Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two-spirit: Beyond sex and gender

April 2, 2014 by Jillian Wedel, contributing writer

LGBT: it’s an arrangement of letters that many of us have seen before, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, the acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. As an acronym adopted by what was formerly known simply as the gay community, its purpose has been to acknowledge and highlight the diversity within this self-actualizing community. Since the 1990s, the number of letters has steadily increased and now includes, but is not limited to, LGBTQQIP2SAA. The “2S,” which stands for two-spirit, is a relatively new term; however, its cultural significance and traditional roots reach far back into history, long before the construction of what some have nicknamed the “gay alphabet.”

I first started using the term two-spirit about four years ago while delivering presentations in high schools on issues surrounding the queer community. The program, called Out in Schools, included statistics on the health and safety of queer youth, a timeline that covered the history of gay rights in Canada, a colour-coded map highlighting countries who had legalized same-sex marriage, and a slide that broke down some of the terminology.

Photo by Kelly Legge.

At this point, I would go through and explain the word behind each letter of the ever-expanding list of identities to the students. But when it came to two-spirit, I was aware that as a non-Aboriginal person, my knowledge in this area was lacking some important dimensions. While knowing I had much to learn, I handed out the information I had acquired up until then: “Two-spirit is a term derived from First Nations languages,” I would say, “and is used to describe individuals who embody both the masculine and feminine spirit…”

Following my brief summary, a common question that was often asked by students was whether two-spirit referred to a gender identity or a sexual orientation. In my subsequent pursuit of gaining a more full understanding of the term, I came to realize that questions like these actually pushed the meaning of two-spirit further away by imposing upon it structures of thought belonging to the dominant culture; structures including gender and sexuality.

“Those categories are themselves a western construct,” says Dr. Sarah Hunt, a Kwakwaka’wakw writer and activist who teaches in the Indigenous Studies and Community Family and Child Services Program here at Camosun College.

Hunt, who identifies as two-spirit, explains how western distinctions like gender and sexuality were preceded by a variety of traditional roles that went beyond orientations of sex and gender; these were roles that were cultivated and fully integrated into the many facets of a community.

“In indigenous cultures, who you are and your role in the community… we now think of those maybe as gender roles,” Hunt says, “but I think, historically, each indigenous nation had their own way of talking about roles and identity that are not necessarily linked with biology but maybe with your connection to the spirit world, or your name, or your role in the community, your inclinations as a child, and that forms how your identity is viewed.”

The term two-spirit, according to Hunt, captures much more than whom you’re attracted to or what pronoun you identify with. She describes being two-spirit as “not just about being gay, or being bi, or trans, necessarily; it’s a term that is both about cultural identity and sexual or gender identity. It’s a term,” she says, “that in some ways defies those colonial categories.”

THE ORIGINS OF “TWO-SPIRIT”

Emerging in 1990 at the third annual Native American Gay and Lesbian conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the concept of two-spirit was taken up in order to help liberate and mobilize a community whose traditions had been brutalized by the language and ideologies that colonization brought with it.

“Two-spirit,” says Hunt, “was a term that a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer indigenous folks came up with to replace the term ‘berdache.’”

Originally introduced by French settlers, berdache was an anthropological term used to describe indigenous people who were considered to be homosexual, or those who appeared to participate in mixed gender roles. Though First Nations people eventually adopted the term, the actual meaning behind it translates to “captive, prisoner, or slave.” Hence the need for a new and more accurate term originating from indigenous people themselves.

While the name two-spirit carries with it the potential to empower and unite Aboriginal queers, it’s important to realize that it’s an umbrella term and covers a rich variety of identities that embody particular roles and responsibilities unique to specific First Nations communities.

“Indigenous cultures have had, and still have, culturally specific ways of seeing gender and sexuality, but through colonization, a lot of the language around these cultural practices has been lost,” reveals Hunt.

Sarah Hunt of Camosun’s Indigenous Studies and Community Family and Child Services Program (photo by Amanda Laliberte).

Due to this loss of language, reclamation has become integral to the revitalization of these traditional ways of being. Communities, each with their own unique history, have been faced with the challenge of resisting the various forms of colonial power in the process of resurging their own two-spirit traditions. Many of the Nations, however, continue to struggle with this task.

Hunt elaborates on this by pointing out that “in some communities they might not have lost much of that knowledge.” She goes on to suggest that “maybe there’s a very strong respect for two-spirit people and their role in cultural, social, and ceremonial practices. On the other hand,” she says, “there are also communities where there’s no acknowledgement, where it’s not safe to be yourself if you’re two-spirit.”

Sadly, the marginalization of the two-spirit community is a reality, and one that is reflected in statistics: Aboriginal gay youth are at much higher risk for committing suicide than non-Aboriginal gay youth.

RECLAIMING TRADITIONS

Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, who comes from the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc (Kamloops Indian Band), is completing his master of social work at the University of Toronto specializing in social justice and diversity. He is also a board member for the 2Spirit of the First Nations of Toronto.

When asked what advice he would give to a young person who feels they might be two-spirit, McNeil-Seymour says he “would help them locate their traditional roles and responsibilities and the word attached to their cultural location.”

McNeil-Seymour says that recognizing the relationship that two-spirit people have to their traditional territory sets them apart from the dominant LGBT acronym which McNeil-Seymour describes as “incredibly hegemonic.”

“Two-spirit,” claims McNeil-Seymour, “has become colonized to a degree, because I look at how it’s constructed in my community, and generally, with a lot of family back home in Kamloops, It’s just like, ‘Oh, well two-spirit is just a way to identify Aboriginal people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual.’”

Needless to say, upholding two-spirit traditions has been a continuous effort, as McNeil-Seymour asserts that the influence of the LGBT acronym “runs the risk of overriding and rewriting our ways of knowing our relationships to community, spirituality, and the land.”

When asked if he identifies as two-spirit, McNeil-Seymour says “as an entry point, yes; but as my cultural location, no. At this time, with a number of emergent two-spirit youth, a majority of activists are moving back towards locating and discovering the specific term within their community.”

Prior to colonization, two-spirit individuals had been described in the languages of over 100 tribes throughout North America. For McNeil-Seymour, the term he uses is chakwoya’heis, which he says “is a Secwepemc’stin word for a person who has sex with the same sex.” He explains that one of their roles and responsibilities in community is “yucamin’min, which means to protect the earth and to protect the people.”

McNeil-Seymour, like many other individuals who fall under the two-spirit umbrella, are still in the process of gathering together and resurrecting these once highly revered positions within their communities.

“I wish for two-spirit people to move back into their traditional spaces of seers and visionaries and warriors and mediators,” says McNeil-Seymour, “to reclaim those titles.”

SUPPORTING THE TWO-SPIRIT COMMUNITY

For those wondering how to be an ally to the two-spirit community, both Hunt and McNeil-Seymour express the importance of being aware of the traditional lands you live on and how you came to be there. Understanding that two-spirit issues are indigenous issues and indigenous issues are issues of decolonization is an essential part of supporting two-spirit people, says Hunt.

Ultimately, being an ally requires building relationships and educating yourself according to both Hunt and McNeil-Seymour. Fortunately, there are more and more events and gatherings providing people with the opportunity to do that.

In November of last year, Camosun Pride and the First Nations Student Association invited the Indigenous Perspectives Society (formerly Caring for First Nations Children Society) to deliver a workshop on Lansdowne campus entitled “The two-spirit Identity: exploring tradition and resurging communities.” The event, which was welcome to all, provided a brief overview of the history of two-spirit traditions and also invited participants to share in traditional drumming and song.

One of the facilitators that day was T’oila McIntyre, a two-spirit woman of Cree decent, who is an instructor at the Indigenous Perspectives Society. McIntyre says the workshop was “more or less kind of a two-spirit 101 just to introduce the concept, because I think that, just like myself who thought that it was just a really cool term that we could adopt, there are a lot of traditional teachings behind it.”

McIntyre has been on a life-changing journey ever since the realization of her own two-spirit identity. “Just within the last four or five years,” explains McIntyre, “the real meaning behind two-spirit has been introduced to me.”

McIntyre says that discovering this part of her identity has been a deeply meaningful process involving many epiphanies along the way. “It’s still a very new journey for me,” she says, “but it’s becoming clearer as I go along, as I get older, the more people that I get involved with, and my personal relationships, and right now I feel like a big part of it is educating.”

Also involved in the workshop was Kelly Legge, a non-Aboriginal queer woman who works as a policy analyst for the Indigenous Perspectives Society. Legge also does research and curriculum development for the society’s trainings and participated in designing the curriculum delivered in the two-spirit workshop.

Kelly Legge of the Indigenous Perspectives Society (photo provided).

Legge became active in two-spirit advocacy work when she noticed the lack of presence of the two-spirit community and indigenous organizations at Victoria Pride in years past. “I mentioned to my organization’s executive director that it could be something that the society would consider getting involved with,” says Legge.

Coordinating with five other Aboriginal organizations, Legge helped orchestrate the Indigenous Perspectives Society’s very first participation in Victoria Pride last year, and it was one that couldn’t be missed: adorned in bright pink shirts that read “All My Relations: support our two spirited youth and end bullying,” the larger-than-life group marched at the head of the parade singing and drumming through the streets of downtown Victoria.

Legge says it’s the queer community’s responsibility to recognize its own diversity and to be a safe space honouring the “unique individual and cultural identities of our greater community, whether you are gay or lesbian or transgender or two-spirit.”

“Part of that safety is for us to appreciate that the term ‘two-spirit’ is a cultural and spirit name in its origins, and its intention was to shirk colonial definition,” she says.

Legge notes that it is important for non-indigenous people to recognize and respect the decolonizing efforts that are behind the term two-spirit and to avoid claiming it for themselves. “It would be problematic for me, for example, to appropriate a term that is holding a place while First Nations resurge and reclaim their own language and traditions,” she says.

The recognition of diversity that Legge speaks of is what continues to be a source of growth for the LGBT acronym. And while new terms are added and the letters multiply, it’s important to remember that our own social and cultural locations can blind us to the identities that require a reading that’s between the lines.

As Camosun’s Hunt points out, the influence our words and categorizations have on the way we perceive things should encourage us “to really think about the limitations of the English language.” Taking this into account, the recognition of our diverse identities shouldn’t only be through the letters of an acronym, but through the understanding of our diverse histories, cultures, and ways of viewing the world around us.

For more information on hosting a two-spirit workshop in your organization or school, visit ipsociety.ca. To learn more about two-spirit gatherings happening in Victoria, email 2spirit.victoria@gmail.com.

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