During Pride month, we find it important to talk about the Two Spirit and LGBTQ members of our community. The contributions of Two Spirit and LGBTQ Indigenous people cannot be overstated, and their presence in our communities can not be over-appreciated. We have compiled an extensive list of Two Spirit materials, looking at how health, community, decolonization, and re-Indigenization impacts the Two Spirit and Indigiqueer community.
Two Spirit is a pan-Indigenous term that came out of the Third Spiritual Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Native People in Winnipeg in 1990. The term originates from the word niizh manitoag from the Northern Algonquin dialect.1 It is “popularly used by Indigenous people to identify a range of roles and identities which may span, and even complicate, distinctions between gender, sex and sexuality.”2 Often, Western categories and binaries are unable to properly capture the lived experience of Indigenous peoples within their own communities and cultures.
Prior to colonization, gender and sexual variance was both common and well-respected within many Indigenous communities. Around two thirds of 200 recorded Indigenous languages spoken in North America have terms for people who are neither men nor women.3 Many of those terms describe the interconnected nature between the cultural and spiritual roles that a person plays in their community, and their expressions of gender and sexuality. Much of how Two Spirit identities were understood were built directly into the language of each nation.4 These terms are difficult to fully translate to English, especially when decontextualized from complexities of each Indigenous language, so the loss of language is partially to blame for the loss of understanding of Two Spirit roles. 5
For example, languages like Ojibwe and Dakota have no gendered pronouns. While they do have words to describe men and women, the language focuses on relationality rather than gender when speaking about or to someone.
Two Spirit individuals held important ceremonial, political, and spiritual roles in their communities; they gathered medicines, made art, went to war, and served as advisors. This confused colonizers who made contact with Indigenous peoples. Many of their documented observations describe Two Spirit individuals being treated as holy, with their opinion respected highly in decision making.6 They describe variations of gender and sexual expression that the English language has no or few words for.7
As colonization continued, the suppression and subjugation of Two Spirit people began. Indigenous people expressing gender variance began to be hunted by colonizers. Western ideals of the gender binary, homophobia, and transphobia were pushed onto Indigenous people, especially at boarding schools, residential schools, and other Christian institutions.8 Gender variance outside of the Western binary was punished severely.
Modern Two Spirit and gender variant Indigenous people still suffer from the reverberation of that suppression and punishment. Especially in the last century, many LGBT and Two Spirit natives have felt pulled between two worlds; on one side, their connection to their Indigenous culture may be filled with danger from the lasting effects of colonization, bringing homophobia and transphobia to their homes and community spaces. On the other side, the Western LGBT community often erases their Indigeneity, their experiences overlooked and their gender and sexual expression left without the proper wording or understanding from those outside of their Indigenous cultures.9 Indigenous people have frequently felt the need to assimilate to settler culture in order to be able to express their gender and sexuality.
However, the needs of Two Spirit individuals are often different from the needs of LGBT people who aren’t Indigenous. For example, some argue that if “‘the goal of coming out is to set oneself apart from the mainstream, then this would fail Two Spirit goals,’ which center a desire to be ‘incorporated into cultural practices’ and to be ‘brought into the circle.’”10 Individuals have often felt the need to choose between being Indigenous or LGBT, under the false pretenses that the identities were incompatible. The goal of many Two Spirit people is to recognize and be accepted in their embodiment of both Indigenous and queer identities.
With the decolonization and re-Indigenization of gender and sexual identity of recent years, including vocabulary around the Two Spirit identity, there are more and more spaces being opened for people looking to be in community with other Indigenous people who share and respect their gender and sexual identity. Two Spirit organizations, powwows, and events are becoming more common. Many spaces that have remained traditional are beginning to recognize genders outside of the binary as being traditional, and are beginning to reintegrate spaces for Two Spirit, Indigiqueer, and gender noncomforming people.
Since gender and sexual variance was the norm for many Indigenous communities prior to contact, the act of expressing Indigenous gender variance and sexuality is an act of decolonization. It is a recognition of Indigenous lifeways and roles that were taken away during colonization, and a choice to re-Indigenize personal expression and community participation. As Emma Tomb states, “how the Two-Spirit identity works as a form of decolonization is that it not only serves as a specific cultural connection to a spiritual role, but also removes Gay, Lesbian, and often male and female notions from Queer Indigenous people’s lives. It instead directly replaces these social constructions built by the settler state with historical tribal knowledge.”11
Reclaiming Indigenous gender identities is not only personally fulfilling, but communally fulfilling. Indigenous communities are missing spaces and roles traditionally held by Two Spirits. The reintegration of gender and sexual variance as an Indigenous lifeway, and the roles held by those expressing them, is important to the progress of Indigenous people. It is traditional.
It is also important to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people. As members of minority populations, marginalized not only by their ethnicity and culture but their gender and sexuality as well, Two Spirit people often experience high rates of health-related issues. Two Spirit and queer Indigenous people face underrepresentation and underservicing in health services. Many Indigenous people facing homophobia and transphobia are removed from their homes and communities, even though “safe and stable housing and connection to family and community are significant health determinants for Aboriginal people.”12 Access to culture, family, and community are often linked as important factors in the health of Indigenous people, yet Western concepts of oppression often remove Two Spirits and queer Natives from their ties to their communities.
It is not only an act of decolonization and re-Indigenization to reclaim and reintegrate Two Spirits and gender variance into Indigenous lifeways, it is an act of survival. Calling Two Spirit and LGBT Natives back to the circle is a way to strengthen Indigenous communities. It is a way to protect youth, support communities, and truly care for “all my relations.”13 There are traditional roles that remain unfilled without Two Spirits, and spaces that remain empty. The act of embracing Two Spirits, both personally and collectively, is one that will support not only the lives of Two Spirit individuals, but entire Indigenous communities.
Article written by Em Matson (they/them), with a tremendous amount of collaboration with Evie Odden (she/her).
1 “History of Two-Spirit” 2020
2 Hunt 2016, 5
3 Hunt 2016, 7
4 Hunt 2016, 7
5 Hunt 2016, 7; Hunt 2016, 9
6 Picq and Tikuna 2019, 63
7 Picq and Tikuna 2019, 64
8 Hunt 2016, 9
9 Hunt 2016, 9; Tomb 2019
10 Gilley 2006, 66
11 Tomb 2018, 24
12 Hunt 2016, 13
13 Hunt 2016, 4
Gilley, Brian Joseph. 2006. Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
“History of Two-Spirit.” Last modified October 14, 2020. https://www.queerevents.ca/queer-history/article/history-two-spirit
Hunt, Sarah. 2016. “An Introduction to the Health of Two-Spirit People: Historical, Contemporary, and Emergent Issues.” Prince George, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health. https://www.nccih.ca/docs/emerging/RPT-HealthTwoSpirit-Hunt-EN.pdf.
Picq, Manuela L., and Josi Tikuna. 2019. “Indigenous Sexualities: Resisting Conquest and Translation.” In Sexuality and Translation in World Politics, edited by Caroline Cottet and Manuela Lavinas Picq, 57 – 71. https://www.e-ir.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/
Tomb, Emma. 2018. “Two-Spirit Development: How Indigenous Gender and Sexuality Result in Decolonization.” Student Research and Creative Projects 2018-2019. 14.