Two-Spirit: The Lakota Winkte – Sex on the Great Plains

What does it mean to be Two-Spirit? The film The Miseducation of Cameron Post likens it to being a “Native American David Bowie,” but that’s a far cry. What does it really mean? And what is the Two-Spirit tradition of the Lakota, the winkte?

Episode theme music courtesy of the The Eagle and the Raven Band, featuring Ki’ Earth Spirit.

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Transcript

In the 2018 film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Cameron encounters a Lakota character named Adam Red Eagle, played by Forrest Goodluck, who identifies as a winkte. Cameron’s never heard of such a thing.

[clip: Cameron: “Hey Adam, what’s winkte mean?”]

It’s a charged scene where it is pretty clear Cameron is treading on something important to Adam’s identity that might be difficult to talk about with those outside his culture. But Adam explains:

[clip: Adam: “It’s a Lakotan word for Two-Spirit. It’s like a third gender.”]

Cameron is still confused, so Adam breaks it down further with an explanation that is, shall we say, correct-ish:

[clip: Adam: “Okay, so um… I’m Two-Spirit, which means I was born with a man’s soul and a woman’s soul, and literally winkte means ‘killed by a woman’, so it’s as if the male part of me is being killed by the female part. That make sense?”]

Cameron is still confused until a friend adds:

[clip: Jane: “He’s basically the Native American David Bowie.”]

This elicits a chuckle from Adam, who adds:

[clip: Adam: “I’ll take it.”]

And that, so far as I know, is the only on-screen depiction of a Lakota winkte in any film ever.

Now, as I said, the film only gets it correct-ish, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. But first, I want to emphasize what the film gets right.

First, it’s true that “Two-Spirit” is a way of describing Native American third gender traditions, and that the Lakota third-gender tradition is called winkte.

Second, it’s appropriate to show Adam identifying in terms of the local tradition first, and the Two Spirit notion only second. “Two-Spirit” is actually a modern term coined in 1990 to encompass a broad range of different local traditions unique to different tribal cultures, and it’s usually preferred to think in terms of the local tradition first and foremost.

Third, Adam doesn’t explain it as a synonym for “gay” or “trans.” Although these traditions can and often do involve same-sex relations, and almost always express a gender at odds with that assigned at birth, traditionally they are not analogous to any modern Western majority-culture category. Such categories do no justice to the unique way in which these traditions functioned, nor to the differences between tribes. Of course, there is variety in how these terms are interpreted today, and some do use them to mean a Native American who is queer in some sense, but traditionally they are not the same.

Finally, the film gets right that misunderstanding – that is, the common misunderstanding that Two-Spirit is just a synonym for “queer Indian” – and plays with it. This film scene takes place at a religious school where both Adam and Cameron are taught to “pray the gay away” as it were, assuming Adam is gay or trans when that’s not really accurate. The school misunderstands Adam’s identity in a manner that echoes Western misunderstandings of Native genders throughout history, and I think that was an intentional choice on the part of the filmmakers. It’s not explained in the film and might be lost on most viewers, but those in the know might pick up on it and appreciate the irony. So, that’s a final thing the film gets right: Two-Spirit is not traditionally a synonym for queer.

Now, at the same time, as I said, there’s plenty the film only gets correct-ish. The whole male and female souls fighting thing seems to imply some kind of uniform theology underlying the Two Spirits concept when there is no such shared theology, the meaning of winkte as “killed by a woman” is only one of several possible interpretations of the word, and lastly the joke about being the “Native American David Bowie” suggests eccentricity whereas Two-Spirit traditions were actually quite traditional, respected, and mainstream within their cultures.

So, yeah, it’s not quite right, but it’s not terrible either. More than anything, it leaves the viewer with more questions. What is this Two Spirit thing? What does it really mean to be a winkte? What was it like for them on the Great Plains in the 19th century, and what is it like for them today?

That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.

[music]

I’d like to thank our Patreon patrons Bee Greenfield and Robert for making this episode possible.

I also want to thank Blanca Iris Acuña for once again contributing the theme song for today’s episode. She has been wonderfully supportive and I am grateful to be able to showcase her lovely talents. Today’s music is “Father Time” by The Eagle and the Raven Band, featuring Ki’ Earth Spirit.

Folks, this episode is a bit bittersweet because, as announced last month, this episode is not just the last in this series, but also the last regular release of this show. We may still put out the occasional episode on an irregular basis, so stay subscribed. In fact, we just received a request from an author for an interview and I might take her up on that, but this is going to the be the end of pumping out episodes on a regular schedule.

It has been a fantastic run, but things change. I’ve got a new job, I’m taking on more work, and other life things are taking precedence. Most of all, though, I’m just ready for something new. I did more than 100 episodes of Dead Ideas, and this will be episode 71 of The History of Sex. I learned a whole lot, and it was a blast, but my creative energies are restless. And I’m sick of deadlines. I’m soooo sick of deadlines. So, no more regular episode releases.

I will be pumping out something creative again in the future, but probably not a podcast. I want a new challenge, and I don’t know yet what that will be. You can follow me on social media if you want to be there when I do.

Oh, and the portraits will continue, by the way. If you’re a patron or thinking of becoming one, the Patreon will remain open for you to get a portrait – which I love drawing for you folks – and you can also listen to the backlog of episodes ad-free as a patron.

So, with that bittersweet message out of the way, let’s make this a show to remember.

Folks, this is the fourth and final episode in our series Sex on the Great Plains, exploring sex and gender among the Lakota. The series has been focused on the 19th century, but today will be centered mostly on the 20th century and later, mainly because we have very few sources for winkte in the 19th century and therefore must rely on later accounts. In a way, though, it’s a good reminder that Native cultures are modern cultures that change, adapt, and meet the challenges of the present just like any other, even if they also reach back to traditional roots in the past.

Today, we’re exploring the Lakota third gender tradition of the winkte. As you might imagine, this is a fairly sensitive topic. Many Lakota are understandably reticent to talk about it, given the history of settler culture misunderstanding Native gender and weaponizing it against them, as well as the ongoing stigma against gender variance today. Nevertheless, it is an important topic, and an exploration of traditional Lakota sex and gender would not be complete without it. We’ll hew closely to actual first-hand accounts, letting Lakota speak for themselves wherever possible, while recognizing that these accounts may be incomplete, and that views vary even within the tribe.

Also, we should talk about pronouns. In English, we have to choose gendered pronouns to refer to a person, and that is of course a hot topic today. In the Lakota language, however, that is not the case. As explained by Rev. Isaiah Brokenleg, who is himself a Lakota winkte:

“In Lakota, there are no pronouns. We don’t have she and he. In Lakota, men will speak differently than women. We know their gender based on how they are talking and what words they are using. Suppose a male-bodied individual speaks with the words of a woman or a female-bodied person speaks with the words of a man. In that case, they are winkte — their gender being neither female nor male.” (Kulkarni)

So, although the need to choose pronouns is not native to the Lakota language, the manner of speaking is, and that manner leans toward the gender opposite of one’s assigned sex. Thus, that’s what I’ll generally prefer in today’s episode, though quoted texts may differ. I want to make clear, however, that this is a choice and shouldn’t be taken as an established Lakota custom.

Oh, and by the way, Brokenleg refers to winkte who are assigned sex as female, but traditionally we only have accounts of those assigned male. We will have a look at some possible correlates for assigned-sex female Lakota, but most of today’s discussion will regard winkte, who are traditionally assigned sex as male but come to express a third gender.

Okay, let’s get into it. What is this Two-Spirit tradition that The Miseducation of Cameron Post calls “the Native American David Bowie?”

[music]

Two-Spirit

Adam Red Eagle explains to Cameron that a winkte is a kind of Two-Spirit person. Now, if listeners have heard of anything today, it’s probably this “Two-Spirit” concept, so let’s start there. What does it mean to be Two-Spirit?

The term “Two-Spirit” is a modern invention, created in 1990 at a conference in Winnipeg to replace the old anthropological term “berdache”, which was, well… let’s just say Western perceptions grossly misunderstood Native cultures (big surprise). The old term had connotations of “boy prostitute” which were offensive and not remotely accurate. Thus, the new term “Two Spirits” was created to replace it.

Now, why didn’t they just choose “gay”, “queer”, “LGBTQ+”, or something like that? Well, such concepts don’t begin to capture the complexity. For example, Western queer categories have no ceremonial components, nor any necessary social roles or community functions. What’s more, queer categories are usually considered to derive from a strong genetic component – you’re “born this way,” so to speak. In contrast, Two-Spirit folk might show signs at an early age, but the real confirmation of it tends to come in the form of visions. There’s a strong spiritual component. Thus, Western queer concepts just don’t fit the bill, and the term “Two Spirit” was created to stand apart from them.

But “Two-Spirit” was never meant to replace local traditions, with all their variety and nuance. So, now let’s turn to the tradition specific to the Lakota, the winkte.

The Winkte

As we’ve heard in previous episodes, Lakota culture traditionally gravitates between the poles of masculine and feminine. Tasks break down along these gendered lines, with men largely hunting bison and women mostly processing bison into food, clothing, tools, and so on. As anthropologist Raymond DeMallie says, “male and female was the single most important attribute for defining an individual in Lakota culture” (DeMallie, p. 238). However, it may not be as binary as that would seem to imply.

As one 60 year-old traditionalist Lakota puts it, “Winkte means ‘different.’ It is neither man nor woman, but is a third group different from men and woman. That is why winktes are regarded as sacred. Only Wakan Tanka, the great spirit, can explain it, so we accept it. Winktes are gifted persons.” (Williams, p. 193)

So, despite the heavy emphasis on male and female in Lakota culture, there was something apart from or beyond it. The winkte expressed a third gender category by combining masculine and feminine traits. Sociologist Margaret Robinson reports, citing several earlier scholars:

“In an article from 1986, one Lakȟóta man (identified as a 60-year-old traditionalist) reported, ‘it’s easy to pick out a winkte. They don’t marry women, but they act and talk like a woman. But they’re ‘half and half,’ and will dress mostly like men’ (Williams, 1986, p. 193). The Lakȟóta people interviewed by Williams (1986) describe the wíŋtke as engaging in women’s quill and beadwork and performing traditional dances in the women’s style. Medicine (2002) notes that wíŋtke engaged in women’s crafts, raised children, engaged in warfare as men did, and had sexual relationships with men.” (Robinson, p. 1678-1679)

So, right there, you can already see a dense mixing of male-coded and female-coded traits. On the masculine side, they may dress mostly as men (according to this source; I’ve read other sources that disagree). They also take part in warfare, which is a masculine activity in Lakota culture. On the feminine side, they may wear articles of women’s clothing, adopt the speech and mannerisms of women, raise children, dance like women, and perform feminine production-type tasks like quill and beadwork. The latter, the quill and beadwork, was particularly strongly associated with winkte.

In addition to this mixing of masculine and feminine traits, Robinson mentions sexual relationships with men. Notice it’s just one feature among many, though – just kinda thrown in there at the end. It’s not the primary defining feature, but just one possible trait among many. This underscores how being a winkte is not a sexual orientation. Rather, it’s a combination of masculine and feminine traits to the extent that it becomes a different gender category, a unique third gender.

And such third-gender folk were not eccentrics like David Bowie. They may not have been common, but they were mainstream, and traditionally respected. A Lakota medicine man by the name of Lame Deer said of a winkte, “To us, a man is what nature, or his dreams, make him. We accept him for what he wants to be. That’s up to him… There are good men among the winktes and they have been given certain powers” (Fire and Erdoes, 1972, p. 149, quoted in Williams, p. 192).

Now, that statement was given in 1971, which is quite late, and long after the Lakota Nation roamed the Great Plains hunting buffalo. This makes me wonder: what were winkte like back in those days, in the 19th century  and earlier, before colonization?

Winkte in the 19th Century

Unfortunately, we don’t really know what winkte were like in the 19th century. Very little comes down to us from that era that is published and publicly accessible. As for visual representations, none are known save for glyph-like symbols on some Lakota winter counts. Remember that winter counts are mnemonic devices where Lakota history-tellers record each year by a symbol recalling its most significant event. In a few cases, they used winkte figures, which were represented in full dresses with phalluses protruding. This is most likely not meant as a literal depiction, but rather as an abstract symbol. It’s interesting in that it emphasizes that combination of masculine and feminine traits, but it doesn’t really help us understand what winkte were like in those days.

The only other depiction from the 19th century that I could find comes to us in the form of a story involving an unnamed winkte seer prophesying before an 1866 battle against the US Army. This story was published in 1915 by anthropologist George Bird Grinnel based on accounts told to him by several Cheyenne who were present at the battle, including a man named White Elk.

Interestingly, the story mis-identifies the winkte as a hee’maneh, which is the Cheyenne Two-Spirit tradition and quite different. In contrast to the winkte, the Cheyenne hee’maneh traditionally wears the dress of the elderly rather than a mix of male and female clothing, and abstains from sexual intercourse. Yet, the hee’maneh and the winkte get conflated in this story because Grinnel heard it from Cheyenne and confused the two. Nevertheless, the person is clearly Lakota and clearly a winkte. So, I am going to replace the word “hee’maneh” in the story with “winkte,” just so it’s not so confusing for you.

This winkte prophesies the outcome of a battle known to Lakota as the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands, though settler history records it as the Fetterman Fight of 1866. This was the key battle in which Red Cloud led the Lakota and their allies to victory against the United States.

By the way, in the story they refer to them as the “Sioux.” I’ve generally preferred to go with “Lakota”, but Sioux is also acceptable to many Lakota today.

Red Cloud’s War was sparked when the US Army illegally built forts in territory recently conquered by the Lakota, who had already witnessed the horrifying defeat of their cousins, the Dakota, in the US-Dakota War four years earlier. They knew what fate lied in store if they did not confront this growing threat. The illegal forts were the last straw, and so war erupted at a place called Fort Phil Kearny.

Now, I could just summarize the story for you, but is that what you’ve come to expect from this show? No, of course not. Especially not for our final regular episode. And so, we’ve got a special treat for you: an audiodrama presentation of the only known published story of a winkte prior to the reservation period.

In this story, the winkte seer attempts to persuade the neighboring Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to join the Lakota against the US Army.

Audiodrama: The Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands

[sounds of the prairie, drums, singing, and galloping horses]

A Cheyenne chief called out to his people, saying: “Men, do not fall in line with the Sioux. We are not carrying on this war party.” The Arapahoes did not form abreast like the Sioux, but stood to one side.

Soon a person, half man and half woman – winkte – with a black cloth over his head, riding a sorrel horse, pushed out from among the Sioux and passed over a hill, zigzagging one way and another as he went. [galloping sound] He had a whistle, and as he rode off he kept sounding it. [whistle sound] While he was riding over the hill some of the Cheyennes were told by the Sioux that he was looking for the enemy – soldiers.

Presently he rode back, [galloping sound] and came to where the chiefs were gathered and said: “I have ten men, five in each hand; do you want them?”

The Sioux chiefs said to him: “No, we do not wish them. Look at all these people here. Do you think ten men are enough to go around?”

The winkte turned his horse and rode away again [galloping sound], riding in the same way as before. Soon he came back, riding a little faster than before and swaying from one side to the other on his horse. Now he said: “I have ten men in each hand, twenty in all. Do you wish them?”

The same man replied: saying, “No, I do not wish them; there are too many people here and too few enemies.”

Without a word the half-man-half-woman turned his horse and rode off. [galloping sound] The third time he returned he said: “I have twenty in one hand and thirty in the other. The thirty are in the hand on the side toward which I am leaning.”

“No,” said the Sioux, “there are too many people here. It is not worth while to go on for so small a number.” The winkte rode away. [galloping sound]

On the fourth return he rode up fast and as his horse stopped he fell off and both hands struck the ground. [pounding sound] “Answer me quickly,” he said, “I have a hundred or more,” and when the Sioux and Cheyennes heard this they all yelled.

This was what they wanted. While he was on the ground some men struck the ground near his hands, counting the coup. [sounds of great pounding and shouting] (Grinnel, p. 228-229)

After that, the Cheyenne and Arapaho joined the Lakota against the US Army, and they launched their plan.

A small detachment of ten warriors was sent to harass the fort. There, the warriors goaded the soldiers. The commander of the soldiers, William Fetterman, was under strict orders not to leave the fort, but refused to be insulted by a paltry ten Natives. Taking enough men to outnumber the enemy by more than 8 to 1, he pursued the warriors, who fled across the plains.

They led them across the prairie, over the hills, feigning fear as the soldiers grew more confident yard by yard. Fetterman could almost taste victory.

But then, suddenly, something odd happened. The ten fleeing warriors turned and faced their pursuers, no longer afraid. Fetterman stopped short. Something felt very wrong.

Instead of ten warriors, they found themselves facing the entire combined forces of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho – over a thousand warriors in all. Fetterman’s 8 to 1 odds had become more than 10 to 1 against him.

The soldiers’ hearts leapt into their throats as they realized that day was their last.

It was a slaughter. All 81 US soldiers were slain that day. The death count even exceeded the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer lost his head. It was the worst disaster ever to befall the US Army on the Great Plains.

After the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands, the US nerve broke. The war dragged on for another two years, but by 1868, the US was forced to admit humiliating defeat. According to historian Dee Brown: “For the first time in its history, the United States government had negotiated a peace which conceded everything demanded by the enemy and which extracted nothing in return” (p. 225).

Red Cloud had won the war. Although the victory was short-lived, and the Lakota were eventually forced onto reservations, it showed the world that Native peoples could defeat the United States.

And it all hinged upon the prophecy of one unnamed winkte seer who convinced the Cheyenne and Arapaho to join the Lakota in what came to be known as the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands.

[End Audiodrama]

So, that is the only known published story of a winkte from the 19th century, at least as far as I could find.

What do we learn from this story? Well, first, we see here confirmed that winkte mixed masculine and feminine traits: “half man and half woman” is how Grinnel records it. Second, we see that despite their feminine aspects, winkte did in fact engage in the masculine art of warfare. Third, we see that winkte were respected. The task entrusted to this seer was no small feat. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, so the story goes, were resolute against fighting, but rather than a chief giving a speech, or warriors making an intimidating display of prowess, they called upon a winkte to act almost like a diplomat between tribes. That would never have been done if they weren’t respected, not only among the Lakota but among the other tribes as well. Finally, we see that winkte had power – spiritual power, which in this case manifested as the ability to foretell the future.

Traditionally, winkte had many other ceremonial and social roles as well. What were those roles? Likely they were many-fold. Unfortunately, there is precious little else to draw upon in the historical record, and so now we must turn to more recent accounts from the reservation period. These testimonials represent a much-changed culture, having survived colonization and harrowing persecution to emerge with varying opinions and views. Nevertheless, these remain our best sources for a deeper understanding what it’s really like to be a winkte.

The Winkte in the Reservation Period

One of the best such sources is a series of interviews conducted in 1982 by anthropologist Walter Williams. Williams interviewed several Lakota traditionalists on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota, including some who identified as winkte themselves. Their names are concealed in the study, but they represent some of our best accounts of what winkte were and are like in traditionalist Lakota culture.

For example, Williams describes one interviewee as “a forty-nine year-old male who identifies as winkte. He dresses in pants, but they are women’s style. His entire dress and manner suggest androgyny, with a mixture of both male and female aspects. He has always filled a winkte role and been accepted as such by his family and the reservation at large. He takes a leading role in the tribal ceremonies” (Williams, p. 197).

This winkte interviewee describes his own tradition, emphasizing the ceremonial and social roles:

“Winkte are wakan, which means that they have power as special people. Medicine men go to winkte for spiritual advice. Winktes can also be medicine men, but they’re usually not because they already have the power. An example of this power is the sacred naming ceremony. It takes a winkte a full year to prepare for this. He starts with a fast and a vision quest, with sacrifices, to be fully sincere. He works with the family for the whole year, making preparations to [sic] the family and the child, and closely guiding the child for the year. A winkte can take on no more than about four children a year. Later, it is the winkte’s responsibility to look after that child. The winkte makes a medicine bag for the child, with a piece of the winkte’s skin and hair, and also a holy stone, which the child will carry for protection during the rest of his life. Traditionally it was the first born and the last born that got a winkte name, but nowadays it is very rare.” (Williams, p. 197-198)

These auspicious names were often bawdy and humorous, but of such spiritual power that they ought not be spoken out loud for fear of losing their power. Sitting Bull, Black Elk, and Crazy Horse are all said to have received such names (Lang, p. 180-181).

Other ceremonial roles of winkte included felling the tree for the center post of the Sun Dance, one of the holiest ceremonies of the Lakota. The winkte recited a prayer when it was put in place, and stamped down the earth around it (Lang, p. 179).

In accordance with such spiritual power, winkte were regarded with respect. Winkte could marry men and were considered prestigious spouses. What was normative in Lakota culture was a masculine and feminine pairing, and winkte typically filled the feminine role in the pair. This did not detract from the masculinity of the husband (Rifkin).

According to another of Williams’ interviewees, a 32 year-old winkte who dresses in men’s clothes but sports a woman’s hairstyle and bears a feminine manner: “Formerly, higher class winktes had up to twelve husbands. Chief Crazy Horse had one or two winktes for wives, as well as his female wives, but this has been kept quiet because Indians don’t want whites to criticize” (p. 196).

Clearly, this shows a high level of respect. At the same time, as in most cultures, respect could be uneven or contradictory. For example, although winktes were highly regarded, fathers might at the same time warn their sons against becoming one. DeMallie writes:

“During childhood, boys were frequently lectured on the importance of acting like men. Parents worried if their sons showed an inclination for girlish games and mannerisms, such boys were liable to grow up to be winkte, … men who dressed and behaved as if they were women. … These individuals were considered to be very unfortunate; the greatest tragedy that could befall a Lakota male was to become a winkte.” (DeMallie, p. 243).

Now, that is difficult to square with the social respect accorded to winkte. If winkte were so respected, why would parents worry about their sons becoming them? It could be that different Lakota had different views and DeMallie is only expressing one of them, but another possibility is the parents weren’t really afraid their sons would become winkte, but were simply using it as a sort of bogey to inculcate masculine virtues. It’s difficult to say.

What we can say, though, is that in the traditional view, you don’t become winkte by failing to “be a man.” Winkte are not failed men. On the contrary, you become winkte by a culturally-recognized set of experiences, usually involving visions, and here we see again the spiritual aspects. DeMallie adds that winkte:

“…were not necessarily held to be personally responsible for their status. These boys had dreams that caused them to become winkte. The nature of these dreams is poorly recorded….” (DeMallie, p. 243).

Some sources say the dream is of a wakan woman, others of a particular buffalo spirit, and still others of a male messenger that takes you into a tipi where one side has skin-dressing tools and other has bows and arrows (female- and male-coded items, respectively), and you must choose between them (DeMallie, p. 243). Regardless of the specific content of the dream, one thing is clear: status as winkte is conferred by spiritual agents.

In other words, in the traditional view, becoming winkte is not a personal choice. Nor is it an orientation or gender confirmation, nor a failure to be “man enough.” Rather, becoming winkte is a spiritual calling. You are touched by powers outside you, and that’s what makes you winkte.

Seen in this light, perhaps it makes a certain sort of sense why parents might respect winkte, yet not want their sons to become one: it may not have been what they envisioned for their sons, or even what their sons had envisioned for themselves. Yet, when the call comes, you answer. I can certainly imagine how that could be experienced as both a tragedy and a great honor at the same time.

Thus, this view may ultimately reinforce the respect traditionally accorded to those assigned sex as male but who were called to something different.

Meanwhile, there was no clear Two Spirits tradition among the Lakota for those assigned sex as female. Or was there?

Assigned-Female Winkte?

As we heard earlier from Isaiah Brokenleg, today winkte may come from those assigned male or female. However, traditionally, winkte came entirely from those assigned male.

Yet, there was one tradition that might be seen as possibly analogous: the Double Woman dreamer.

Lakota tradition teaches that the Winyan Nunpapika, or Double Woman, may appear in dreams as two women joined by a rope from which a baby dangles. DeMallie explains:

“It is clear that the female (life-giving) power of these women was symbolically dead. This is expressed by the baby seen dragging from the rope that joins the Double Woman together, symbolizing the loss of power to nurture life” (DeMallie, p. 247)

Women who dream of the Double Woman may be called to a different sort of life path:

“The Double Woman dreamer, to the extent that she might choose a lifestyle distinctly masculine (by not marrying, behaving aggressively, and soliciting promiscuous intercourse)” (De Mallie, p. 247).

In addition, it is said that a Double Woman dreamer might enact her vision publicly, walking through camp flashing mirrors, causing both men and women to fall prostrate and spit up black earth or plant material. While in such a trance, a Double Woman dreamer might obtain power to make shields and war medicines (Wissler, 1912, p. 94).

Here we can see the Double Woman dreamer shares with winkte the mixing of masculine and feminine traits. On the masculine side were aggressive and promiscuous behaviors, as well as a role touching upon warfare. Meanwhile, on the feminine side were the productive crafts. In addition to shield-making, the Double Woman dreamer was said to excel at quill and beadwork, a feminine trait shared with winkte.

Scholars disagree on how similar we should consider these two roles, however. DeMallie places the Double Woman dreamer “parallel” to the winkte, both being “intermediate categories between male and female” (p. 247). On the other hand, anthropologist Sabine Lang considers her solidly female, expressing not an intermediate category but an ambivalence within the feminine gender itself.

In any case, while the Double Woman dreamer may not have been considered a separate gender like the winkte, she clearly defied traditional feminine expectations. This makes her in some sense a possible counterpart to the winkte, even if not an equivalent. Like the winkte, she was possessed of spiritual powers, and traditionally commanded respect.

Respect for traditional ways has diminished over the decades, however. The winkte, in particular, has suffered a decline.

Are Winkte Respected Today?

By the time Williams conducted his interviews in the 1980s, it was already thought by many anthropologists that Two Spirit traditions had died out across the many tribes. Williams’ interviews proved that was not the case, yet it was true that they had suffered a severe loss of status. As colonization wormed its way into the culture across the 20th century, fewer and fewer respected the old ways.

One of Williams’ interviewees, this one a 25-year-old medicine man, reports: “Traditionally, winktes were both joked about and respected at the same time. But when people forgot the traditional ways and the traditional medicine, by going to missionaries and boarding schools, then they began to look down on winktes and lose respect. The missionaries and government officials said winktes were no good, and they tried to get winktes to change their ways. I heard sad stories of winktes committing suicide, hanging themselves rather than change. The 1920s and 1930s were the turning point in the winkte’s decline, and after that those who remained would put on men’s clothing” (Williams, p. 194).

It is notable in this story that the winktes who committed suicide chose to do so by hanging, which in Lakota culture is considered a feminine way to die. In other words, though persecuted, they chose to be true to themselves until the end.

Attitudes toward winkte within the tribe are perhaps more favorable today than in the 20s and 30s, but it is still very much a mixed bag. Another winkte interviewee reports being called a “disgrace to the Indian race” by a half-Native woman, to whom the winkte retorted, “A century ago, I would have been considered that much more special” (Williams, p. 198).

Thus, respect for winkte is an uneven matter today, but the prestige and spiritual power accorded to them traditionally is unquestioned. And this enables many of them, despite whatever misgivings may exist today, to live lives enmeshed in their communities.

A final quote from Williams’ study makes this point vividly. This comes from the first interviewee we heard from earlier, the 49-year-old winkte who spoke of the sacred naming ceremony. This winkte poignantly describes a special emphasis on community and family, even while also sharing personal struggles:

“I love children, and I used to worry that I would be alone without children. The Spirit said he would provide some. Later, some kids of drunks who did not care for them, were brought to me by neighbors. The kids began spending more and more time here, so finally the parents asked me to adopt them. In all, I have raised seven orphan children.

“I worked as a nurse, and a cook in an old age home. I cook for funerals and wakes too. People bring their children to me for special winkte names, and give me gifts. If I show my generosity, then others help me in return. Once I asked the spirit if my living with a man and loving him was bad. The spirit answered that it was not bad because I had a right to release my feelings and express love for another, that I was good because I was generous and provided a good home for my children. I want to be remembered most for the two values that my people hold dearest: generosity and spirituality. If you say anything about me, say those two things.” (Williams, p. 198-199).

That is how this winkte wanted to be remembered: for generosity and spirituality. And that also sums up the traditional role of winkte in general: respected for the gifts they use for the benefit of their tribe, gifts conferred upon them by vision as part of a spiritual vocation.

And you know, that really illustrates just how different a Two Spirit tradition can be from majority-culture concepts like gay, trans, gender fluid, or other queer categories. In stark contrast to the assumption of the school in The Miseducation of Cameron Post that taught Adam Red Eagle to “pray the gay away”, winkte really are quite different from any modern category of queerness. While some Lakota today do use “winkte” as a synonym for queer today, traditionally it is much more than that. It is about being part of a community and a spiritual world.

Also in contrast to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it’s not about being eccentric, like a “Native American David Bowie.” It is about being different, but not like some alienated Ziggy Stardust. Rather, it’s about being different within a community that has a place for you. It’s not eccentric but mainstream, not alienated but integrated.

As Lakota winkte Reverend Isaiah Brokenleg says, “When you’re coming out as two-spirited, it’s much more of a coming in. We often come into the sense of belonging. We come into our understanding of the two-spirited identity and what our role and place is within our communities and family. It’s not a declaration. It’s a presentation to our communities that we are ready to serve. Within my culture, I can be Indian, gay and winkte. I don’t have to leave a part of myself behind” (Kulkarni).

[music]

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, folks. I hope you learned something; I certainly did.

That’s it for our series Sex on the Great Plains, and that’s it for our show, The History of Sex. It’s been a great run. And I really couldn’t have done it without all of you, the listeners, supporting me. Your write-in comments, your fun portrait ideas, and your gentle corrections when I’ve messed up have all helped make this show the quality work that it is. I feel good about how far we’ve come together.

And, you know, we may still release the occasional episode on an irregular basis, so stay subscribed.

Also, if you would like to get a portrait or enjoy the back-catalog of episodes ad-free, you can still sign up on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I’ll draw you mixing and matching your masculine and feminine traits, making war or making bead crafts as you darn well please, or whatever you want. I’ll make you look awesome, I promise. Just go to www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.

And by the way, the Patreon proceeds collected during the Sex on the Great Plains series will be donated to One Spirit, a volunteer organization helping the Lakota meet their goal of achieving food sovereignty and self-sufficiency in their communities.

Special thank you once again to Blanca Iris Acuña of The Eagle and the Raven Band, featuring Ki’ Earth Spirit for contributing today’s theme music. You can check them out on Youtube for more.

Alright, everyone, that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this show, and I hope you join me in my next creative endeavor, whatever that may be. Feel free to drop me a line anytime you like at btnewberg@gmail.com.

For The History of Sex, this is B. T. Newberg, signing off.

[music]

References

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Audio Credits

Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod.

Episode theme music courtesy of The Eagle and the Raven Band (feat. Ki’ Earth Spirit)

Other audio from:

“Rebel Rebel” cover by School, written by David Bowie

“The Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands” audiodrama mixed from:

Battling Sioux Singers” from Powwow Times

Horse Running Sound Effect” from Nagaty Studios

7 Free Horse Sound Effects” from SoundHelp

Horse Whinney Giddy Up” from AngryGeezus

Wind Blowing Through Grass” from Nature Sounds

Primitive Music 1: Making an Elderberry Whitle (Survival Whistle)” from Make It Primitive

Dead Body Hitting Ground Sound Effect” from Crazy Films

Heavy Earth/Rock Ability Sound Effect” from Gravity Sound

Western Gun Battle Sound Effect” from Chander Prakesh

Cavalry Charge Trumpet” from Free Sound Effects

Probably the Most Realistic Cavalry Charge You Will Ever See” from EXOmos2710

Wild West Battle Feat. Cowboys and Indians Sound Effect” from Sound Effects Library

All narration and voice acting by B. T. Newberg

Image Credits

Dream Catcher silhouette from Public Domain Pictures

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