The word two-spirit has had many meanings throughout generations: a spiritual healer, a leader. However, in modern days, it is seen through a more negative lens.
Historically, according to Indigenous historians and anthropologists, the presence of two-spirited people was an important part of Indigenous tribes. It was documented in more than 130 North American tribes before colonization, where these traditions were forcibly removed through the introduction of Christianity.
What does two-spirit mean?
Two-spirit is not a synonym for an LGBTQ2S+ person. Instead, according to a team of LGBTQ2S+ researchers, two-spirit defines a person as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit. It is used by some Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity.
This misunderstanding of two-spirit — and even the LGBTQ2S+ community in general — sometimes strains the way that the two-spirit community is viewed.
To seek understanding, the Calgary Journal talked to an uncle and a nephew, both two-spirited, about their experiences.
‘There wasn’t a lot of room for being feminine.’
Cleavon Abraham, 38, grew up in two starkly different communities: the Northeast of Calgary, and the Morley First Nation just West of the city.
“My childhood was a lot of moving around, but a lot of my life was in the city. My friends, my school, they were all there, not on the reserve — I had a lot of issues on the reserve.”
Realizing his LGBTQ2S+ identity at age 13, Abraham felt he had no choice but to run away. But he didn’t adopt his two-spirit identity until later in his life.
“I had always been really feminine, and my family were ranchers. There wasn’t a lot of room for being feminine. My father was really strict and none of my family understood.”
Running away to live with his family in the city, Abraham felt that the environment was at least more accepting compared to on the reserve. Going back to the reserve later in life, he found that there was still little understanding.
“I would go home and my mom would say it was my friend’s fault I was like this. Or saying that it wasn’t the way of the native culture, ‘living the white man’s way of life.’”
Abraham’s mentor and friend, Shadino House, introduced him to many new ideas and experiences, including the queer and drag community. House also helped him to come out and accept himself.
“At first I didn’t know what to call myself and I read somewhere that people like myself had a term that they use [two-spirit] that came out of Winnipeg. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what that meant and I looked into it and started identifying with it more than the word gay, or any other identities.”
Realizing his connection with two-spirit, and with the help of House, Abraham decided to go into drag where he adopted the stage name Argintina Hailey.
“I realized that Argintina, my stage identity, is a soul I share my body with. She’s as much of who I am as Cleavon, and that’s what really made me feel two-spirited.”
Through drag, Abraham tried to overcome and bring education to the community that dismissed him when he was younger. He returned and organized a pride celebration for Morley in August of 2016.
“It was crazy, we had so many people that wanted to come, it was sold out. The elders were on board, which was surprising, even some people that I never expected were. I had to keep reminding myself, ‘it’s not 1999, some things have changed.’”
‘The cultures that I grew up around weren’t very inclusive.’
Steve Kootenay-Jobin, who also identifies as two-spirit, is Cleavon Abraham’s nephew. In fact, it was Abraham who introduced Kootenay-Jobin to queer culture. Now 30, Kootenay-Jobin says he’s had a slightly easier time than his uncle.
For example, he says he faced less oppression growing up an Indigenous person in Northeast Calgary, but adds he still had to contend with the layered discrimination that came with being two-spirit.
“The first time I heard about the word two-spirit, it was from my Uncle Cleavon. Even then, when I was younger, people were still really unaccepting, the cultures that I grew up around weren’t very inclusive and that held me back a lot.”
But for two-spirit and gender-defying Indigenous people, life can be significantly harder, no matter where they call home.
Kootenay-Jobin, who went to Mount Royal University, faced discrimination based on his two-spirit identity and his Indigenous roots.
“I was living in residence and there was a specific floor dedicated to the Indigenous students. I remember being in the elevator and clicking the button for my floor and one of my friends saying, ‘you don’t want to go there, that floor is dangerous.’”
Kootenay-Jobin replied, “but that’s my floor. I’m Indigenous.”
These layers of discrimination followed Kootenay-Jobin, as they do for most two-spirit people.
“Because we’re different from both communities, that puts us in a uniquely difficult position.”
Research shows Transphobia persists in two-spirit communities
Unfortunately, the Indigenous community isn’t immune to transphobia and homophobia.
In a 2016 study of more than 400 trans-identified and two-spirit people in Ontario, 43 per cent reported facing physical or sexual violence motivated by transphobia.
But these aren’t the only issues that the community faces. Kootenay-Jobin points out that issues often run deeper.
“One of the main problems is our focus on procreation. We have pretty strict gender roles and an emphasis on giving back to the earth which can cause a lot of scrutiny to those who don’t follow it.”
Although Kootenay-Jobin grew up outside of a reserve in a significantly more diverse community, he still felt the backlash of these prejudices.
“A lot of the people in my community — the cultures that is — were still very against the LGBTQ community, and my family wasn’t much different. My grandfather recently said that he wanted to cleanse the gay community to protect our lands.”
Despite these issues, both Kootenay-Jobin and his uncle hold out hope that things will improve, but there’s still more to be done.
Abraham hopes to see resources for two-spirit people continue to develop. “Resource centres, community centres, just places to learn who you are and how you fit into your community,” says Abraham.
Want to know more about the history of two-spirit identity?
The Calgary Journal compiled a list of websites dedicated to furthering understanding of people who identify as two-spirit.
A compilation of:
- An informational blog by Chelsea Vowel, the author of Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, that focuses on spreading information about the two-spirit community.
- Two Spirits, One Voice is a community-based initiative that seeks to bolster supports for persons that identify both as LGBTQ and Indigenous – Two-Spirit people.
- Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc. is an organization that seeks to create a community for two-spirited people in Manitoba, and spread positive information about the community.
- “First Stories - Two-Spirited” is a short documentary from the National Film Board of Canada about the story of Rodney "Geeyo" Poucette's struggle against prejudice in the Indigenous community as a two-spirited person.
- Two-Spirits is a documentary film by PBS, presenting the story of a mother’s loss of her son, and a look at the largely unknown history of the two-spirit community.
- By Georgia Longphee