A Brief History on Two-Spiritedness & Transgender Identities in Indigenous Culture

As Pride Month and National Indigenous History Month near their end, our team will continue to publish original content to educate and celebrate both pride and Indigenous history/culture. This article takes a look at two-spiritedness in Indigenous culture.

The term two-spirit has been utilized both pre- and post-colonialism, with a variety of meanings depending on the time period, and the Indigenous culture utilizing it. Different Indigenous cultures have their own variations on the term, but they all have been historically used to describe similar characteristics that are exhibited by two-spirit people such as gender variance, specialized work roles, same-sex attraction, and spiritual identity.

Two-Spiritedness Pre-Colonialism

Some of the terms associated with various Indigenous cultures pre-colonialism are illustrated below:

Figure 1 – Two-Spirit Terms

Let it be noted, that while some of these terms (such as the Mi’kmaq term geenumu gessalagee – meaning “he loves men”) refer to two-spiritedness in a way that is specific to sexuality, many two-spirit people did not necessarily view themselves as gay, as sexual relationships between a two-spirit and a non-two-spirit were considered to be hetero-normative. While European colonists considered two-spirit individuals to be homosexuals, and the modern usage of the term can be used to describe them as such, historically, two-spirited people did not simply identify as either homosexual or heterosexual.

Two-spirit was also a term used to refer to spiritual identity. Many Indigenous cultures believed two-spirited individuals to be given a gift. That they had received some sort of supernatural intervention in the form of dreams and visions. As such, these individuals were often selected for special spiritual roles as healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders. Historically, two-spirited individuals were also viewed as great sources of knowledge, acting as tradition keepers and storytellers.

Two-Spiritedness & Colonialism

From the 17th to 19th century, European missionaries and explorers wrote about their interactions with two-spirited people. In their records, these colonizers often used the term berdarche to refer to two-spirited individuals, which historically was used to describe the younger partner in a homosexual relationship with an age gap. By the early 20th century, berdarche became the accepted anthropological term for two-spirit people, and over time it became a general term for male homosexuality.

By the turn of the 19th century, fewer accounts of two-spirit people were recorded, as colonization, crusades, and cultural assimilation (including the residential school system) had been successful in silencing or at least suppressing, two-spirit traditions and beliefs in certain Indigenous cultures.

However, in Canada in 1990, the term “two-spirit” was established during the 3rd annual intertribal Native American/First Nations Gay & Lesbian Conference. The origin comes from the Ojibwa words niizh manitoag meaning two spirits, and was chosen in an attempt to distance Indigenous peoples from non-Indigenous peoples, and from words like bedarche and gay.

Contemporary Two-Spiritedness

Two-spiritedness was a complex identity and role that individuals took on, that modern day two-spirited individuals have begun to reclaim – including traditions relating to gender identities, sexual preferences, spiritual identities, and traditional gender roles. The term is used today to broadly refer to the Indigenous LGBTQ+ community, with some two-spirited peoples using the term LGBTQ2S or LGBTIQQ2S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersexual, Queer, Questioning & Two-Spirited) to incorporate two-spirited individuals within the larger LGBTQ+ community. This includes the creation of two-spirit pride flags (see figures )

Since the 1990s, awareness about two-spirit people have increased both within and outside of Indigenous culture and communities. Organizations were established, such as the National Confederacy of Two-Spirit Organizations (NC2SO) which seeks to educate the public about two-spirit traditions, and serve as a source for support for LGBTQ+ individuals. As well, in 2013 they worked alongside the Northeast Spirit Society to create a resource directory for two-spirit groups within North America. However, despite growing awareness, some two-spirit people continue to experience sexual and/or gender discrimination and violence in communities unaccepting of their lifestyle.

In 2013, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust announced the launch of the Two Spirits, One Voice program designed by two-spirited people from across Canada. The program was created with the aim to “bolster allyship with indigenous communities and educate youth, police and community service providers on the historical and contemporary roles of Two Spirit Canadians” while highlighting two-spirited voices, reclaiming traditions, and creating safer spaces for two-spirited peoples.

There are many key elements to the current two-spirit movement, including the reclamation of pre-colonial traditions; providing health counselling, advice of elders & participation in sharing circles; storytelling; and art. These mediums have provided two-spirit people with a way to express their identities, traditions, and stories with non-two-spirit individuals.

Another form of expression that has become more common in recent years, is drag. This was illustrated to the general public in 2020 when Nlaka’pamux Indigenous drag queen Ilona Verley was on Canada’s Drag Race. Ilona may not have won the grand prize, but she made history as the first two-spirited person to compete on the show.

Conclusion

While two-spiritedness was celebrated pre-colonialism and has begun to be celebrated once again, colonialism and the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples in North American meant to erase the beliefs and traditions associated with it. However, we are happy to report that this was unsuccessful, with two-spiritedness being celebrated and understood now more than ever.

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