Two Spirit is a term that came about in the early 1990s so a very recent term in relation to how long our indigenous languages have been around. The term is a reference to an identity but also a community …. A social movement around sexual and gender diversity. It’s not synonymous with saying trans or lesbian or gay or bi – it’s a term that has a number of different contexts meanings but and the term is changing as well it’s contextual not definitive…. People may use the term queer so Indigenous people particularly people who didn’t grow up in an urban area they may have not heard the term Two Spirit before so if people are using that term it could be confusing. A term that people may use is gay or non-binary or fag there are many different terms that people will use and they may not be necessarily terms that are appropriate that people will find appropriate but in some small communities that’s the only term that they may know in English so to resist judgement on the kinds of vocabulary that people have is really important.
In many cultures like in the English or French language things are organized around male and female or masculine and feminine but in many if not most Indigenous languages that’s not how the world is organized. The world is organized around spirituality or spirit. So you already have a difference in world views. So if somebody is raised in a setting where their gender isn’t necessarily set in stone, where they’re allowed to, encouraged to play a host of different genders or gender importances and then they’re put in a setting where there is a very strict gender code or people are regulated or moved or divided in rooms by a strict binary then it can be really uncomfortable.
Some people have returned to their Indigenous languages to find what terminology has been used as descriptors for people who are non-binary or for people who are gender fluid like water there gender change from day to day or over time.
The term Two Spirit is empowering for a lot of people because it recognizes that a person is not just one thing. So it’s many things that connect – it connects to land, it connects to spirituality, it connects to your relations, it connects to your spirit, it connects to gender and it can connect to sexuality. So all those things are a part of what it means to be Two Spirit. So it’s not just one strand it’s a whole bunch of strands that come together.
One of the first things that happened when European explorers came to North America is that they were really confused by a range of genders that appeared in the Indigenous peoples especially in the first places that they landed in the Caribbean. In their fear and confusion there response was most often violence against people that they did not understand. So very quickly Indigenous communities saw and realized so what would you do if you knew that your identify was something that was being targeted by people that were coming in with violence you would either hide or you would hide who you were or you would internalize it, take it out on yourself, enact violence on yourself or maybe people in the community would internalize it as well and enact violence on you.
So that’s what we are dealing with today a phenomenon or a crisis where we are seeing Indigenous not just Indigenous Two Spirit queer youth but also adults and Elders committing suicide at really high rates and so rates have not changed over the past 25 years that I’ve been looking into this as a focussed research.
So there’s been a massively intense focus of violence on certain bodies through institutions of social control that control our everyday activities things that people have to interact with every day like the health care system, like the transit system like the legal system, child and family services maybe so each of those are an institution that in some way controls the way we behave every day or act every day and if you think about little acts of aggression or violence -micro aggression they are called and the cumulative effect on a body – it’s not like little by little people can kind of dissipate it it’s kind of like the cumulative effect is traumatic for many people so that’s the kind of violence that Two Spirit people are dealing with in almost every system that you can imagine in a city, in our own communities, in our own first nations, in rural areas and remote areas.
In terms of interpersonal violence one of the most profound and disturbing statements I’ve ever heard was made by Aboriginal Australian queer researcher Andy Farrel and in his doctoral research he was interviewing trans and queer identified Indigenous Australians and one of the respondents said in terms of meeting a new person that they didn’t know if they were going to kiss them or kill them. For those of us who have been a part of the queer Two Spirit community specifically that statement is such truth to that because many of us have ourselves experienced violence from an intimate partner or from a family member or even more shocking is from a lover or a potential lover it’s not a statement that’s unfamiliar to many of us because we know the reality of the lives that we’ve led and that our friends have led in terms of intimate partner violence even violence from family members, community members, and then violence from potential lovers as well has led to deaths of many of our friends and that’s one of the reasons why the issue of MMIW should include Two Spirit and trans people in that spectrum because often it’s just accepted that people should experience violence because of their identity.
I have a number of friends who have experienced violence but I’ve also had a number of friends who were murdered and four three of them in particular they were murdered by strangers, strangers who they potentially or had been in sexual encounters with and I think that for trans and Two Spirit people the level of violence from complete strangers is even something that people have to think about even when they’re walking down the street so gay bashing or trans bashing are very common forms of violence that we face.
Another level of violence that is enacted on the bodies of Two Spirit and trans Indigenous people happens when they go to seek help from a mainstream or even an Indigenous organization is that when they are not believed often, they’re questioned – they’re behaviours are questioned, they’re identities are questioned, their gender is questioned. So that kind of questioning is a form of silencing is a form of distancing it’s a form of marginalizing people. Many people don’t go to mainstream organizations for assistance first of all and when they do they are very reluctant to or don’t feel safe in many instances. So it’s really important that a person is validated in the identity that they present or the identity that they wish to be that they are that any kind of service provider should be aware that they may be the only person that that person is coming to or will have contact to so it’s a pivotal and powerful position to be in if someone comes to and shares that they have experienced violence because you have the power to direct the potential impact of helping that person heal or continue with some kind of legal process to try and find out the perpetrater or to try and make some kind of policy change even.
one of the things that’s really important is to make sure that you validate the person’s identity so whatever pronouns they use, whether it be he, she or they or some other pronoun to honour that and accept that as the way the person identifies and along the lines of that not to make assumptions about somebody’s gender identity or sexuality based on their appearance, based on their affect, based on their personality.
Another common thing is that many people when they throughout their life span may change their name and they choose to change their name for a reason and sometimes the choice is not so much a choice but it’s out of survival and necessity and for people that do have a name change whether it’s legal or not or whether they just do it informally within their family or personal circles it’s really important to honour and validate the name that that person chooses to use so whether it’s after a person is deceased even or while the person is alive it’s important to honour that because that is the name that they have taken for themselves or been given through ceremony or some other way that they’ve taken that name. Some people refer to the old name as a dead name others may not use that term but just to be aware of the terminology that you may hear.
An anti-oppressive framework is a way to understand all of the inter connections that happen and impact a person or a group of people so an anti-oppressive approach would be understanding that there are all of these things that come together and that you have to look at all of those factors you can’t just look at one factor so that would be how class impacts somebody, how a person’s looks, a person’s size, skin colour, their cultural background, where they live, their accent, gender, sexuality. All of those things intersect to make a person a person. So an anti-oppressive approach is understanding that each of those things is situated within a power structure. So looking at how power structures work is a necessity to understand how to undo power structures so that power is equalized within society. So there’s a basic kind of understanding that there is no equality in the society that we are living in right now, there’s some people have more power while others have less power and the people who have the most power are the ones that are making decisions for everybody because of their power so an anti-oppressive approach is to unpack that and then to try and undo that through policies, through day to day interactions, through information and education, campaigns, grassroots networks, even through spiritual and ceremonial practices as well.
In Canada over the past 20 years there’s been this narrative of everybody’s equal Canada’s a diverse place to be and if we just respected everybody everything would change well the truth is that would happen if people just respected each other but the reality is that there’s so many different power structures that are happening that that doesn’t happen certain people keep benefiting while others keep getting pushed down so at the heart of it though in interpersonal interactions respect and empathy I think go along away and ultimately that’s what we want all of us want to be treated as equal human beings or as human beings that are special and gifted and loving and deserving of love and deserving of life and joy.
Speaking to a community member, an Indigenous community member or a colleague or even a ceremonial leader from my personal experience I think from my personal experience as a community member in the Two Spirit community and many Indigenous communities including my home community I think it’s really important that Elders, ceremonial leaders, cultural people and even our leadership in our FNs really pay serious attention to the needs of Two Spirit and trans people but also what they are asking for and saying, in particular, around cultural events or cultural activities if there is one place that all of us should feel entirely ourselves that is in our own cultures, that is in our own communities and in our own ceremonies I think that’s the one right that we have as living sentient beings that we have the right to our own traditions that we have the right to our own cultures but unfortunately because of colonization many people have internalized western ideas or notions or residential school ideas about gender about sexuality and have implemented those ideas in our ceremonies and even some of our ceremonies maybe they are old traditions but if an old tradition in this contemporary context is causing somebody harm it’s really important in a kind and gentle way think about how you might change your own practice. How can you change something so that it’s not causing harm.
A difficult and sensitive conversation that all of us need to have is around how sometimes our own cultural activities and ceremonies might exclude or make some people feel not welcome or minimized and if there is any one place where each and every one of us should feel grounded and like we belong it’s within our own spiritual ceremonies. So we have to have these important conversations in a loving and gentle way with our peers and with our cultural leaders to think about how our own ceremonial and cultural practices whether they are helping people but how they also might be harming people and whether a tradition is new or whether it’s happened for generations and generations if something is harming a community member then I think we need to really think about how we can make changes to that practice so that it can be life giving rather than leading to life taking.
The degree to which colonization has impacted our own practices is really insidious to the extent where some people feel like just the presence of someone who is Two Spirit is going to desecrate a sacred space or a woman being present is going to desecrate a sacred space well we have been on this planet for a long enough time to know that we women don’t desecrate sacredness and Two Spirit people don’t desecrate sacredness even though the term Two Spirit is recent the identity of Two Spirit people or gender non binary or gender queer or gender fluid queer people have been on the planet just as long as everybody else in fact we are part of humanity so for some people to say that the presence of a Two Spirit person in a ceremony is desecrating a sacred space is a really poignant demonstration of how people internalize the messages of violence against queer people and Two Spirit trans people from the broader society, from Abrahamic religions and other forces that have been assimilated and that have forced upon us through governmental policy but to remember that if a person hears once that their body is not sacred or if a person hears twice that they don’t belong somewhere or if a person hears three times that their presence is contaminating things you know those things add up and it doesn’t take long it only takes the first time hearing that people start to internalize that. I think the real question that people have to ask themselves as service providers, as FNs leaders as ceremonial leaders is your practice helping if so how or is it harming and if it’s harming what changes can you make so that’s it’s helping.
one of the most effective strategies for supporting trans and Two Spirit or gender non binary people is to suspend your judgement around their bodies, around their actions, around their behaviours, around their lifestyles, around what they do during the day around what they do during the night because every single aspect of our lives has been regulated either through policy or through people’s practices so in order to support a loving and healthy community we need everybody to think about how they can support one another rather than judging. I like the saying smudge don’t judge and part of that is an approach that is not going to make people feel ashamed or shamed by what they do or who they’re with or what they put in their body or what they put in their mouth or … laughs … fantasy life ….
It’s important to take a harm reduction approach which means thinking about how practices can cause less harm rather than judging people and regulating every aspect of their lives.
for many Two Spirit identified people they’ve had to connect from their biological family either by choice or the were taken by the state or because of violence not choice so for many of us within the community our family is our chosen family so we choose who we want to be with who we want to spend our time with, who we trust, who we love. the term I like to use is coming in. creating a community of your own that may have some biological family members or may not as well so it’s really important to realize that when you contact the loved ones who is missing or someone whose been murdered that you may have to go beyond just the nuclear family or the biological family in fact the nuclear or biological family may be part of the violence that that person has experienced in their life.