Note: The term "Two-Spirit is sometimes wrongly co-opted by transgender communities to denote a sense of being bi-gendered or gender variant. AlbertaTrans.org considers this to be an incorrect and harmful misappropriation of an important cultural concept, and does not support this misinterpretation.
"Two-Spirit" refers to a collection of countless Native traditions (some of which have been since lost by the subversion of Native culture through westernization, Christianization and even genocide) that allow for gender-diverse expression and sexuality, covering the full range of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, as well as intersex and other gender-variant people. A rough generalization of the tradition is that it was sometimes thought that Two-Spirits had two spirits inhabiting the same body, and consequently of potentially great power and blessing -- but it is important to note that traditions varied greatly among different tribes ("two-spirit" is a blanket term created in 1990 to encompass a wide range of beliefs among Native peoples, to replace the derogatory "berdache" that has been used in historical texts), and that a few tribes may not have had two-spirit understanding.
Two-spirit tradition existed freely in North America as late as 1930 (with the Klamath in the Pacific Northwest), before being driven into hiding or shame by the changes that crept across North and Central America over the past two centuries of colonization.
The sensational nature of reports of Two-Spirit peoples and the hatred they contained were used to try to justify genocide, theft of land and the dismantling of Native culture and religion. In Panama, explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa threw a King and forty others of a Native tribe to be eaten by his dogs, because they crossdressed or had same-sex partners. Spaniards committed similar genocides in the Antilles and Louisiana. It is partly for this reason that some Native peoples and organizations are afraid to re-embrace two-spirit understanding.
The term "two-spirit" comes from the Ojibwa words niizh manidoowag (two-spirits). It is chosen as a means to distance Native/First Nations people from non-Natives, as well as from the words "berdache" and "gay." (The older term of "berdache" had been French in origin, and is derived from Arabic and Eastern words meaning "kept boy" or "male prostitute.") Two-spirit traditions were most notable among the Lakota, Ojibwa, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Mojave, Navajo and Cree tribes, but certainly not limited to them. Two-spirited childrens' gender could be determined at puberty, based on their inclination toward masculine or feminine activities, and often accompanied by visions.
In the last century, modern Christianity had "evangelized," indoctrinated and destroyed many Native traditions, and two-spirit people are only now just re-emerging from homophobic stigmas.