Understanding Two-Spirit identity.
You may have noticed that the LGBTQ+ acronym has extended recently to LGBTQ2+. You may not think much of this change as the acronym has transformed and evolved over time to truly incorporate and represent the intricate identities of many. However, I had always been curious about what the 2, short for Two-Spirit, truly meant and how it was an important identity to highlight within the community. It turns out that Two-Spirit is a very powerful and useful tool, especially in a North American context, for Indigenous folks who are queer-identifying and to a country that is working to recognize the true histories of Indigenous peoples and work towards decolonization.
The term Two-Spirit was first coined in the late 1980s in Minneapolis, where, at the time, there were many LGBTQ+ communities mobilizing in response to the AIDS crisis. Many Indigenous folks that were gay or trans did not identify strongly with the larger LGBTQ+ communities and instead, identified more closely with their indigenous community or tribe. In response, activists worked to create the umbrella term ‘Two-Spirit,’ with would be an identity based upon sexuality and gender and would be exclusive to Indigenous people around the world. The development of the Two-Spirit identity relates to indigenous histories. ‘Two-Spirit’ has given a meaning to an identity concept that was previously not defined although was originally understood in certain tribes to be the quality of very powerful and prominent individuals within their communities.
Two-Spirit is thought to encapsulate the masculine and the feminine; the ability to connect with both identities was thought to be special and a source of both power and strength. Historically, many tribes throughout North America have pointed to the existence and place of Two-Spirit people in their communities. Yet, it is extremely difficult to research due to years of cultural destruction at the hands of colonizing Europeans. As author and activist Jessica Yee points out, indigenous tribes in general, were very egalitarian and valued women and mothers highly while appreciating the contributions of many gender identities and skills. With European contact, however, came the harsh and violent assimilation of gendered roles onto Indigenous peoples. Europeans believed strongly in the binary between men and women and religious beliefs also left the topic of different sexual expression out of the question.
The identity of Two-Spirit for Indigenous peoples is a way of reclaiming culture, understanding the values of different identities and the contributions different individuals can bring to a community. The term gives a sense of identity and unity among Indigenous individuals and groups because it connects socio-cultural, historical and spiritual contexts with gender, sexuality and identity in general.
John R. Sylliboy, who joined us as a part of the Pride Month Lecture Series here at StFX on January 23, is the co-founder of the Wabanaki Two-Spirit Alliance and is working to understand how we can look at the identity of Two-Spirit in a context of decolonization. Sylliboy points out that learning about the Two-Spirit identity is difficult due to cultural erosion but conceptualizing it is possible through the analyzation of gender, sexuality and identity in Indigenous epistemology and contemporary settings. Sylliboy’s discussion on Tuesday outlined ways that we can contextualize Two-Spirit identity as a source of empowerment and cultural continuity as we work to decolonize our institutions and our country. Two-Spirit is mainstream in Nova Scotia and Mi’kmaq communities and the Wabanaki Two-Spirit Alliance works to build supports in areas of health, culture, education, awareness and research on matters related to Two-Spirit people in Nova Scotia. We are very lucky here at StFX to have had Sylliboy come to speak with us about matters related to Two-Spirit people. The term and identity works to not only unify Indigenous individuals but sets a platform by which Indigenous histories and values can be explored and reincorporated into a modern context where they can work to benefit individual sexual/gender expression and promote important and beautiful beliefs of Indigenous communities to work to aid in the process of decolonization.