefs and perhaps help break its staunch, static beliefs about gender and sexuality and to help Native peoples remember their proud heritage.

Works Cited:

Agokwe. 2011. 11 April 2011 <>.
Anguksuar. "A Postcolonial Perspective on Western [Mis]Conceptions of the Cosmos and the Restoration of Indigenous Yaxonomies." Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, Sabine Lang. Two-Spirit People. Two-Spirit People, 1997. 217-222.
Atkeketa, Annette. "Hokti." Geiogamah, Hanay and Jaye T Darby. Stories of OUr Way: An ANthology of American Indian Plays. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1999. 442-495.
Blackwood, Evelyn. "Native American Gender and Sexualities." Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, Sabine Lang. Two-Spirit People. The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1997. 284-294.
Case, Mary Anne C. "Disaggregating Gender from Sex and Sexual Orientation: The Effeminate Man in the Law and Feminist Jurisprudence." The Yale Law Journal (1995): 1-105.
Chapman, Kamarie. Theatre 428: American Indian Dramatists Spring 2011.
Dredeyn, Stuart. "Lack of 'two-spirited' roles led to playwright penning Agokwe." The Province (2011).
Elm, Steve. They were there, They are still here. 2000. 10 April 2011 <>.
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If you bothered reading it, I hope it was at least semi-helpful and informative.  It was probably one of the most enjoyable papers I have ever written.  The one thing I didn't mention, which I originally intended to mention was the fluidity of gender.  While yes, both women-men and men-women were frequently institutionalized, both of those genders were a good deal more fluid than male and female.  If a women-man woke up one morning and decided for a week that they wanted to be considered male, that would have generally been accepted.  Women-men and men-women were not expected to be in a completely static gender, which is another concept that Western culture does not really have.

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