It’s a new term for an old idea and a way to connect tradition with today. But where exactly does the term two spirits come from – in the acronym 2SLGBTQ+?
Dr. Percy Lezard, a two-minded academic, says it came about as part of the struggle to express both indigeneity and gender diversity.
At a Winnipeg conference in 1990, the term was developed as a way to encompass the various expressions of gender found in Native American cultures.
“Due to the lack of an intersectional analysis, people were not accepted because of their First Nation, Inuit, Metis, Afro-Indigenous, Black Indigenous identities,” said Lezard, professor of indigenous studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. “And the strange settlers drove them out. Then another shift layer.
“Who were we? What were the words in our languages? There is a movement, discovering culture and land specific words in their own languages, for who they are.”
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Lezard says that gender in pre-contact indigenous society was not always binary. Among the hundreds of unique North American Indian cultures, people with both feminine and masculine qualities appear again and again.
For example, Blake Desjarlais – a two-spirit MP for Edmonton Griesbach – is Cree, and the words his people use for the third gender are not the same as Lezard’s.
“It’s a big term, used by many groups,” Desjarlais said. “In the Cree tradition, for example, we would use the term ‘test-oh-ween-oh-wahk’, which means the people in the middle.”
“I identify as stemya, which in my language is a way of saying that I am two spirits,” added Lezard. “And meninchiks, which means I have gender diversity. I do not identify as male or female, but I am non-binary, which is part of the trans spectrum.”
And this is a common misconception that Lezard and Desjarlais want to clear up. Just because someone has two spirits doesn’t mean they’re trans. And someone who is trans and indigenous doesn’t necessarily have two spirits.
While people of any culture can be transgender, having two spirits is intrinsically an expression of indigenous spirituality and rooted in the community.
“The kinship part is very important,” Desjarlais said. “For example, you and I are related. And two-spirited people, we can help understand how we are related. We are related much more than people realize. They say, ‘oh who are your parents, who are your grandparents?’ No, we are related in a much deeper sense. We are here in this moment, in this place. We are physically connected by the earth. You and I are connected. As if we were connected with each other. And members of interconnected communities have roles.”
The prominence of two-spirited people in communities is now being seen on a national scale, as two-spirited people are emerging in art, culture, music and politics. It’s something Desjarlais says is needed more than ever.
“These roles still persist, and the need for healers, teachers, diplomats, big bosses is still something we need because our people aren’t going anywhere,” Desjarlais said. “We are still here and we are proud to be here.
“Two-spirited people are rediscovering what it means to be two-spirited in a modern 21st century.”
—With files from CityNews reporter Xiaoli Li.
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