Two-Spirit Identity and Indigenous Knowledge: Reflections on Indigenous History Month and Pride Month

Photo: "Reimagined Waterways" by Amanda Amour-Lynx, a Two-Spirit Mi’kmaq interdisciplinary artist, social worker, and educator. Her work can be found at www.amour-lynx.art.

June is both Indigenous History Month and Pride Month in Canada. The designation of a month to honour the history, heritage, diversity, and contributions of Indigenous Peoples, and to celebrate LGBTQ2S+ identities, is important for recognition, visibility, and raising awareness about ongoing inequalities. The coincidental alignment of celebrating Indigeneity and diverse gender and sexual identities also means giving particular attention to Two-Spirited peoples and their lived experiences. Two-Spirited peoples face unique challenges when confronting racism within the LGBTQ+ community and homophobia within modern Indigenous communities. This has had devastating impacts on the cultural identity, traditional roles, and knowledge systems of Two-Spirited peoples. Therefore, they must be at the centre of our collective consciousness throughout Indigenous History Month and Pride Month. As a non-Indigenous queer woman of colour, I write this piece in an attempt to highlight the resistance and revitalization of Two-Spirit Indigenous identity and Traditional Knowledge (TK) and the need for more Two-Spirit representation and participation in knowledge generation. 

Celebrating sexual and gender diversity in Indigenous communities is no novel concept. Before European contact, many Indigenous communities acknowledged the existence of multiple genders, and Two-Spirited peoples were revered for their gender fluidity, spiritual powers, and unique skills and insights. Two-Spirited peoples were important figures in pre-colonial Indigenous communities and often held roles as healers, medicine persons, name giversspiritual gate keepers, and social mediators. They also had specific duties and obligations, which included conveying oral traditions and songscounseling, being pipe carriers, and caring for children.

The term “Two-Spirit” was coined at the third annual inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in 1990. “Two-Spirit” refers to someone who possesses both a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit, and it is translated directly from the Ojibwe term, Niizh manidoowag. The precise meaning of “Two-Spirit” and its associated gender and social roles vary between communities, but “Two-Spirit” is broadly understood as an Indigenous identity that has been reclaimed after years of oppression and attempted erasure. Through colonization, forced Christianity, and Canada’s assimilation tactics, Western patriarchal values and homophobia were imposed on Indigenous cultures, and the Two-Spirit community was shamed and shunned; as a result, an entire system of knowledge, balance, and respect was eradicated. “Colonization deprived [Two-Spirited peoples] of [their] intellectual inheritance from [their] ancestors”, Gwendolyn Benaway, a transgender Two-Spirit Anishinaabe woman, explains.

Not all Two-Spirited individuals identify as LGBTQ+, and not all LGBTQ+ Indigenous persons consider themselves Two-Spirit. Complex understandings of gender and sexuality existed within Indigenous communities long before Western civilizations began to progress towards more inclusive frameworks and more tolerant norms. Two-Spirit Cree scholar, Dr. Alex Wilson, describes Two-Spirit identity as one that “reflects Aboriginal peoples’ process of ‘coming in’ to an empowered identity that integrates their sexuality, culture, gender and all other aspects of who they understand and know themselves to be”. It is a much different experience than “coming out” in LGBTQ+ culture. The process of Indigenous Peoples repositioning and redefining what it means to be Two-Spirit is a decolonizing process. Decolonization is not always seen as a priority through and throughout the LGBTQ+ community; thus, Two-Spirited peoples’ experiences and struggles are not always fully captured within the context of LGBTQ+ discourse. Two-Spirited peoples unearthing their traditions and knowledge systems, and revitalizing them within their communities, is part of the decolonizing process. Ensuring that Two-Spirited peoples have full control and self-determination over their identities and TK is also part of the process.

“By reclaiming the word, and thus the epistemological underpinnings of gender construction, the term ‘two-spirit’ is also a way to remind the larger Aboriginal community that traditionally there had always been a place for Two-Spirted people.”

Dr. Shayna Plaut and David Kirk

There are still many barriers that disrupt this re-empowerment process. Two-Spirited peoples still face high rates of violence, and sex-/gender-based discrimination continues to occur in homes, school systems, workplaces, etc. Queer scholar Dr. Shayna Plaut and Two-Spirit Stó:lō educator David Kirk claim that the future of empowering Two-Spirited peoples largely depends on effective formal and community-based education

“There is a lack of substantive research and literature on our [Two-Spirit] population. This lack of information is what has led us to believing that education, in formal and community settings is needed for the larger Aboriginal community for this lack is what often leads not only to isolation from communities, but internalized homophobia and racism” 

Dr. Shayna Plaut and David Kirk

Indigenous History Month and Pride Month are important catalysts in widening and deepening the discussions surrounding Indigeneity, queerness, and especially Two-Spirited peoples who navigate both spaces and often feel marginalized within them. However, recognition is only a starting point in terms of breaking down barriers and achieving true equality. For thinkers, learners, researchers, and allies engaging in work aimed at empowering Indigenous communities through capacity-building in the areas of TK and IKS (Indigenous Knowledge Systems), it is necessary to include the Two-Spirit community. Plaut and Kirk have offered tangible suggestions for educational institutions, such as: creating courses that explore the traditional role of Two-Spirited peoples; working with Indigenous communities to incorporate TK and IKS with Indigenous groups; reclaiming roles in a non-LGBTQ+ setting; community education; and creating new research and research models. Two-Spirit voices and perspectives are too often left out of the conversation, and so there must be a greater effort made to ensure access for, and participation by, Two-Spirited peoples throughout capacity-building processes. Furthermore, revitalizing IKS requires active resistance against racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and colonialism because empowerment and self-determination for Two-Spirited peoples go hand-in-hand with ensuring Indigenous Peoples have sovereignty over their knowledge, land, and resources.

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