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Celebrating Pride: What does it mean to be two-spirited?

Used to describe people who embody a feminine and masculine spirit, two-spirited identities have long held a high status in Indigenous communities.

It was in Winnipeg in 1990, at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering, that the term two-spirit was first coined. The term, translating to “niizh manidoowag” or “two spirits” in the Anishinaabe language, is now working its way into Canadian vernacular: it either leads or finishes the LGBTQ2S+ acronym and, as of March this year, has its own dedicated day of celebration and awareness.

But what does two-spirit mean? The specific definition may vary from person to person, but generally it refers to an Indigenous person who identifies as having both female and male spirits. Those who consider themselves neither men nor women, but their own, distinct gender status.

“There is no dead-set definition,” says Jake Kimble, preferring to clarify what two-spirit isn’t rather than define what it is. One of the most common misconceptions, they say, is that the term can be a linguistic catch-all for all queer identities.

“A lot of people group two-spirit in with being gay, or being transgender, and while there can be similarities, they are not the same.”

Kimble, a two-spirited, multidisciplinary artist based in Vancouver, says the term is used to describe an Indigenous person who exists outside of Westernized labels of sexuality and gender identity.

Because while two-spirit as a term may be relatively new, the identity behind the moniker has been prevalent in Indigenous communities for centuries. Prior to colonization, First Peoples and Native Americans who walked within both the feminine and masculine worlds were highly regarded, explains Kimble. They held revered social, spiritual and community-driven roles, and were often healers, knowledge keepers, counsellors and matchmakers.

Two-spirited identity seen as a gift

“Our great ancestors honoured people like us,” adds 21-year-old Joseph Natrall, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) student at North Vancouver’s Eslha7an Learning Centre.

“Being two-spirited is definitely regarded as something special in my community. In our beliefs they are seen as people that were born gifted, with both a male and female spirit, who can see both perspectives of each side of the gender role.”

Natrall first identified as being two-spirited when they were 15. The previous six years have been a “long and interesting” journey of exploring all the facets of that identity with friends, family and the wider Squamish community – support from whom has been unwavering, they say. Natrall’s mother has whittled away hours on internet research, and the Squamish Nation honoured them with a ceremony on their 18th birthday, alongside a group of others who identify as two-spirit.

“I’m very proud of myself for finding out who I was,” they say, “and a lot of people have been very happy to see how I have grown into who I am today.” Natrall, who now harnesses their own experience to help guide other young people navigating their two-spirit journeys, understands that their experience is distinct in its easiness.

In the rural Alberta town of Hay River where 28-year-old Kimble was raised, growing up as someone who “was a little more feminine than your traditional boy” was incredibly difficult. The artist, who says they always knew they “were different,” describes a childhood fraught with bullying, intolerance and ostracization.

“Really early on I developed this skill, this hyper-awareness of where I belong in this world, in this social hierarchy of the straight, white man being at the top, and then figuring out how to survive a lot of social situations because of that,” they explain.

At 19, Kimble moved to Vancouver in search of a more accepting environment and, with it, “made a conscious decision to be unabashedly myself.” They say they feel “incredibly safe and accepted” in Vancouver, on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish, and are witnessing public opinion and public perceptions shifting, albeit slowly.

“I don’t think that there is a full understanding or appreciation just yet of the different cultures of what two-spirit means, but I definitely think we are more visible,” they say.

Activism helping to shift attitudes 

For 62-year-old Sempúlyan Gonzales, a two-spirited Squamish Nation Elder and councillor, witnessing that gradual shift has been interesting. “None of that was around when I was younger” they say, on the Pride marches and rainbow walkways becoming commonplace in cities around the country.

For Gonzales, the journey to becoming educated on and comfortable with their own identity took “many years of personal growth and healing,” a journey they hope is now shorter for younger two-spirited people, given the growing resources and push from Indigenous communities to reclaim their traditions. (Now, for the record, Gonzales is of the firm opinion they "don’t need anyone’s approval to exist in this world.”)

Gonzales talks of the shifts being made within the Squamish Nation: the government is currently creating gender-neutral restrooms, and building a rapid housing complex to support LGBTQ2S+ members within the community.

They credit the growing number of organizations focused on activism and education, offering praise to the programs and activities put together by the Urban Native Youth Association – “they’re amazing” – and wellness services provided by The Foundry, centres throughout the province that Gonzales volunteers in.

“Unless we start educating, our youth are really going to be put in jeopardy,” they say.

As with all facets of Indigenous culture, education is paramount in the journey to move forward, but it doesn’t have to be all textbooks and sombreness, points out Kimble.

The artist often leans on humour to make polarizing topics and meaty conversation feel less intimidating. Lightness is key to navigating awkward and clunky conversation, they say – “being Indigenous, humour is in our DNA.”

It’s why over the coming week or two there is education to be found in the tongue-in-cheek drag shows and boozy brunches, the comedy shows and other merrymaking events held across the region for Pride.

“As Indigenous people we have used humour as a survival tool, it’s really incorporated into everything we do, and by utilizing humour as a device it calls people in and encourages them to share their own stories,” says Kimble.

“It develops this new sense of community that provides a safe place for two-spirit people to learn and grow and be unabashedly themselves.”

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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