Under the rainbow: an Indigenous perspective on the Orlando tragedy

The issues rooted in the Orlando tragedy find resonance in the Indigenous LGBT and two-spirit community.

Two-spirit and LGBTQ2 Indigenous people face similar struggles of discrimination

The tragedy in Orlando affects many in the LGBTQ community. It raises questions of the struggle for acceptance inside and out of the community. (CBC)

The LGBTQ2 (LGBT-Queer-Two-Spirited) and Indigenous communities have been intrinsically linked since time immemorial. So when news emerged of the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, an attack directed squarely at the LGBTQ2 community, the shock and horror ripped through the Indigenous population like it did many others.

I came upon the news late. Sunday mornings are sleep-in days in our household and when I did rise I hustled to the television to catch an early Blue Jays game. It was only after the game that I hit social media. And not far into my newsfeed I saw it. Fifty dead in an Orlando nightclub.

My wife and I put on the news channels and what followed was a day of heartache and empathy.

We cried when a despondent survivor shared his chilling account, felt his anguish and trauma. We cried when Christine Leinonen sobbed for her son, unsure of his fate (he and his partner were later confirmed among the dead).


I felt sick, but as news reporter after news reporter spoke to the cameras, as President Barack Obama addressed his nation, an oft repeated fact began to bump — that this was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

It wasn't and as a member of the media I've always been a stickler for journalistic and historical accuracy.

Indigenous people on social media had already been pointing it out, citing the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1891 as the antecedent where 150 Lakota people (some historians say as many as 300, half of them women and children) were killed by U.S. Federal Agents and the 7th Cavalry.

I wanted to weigh in but didn't think Sunday was the day to do it. I did it on Monday.

Miss Gay Ottawa travels on her float during a two-spirit festival in Saskatchewan. Indigenous LGBT and two-spirit individuals face their own struggles within the community. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

There was much agreement with my post, including LGBTQ2 Indigenous people. There was some outrage, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, about entering a tragedy competition. That was not my intent. It was about responsible journalism.

That same day the CBC added "by a lone shooter" to their stories. And that's what it was, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history by a lone shooter. Incidental? Not if you're Indigenous. Not if your history has been repeatedly marginalized. Not in this time of Truth and Reconciliation.

Marginalization affects both the Indigenous and LGBTQ2 communities and both have fought against it.

The Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973. The Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969.


Most Indigenous nations historically recognized three to five genders (female, male, two spirit female, two spirit male and transgendered) who held important, societal positions.

This changed during colonization. Early explorers brought stories back to Europe about Indigenous men who had, "given to sin" and to "hunting women" who took female wives. The famed Indigenous portrait artist George Catlin quipped that this tradition, "must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded."

And extinguish it they tried.

Like many elements of Indigenous culture, gender variance was not to be tolerated. Instead colonizers tried to force Indigenous people to conform to the two-gender paradigm, Indian agents and missionaries leading the way.

Thankfully, in the long run, it didn't work. Many LGBTQ2 Indigenous people went underground for decades (others committed suicide) but like much of the overall Indigenous culture, the tradition reemerged in the 1960s.

Every nation had its own words for this respected element of society but in Winnipeg in 1989, seeking to maintain Indigenous identity and not be lumped into other races, the LGBTQ2  Indigenous community adopted the Anishinabe phrase, "Niizh Manidoowag," two spirit in English.

Some dislike it but two spirit has become the universal term throughout Indigenous country.

Today two-spirited people are reclaiming their rightful place in Indigenous society. Members of the overall LGBTQ2 are as well within their various societies with varying degrees of success. Old bigotries are holding out in some cultures more than others.

Eventually I believe we will all get there, it's inevitable.


There was another qualifier in describing the Orlando tragedy, the worst mass shooting in the U.S. in "modern history." But what is modern? Indigenous people look back seven generations and look forward seven generations. In that context the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre falls within "modern history." I knew people who lived in that era.

In a powwow is held at the 22nd annual International Two-Spirit Gathering in Manitoba, in 2010, Elder Wilfred Abigosis holds the Two-Spirit Eagle Staff. (Albert McLeod)

Again it's not my intent to enter a tragedy competition or create rifts, something that threatened to happen on social media as the conversations went back and forth. Tragedies need to unite our communities, not tear them apart.

The Orlando shooting was rooted in hate, a level of intolerance that should no longer have any place in society but sadly still does. Homophobia remains an issue in the Indigenous community as well, largely rooted in Christian assimilation.

I'm Indigenous. I'm bisexual. In writing that I wonder if I will subject myself to the same hate that ripped through a nightclub where people celebrated life. Based on some of the vitriol that spewed across Twitter I might be.

Time will tell but regardless I want members of all communities to be safe.

Hopefully society grew up a little on June 12, 2016. Hopefully it continues to because I can't stand that members of my community fear for their lives when they holds hands or kiss in public.

About the Author

Jordan Wheeler is a Gemini award winning writer living in Winnipeg. His journalistic work, over the last 30 years, has appeared in various publications across the country. He is also a member of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.