Two-Spirit: Words For Reclamation

Written on 08/12/2021
Maya Linsley

Under colonial rule, the long-accepted existence of more than two gender identities in Indigenous cultures worldwide was systematically denied, repressed, and criminalized. A 1990 conference sought to turn the tide and reclaim Indigenous identity.

Hosted in Winnipeg, the Third Annual Intertribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian Conference convened to address gender nonconforming identities and their future in a colonized Canada.

At the conference, the term Two-Spirit was introduced by Elder Myra Laramee to encompass all Indigenous peoples of nonstandard gender identity. A translation of the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag, or 'two spirits,' replaced the Western anthropological term berdache, which had been used to describe individuals who did not conform to standard gender roles.

Instrumental in the conference and introduction of the term was Albert MacLeod, a knowledge-keeper and activist. He is known for his work on behalf of the Two-Spirit community and Indigenous people living with HIV and AIDS.

Two-Spirit is exclusive to Indigenous peoples and is not synonymous with standard terms in the LGBTQ+ acronym. The 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations states that "Two-Spirited people were often the visionaries, the healers and the medicine people. They were respected as fundamental components of our ancient culture and societies."

Since the introduction of the term, Two-Spirit art and community have been thriving. There has been a particular focus on uplifting Two-Spirit filmmakers.

However, for many individuals, Two-Spirit is not a replacement for the traditional identity term used in their respective communities. In an interview, Harlan Pruden, editor of Two-Spirit Journal, said, "Two-Spirit is not an identity. It's a community organizing tool or a placeholder… Ayahkwêw is my identity." 

Today, 2S has been incorporated into the LGBTQ+ acronym to recognize the intersectionality of queer identity and honour the longstanding awareness of that intersectionality in Indigenous tradition.

Maya Linsley (she/her) is a Loran Scholar and undergraduate English major at the University of Victoria, where she also works as a digital humanities research assistant. An avid writer, reader, and lover of all things feline, Maya can usually be spotted biking across campus or lurking in the stacks at the library.