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Critique History Nonfiction Social Sciences

Cherokee “Two Spirits”: Gender, Ritual, and Spirituality in the Native South


Since the sixteenth century, European and Euroamerican observers have puzzled over the identity, roles, and sexuality of the berdache, or what scholars now refer to as two-spirit people, in Native American societies in the Southeast. Over the past generation gender theorists and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) scholars have produced fine studies that aim to demystify two spirits, formerly the domain of anthropological research, and decouple them from the racialized and heteronormative modes of thinking associated with settler colonialism in North America. As this activist scholarship continues to grow, historians of early America have at best played a marginal role in scholarly debates about two-spirit people. This essay represents a historical intervention in the current scholarly discussions about two-spirit people. Focusing particularly on the Cherokees in early America, the following analysis considers the methodological challenges associated with historical studies of two spirits and presents insights into how historians might effectively craft more sophisticated and nuanced analyses of people variously referred to as hermaphrodites, sodomites, berdaches, and two-spirit people in Native American societies of the Southeast.

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