Your Name:

Your Email:

Friend's Name:

Friend's Email:

Creative Commons License
Powered by Movable Type



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.


Shell shakers begin shuffling out a rhythm as men in cowboy hats and baseball caps sing.  Some of us are elders, some of us are young, some of us use canes.  We are all part of the circle.

Now that shell shakers and song leaders are assembled, we can begin a Friendship Dance. The Friendship Dance, like all performances during the Stomp Dance, reflects a balance between genders, and I think that it is a useful way to think about traditional Cherokee relationships with gender.

Before European invasions and concerted efforts by missionaries to disrupt our culture, Cherokee gender systems reflected duyuktv. Two-Spirit people in the Southeast have been a target of colonial violence since the Spanish invasion.  Patriarchal Spain— perpetuating an Inquisition in Europe and continuing the Inquisition in the Americas—customarily murdered gender non-conforming people.  Women’s central place within Cherokee life was looked at with fascination and derision by European invaders, who mockingly labeled our nation a "petticoat government" and misinterpreted Cherokee female warriors as "amazons."

When European invaders and missionaries began toppling Cherokee gender roles, all of duyuktv was disrupted. Before this, women had jurisdiction over their children, homes, and community agriculture. They had authority over our homelands. Colonial powers, in an effort to gain control of our landbases, toppled Cherokee women's traditional roles as leaders and diplomats and almost destroyed our matrifocal clan system.  Through violent enforcement of patriarchy, gender relationships made a dramatic shift.  Rather than seeing the roles of men and women as always in duyuktv, Christian European patriarchy enforced ideas of male supremacy, rigid gender categories, and sexuality as something to be suppressed and controlled. 

I was recently talking with a Cherokee Two-Spirit friend of mine about how Two-Spirit people embody duyuktv. Two-Spirit people have an intimate relationship with, and obligation to, duyuktv because of our specific relationships with gender.  Healing from our history entails recognizing how damaging colonial gender is to lives. We must claim gender as a Friendship Dance that places us all within the circle of our communities, rather than allowing gender to be site of violence and tool of oppression.   While masculine-identified straight males may gain societal privilege because of their genders and sexualities, we know that their gender experiences are often filled with abuse and violence from childhood in order to inscribe patriarchal values—and a fear of stepping outside of them—onto their psyches.  Those of us socialized as male know the very real physical, emotional, and psychological dangers of that process.   The internalization and manifestations of patriarchy move Cherokees further away from duyuktv, undermine struggles for decolonization, and buoy the power of colonial regimes.   Remembering who we are as Cherokees entails unlearning colonial gender systems.

As a male-embodied Two-Spirit, part of my work is to move back and forth between different gendered spaces, taking information about those experiences with me and sharing them with others.  People see me as countless genders including a Queer man, as Gay guy who wears skirts, a Queer woman, a straight woman, a drag queen, a Trans woman, a Trans man, a transvestite, a cross-dresser, an androgynous person, and a straight man.  Moving through these spaces has taught me that most of them are deadly dangerous. One of the gifts of experiencing gender from multiple angles is gaining knowledge to work against sexism and gender regimes in all of our communities. Transforming this knowledge into radical, non-violent action against sexism and transphobia is a Friendship Dance that helps restore duyuktv to gender systems.  As male-socialized people, we are just as responsible for ending sexist oppression as straight men. Seeing gender as a Friendship Dance involves constant examination of the ways we are both injured and privileged because of being born male in a patriarchal country.

Native women have long called Native men to work in solidarity with them against sexist oppression.  Male-embodied Two-Spirit people must answer that call and aid in dismantling gender and sexual oppression. This is part of our responsibility in restoring duyuktv. We must shell shake and sing a Friendship Dance to mend the damage done to Cherokee gender through invasion, genocide, and removal.


Our songs weave with Cricket’s, with Turtle’s, with the songs of our grandmothers and grandfathers.  They sing of loss and love, of our stubborn and gorgeous survival, of our determination to continue. 

Stomp dancing is central to the continuance of our traditions, and remembering who we are as Two-Spirit people is a part of that continuance. When I meet other Cherokee Two-Spirits it isn’t long before we are piecing together bits of information that each of us carry about what it means to be who we are.   Through sharing our stories, what we’ve taught ourselves, what we’ve learned from traditionalists and elders, and what we have pieced together from books and dreams, we create the living archives of our history. We are stomp dancing our story back to us.

Almost all of the Two-Spirit people I know are deeply committed to carrying on our lifeways, reviving traditions that have gone dormant if necessary.  I think that this is a logical path for Two-Spirit people to follow. For example, I've had to search for what my gender-sexuality has meant in the past so that I can understand what it means in the present and future.  Through this journey I've become deeply invested in also relearning our language, songs, dances, and arts. This process of cultural revitalization, for all of us, is like a stomp dance. It is through this work that we rebalance the world.

Each Cherokee Two-Spirit must listen closely to ourselves and remember what work we are meant to do in this world.   Some of us are deeply committed to the Cherokee language.  Others of us are invested in learning and teaching particular arts.  There are Two-Spirit Cherokees dedicated to ceremonial communities, and those who are  uncovering our histories through research and scholarship.   Many of us work for the well-being of our environment or fight against the numerous forms of oppression that face us daily. Through this stomp dance we ensure our survival. And, like a stomp dance song, our actions call out to other Cherokees who respond through their own singing and shell shaking, spiraling around the center of who we are... (continue reading)

Navigate:  << Previous Page |  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  | Next Page >>


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