During the 20th century, extensive data were gathered on traditional practices among many tribes of Native American peoples living in the USA. “In nearly every part of the continent there seem to have been, since ancient times, men dressing themselves in the clothes and performing the functions of women …” These were the Two Spirit people.
These individuals were and are still known by several translations meaning ‘Two Spirit’ by the people themselves. In the past they were called ‘berdache’, an Arabic epithet imported via French, by whites. Not all expressions of this were the same, but seemed most visible where gender roles and appearance between men and women were most marked. This probably is simply because of the lessened gender differences, meaning the Two-Spirit people were still there, they were just less obvious to Western observers. The phenomenon was, however, widely noted.
Two Spirit traditions have been documented (and in some cases, photographed) in nearly 150 indigenous Native American tribes and societies. In roughly half of these, female counterparts were also reported that lived and dressed as men. Included among the tribes were the Seminole, Navajo, Mohave, Crow, Zuni, Pueblo, Hopi, Kutenai, Blackfeet, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, western Algonquian and nearly half of the thirty-five tribes living along the Pacific Northwest. Two-spirit natives comprised a distinct social class within most of these tribal communities; for example, among the Hidatsa of the northern Plains, two-spirits were observed at no less than fifteen to twenty a village and typically pitched their tipis together in a group.
Two Spirit people were fully integrated into the societies and cultures they lived in. It was not until these societies encountered the toxic attitudes of the European invaders that they suffered any harm because of what and who they were. The systematic victimisation of these people remains a stain on the United States today.