Taken from from Bidstrup.com by Scott Bidstrup
When English and French-Canadian fur trappers first grew acquainted with the cultures of the Native Americans among whom they found themselves, they were surprised to find that there were significant numbers of men dressed as women among the tribes of the region. What intrigued them the most, however, was the esteem with which these men were held by their fellow tribesmen. These men were considered to be spiritually gifted, a special gift to the tribe by God, men with a particular insight into spiritual matters. As they were encountered in most tribes, the trappers chose a French word to describe them all: "berdache."
Personally, as a person of Native American descent, I thoroughly dislike that term, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is ultimately perjorative in its roots. Native Americans find the term offensive as it comes ultimately from the Arabic where it means roughly, 'male prostitute,' a thoroughly unacceptable term to be used for their highly respected spiritual advisors and elders.
The term "Two-Spirit" has been proposed as a replacement, but I find that it too is lacking, in that there is no universal agreement on its meanings, some of which are also perjorative. Yet what it does convey is a sense that these people have a special gift - being in two worlds at once, the normal material world, but also an sensitivity to a special gift of the spirit that only people like themselves can experience.
Other terms also fail to convey the breadth of the phenomenon and the esteem in which these men were held. While men living as men with other men were a phenomenon that varied widely among tribes, the phenomenon of the man dressed as a woman who engaged in the pursuit of spiritual matters was almost universal among North American tribes. The term, "Two-Spirit" is a term I will use, then, to describe this phenomenon in this section of this essay, in spite of its shortcomings.
There were exceptions, of course, to the celebration of Two-Spirits, such as the Pimas of Arizona, but in most cases, Native American tribes, particularly the tribes of the Great Plains and the Southwest, were greatly admiring of their Two-Spirits. Among the Hopi and the Zuni of Arizona and New Mexico, these Two-Spirits held a special status. They were keepers of the ancient traditional stories of creation, healing and growth. But more than that, they were the keepers of the spiritual traditions, recognized for their special gift of being "between genders."
Indeed, some tribes considered their Two-Spirits as being in the middle of a continuum of gender, not an abberation between two opposite genders as the western European model would have it. In this way, they were prescient of the view of many modern psychologists, who themselves are uncomfortable with the black/white, either/or gender identification of the European model.
By rejecting the dichotomous approach of the Europeans, the Native Americans who celebrated this diversity among themselves largely avoided the stigmatization of the members of their tribes that results when someone does not neatly fit within a dichotomous framework, but becomes seen as a "deviant" instead.
The veneration of the Two-Spirits was in no small part because of the realization that these people not only were different, but both the tribes and the Two-Spirits themselves understood their difference in spiritual terms - they were seen as prophets, men with mystical powers and the gift to see into two realms of the spirit at the same time - the realm of both men and women.
The veneration of the Two-Spirits began its decline with the arrival of the Spanish with their Inquisition. Of course, Native Americans who ran afoul of the Spanish Inquisition often found themselves being tortured or enslaved, and so they had an incentive to hide their Two-Spirit traditions. Matters weren't much better for the Native Americans who found themselves in lands captured by the English or French, either. In both cases, Two-Spirits and the Two-Spirit tradition was actively persecuted and suppressed as being deviant. Under the government of the United States, such activities were profoundly and ruthlessly punished.
The result has been that many Native Americans fail to appreciate that their Two-Spirit tradition is based on homosexuality and that the word "gay" has a meaning that is associated with homosexual acts, rather than the spiritual traditions of the Two-Spirits who themselves were gay. When tribal elders are asked if there were any gays among them in pre-European times, they will inevitably answer with a resounding, "NO!" Yet when asked about the nadle or the winkte or some other native language term, the answer would be a fond, nostalgic "Yes!" even though the terms are really much the same. It is clear that homophobia is a cultural value that has been well absorbed from the white man.