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.
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.