Happy pride season to everyone and especially to the whole LGBTTIQQA2S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Asexual, Two-Spirit) community reading this newsflash! Though individual Indigenous peoples, and our many cultures throughout this continent, have our own languages for these concepts we will use the term Two-Spirit for this piece, as it is a widely accepted umbrella term. In celebration of pride this message will focus on the context of Two-Spirit and re-creating safety for gender diverse people to re-enter our circles.
Prior to contact, diverse Indigenous nations had many ways of conceptualizing gender which extended beyond the present mainstream cultural view of the gender binary. People with non-binary gender expressions had unique social roles, and like all roles in the community, they were important and respected. Some people were traditional Knowledge Keepers, Healers or Storytellers as part of their Two-Spirit roles. Women’s roles were also distinct, and again they were important and respected. Having distinct roles did not put Two-Spirit or women at a disadvantage, as it does under the current patriarchal system; in fact, these positions were often more powerful in many ways than those of men.
Throughout colonization the settler construct of the gender binary was violently imposed through the Indian Act, residential schools, Christian missions, and the creation of a heteropatriarchal system of power, degrading women and attempting to erase Two-Spirit from the Indigenous social and cultural fabric. The imposing of the gender binary was arguably the most powerful tool of colonization, and has left Indigenous communities culturally askew with cis-gendered heterosexual males dramatically polarized, with much more power, from everyone else in this imposed and enforced power dynamic. This has left our communities extremely imbalanced compared to their original structures; with much less care and respect given to Two-Spirits, women, children and Elders. Indigenous peoples’ most pressing and severe health and social ills can be directly linked back to forced assimilation into the gender binary. I have provided some suggested reading at the bottom for further learning.
Two-Spirit is a translation of the term Niizh-Manidoowag, which is a direct translation and also refers to a person who embodies both feminine and masculine spirits. Niizh-Manidoowag is a term of the Anishinaabe people whose territory span five provinces and eight states with most inhabiting the Great Lakes regions and the prairies. This term has been widely accepted as an umbrella term for Indigenous people who identify as LGBTTIQQA since 1990, when it was adopted in Winnipeg during an Intertribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian Conference, although there is still vast diversity in how different nations conceptualize gender variance. For many of those who identify with the term Two-Spirit, it is a way of reclaiming a cultural role in society and coming back into the community circle in a more traditional way. It is an act of Indigenous self-determination that is unique for each individual. The keeping and sharing of traditional cultural knowledge and activities, as well as the revitalization of Indigenous languages are interwoven in the healing of the wounds that have resulted from generations of erasure and violence.
What is equally important in resetting the balance for our communities is to support, and hold accountable, our cis-gendered heterosexual male friends and relatives to re-learn their traditional respectful roles in community and create safe spaces for them to return to the circle in a good way. Even further beyond this is to support health and social research that acknowledges genders beyond the colonial binary. There is a lot that we need to know about Two-Spirit realities in order for any challenges to be addressed in concrete and meaningful ways.
So while you’re out celebrating pride, be mindful of the context of our Two-Spirit colleagues, clients, relatives and friends. That’s what cultural safety is about!
With regards to being an Indigenous woman, my auntie once told me, “You’re an Indigenous woman. You were born political. They never wanted us to be here. The fact that you’re here and you are who you are is political. It’s an act of resistance. You are decolonizing just by being who you are.” I want to say the same thing to my Two-Spirit colleagues and friends, and I also want to say thank you, for being here, for being who you are, and for helping to bring our communities back to what the Nation that I belong to calls Anishinaabe mino-bimaadiziwin, the good life, or the healthy way of life.
Evelyn George, RM
Indigenous Lead, Midwives Association of BC
UBC Midwifery Students Association Indigenous Representative
Hunt, S. (2015) Embodying Self-Determination Beyond the Gender Binary. In Determinants of Indigenous Peoples’ Health in Canada (p104-119). Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
This chapter is followed by an excellent reference list, please contact Evelyn for a copy.
NCCAH Webinar Series. Two Spirit! Let’s Hear It! An Introduction to Two-Spirit Health. Dr Sara Hunt, University of British Columbia.
Native Youth Sexual Health Network Two-Spirit Resource Directory
This resource directory has information about regional Two-Spirit societies, posters, and also has a reading and video list.
The many Elders, Knowledge Keepers, Storytellers, friends, relatives and colleagues we have sat with over many candid conversations. Miigwetch, Huy chexw aa, Thank you!