skip to content
Indigenous Culture

Do you know what two-spirit means?

Published on June 16, 2022 | Last Updated June 24, 2022
A rainbow flag with two feathers tied together in the centre.
The two-spirit flag, with two feathers representing female and male, and a circle combining them together.

You may have heard the term two-spirit before, but do you know what it means?

Two-spirit is a term for Indigenous people who feel they have both a female and a male spirit. It's kind of like a third gender that can be both male and female, or something in between.

You know how some people may use the pronoun “they”? Many Indigenous people have their own words for genders outside of male and female. But it can have different meanings depending on who you ask. Here are some facts about what two-spirit means.

A new word with an old history

Albert McLeod, wearing glasses and a plaid shirt, smiles for the camera

Albert McLeod is a two-spirit elder who lives in Manitoba, he's also the co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

"Two-spirit" was first used in Winnipeg in 1990. It's a newer word. But it has a long history in Indigenous communities.

The term two-spirit can mean different things across Indigenous communities. But it is meant to bring back Indigenous traditions. Traditions which were almost erased by the arrival of European settlers. 

You might also know this as  “colonization.” Colonization means to take control of land and people who were there first.

By Indigenous people, for Indigenous people

Two-spirit elder Ma-Nee Chacaby, wearing an orange shirt and smiling

Ojiba-Cree elder Ma-Nee Chacaby was once bullied for identifying as two-spirit. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

One reason the term two-spirit was created was to replace an old European one. The word berdache was used for Indigenous people who did not fit into European gender roles. It is now seen as old and hurtful. 

The word two-spirit is meant to honour traditional Indigenous gender identities. Identities which were hidden or disappeared after European settlers came.

It’s a community role

A large group of people gathered in front of teepee during a two-spirit ceremony

People attend a "two-spirit sweat", an LGBTQ+ Cree ceremony near Edmonton, Alberta. (Ryan Varga/Reuters)

A new Anishinaabe word for two-spirit is Naawi-naangweyaabewag. It translates to “those who keep the circle together.” It was created to honour the important roles that two-spirit people play. 

Two-spirit people are able to serve in roles that are usually given to both men and women. These can be roles like community and spiritual leaders.

Can anyone be two-spirit?

Two-spirit is a cultural identity. And that means it's part of Indigenous culture. Because of that, only Indigenous people are able to identify as two-spirit.

Are all LGBTQ+ Indigenous people two-spirit?

Two-spirit doctor James Makosis stands next to his boyfriend Anthony Johnson as they smile at the camera

Dr. James Makokis, a Cree two-spirit family doctor, with his husband Anthony Johnson, a Navajo two-spirit community health worker. (Ryan Varga/Reuters)

Not exactly. Many Indigenous people feel comfortable identifying as two-spirit. But some may prefer to identify using LGBTQ+. Or a term in their own language. Here are some examples:

Winkte in Lakota, which means “to be as a woman.”

Nàdleehé in Dinéh, which means “those who transform.”

Māhū from Hawaii, which means “in the middle.”

Do two-spirit people identify as both male and female?

Yes and no. Two-spirit can mean different things for different people. It is often thought of as a third gender outside of male and female.

Every two-spirit person will have their own experiences. As well as their own views of their identity. So it’s best to just ask!

CBC Kids uses cookies in order to function and give you a great experience. Your parent or guardian can disable the cookies by clicking here if they wish.