The Ojibwe Two Spirit Person

Pimsleur Approach • January 22, 2013 • Language LearningComments (0)

The Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa, had an inherent acceptance of a third gender, which modern Ojibwe now call people who are “two spirit”, or those who exhibit the qualities of both male and female. The most famous two-spirit person from the Ojibwe was Ozaawindib, also known as “Yellow Head”, who was a renown courageous warrior living in the early 19th century.

Leech Lake Ojibwe delegation to Washington 1899

Image via Wikipedia

Yellow Head was described by sociologist John Tanner as: “this man was one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians.” Ozaawindib took a romantic liking to Tanner, and, after being rejected numerous times by him, finally married Chief Wnej-dotaagen. This was a third or fourth marriage for Ozaawindib, as two-spirit people often married widowers and took on the household duties left behind by the deceased wife.

An advantage of this arrangement was that for the newly formed couple, there was no danger of having more children, which would have placed a further burden on the widower.

The story of Yellow Head has helped to deepen our understanding of the two-spirit person in Ojibwe culture, but in almost every Native American culture, there are documented accounts of people who simultaneously house different-gendered spirits within one body. This phenomenon was an accepted and normal part of everyday Native American life. In some tribes, male two-spirit persons took on very specific tasks and roles within the community, particularly centering on medicinal healing, fortunetelling, and handicrafts. Female two-spirits often married other females and assumed more traditional male roles.

Interestingly, all words in the Ojibwe language are either “animate” or “inanimate.” The Ojibwe language does not refer to people as “he” or “she” but rather refers to all people as “animate”. While there are two distinct words for “man” and “woman”, the same adjective and verb forms are used when referring to a person, regardless of whether any subject is male or female. This inherent lack of emphasis on concepts of what is “male” or “female” may partially account for the acceptance within the culture of persons with a dual-gender identity.

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