What is a two-spirit?

Among the Zuni of New Mexico, the Lhamana are a traditional gender role combining male and female aspects. They are one of the third gender or mixed gender roles now called by the blanket term two-spirit. Pictured here is the most famous Zuni Lhamana, We’wha, a weaver and cultural ambassador of the 19th century. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

“Two-spirit” is a modern English blanket term for Native American people who belong to a third gender, or non-binary gender, other than male and female. In the past, two-spirits were also known by the European term “berdache”, but this has fallen out of favor due to its negative connotations. The term two-spirit does not refer to a person’s biological sex (their physical anatomy), but to their gender, which is characterized by social roles and varies from culture to culture and person to person. Most Native American cultures have or once had a third gender, or more, with their own gender roles and functions within the society in question.

The term “two-spirit” suggests the person embodies a combination of male and female aspects, but this is an oversimplification. Among the Timucua and other peoples, two-spirits had social roles and a manner of dress all their own, distinct from those of either men or women. The term “two-spirit” is simply a modern convention for a diversity of gender identities across many different cultures, each with their own names and particular attributes. It is useful in the case of the Timucua, as the native name is lost.

Two-spirits among the Timucua

Athore, son of the Timucua chief Saturiwa, shows Fort Caroline founder Laudonniere the column the French had left two years before. One of the engravings by Theodor de Bry, supposedly based on a painting by Jacques le Moyne des Morgues.

The Timucua, the indigenous inhabitants of North Florida and southern Georgia, were not a single tribe, but rather a group of chiefdoms who shared a language. Starting with the founding of the French colony of Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville in 1564, the Timucua became the first people in continental North America north of Mexico to experience continuous contact with Europeans. In 1565, the Spanish founded St. Augustine and ousted the French, and gradually most Timucua groups were incorporated into the Spanish mission system. By the mid-18th century, their population had been reduced from about 200,000 to a few dozen due to centuries of European disease, warfare, and the Indian slave trade. The last known Timucua left Florida for Cuba when Spain withdrew in 1763.

French and Spanish sources from the 16th and 17th century offer a fragmentary look at Timucua life in the early days of European colonialism. Some of these make reference to two-spirits and their role in Timucua society. Among the early Europeans to discuss Timucua two-spirits were Fort Caroline’s founder Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere and the fort’s artist Jacques le Moyne des Morgues. After Le Moyne’s death, Flemish publisher Theodor de Bry illustrated Le Moyne’s account with a series of engravings he claimed to have based on lost paintings by Le Moyne. Two of these images depict two-spirits.

Europeans had no concept of a third gender, so their accounts are full of misunderstandings and misrepresentations. European accounts refer to Florida’s two-spirits as “hermaphrodites” or by phrases such as “feminine boys,” reflecting their lack of frame of reference. They also stated that two-spirits were looked down upon by other Timucua, but considering the important duties entrusted to them, this more likely reflects European sensibilities than the true feelings of the Timucua. Despite the inaccuracies, these accounts offer a glimpse of this aspect of Timucua culture.

Next page: Two-spirits’ role in Timucua society