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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.
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Purdue draws conclusions about Cherokee gender constructions based on gender in other tribes, but lacks this sort of analysis when it comes to male-embodied Cherokee Two-Spirit people.  While broad generalizations cannot be made, the fact that in some traditions male-embodied Two-Spirits engaged in simulated menstruation could suggest that similar practices may have existed among Cherokees (Gay American Indians & Roscoe 38, 1988).  Certainly many contemporary Two-Spirit Cherokees go to great length to ensure their physical bodies reflect their gender identities.  Regardless of Perdue's interpretation, her book provides important information about Cherokee Two-Spirits that we can use to understand who we are in the present.

Walter L. Williams' The Spirit and the Flesh only marginally speaks about Cherokees, but he cites a manuscript by C.C. Trowbridge that mentions male-embodied Two-Spirits. Williams quotes this excerpt from the Trowbridge manuscript: "There were among them formerly, men who assumed the dress and performed all the duties of women and who lived their whole lives in this manner" (4, 1992). During the roundtable "Indigenous Politics and the Question of Same-Sex Marriage" at What's Next for Native American and Indigenous Studies? David Cornsilk mentioned that this particular document goes on to suggest that marriage was practiced by all Cherokees, including Two-Spirit people (Kauanui 2007).

In my own archival research, I stumbled across a reference to Cherokee same-sex union ceremonies in John Howard Payne's manuscript on Cherokee life. John Howard Payne was a EuroAmerican actor and playwright who lived for a period of time with Chief John Ross in order to document Cherokee customs. Payne mentions this union ceremony more than once in his manuscript, which describes a particular performance to formalize "perpetual friendship." I am including a long excerpt from his account in order to offer this information to other Cherokee Two-Spirits uncovering our histories. Seeing the process of looking to our past as an Old Folks Dance not only means looking to our histories and elders, it also means sharing that information with other Two-Spirit people as an act of reciprocity. Payne documents the following same-sex union ceremony:

Taking an opportunity sometime during that feast, when the people were seated in the council house, they arose, walked toward the fire, and then turned and commenced dancing around the fire…each having on his best clothes.  While dancing, in the presence of all the people, who looking, they exchanged one garment after another till each had given the other his entire dress, even to legings, mocasins etc. and thus each of them publicly received the other as himself, & became thus pledged to regard and treat him as himself while he lived.  Sometimes two women, and sometimes a man and a woman contracted this friendship.  Thus when a young man and woman fell in love with each other but were hindered from marrying, either by relation or by being of the same clan, they bound themselves in perpetual friendship.  While dancing round the fire as above stated, the man threw his blanket over the woman, and the woman as soon as convenient threw hers to the man.  The man also, having prepared a cane sieve, & hung it by a string over his shoulder, gave her that.  He also presented her with a pestle to pound corn with.  The mortar he had for her at home (Volume III, 49-50, ca 1835).

While Payne makes sense of this as a friendship ceremony, I doubt very much that it was a ceremony only to cement a "friendship." The fact that Payne mentions opposite-sex couples in love, but not able to have children because of clan laws, suggests that the same-sex couples were likewise in love. Perhaps what was common to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples in this arrangement was the fact that they would not be bearing biological children. The fact that the opposite-sex ceremony is not terribly different than contemporary "traditional" Cherokee marriage ceremonies leads me to think that the same-sex ceremonies were likewise a public ceremony to define a loving, romantic, same-sex relationship.

What does all of this mean to us now? I think we must decide that in our own lives and communities. Should I ever have a public union ceremony, for instance, I certainly would want to incorporate aspects of this older same-sex union. It is my hope that uncovering this bit of information will be useful to Cherokee Two-Spirit people who are part of ceremonial communities in re-weaving our places within our traditions, and for those who are working to document both same-sex relationships and complex gender systems in Cherokee traditions in order to work against the internalization of dominant culture's values around these issues. Putting aspects of our past into practice is part of an ongoing Old Folks Dance that honors our history and rebalances our present and future.

Another way of thinking about our work as an Old Folks Dance is to look at the values contained in our traditional stories. Cherokee stories talk about beings that were the most hated, (like Buzzard), the most mocked, (like Water Spider) and sometimes the most feared (like Uktena and Stonecoat), and how they were the ones that created the world, our lifeways, and formed the landscapes of our homelands.  It is important to remember people from our history (like Sequoyah) and present (like Wilma Mankiller), who have had to overcome skepticism, prejudice, and disdain—and how important they are to our survival and identity as a people.  These stories are precedent for our identities as Cherokee Two-Spirit people.

Aside from historical accounts of Cherokee Two-Spirit people and traditional stories, we also have artists and writers who have gone before us, like the playwright Rollie Lynn Riggs, whose play Green Grow the Lilacs was the basis for the musical Oklahoma, or the late Vickie Sears, a writer/activist/psychotherapist and author of Simple Songs:  Stories.   We are also blessed to have living writers and scholars such as Daniel Heath Justice.  Justice's fantasy series The Way of Thorn and Thunder creates a central place for Two-Spirit people, and his scholarship honors our intellectual and artistic history. Cherokee Two-Spirits are building places our future by looking to our past, dancing an Old Folks Dance to rebalance the present.



Wa'do for all the blessings you give us.

Wa'do for our food, our water, our homes, our friends, our family. Wa'do for bringing us to this place and time to do this work.

Help us not be afraid.

Help us walk duyuktv.

Help us continue our language and our lifeways.

Help us do the work that we need to do to heal ourselves, our communities, and our world.



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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