Speaking of They: Colonised Two-Spirit Bodies

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Speaking of They: Colonised Two-Spirit Bodies

two-spirit hallucinations 
gender and sexual diversity across reservations 
consent and invitation 
self-love, respect and transformations 
dreams of colonial healing 
bringing back a flood of feelings 
cleansing, replenishing memories of believing 
refreshing, reviving ways of seeing 
decolonial sex, love and rock & roll 
light up that sage bowl 
let’s lose control 
shapeshift our souls 
a dream for next 
generations a vision of 
ancestors holler in 
exclamation two-spirit reclamation! 
with lands, bodies, spirits, minds 
the struggles will be easier 
to survive 
no one left behind 
rise up, thrive (Bitty, 2017).1 

Two-Spirit expression & understandings before colonization 

             Two-Spirit peoples have always been here. Two-Spirit traditions have been passed on for millennia in Indigenous nations. They have always existed. While the term Two-Spirit (2S) was only coined in 1990 by Indigenous activist Albert McCleod, there have always been people whose identity has aligned with the term. Two-Spirit individuals encompassed those with gender variance, unique dress, specialized work roles, same-sex attractions, and special spiritual identities.2 

             Before Two-Spirit people had ever been contacted or encountered by Europeans, they were known by their functions, not their sexuality,3 as they fulfilled specific yet fluid roles in their communities. They were judged not for how they look or who they had sex with, but on their contribution and treatment of their community. Because 2S individuals were known to be endowed with the gift of both a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit, these unique individuals were hailed as divinely talented. Pre-contact, there existed complex gender systems that made space for sexuality unencumbered by ideas of sin, flexibility for gender identities, and a pro-sex outlook where the body and sexual activity were natural (neither immoral nor moral). Two-Spirit folks have existed beyond the constraints of settler heteropatriarchy (the socio-political system whereby mainly cisgender males and heterosexuals have authority over cisgender females, gender identities, and over other sexual orientations) and homonormativity (the belief that there is a specific way of being queer and that marginalized sexualities and genders should conform to achieve greater acceptance of the dominant society). Sexual diversity, gender-expansiveness, non-monogamy, cross-dressing, and homo-affective families are not inventions of modernity––they predate the global LGBTQ+ framework’s acknowledgement of sex and gender fluidity, same-sex practices, and non-binary identities. Indigenous Peoples were getting married on Turtle Island (North America) to those of the same gender long before Stonewall occurred.4 2S individuals were often beloved figures of their communities, not merely “dead-enders” in their family line5: they were herbalists, negotiators, healers, warriors, matchmakers, counsellors, and caretakers of orphans. Their communities believed that Two-Spirit individuals had received special supernatural access in the form of visions and dreams6: because of this, they often occupied roles as shamans, healers, and ceremonial leaders. They were important storytellers and knowledge-keepers who knew the community’s creation stories and traditions. One of the most well-known 2S individuals who identified as female was We’wha of New Mexico who lived from 1846 to 1896; she was known as lhaman or “mixed gender” in the Zuni language.7 While Indigenous communities maintained relatively fixed roles for men/males and women/females, “the egalitarian, inclusive and adaptive nature of [their] cultures allowed for a wide variety of gender and sexuality expressions among community members.”8 Before colonization, inclusivity and acceptance were Indigenous values through and through. 

First Contact & Settler Impressions of Two-Spirit folks 

             When European settlers first encountered Two-Spirit peoples, their identities were tainted the minute European explorers and missionaries set eyes on them. They were considered not as the gifted negotiators, healers, and counsellors that they were in their communities, but almost solely by their outward presentation and dress. By the nineteenth century, the term berdache (meaning “kept boy”) became the term to describe these peoples who did not fit the settlers’ preconceived notions of sex and gender norms. Jesuits first used the offensive term when they recorded their observations of men in women’s clothing, work roles, and sexual roles.9 Europeans found these peoples to be a strange phenomenon; they quickly deemed them as deviant. The Europeans considered them to be homosexuals––who should be assimilated and Christianized to the standards of a foreign purity culture. 

Post-contact & Methods of Colonization

             The Indian Act of 1876 is not an historical relic: it profoundly affects the quality of life of 2S peoples today and continues to oppress Indigenous peoples on a daily basis.10 The Indian Act was a consolidation of other colonial legislation, comprising the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, and the British North America Act of 1867. The Act allowed the federal government to assume “total guardianship over Indigenous peoples and govern every aspect of Indigenous social, economic, political and cultural life”11: this legislation effectively removed the rights of Indigenous People to decide their own identities. Even today, the Indian Act of 1876 is actively subordinating vastly distinct peoples into a homogenising legal status; in doing this, the Act reproduces colonial heteropatriarchy, heterosexism, and harmful gender dualisms by ensuring that procreation and heterosexuality are the only unions represented and recognized by Canadian law for Indigenous Peoples.12 The intent of the Act was and is to shatter traditional notions of open sexuality and multiple genders through solidified political action. Because of the Indian Act, Indigenous people are plagued with guilt and shame for not feeling and acting “Indigenous enough”: 2S folks often bear this weight alone. 

             The impact of residential schools cannot be understated: 2S children were specifically targeted by school administrators and grouped according to their biological sex, regardless of their non-binary identities or their family and community roles. Residential school administrators enforced expectations of dualistic gender norms through the gendered division of labour, harsh punishment for deviation from acting “unlike one’s sex,” and the forced transformation of their appearance and dress.13 Christian teachers and administrators at residential schools sexually abused and assaulted Indigenous children. Many survivors began to “understandably equate homosexuality and nonbinary gender with the abuse they endured.”14 These attitudes and traumas were then brought back to their communities and 2S traditions were “forced underground.”15 This eventually led to high rates of isolation, dishonouring, suicide, and violence against Two-Spirit community members which continues today.16 The hurtful impact of residential schools is ongoing for 2S individuals as a result of deeply-rooted intergenerational trauma. Each Indigenous society had its own distinct language and ways to acknowledge those who exist beyond the European binary impositions of gender, sexuality and Christian religious moralities,17 yet these 2S traditions were routinely silenced, repressed, and avoided for the safety of relatives during these processes of colonization. Because of the gaps in cultural tradition, some Indigenous societies today question if it was the European colonizers who brought sexual and gender deviance to the First Nations.18 2S traditions seem to be lost in colonial translation. 

Trauma As A Form of Prevailing Colonization 

             2S experiences are effectively “quarantined”19in the sense that 2S youth are stuck between a rock and a hard place where few mentors are available to support them. They are extremely vulnerable individuals who often lack community that might support their 2S identity. In addition to their alienation, the intersectional effect of racialization and gender intensifies the consequences of colonization on Indigenous women and 2S people specifically. Many 2S individuals leave their home communities in search of belonging in city centres, only to experience further racism, exclusion, and rejection by non-Indigenous settlers. This is especially the case for those who fail to fit into the standards of heteropatriarchy and homonormativity.20 

             Though there is a resurgence in 2S reclamation and organizations working specifically for 2S individuals, there is also an abundance of discrimination and violence that remains living and active. The 2009 documentary, Two Spirits, tells the true story of Fred Martinez, a boy who was also a girl (we might classify him as 2S but he did not identify specifically with that term), who was brutally murdered at the age of sixteen. The film recounts the grief of a mother’s loss as she unpacks Fred’s growing up, his fluid gender presentation and identity, and his relation to the Navajo tradition. Fred Martinez identified himself as gay and nadleehi (one of four genders in the Navajo tradition, meaning feminine-man). He was known for not wanting labels: he “wanted to wake up in the morning and say “who am I going to be today?”21 

Decolonizing, Reclaiming, Healing 

             Recovering the traditional fluidity and inclusive meanings of 2S traditions is extremely difficult and often an isolated process. Because of 2S individuals’ intersectional position between Indigenous communities and Western LGBTQ+ groups, they face pushback and lack of support from both groups. Add to the mix a healthy dose of intergenerational trauma and an insistent feeling that one is not 2S enough, there is an incredibly tough path ahead for Two-Spirit folks today who are on the path of decolonizing. 

             Often 2S folks are left to educate themselves for identity development and participation in their own community and cultures. They are left to do their own healing work alone22 because there is no one in their immediate family or western LGBTQ+ community to turn to. Often 2S individuals do not desire to strain their Indigenous families with their 2S specific experiences that include “dismissal, disrespect, dishonouring, displacement.”23 It should not be an alienating burden for 2S individuals to traverse. 

             Decolonizing and reclaiming Two-Spirit identity takes a village––it involves breaking unclarified silence around 2S traditions within Indigenous communities and intentional unlearning (especially for knowledge-keepers and Elders).24 Successful decolonization demands bold creativity, re-education, and a return to nation-based knowledge systems and ways of being. Sparrow explains how “the very aspects of Indigenous cultures targeted by colonial persecution throughout history (which includes Indigenous identity, spirituality, family, education, ceremony, cultural activities and values), will subsequently serve as viable sources of resistance and resiliency for Two-Spirit People.”25 For many communities, art is often a vital element in reclaiming one’s queerness and unique Indigeneity: it becomes a fruitful way for 2S people to share their identities, stories, and traditions with non-2S people.

             Importantly, the path forward in decolonization must include the acknowledgment and understanding of the history of colonization and its impact: for non-Indigenous folks to be involved in this process, this is an absolutely critical step. For those who are helpers in Indigenous communities, decolonizing involves being trauma-informed and “placing symptoms of cultural genocide back into historic and contemporary context.”26 In addressing Indigeneity, mainstream LGBTQ+ communities should work to amplify Two-Spirit voices along with the oppressive colonial histories that continue to engender marginalization and erasure of 2S peoples.27 As more Two-Spirit organizations continue to raise global awareness, may Two-Spirit pride return and healing continue. 


Below are five Indigiqueer/Two-Spirit figures that were included in our class collaborative magazine: 

We’wha is one of the most well-known Two-Spirit individuals; she was referred to as lhaman––“mixed gender”––in the Zuni language and was a remarkable fiber artist, weaver, potter, and cultural ambassador in the nineteenth century.28 

Ozaawindib was an Ojibwe warrior who had several husbands in the early nineteenth century. Ozaawindib was described by settlers “his man was one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians.”29 

Kaúxuma Núpika was a Kutenai warrior, cultural intermediary, healer, and prophet in the early nineteenth century. She was documented by European settlers as a “Manlike Woman” with a wife.30 

Fred Martinez was a young nádleehí––a male-bodied person with a feminine nature who was thought to possess a special gift––of Navajo ancestry. At the age of sixteen in 2001, he was brutally murdered and became one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history.31 

Ilona Verley is a Two-Spirit Nlaka’pamux trans woman who recently competed on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. She became the first Indigenous, Two-Spirit, and openly non-binary queen to compete in the show.32 

Notes & Citations 

1 Bitty. reclamation!. The Peak Magazine, 55, no. 1 (2015): 29. 

2 Michelle Filice, “Two-Spirit.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed November 5, 2020. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/Two-Spirit. 

3 Corrina Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between: Coast Salish Two Spirit Identities and Experiences” (PhD diss., University of Victoria, 2018), 29. 

4 Two Spirits. Film. USA, 2009.

5 Two Spirits. 2009. 

6 Filice. “Two-Spirit.” 

7 Filice. “Two-Spirit.” 

8 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 30. 

9 Kylan Mattias de Vries, “Berdache.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed November 5, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/berdache. 

10 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 15. 

11 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 14. 

12 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 15. 

13 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 17. 

14 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 18. 

15 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 19. 

16 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 19. 

17 Sparrow, Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 6. 

18 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 11. 

19 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 32. 

20 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 33. 

21 Two Spirits. Film. USA, 2009. 

22 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 91. 

23 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 94. 

24 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 102. 

25 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 38. 

26 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 23. 

27 Sparrow, “Reclaiming Spaces Between,” 37. 

28 “We’wha.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, last modified October 23, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We’wha. 29 “Ozaawindib.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, last modified October 20, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozaawindib. 

30 “Kaúxuma Núpika.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, last modified September 5, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ka%C3%BAxuma_N%C3%BApika. 

31 Two Spirits. Film. USA, 2009. 

32 “Ilona Verley.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, last modified November 20, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilona_Verley.