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Cherokee Two-Spirits Rebalancing the World

Qwo-Li Driskill

By Qwo-Li Driskill
Qwo-Li Driskill is a writer, teacher, activist, performer and the author of Walking with Ghosts: Poems (Salt Publishing). Hir work appears in numerous publications and s/he performs and facilitates Theatre of the Oppressed workshops throughout Turtle Island. S/he is currently a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric & Writing: Cultural Rhetorics at Michigan State University and writing a dissertation on Cherokee performance rhetorics, and in August 2008 will begin an assistant professorship in the Department of English at Texas A&M University. In hir spare time Qwo-Li weaves baskets, wampum, and fingerwoven sashes. You can find hir website here.
This text will be replaced by the flash music player.


On the White Path home
dark soil gifts our dances back.
Songs rise up like corn,
turtle shell shackles shake history.

White and purple beads weave us to remember
strength that gifts our dances back.
From our ancestors' bodies
we rise up like corn.

The White Path home
gifts back our dances.
Hope, rise up
like corn. 

Come on all you Two-Spirit people.  Hurry!

n Oklahoma, Stomp Dance is a central ceremonial practice for Cherokees and other Native people from the Southeastern "United States." The Stomp Dance is performed to maintain duyuktv—balance, truth, justice—a central idea to traditional Cherokee worldviews. Wilma Mankiller tells us, "There is an old Cherokee prophecy which instructs us that as long as the Cherokees continue traditional dances, the world will remain as it is, but when the dances stop, the world will come to an end" (29, 1993). This essay is modeled on a Stomp Dance, based on descriptions by Cherokee ethnomusicologist Charlotte Heth. Stomp Dances begin with a call to assemble, and so I would like to call us together, as Cherokee Two-Spirit people, to reflect on and imagine what it means to be who we are.  Specifically, because of the nature of this collection, I want to call together male-embodied Cherokee Two-Spirits to think about the very important obligations we have to rebalance gender systems through working to end sexism, transphobia, and queerphobia in our communities.

As we assemble, I know that there are non-Cherokees and non-Two-Spirit people who are also with us, listening to this story. I would like to ask our guests to sit and just listen from a distance, understanding that because I'm speaking to other Cherokee Two-Spirits/GLBTQ folks, that there are many questions, issues, and terms that I won't be explaining here. And since I brought up terminology, I would like to say to other Cherokee Two-Spirit people that we need to remember that gender systems before invasion and colonization were not the same as they are now.  While we subsume same-sex relationships and gender "non-conformity" under the umbrella of "Two-Spirit," it is difficult to say if these identities were linked together in the past. There are numerous experiences and identities that we shove under terms like "Two-Spirit" or "Queer" or "GLBT." I've heard several different terms to talk about these identities in Cherokee, but I am going to use "Two-Spirit" as my umbrella term here, knowing that not all of us use this term for ourselves any more than all of us use any of the other terms available to us in English. All of these terms and ideas are slippery and complicated, but "Two-Spirit" carries with it a particular commitment to decolonization and Indigenous histories and identities that is at the center of this particular telling.

This story—in the form of a Stomp Dance—emerges from conversations and experiences with other Cherokee Two-Spirits, as well as from other Native Two-Spirit people. Over the years, my Cherokee Two-Spirit friends and I have been imagining who we are through conversations with each other and through a commitment to decolonial projects. Cherokee Two-Spirit people are currently involved in a complex process of asserting our identities through strengthening memories of our past, committing to who we in our present, and imagining who we want to be in the future.

Because I weave wampum records, I find the metaphor of re-weaving a wampum belt a useful way to think about this particular point in the recovery, creation, and maintenance of who we are as Cherokee Two-Spirits. While many Cherokees have forgotten the importance of wampum records, at one time they were central to Cherokee diplomatic relationships, legal agreements, and record-keeping. There are seven wampum belts that remain important to Cherokee Stomp Dance communities, and they are used to remember and transmit central religious teachings. One of these belts depicts a white path against a field of purple beads, symbolizing the importance of walking duyuktv, of moving through life on a path of peace, justice, and balance... (continue reading)

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Jisdu said:

Siyo Oginali Wado for this great essay! While I am not a twospirit ,I too believe that acceptence of and re-intigration of two spirit people into our society is essential to the recovery of the harmony of all our people. I live in NE Oklahoma and have found it encouraging to see more open twospirits taking part in dances and ceremonies.I have yet to see any adopt the others clothes but have seen several participate in cross gender activities.I believe your comments on pre-colonializing (Round here we refer to it as de-Yoneging) our selfs to be pertinant to all Cherokee folks. Again Wado an Happy Trails, Jisdu

Posted at: June 22, 2008 4:17 PM

ᏉᎵ said:

ᏏᏲ ᎣᎩᎾᎵ! ᏩᏙ for your comment. So glad to hear from another Cherokee supportive of 2spirit folks. And I *love* the term "de-Yoneging." ᏩᏙ for that!


Posted at: July 13, 2008 3:25 PM

Candygirl said:

I'm a non-Cherokees and non-Two-Spirit person, but I must say I enjoyed just sitting, watching and listening as you sing and shell shake. Very interesting experience. Tnx :)

Posted at: September 8, 2008 8:04 PM

Man said:

Good post! Very interesting experience. Thanks :)

Posted at: October 22, 2008 8:08 AM

dAft said:

as a two-spirit native jew i found myself telling everyone about shell-shaking. it shapes my metaphor when i preach gender preach. baruch hashmah.

Posted at: March 15, 2009 7:57 AM

Patrick Boone said:

I am almost ¼ Cherokee my granddad was almost full on my mother’s side. I am as I know it to be two spirited. I very much agree that America’s balance has been disrupted. In an odd way I feel my granddads blood is calling me to find out more and restore balance in my beautiful to be America. I know very little about Cherokee ways. I need inner peace. My granddad loved me very much and he died when I was 15. They took my granddad away when he was a small child. They sent him to school and college. He Converted to Christianity but he still had some of his Cherokee beliefs. I remember him doing stuff when I was a kid. I want to learn as much as I can about Cherokee spiritual beliefs. I want to relate them to modern day America. I feel many Native spirits still thrive in the America we now live in. If you know the tradition about bringing people from other tribes to the Cherokee tribe. I would very much like to know about them.

Posted at: March 26, 2009 12:03 AM

Qwo-Li said:

There's a proofreading error here--I want to make clear that I meant to write "Further, many Cherokee Two-Spirits (like most Cherokees) are Christians." not "Further, Cherokee Two-Spirits (like most Cherokees) are Christians."

My apologies!


Posted at: April 23, 2009 9:36 PM

Trevor Hoppe said:

Fixed it, hon! xoxo

Posted at: April 26, 2009 12:52 AM

Qwo-Li said:

Wa'do sugar!

Posted at: April 27, 2009 12:43 AM

Mike Dart said:

Wa-Do!!!!! Awesome article. Touched me very deeply. I am a Cherokee two spirited person, and I believe that in order to restore complete balance to our earth mother, the roles of the Two Spirited person must be restored. The two spirit concept is fairly new to me: Growing up in Northeast Oklahoma it was just "being gay" and I tried for years to keep that part of me hidden. Even after I quit hiding and "came out", and began to hear the term "two spirit" and began to learn a little about it, I didn't really think of myself that way. I still thought of myself as a "man who is attracted to other men". But the more I have become involved in our Ceremonial Ground, the more I am realizing that I am two spirited: I am naturally drawn to do things that are traditionally the role of the woman. Then i look at my life, and it is the same thing: I am an artist, and I make baskets, which there are "straight" men who weave baskets, however it is and from my research has pretty much always been the domain of the Cherokee woman. And it is like that in other areas as well, and the more I think back, I realize it has always been that way. The past couple of years its kind of been like a second "coming out" I have yet to shake shells, and am nervous about doing that because so many people around here are so conservative and I don't want to offend anyone. But maybe one of these days....

Didn't mean to type all that. Just wanted to say what a great article this was, and how much it touched my heart.

Mike Dart
Cherokee Artist

Posted at: August 9, 2009 9:49 AM

ToTiDi said:

While I know it is the nature of our world to catagoize everything - I never have bought into the idea that I am two-spirited. I am of one spirit, but that spirit is many things. I believe in the traditional ways (be it noted the traditional ways that I grew up with, as opposed to the traditonal ways which in a broader scope as belonging to all Cherokee people). My traditional upbringing tought me several things about being a gay person. One, that I am unique and empowered and embodied by a special gift; two, in order for that gift to remain unique and to reach its full potential I would be given attention by our family medicine person; third, I would have several 'treatments' from age 7 until that Medicine person died; fourth, and lastly, I would be who I was born to be, and that is that. If you want to call me gay, that is okay. I don't mind if you call me two-spirited, but I will cringe a little when you do. The only catagory I have is my nationality: Cherokee. I'm not convenced that as Cherokee we need to adopt the modern identity of "two-spirits." Why, for me it is because I am a tradtional Cherokee, and I know my responsibilities, my roll, my lifeways, and from that I understand myself. I have no need to expand myself to others and their expectations that I will "be" or "act" in a certain way. I'm a Cherokee - my story ends there. The rest is collatoral mataerial to support that fact. Wado Sgi (p.s. No offense to Mr. Qwoli; and, this is very well written)

Posted at: November 16, 2009 11:01 AM

Qwo-Li said:

siyo ToTiDi,

I agree. A lot of don't use the word "two-spirit" to describe ourselves, and I'm not suggesting we should. I'm using it as a umbrella term "knowing that not all of us use this term for ourselves any more than all of us use any of the other terms available to us in English." Wado for telling a bit of your story!

Posted at: January 25, 2010 12:08 PM

turtle winds firewalker said:

Cherokee Two-Spirit people
the cherokee have many rituals
turtle winds firewalker
cherokee indianer

Posted at: August 26, 2010 8:43 AM

Jlowe said:

Siyo. Aya gesv, Gatsanula Wahya dawado tsalvktanv. Vsgwusgini Tsigiduwagi, Tsitsalegidv, nole nudale udanted aya gesvi.

Hello. My name is Jason Lowe. I am from Northeast OK. I am Cherokee, and I am a two spirited individual. I have recently started shaking shells at my ceremonial grounds in Kenwood, OK and havent been happier. I feel that this is my place in our ceremonies and am proud to do it. It took a lot of gutts, but I had the backing of Three medicine men and our ceremonial leaders. It is through their support that I keep on being true to myself as a Cherokee Two Spirited Individual. Wado!!!!!!

Posted at: November 3, 2010 7:46 PM

Qwo-Li said:

siyo Jason,

That's great! Say siyo to those folks for me, they're good peeps.

Posted at: December 2, 2010 2:54 PM

Sean Priesing said:

to whom it may concern,

my name is and i am half cherokee sence i was about 9-10 years old i knew that i was attracted to other men and didnt know what that ment but as i got older i learned that the term was gay i did try and hide it bye haveing a girl friend but decided that i couldent lie about who i was anymore so i came out with being gay to my family at first they didnt understand but eventually found room in their hearts for understanding and acceptance, i dont know much about my cherokee heratige but am takeing it into my own hands to find out everything that i can so it dont get lost the only thing i know is that my great aunt orphie was able to talk to see hear and sence spirits and i have been able tyo see hear feel and talk to spirits at a young age as well. so as i was doing research on my heratigei found out that we were once called to spirit and that gave me a sence of happyness and relief that their was a name for people like me among the cherokee and surrounding native american tribes i really do think that we need to get reconigzed once again..

thanks for opening my eyes

very truly youres

sean-michael edwin priesing

Posted at: June 10, 2011 10:53 AM

Robert Wood said:

Wow! Very interesting... I have just been getting into the Native American ways of life.. I am by record 1/512 Cherokee on my mothers side... however, on my fathers side my great grandmother was the granddaughter to a Cherokee Chief... so the story goes anyway... so she was hlaf blood which makes me morelike an eigth... You can really see it in my Dad and my brother but I am more white with blonde hair and blue eyes... Would I be accepted into the tribe or rejected for being white more than red?.. I am a two spirit person as well and have never felt a blonging to any path in life but have always been interested in Native American Ways... I also feel that Two Spirited people have a gift... I believe I have one however I don't know how to access it and use it... I have seen spirits since I was very young and have dreams that come true... Is this something in my head or something real to build on? I have so many questions and don't know where to turn or who to talk to about any of it... My brother fell in with the Lakota people in Cali and I have seen him transform from an angry bitter person to someone pleasant to be aroound and he seems to have alot of knowledge of thier ways but I would llike to stick to the Cherokee ways... If anyone can help me please email me at The young man that spoke of shaking the shells from Kenwood.. I'm in Pryor and would really appreciate it if you could get ahold of me and maybe stear me in the right direction to begin my journey... Thanks for hearing me out everyone! Rob

Posted at: June 29, 2012 7:34 AM