I wanted to like Gregory D. Smithers’ 2022 book Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America. It was my first Two-Spirit read, so I felt compelled to like the book due to the subject matter. But I found myself plodding through it for over a month, never seeming to have the energy or motivation to keep going.
It felt essential for me to learn more about Two-Spirit people, especially with so many right-wing pundits believing today that “every single person on Earth” believed in a rigid gender binary “up until 15 seconds ago” as of early 2022. I knew then that many Indigenous cultures included gender nonconforming people for millennia, but I didn’t know that white people actually knew that for centuries. Fifteen seconds my ass, Matt Walsh.
In fact, two thirds of Reclaiming Two-Spirits is colonizers’ accounts of their encounters with Native people. Smithers shares example after example of European invaders’ open disgust at Native sexuality and the dozens if not hundreds of different genderfluid identities between tribes. It seems that in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, the common conception of Indigenous people in white society was that they were sexually backward and spiritually broken because they didn’t abide by our arbitrary Christian gender roles. (And Smithers does give Christian missionaries the blame they deserve for shaming Indigenous folks and trying to convert them.)
It’s strange to me, then, that conservatives argue that queerness is a brand new fad. Why would they spend centuries condemning Native gender fluidity—to the point that many Native tribes today have homophobia and transphobia epidemics—and then turn around and say no one was ever genderqueer until now? Maybe this is one of many reasons why they are so against teaching history. Maybe it’s not that strange after all.
Kinship and resilience
Even so, telling Native stories requires a careful balance of revealing to white people how much pain we have caused to those whose land we stole, versus painting Native folks as victims to be pitied, people who do nothing but suffer. Smithers could have balanced better. At the end of each (repetitive) section of this European invader saying this horrible thing about that genderfluid Indigenous person, he usually repeated something along the lines of:
The spectrum of blended gender roles and fluid sexual identities that sustained the Ojibwe and scores of other Native societies helped people maintain balance in their family and kinship relationships. The resilience of those connections cannot be understated; they gave meaning to kinship, constituting the foundation of social and spiritual life.Gregory D. Smithers, Reclaiming Two-Spirits, p. 92
Smithers showed that he really, really liked words like “kinship” and “resilience.” It felt very much like a white man trying to sound progressive as he described Indigenous cultures, because it was. Not being Ojibwe or Native (or even American), he didn’t have any specifics to share besides these buzzwords that he repeatedly fell back on. Being a fellow clueless white person, I don’t have room to talk, but I’m also not writing a book about Two-Spirit people.
A book as good as its author
I made a note to myself as I started reading that I’d like to know if Indigenous readers actually liked this book; after all, their opinion carries more weight here than mine does. The two Goodreads reviews from users who appear to be Two-Spirit (and to be Two-Spirit, you do have to be Native) aren’t positive.
incredibly, heartbreakingly difficult to listen to/read. written and compiled by a non-indigenous, non-native, non-two-spirit person (addressed at the very beginning of the book). the text is clearly deeply researched; however, it is completely inundated with colonial violences against two-spirits and only sporadically focuses on two-spirits ourselves. i went into this read with a totally different hope of what this book would be about.A Goodreads Reviewer
The “contemporary historian” might want to talk to the Indigenous people he quotes. The book is promoting something needed but I hope it’s legacy is that it provokes an Indigenous person to clean up Smithers’ work.Ia Kholan Bull on Goodreads
Selfishly, after reading these I don’t feel as bad about not liking Smithers’ book when Two-Spirit folks didn’t even like it. It’s ambitious to try to cover the full history (actually, histories) of all of gender fluidity in Native America, especially as a straight, cis, white Australian dude. Smithers, then, ended up with wide-ranging, sometimes meandering, very repetitive examples of European violence and prejudice against Native people, ending with the story of the AIDS crisis in Indian Country and a brief overview of the movement for gay rights in Native tribes.
The information was objectively important, but Reclaiming Two-Spirits could have been so much better. But what it lacked most was an author qualified to write it in the first place.