Indigenous·Point of View

2-spirited indigenous people: opening up the conversation

One-third of the suicides in indigenous communities are committed by people who are two-spirited/LBGT, says Albert McLeod, co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc. There needs to be more awareness and a more open conversation about sexuality.

Indigenous communities need to begin talking about gender and sexuality

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)

A welcoming-in ceremony for the LGBT — or two-spirited — relatives in our community is one of the more powerful memories I have of being at a Manitoba Sundance last year.

David Blacksmith, the Sundance chief, spoke of having a place for two-spirited people in our community to pray and be welcomed back into the community.

The definition of two-spirit varies from territory to territory, but Albert McLeod defines it as "a term used to describe aboriginal people who assume cross- or multiple-gender roles, attributes, dress and attitudes for personal, spiritual, cultural, ceremonial or social reasons."

Offering people an opportunity to decide which side they wanted to go on in the Sundance was necessary, Blacksmith said.

"If a man chooses to identify as a woman, and a woman self-identifies as a man, then there is a place for them here in this lodge," he said.

In the past, two-spirited indigenous people have been ostracized by both Christian and traditional circles.

Albert McLeod, co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc., said one-third of the suicides in indigenous communities are committed by people who are LGBT/two-spirited.

Although there have been a lot of strides in creating awareness recently, more needs to done, he said.

How things used to be

(Albert Mcleod)
"It was quite an honour to have a child that was two-spirited to be born in the community ... because of the gifts that they carried as two-spirited people to have better understandings of male and female energies," says elder Mae Louise Campbell — that's what she has learned about the role of two-spirited people prior to contact with Europeans.

"Because they carry both [energies], many of them became leaders in the community, leaders in the elder capacity. People went to them because they were revered, actually," said Campbell, an Ojibwa/Métis from Kississing Lake in northern Manitoba and the elder in residence at Red River College in Winnipeg.

Legacy of residential schools

Albert McLeod is the co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc. (Albert Mcleod)
McLeod, who's Métis from Norway House, points out the legacy of residential schools and the impact they had.

Residential schools displaced indigenous students from their communities and put them into segregated, gender-specific dormitories, he said.

"It was very methodical in terms of reprogramming how indigenous people saw gender and identity.… Residential school periods created this very Christian-oriented, intolerant attitude that the settlers picked up in the last 100 years."

Where we are now

Tuma Young, a Mi'kmaq from Malagawatch First Nation and a professor at Cape Breton University in Sydney, N.S., remembers how difficult it was to come out 30 years ago.

"Things have improved drastically, but it's taken a whole generation. There's still challenges nonetheless, but I look around and I see … openly gay men and lesbians and two-spirited people in my communities. I'm quite amazed at the road we've travelled and how far we've come."

Campbell is an elder-in-residence at Red River College in Winnipeg, and is the mother of two two-spirited children. (Erica Daniels/CBC)
Elder Campbell is the parent of two two-spirited children, a son and a daughter.

"A lot of Christianity says, 'No, you can change the way that you are.' But … Creator created you that way. You can't change that, so you have to learn about that yourself."

People on reserves need more education, especially parents who may not understand their two-spirited children, she said.

"All they know and all they have heard is all of the negative information that's been out there for so long now.… Perhaps when that happens, they can reach out to other elders and … take that information to the schools."

Where we need to go

Joshua Whitehead is a PhD student at the University of Calgary (Joshua Whitehead)
Joshua Whitehead's dad went to residential school, and that makes it hard to talk about being two-spirited, the University of Calgary PhD student said.

"To not [be] having those conversations with our parents, because they may be traumatized from residential schools, and the sexual assault that went on there, I think is harming to us," he said.

"If two-spirit/queer indigenous peoples can muster the strength in their own ways to voice themselves and tell their own stories and present our own bodies in ways that we think are beautiful, sexy and lively.… If we can (have these conversations at the kitchen table in a meaningful way), there is more than enough potential for us to become intertwined, interlinked and braided together, as originally we should be," said Whitehead, who is from Peguis First Nation.

"We as indigenous peoples are really strongly linked in terms of community, in terms of movement, in terms of proximity and closeness. And I think there's a powerful thing in being together."

For elders like Albert, that will come when communities go back to tradition.

"A community will be stronger if it includes all its members."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.