Writing Two-Spirit Histories

April 28, 2022

Author: Greg Smithers, Ph.D.

Professor Gregory Smithers reflects on an important conversation that led him to write Reclaiming Two-Spirits in a more thoughtful and deliberate way than he has ever written before.

greg smithers

Several years ago, I met a friend in the Castro District of San Francisco. He’s a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Two-Spirit. As we sat sipping our overpriced coffee beverages, the conversation turned to history. More specifically, to the stuff historians write about. “You know, Greg,” my friend announced, “I don’t bother reading history anymore.” Seeing that I was feeling a little wounded, my friend went in for the kill. “I mean, I’m just so sick of historians writing about wars and trade and thinking they're experts on all things Indian.”

As I flailed about for an adequate retort, I paused, deflected momentarily by ordering another skim milk cappuccino, and made a confession: “you’re right.” What particularly irked my friend was that the rich diversity of Indian Country wasn’t represented in historical writing. And people like my friend – a Two-Spirit person, an umbrella term for an Indigenous person possessing both male and female spirits – were almost entirely absent. So, I confessed that they had a point. Native American history – at least the stuff the general public sees in bookstores – presents a pretty sad depiction of Indians as either vanquished foes on the battlefield or victims of unscrupulous European traders.

reclaiming two-spirits book cover with drawing representing two two-spirit indigenous people

When I sat down to write Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal, and Sovereignty in Native America (Beacon Press, 2022), I had this conversation in the forefront of my mind. I wanted to write an accessible book while also rethinking what constitutes historical evidence.

For years I’d resisted the urge to write a trade book because I was told that academic publishing is more rigorous. That is absolutely not true. In fact, the process of securing a trade book deal and writing in a way that informs both historiographical debates and brings a little light to the general public is a far more rigorous (and nerve wracking) process. It involves writing that takes readers on adventures back in time, makes an argument, and entertains. That’s a daunting challenge. It’s why I wanted colleagues, my editors, and members of the Two-Spirit community to read drafts of the book. They tore my writing apart, criticized me, and encouraged me. At the end of the day, the collective wisdom of all these people forced me out of my academic comfort zone and helped me write what I hope is a much better book.

Throughout this collaborative writing process, the issue of sources continually entered discussions. I drew on a kaleidoscope of sources: archaeological evidence; material and popular culture; oral history interviews (both archived and interviews I conducted); linguistics; religious studies; geography; art and much more. I also went back to the types of sources that my friend found so limiting. As I told them in a subsequent conversation, “it’s not that military, trade, or political sources have no value to Two-Spirit histories, because they do. The issue is how historians have used them.” No source is perfect, and the written archives of settler colonialism are no exception. They’re beset with biases, omissions, and misinterpretations. But read them carefully and creatively and you’ll find Two-Spirit people everywhere. You’ll find them hunting deer and trading skins, making alliances and going to war, leading ceremonies and healing the sick. The problem, I assured my friend, isn’t that the archives of colonialism ignore Two-Spirit people, it’s that previous generations of historians haven’t been looking for them.

I’m glad I had that uncomfortable conversation in the Castro all those years ago. My friend didn’t realize it at the time, but they taught me to research and write in ways that transcend my professional training and become a historian who never stops learning.

Additional news and information:

For centuries, Two-Spirit people had to carry out Native traditions in secret. Now, they’re ‘making their own history.’ VCU News story, April 25, 2022

Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal, and Sovereignty in Native America (Beacon Press, 2022)

A Forgotten Pioneer: The Two-Spirit Activism of Barbara Cameron. Ms. Magazine.