Two-spirits’ roles in Timucua society

Duties of Timucua two-spirits included performing the heaviest physical labor, such as carrying baskets of crops harvested by the women. One of the engravings by Theodor de Bry.

European accounts depict Timucua two-spirits with typical male anatomy, as strong and muscular as the men. It is possible that some Timucua with female and intersex biology may also have been two-spirits; this is common among other Native American peoples, and Laudonniere describes one of the two-spirits he met as “an Indian woman of tall stature, who was a hermaphrodite.” Two-spirits had their own distinctive clothing, as did men and women. Women wore skirts of hide or Spanish moss and kept their long hair down. Men wore breechcloths and kept their hair in a topknot. Like women, two-spirits kept their hair down and wore skirts. Each gender wore distinctive colors of feathers.

Chief Saturiwa preparing the men for war. One of the de Bry engravings. Timucua women performed certain ceremonial duties, in this case dancing for the reception of a new queen. One of the de Bry engravings.

Many duties were divided by gender. Women’s roles included tending the crops, gathering shellfish and berries, making pottery, and certain religious duties. Men hunted, fished, went to war, and typically oversaw politics, though women often rose to serve as chief or other important positions. Two-spirits also fulfilled political roles. Laudonniere recounted a two-spirit emissary serving as part of a delegation of Chief Utina.

Timucua two-spirits had a number of important duties specific to them. Because of their great physical strength, they handled much of the hardest physical labor. Laudonniere recounted that a two-spirit carried a large vessel of water to his men when they became fatigued from a march in the Florida heat, and one of de Bry’s engravings show two-spirits carrying huge baskets of crops harvested by the women. In times of war, two-spirits carried supplies and weapons for the men, and bore and treated the injured.

Two-spirits carrying the dead on biers, and carrying the wounded on their backs. A colorized version of one of Theodor de Bry’s engravings. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Some of the two-spirits’ roles had a substantial spiritual dimension. In Timucua culture, two-spirits bridged boundaries - between men and women, between this world and the sacred worlds, and between life and death. According to Timucua beliefs about the supernatural origin of disease, only two-spirits, priests, and healers could safely interact with the ill. When someone became sick, two-spirits bore them to a separate space, lit them their own fire, and fed them until they were well. They also performed these duties for women who had just given birth or were menstruating, as the Timucua believed men could not withstand women’s spiritual power in these times.

It also fell to the two-spirits to prepare the dead for burial. According to Jacques le Moyne, when a person died, two-spirits would bind them with ceremonial skins and then place them on a bier to transport them to their final resting place. Like the duties of caring for the sick, injured, and women after childbirth, the task of preparing the dead shows the deep spiritual significance of two-spirits’ role in Timucua society.

Page from Francisco Pareja’s Confessionario discussing same-sex relations.

Two-spirits aren’t the only element of Timucua culture relevant to modern LGBTQ studies. Same-sex relations between both men and women were common and accepted in Timucua society well into the Spanish missionary period. The 1613 Confessionario by the Spanish friar Francisco Pareja makes several references to such activities, which the Spanish considered sins that should be confessed to a priest.

These accounts from the Timucua show that LGBTQ history has always been intrinsic to American history. Hopefully, further study will reveal more about gender and sexuality among the Timucua and other indigenous peoples, and continue to offer insight relevant to the lives of two-spirit and LGBTQ people today.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.