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Goal of campaign:

The goal of this campaign is to create spaces that validate and celebrate Two Spirits, their identities, traditions, and cultures in mainstream, queer, and Indigenous spaces. This campaign hopes to make it more accessible to agencies, schools, and community organizations to include Two Spirit people in their conversations and events, through an online learning tool for individual learning while also offering access to our speaker’s bureau, which is made up of Two Spirit educators.

Written by Kole Peplinskie
Who are Two Spirit people?

History of Two Spirit People

All across Turtle Island, there are documented accounts of multiple gender roles beyond just man and woman, often acknowledging more than two genders. In all accounts, Two Spirit people were respected by their communities, valued for their gifts, and accepted for who they were. Within many of our communities, Two Spirit people were regarded as third or fourth genders, with some some Nations recognizing up to six genders, and in almost all cultures were regarded and revered for the roles and responsibilities given to them. Third and fourth gender are terms that were historically used to describe Two Spirit people, acknowledging within our traditions that there are more than only the two genders of man and woman. They were considered to have the power of both male and female spirits, and were therefore seen as having a close relationship with the Creator. Two Spirit people were often healers, visionaries, and medicine people within our nations. They were regarded as fundamental components of our communities, cultures, and societies.

When the settlers arrived, they were confused by Two Spirit people and used the gender binary, based on biology, as a violent tool of colonialism to assimilate Indigenous peoples into their Western European colonialist cultures. Due to this colonization, Two Spirit peoples’ traditions have been lost or hidden. As a direct result, Two Spirit people experience violence in their own communities due to an internalization of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Two Spirit people are often forced to move to larger cities in an attempt to find a more accepting community and to build positive support networks. However, once there they will still experience homophobia, discrimination, and prejudice based on their gender and sexual identities as well as racism. Being disconnected from family, community, and culture as well as experiencing homophobia, transphobia, discrimination, and racism means that many Two Spirit people, youth especially, can be considered to be at risk. Two Spirit people can face rejection from both Indigenous communities as well as the mainstream LGBTQ communities, and this rejection can result in Two Spirit people being at a higher risk for homelessness, experiencing issues with food security, and substance use. This creates a greater vulnerability and can lead to a higher risk of sexual exploitation, suicide, and disease, in addition to feelings of isolation, depression, and loneliness.

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Where did the term Two Spirit come from?

Even though the trauma caused by colonialism is intergenerational, so is our resiliency and survivance. In 1990, at the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference in Winnipeg, the term Two Spirit was coined. Two Spirit is a neo-traditional movement with the goal being to reclaim the ideas and traditions that had historically valued individuals who were believed to be born with both male and female spirits. This term was created by and for Indigenous LGBTQ people as a way to reflect our past, and the direction of our futures.

Today, Two Spirit people are Indigenous people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, other gendered, and third/fourth gendered individuals who walk carefully within the worlds and between the genders. Although Two Spirit is sometimes used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ Indigenous people, it is important to note that not every Indigenous person who identifies as LGBTQ will use the term Two Spirit, and not everyone who uses the term Two Spirit will identify as LGBTQ. Some people use the term Two Spirit in order to distance themselves from colonial society. Others may identify with a nation-specific term, as many Indigenous languages have words for the gender diversity traditionally found in their communities. Like any sexual or gender identity, the term Two Spirit can take on a different meaning for different people. For example, some Indigenous folks use the term as a way of identifying their queer sexual orientation, and others use it to explain their transgender identity. In each case, the term Two Spirit allows the Indigenous person to talk about their identity in the context of their cultural identity, and to resist the colonial definitions of sexuality and gender.

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Why do we need inclusion?

When communities aren’t actively, intentionally, and deliberately including marginalized groups within themselves, they are unintentionally excluding them. Proper inclusion recognizes and respects the differences between people and does not try to absorb or assimilate one group into another. The first step in building an inclusive and diverse space is to open it up and make it somewhere where folks feel welcome and represented. This is definitely a good and important first step to building an inclusive space, but inclusion is about a lot more than simply inviting people into a space. Thinking of inclusion in that way presents it as a dominant group giving marginalized people something they already should have every right to. To create sustainable inclusive spaces, there must be a sharing of ownership and decision-making that doesn’t just focus on the needs of the majority, but that focuses on the needs of everyone.

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When talking about Two Spirit people, they can often experience exclusion from both LGBTQ+ movements and their own communities due to the internalization of homophobia and transphobia as a result of colonialism. The exclusion of Two Spirit people and their teachings is the perpetuation of colonialism today and creates the feeling of needing to choose between being LGBTQ or Indigenous. This disconnect from community and culture, as well as experiencing homophobia, transphobia, and racism means that many Two Spirit people — youth especially — are at a higher risk of becoming homeless, experiencing issues with food security, and have a greater vulnerability to sexual exploitation, suicide, disease, and other health and mental health related problems. Due to this systematic exclusion of Two Spirit people, there are no statistics specific to Two Spirit people on these issues, as most Two Spirit people are either only categorized based on their race and the binary gender they were assigned at birth.
Therefore, actively creating spaces where Two Spirit people are valued, accepted and respected are really important to negate the negative and internalized feelings that many Two Spirits feel. How we create and navigate spaces can greatly impact those around us, and taking the time to consciously make an effort to include and respect Two Spirit people can go a long way into ensuring their safety.

How you can be inclusive to Two Spirits and LGBTQ Indigenous folks

Being inclusive and building safe(r) spaces means recognizing that Two Spirit people exist, and have always existed, in Indigenous communities on Turtle Island. It means making an effort to understand the history and the trauma that has led Two Spirit individuals to feel isolated in both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By doing these few simple things, you can start the process of actively creating inclusive spaces for Two Spirit, queer, and trans Indigenous people.

  1. Inviting and welcoming Two Spirit individuals to events.
  2. Listening to people’s experiences and validating those experiences
  3. Have Two Spirit people share prominent roles in your events and organizations
  4. Educating yourself on the experiences and history Two Spirit people.
  5. Reflect on the stereotypes and assumptions you hold on LGBTQ and Indigenous peoples, and work to undo those. By doing this work we can work to create safe(r) spaces, free of shame, violence, stereotypes, bullying, racism, cis-sexism, and heterosexism.
  6. Be aware of language and use gender inclusive language

Language is a powerful tool; it can either be used to bring people down or bring people together. Be mindful of how you address groups of people, and try not to assume one’s gender identity or pronouns based on appearance. For example, instead of saying “Welcome ladies and gentlemen”, instead say “Welcome friends/folks!” Just by being mindful of how we talk about gender can have a great impact on if the space is perceived as safe or not. If we normalize using gender neutral language and asking people for their pronouns, then we can avoid folks feeling uncomfortable and unsafe.

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Why do you use the word Indigenous?

This campaign uses the term Indigenous as an inclusive, international term based on self-identification in reference to individuals and communities who identify as being First Nation, Métis, or Inuit, as an alternative to Aboriginal, which is a term defined by the Government of Canada.

What does Turtle Island mean?

Turtle Island refers to the continent of North America and is based on the creation story, which you can read more about here.

I’ve seen the term Two Spirit spelled like two spirit, two-spirit, Two-Spirit, and 2 Spirit . What is the correct spelling?

All the above spellings of the term are correct; in this learning tool I used the spelling “Two Spirit” and decided to keep it consistent throughout the resource for style and clarity purposes. I could have done the same with any of the spellings. Also the abbreviation 2S is used in the LGBTQ+ acronym.

Who can identify as Two Spirit? Can white people or non-Indigenous people use this term?

Two Spirit was a term created for and by LGBTQ Indigenous people to reclaim the ideas and traditions that had been lost through colonization. This is word allows Indigenous people an alternative to the Western terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, etc. and offers a way to resist the colonial definitions of ourselves. Language often comes from the colonizers, and can become its own prison if we are not constantly creating new words and uncovering ancient ways to describe our reality. Two Spirit is a term that is available to anyone who self-identifies as being Indigenous to Turtle Island.

Although the sentiment of the term Two Spirit might be shared by non-Indigenous folks, it is important to remember that this term is created for and by Indigenous LGBTQ folks to undo some of the damage done by colonialism. When people who are not Indigenous appropriate and steal this term, they are continuing the colonial legacy that is based on centuries of theft, not just of words, but of land, resources, traditions, and lives.

How do I know if I am Two Spirit?

Like with any identity, only you can know if it fits for you. If you are of Indigenous descent and are LGBTQ identified, then you can claim the identity Two Spirit and work towards learning the traditions and your role specific to your nation.

Is Two Spirit a neo-tradition and what does that mean?

The Two Spirit movement is a neo-tradition, meaning that it has historical and traditional roots, however due to colonialism, some of those roots and teachings have been lost. Therefore, to reclaim some of those lost traditions, the term Two Spirit was coined and the movement was started to start this gender decolonization and reclamation.

How is Two Spirit different than being queer or transgender?

Two Spirit people are Indigenous people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, other gendered, and third/fourth gendered individuals who walk carefully within and between the genders. Although Two Spirit is sometimes used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ Indigenous people, it is important to note that not every Indigenous person who identifies as LGBTQ will identify as Two Spirit, and not everyone who identifies as Two Spirit will identify as LGBTQ. Two Spirit is a term that can be used by Indigenous folks as an alternative to colonial terms of sexuality and gender. The term and movement create a space where one can express and talk about their identity in terms of their gender, sexuality, and race/culture all at once, whereas terms like transgender or queer tend to refer solely to one’s gender or sexuality.

Is Two Spirit is the same as intersex?

Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy (or, more rarely, chromosomal arrangement) that doesn’t seem to fit the “typical” definitions of female or male. These sexual characteristics can’t be classified as clearly or exclusively male or female according to hegemonic definitions of sex.

While some intersex folks do identify as queer or transgender, some do not and it is important to not assume how one identifies. Therefore, someone who lives at the intersections of being intersex and Indigenous can choose to use the term Two Spirit if they so desire.

I’m indigenous but from Europe, can I use the term?

The term Two Spirit was coined by and for Indigenous people of Turtle Island, and the use of the term by folks who aren’t Indigenous to Turtle Island can be harmful. If you are Indigenous from another region, this campaign would suggest looking into your own culture for their traditions relating to gender roles, as many Indigenous cultures across the world have their own specific and even sometimes similar traditions relating to gender roles beyond the gender binary.

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