Stories and histories of indigenous two-spirit identities

By Imana Gunawan

Growing up — first on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Box Elder, Mont., and then in Spokane, Wash. — 28-year-old Zachary Pullin always felt he was different.

The dissimilarities were obvious to Pullin: “Who I was and who I maybe had a crush on or feelings for was also different, and in stark contrasts to what everybody else was feeling, and already feeling and knowing at a really early age that different was not gonna be good for me”

Pullin is a member of the Chippewa Cree tribe. He also identifies as queer. In the last few years, Pullin has begun to explore an identity with ancient roots that binds these two parts of himself together: the concept of being a “two-spirit” person.

“Two-spirit is something even more spiritual and exciting that has something more to do with a connection up here and the physical,” he said, referencing a spiritual being. “The two-spirit name is kind of from that relationship.”

Zachar Pullin's portrait
Zachary Pullin, 28, sits at his office in downtown Seattle, Wash. Pullin identifies as Native American and queer. Photo by Imana Gunawan.

Raven Heavy Runner, member of the Blackfoot nation and acting co-chair of the Northwest Two-Spirit Society, said that two-spirit is an umbrella idea referencing indigenous peoples of the Americas who also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, or genderqueer, among others.Especially before European colonization of the United States, Heavy Runner said two-spirit individuals played prominent roles in various tribes. They would have rites of passages for two-spirit individuals to recognize their spirit, often similar to rites of passages for adolescents.

“If they were to be a two-spirit person, they had certain rights within the tribes, but they also had certain responsibilities to the tribe too,” Heavy Runner said.

He added that different tribes have different roles for these individuals, such as appointing them as the tribe’s healer or those who pray to the creator. But due to colonization of indigenous nations, knowledge of two-spirit identities and traditional rituals have decreased.

Instead, in contemporary times, according to Heavy Runner, people who identify as both Native and queer often have “coming out” experiences similar to those often experienced by LGBT individuals and their families.

For Pullin, the understanding of two-spirit identities is a new concept. Growing up, he sensed his difference divided him from his peers.“There came a point in the in the later years maybe fifth or sixth grade where [I was] being called gay, different, freak, weirdo, fag, those things,” he said. “I was different, and now people are recognizing it.”

After graduating from college and moving to Los Angeles, Pullin decided to volunteer for the Peace Corps. He said during his time there, he wanted to learn to be “authentic” to his identities.

“It really invited me to look into myself and understand the pursuit of wholeness,” he said. “Being who I am and being authentic was something that was going to be the best for me.”

He “came out” as a queer individual when he was 22, and said he is now “absolutely, unequivocally,” out — not just as LGBT, but as two-spirit.

“I’ve lived way more of my life [being] closeted for two very important identities that I carry, and so I’m just like ‘gung-ho’ now,” Pullin said. “I will be loud and proud about that.”

Imana Gunawan is a student at the University of Washington studying journalism and dance. She works as news editor at The Daily of the University of Washington, dance critic at and freelance journalist and dance artist. She can be reached via Twitter at @imanafg.

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