Resistance and reclamation

An illustration with black lines on a yellow background. It shows two bodies side by side with all their veins showing.
Illustration by: Meky Ottawa

For Andrew Caldwell, a proud Algonquin two-spirit person—who uses both he and they pronouns interchangeably—the interconnectedness of themself is wrapped up in their identity as a two-spirit person.

“I see it as a gift. For me, being two-spirit means an additional layer of spirituality and community,” they said in an interview with The Pigeon. “The gifts of these teachings, this identity, has carried me through and helped me make sense of the world.”

“Two-spiritedness speaks to my own spirit.

To Caldwell, his identity is a giant umbrella encompassing his gender, sexuality, culture, community, and spirituality.

At 18 years old, an Elder acknowledged that Caldwell had both male and female spirits and shared with him the teachings of what it means to be two-spirit.

Now, they’re very aware that they still have a lot to learn and reclaim.

“I am still seeking more of the teachings of what this looks like within my own community and culture,” Caldwell said.

There is no simple definition for two-spirit, but in short, it is an urban, English term that was coined in 1990 in an attempt to define the intersecting identity of being an Indigenous person who is gender-diverse and/or experiences same-sex attraction, and to signify the spiritual and cultural roles that these individuals have held in their communities.

Historically, Indigenous nations had differing traditional titles depending on their language and their teachings about such identities. However, due to colonization, many of these teachings and roles were lost.

Heteronormative and cisnormative gender roles and views were forced upon Indigenous communities with the arrival of Euro-Christian colonizers, and this was especially prominent in residential schools where Indigenous children were forced to assimilate to Christian beliefs and values.

Two-spiritedness is fluid, complex, and does not just cover gender and sexual identity, but also cultural and spiritual identity.

The term two-spirit can only be used by Indigenous peoples and it is not a replacement for any of the other identities in the LGBTQ+ acronym—for example, someone may be two-spirit as well as transgender, while another person may be two-spirit, transgender, and bisexual.

Likewise, someone may be two-spirit and not identify with any of the other identities in the LGBTQ+ acronym, while another Indigenous person may identify as LGBTQ+ but not as two-spirit.

In volume five of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report, in the chapter on Indigenous health, there is a brief section entitled “Two-spirited people,” which acknowledges that “residential schools had particular impacts upon two-spirited people, who faced numerous attacks on their identities.”

Later, according to the Final Report, the TRC organized a forum with the support of Égale Canada Human Rights Trust for members of the two-spirit community to discuss the impacts of residential schools and what steps need to be taken to support reconciliation and healing in the community.

Despite this acknowledgment of the history and legacy of residential schools as a direct factor in the near-erasure of two-spirit identities and teachings, the TRC fails to mention the two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous community outside of these two brief sections.

The Calls to Action make no mention of two-spirit or LGBTQ+ Indigenous peoples, nor do they call for any reparations or reconciliation for these communities—even after conducting official consultations to better understand what needs to be done.

Instead, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to do the necessary work to address the ongoing legacy of colonial homophobia and transphobia that continues to put LGBTQ2S+ people and especially two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous individuals at risk.

In 2017, Égale published Queering the Sustainable Development Goals in Canada: Not Leaving LGBTQI2S Communities Behind, in which they noted that “Two Spirit people were not meaningfully included” in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry.

In 2015, a national, public inquiry was launched into the disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls. That said, in 2019, the MMIWG Final Report was released and crucially acknowledged that two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous people also face staggering rates of violence.

As such, two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous people are included in the Calls for Justice alongside Indigenous women and girls.

In 2019, the University of Winnipeg hosted a conference, Calls to Conversation (C2C) with the goal of two-spirit and queer and/or trans people of colour to come together to build relationships and have conversations about their lived experiences.

After the conference, C2C published its own Calls to Action, entitled Call to Conversation: Two Spirit and Queer/Trans People of Colour in which they directly acknowledge the irony of the TRC’s exclusion, stating that “it does not seem [the discussion with Égale] inspired sustained attention in the TRC publications.”

The term two-spirit is translated from Anishinaabemowin as a catch-all, but despite best efforts, the term can’t encompass what it attempts to mean. English does not have the vocabulary to describe the inherent interconnectedness of many Indigenous ways of knowing, teachings, and identities.

So, while some of those original titles and words have survived, much of that language is lost today, as well as the teachings that came with it.

When speaking with Caldwell, their energy and pride resonated through their joy in reclaiming and sharing his identity as a two-spirit person and what that means for him and his connection to his culture.

“Being two-spirit is a gift of teaching, of spirituality, and of community,” Caldwell repeated.

Despite how much pride Caldwell has, there is also a profound sense of grief for the teachings they can’t access due to colonial trauma—the teachings of what roles two-spirit individuals historically held in his home community and culture.

It is a loss that is felt deeply throughout the land now known as Canada, as many two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous peoples work to reclaim what was taken from them and their communities, while also dealing with the violent and isolating legacy of colonialism that is particular to two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous folks.

Kaela (they/them), a young non-binary Tsimshian person, for example, doesn’t claim the term two-spirit, and suspects they probably never will.

“Being Indigenous and LGBTQIA2S+ is really scary,” they told The Pigeon in an interview. “I feel super isolated and alone even though I know there are folks out there like me.”

“Because of accessibility and state involvement, communal safe spaces are few and far between and thus cliquey and/or non-existent.”

Likewise, Aurora Williams-Broomfield (they/them), a non-binary Inuk youth, doesn’t identify as two-spirit either.

“I personally don’t use the term two-spirit since I don’t fully understand what Inuit traditional views are on those identities—I’ve heard mixed beliefs and thoughts,” Williams-Broomfield explained to The Pigeon.

“In terms of what it means to be Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ […] I guess it’s just being true to myself […] It’s like a form of rebellion, as time and time again history has tried to erase and harm Indigenous people and LGBTQ2S+ people.”

The isolation and fear Kaela feels are likely familiar to many two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous people.

While there are significant gaps in research and data on the lives and experiences of two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous people, studies have shown that they face high rates of discrimination, violence, and ostracization due to their intersecting identities.

A 2011 Toronto Aboriginal Research Project study indicated that 88 per cent of respondents claimed that discrimination against two-spirit people was a serious problem, while 80 per cent of respondents claimed that there was a lack of safe events or spaces where two-spirit people could practice their Indigenous culture in Toronto.

A 2016 report on Two-Spirit Health found that, due to the colonial imposition of homophobia, transphobia, cisnormativity, and heteronormativity in Indigenous communities, two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous individuals experience disproportionately higher rates of poverty, substance use, and violence while often remaining unaccounted for in both LGBTQ+ and Indigenous health paradigms.

In a 2010 Winnipeg study on two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous mobility, one-third of participants indicated that they have been forced out of their community because of their sexual or gender identity, while a 2013 study found that 47 per cent of gender-diverse Indigenous Ontarians live below the poverty line.

Caldwell worked for over a decade as an Aboriginal liaison officer for Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and has also focused their academic research on the CSC’s policies and programs for gender-diverse and two-spirit offenders.

In his master’s thesis, he noted that two-spirit offenders often faced higher rates of violence and suicide while in the prison system due to the intersection of racism and homophobia. He cites a lack of intersectional cultural programming and policies as the main reason for this discrepancy.

Caldwell’s research has also shown that colonial—and especially religious—ideas of gender and sexuality have severed cultural teachings about two-spirit people.

As European and Christian values spread across North America, so did strict cisgender and heterosexual norms, beliefs, and roles. These beliefs erased and criminalized Indigenous ways of knowing and being that have existed since time immemorial.

Elders would traditionally pass down teachings about two-spirit identities, but those who were forced to attend residential schools may no longer hold those stories. Rather, many were forced to reject or hide these teachings out of shame, fear, and survival.

“Some of the Elders displayed resistance when discussing the two-spirit identity, as well as gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. This can be traced to their experiences in the residential school system where […] they were forced to conform into a Christian, patriarchal, heteronormative, binary system where homosexuality was seen as a sin,” part of Caldwell’s thesis reads.

Now within Indigenous communities themselves there is also a pervasive legacy of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that is a direct result of colonial assimilation tactics.

Prior to colonization, two-spirit people were highly respected and visible in many Indigenous communities across North America. While different nations and communities had varying traditions, two-spirit individuals were often teachers, leaders, healers, and warriors. They were valued members of their communities who were often seen as having gifts of wisdom and perspective.

Just as Indigenous women often held crucial and highly respected roles within many communities, so too did individuals who did not fit within a stereotypical cisgender heteronormative box.

Today, however, the legacy of colonial efforts to assimilate Indigenous peoples to a Euro-Christian standard has resulted in an immeasurable loss of these teachings and traditions.

Canada has an international, modern status as a welcoming country for LGBTQ2S+ people, and there’s even been a recent resurgence and reclamation of two-spirit identities and teachings, with many two-spirit individuals being open and proud about their identities on the public stage.

For example, Jeremy Dutcher, a two-spirit Wolastoqiyik musician, is critically acclaimed and has won the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno award in recent years.

James Makokis, a Cree doctor, and his husband Anthony Johnson, a Navajo artist, made history as the first two-spirit couple both to participate in and to win The Amazing Race Canada.

These successes and more are part of an ongoing movement towards the reclamation of two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous identities, and resistance against the systems, both historical and current, that fought to erase them.

However, Canada’s reputation as a welcoming and open place for all attempts to disguise the painful truth: Canada as we know it today was founded on the basis of homophobic and transphobic Euro-Christian values.

This foundation hasn’t only left a continued legacy of homophobia and transphobia in the country at-large, but has also specifically contributed to discrimination and lateral violence against two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous individuals within their own communities, as well as out.

“It’s a continued legacy,” Williams-Broomsfield explained, “where communities that were traditionally welcoming are now more closed off as a result of the church’s role in erasing two-spirit and other […] queer or LGBTQ2S+ identities.”

When asked if the government has a responsibility to address how colonization led to the erasure of two-spirit teachings and identities, Kaela was quick to respond.

“The government system in place allowed for genocides to occur, and [now] every and all teachings are basically gone and so now do we not only have loss of language and culture but also identities,” they explained. “They now need to recognize how they can help aid in our own revitalization.”

“I think the church should respond specifically to the LGBTQIA2S+ group as well considering how gross they’ve been towards those groups of people historically,” Kaela continued.

“Until the churches apologize, I will not step on their grounds. F—k them.”

It is not as though the significant intersection of Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ identities is secret or unknown to the state. The federal government has made several public apologies for the historical, state-sanctioned discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ2S+ community and those apologies have included two-spirit people.

However, in their interview, Caldwell wondered aloud: “Where is the apology for two-spirit people specifically? What would that look like?”

This lack of a specific apology for two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous peoples, as well as the exclusion of these identities in the TRC, allows the government to avoid confronting the fact that homophobia and transphobia are the direct results of colonization and assimilation.

In a country founded on Euro-Christian values and principles, it’s a complex and uncomfortable truth that the church’s role in the founding of Canada as we know it today had, and continues to have, a direct influence on how Indigenous peoples, and specifically two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous individuals, are treated.

“The church needs to apologize for the harm, the homophobia, and transphobia they imposed in residential schools,” Caldwell said.

“Yes, there will be resistance from the church, but as two-spirit [and LGBTQ+ Indigenous] people, we need to continue speaking our truth. People won’t understand, but their resistance will push us forward.”

In Calls to Action 58 to 61, under “Church Apologies and Reconciliation,” the TRC calls for church parties to ensure their congregation is aware of their church’s role in colonization, as well as to establish funding for community-controlled culture and language revitalization projects.

While the calls are broad and undoubtedly could include two-spirit people, there is a significant gap in the exclusion of any calls specific to two-spirit identity.

Considering the role of residential schools, and specifically the church, in the erasure of two-spirit identities and teachings, there is a need for a response, such as a call for the church’s recognition of the role it played in this erasure or for financial support in community-based revitalization of two-spirit teachings and culture.

Even still, the path to reconciliation for two-spirit people goes beyond the church. “I also think that the federal and […] provincial education systems need to address the erasure and their role in both residential schools and the continued silence regarding them which only perpetuates community issues,” Kaela added.

Until Canada fully addresses this homophobic and transphobic colonial legacy, it will only continue to perpetuate the violence, hatred, and intolerance against LGBTQ2S+ people.

In a country with a reputation for inclusivity, how can reconciliation truly be achieved in Canada without recognizing the full implications of the erasure of two-spirit and LGBTQ+ Indigenous identities and teachings?

Kristy Frenken-Francis is a queer Métis writer from the Vancouver area who is currently finishing her MA in English literature at the University of Ottawa. If she could write about medieval literature for the rest of her life, she would, but as there’s not much of a market for that she also often writes about identity, politics, mental health, and pop culture.

Clumsy to the point of concern, it is not uncommon to find Kristy injured from having slipped on a flat surface or tripping over her own feet, but she’s usually the first to laugh at herself.

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