How two-spirit people are 'coming in' to their communities

The term "two-spirit" has only been around for about 30 years, but it's an identity with ancient roots. Meet Indigenous people, like professor Alex Wilson and writer Joshua Whitehead, who are walking the two-spirit path and reclaiming their place in cultural and community circles.

Cree professor says two-spirit is a ‘modern term that recognizes our ancient understandings of our identity’

Midewiwin Chief Ron Indian-Mandamin, centre, and Michif Elders Charlotte Nolin, left, and Barbara Bruce, right, at the wiidiigewin ('union of the souls') ceremony of Nicki Ferland, front left, and Chantal Fiola, front right. (Submitted by Chantal Fiola/Madix Photography)

Originally published on December 3, 2021. 

The term "two-spirit" has existed for only 30 years, but it's an identity with ancient roots, according to Alex Wilson, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Wilson, who has a doctorate of education in psychology, is from Opaskwayak Cree Nation and is two-spirit herself.

The term was coined in 1990 by Anishinaabe elder Myra Laramee after it came to her in a dream. 

Laramee brought the term, which at the time meant someone who holds both feminine and masculine energy or spirit, to an international gathering of Indigenous gay and lesbian people in Winnipeg. It was adopted by the community, in Winnipeg and beyond, that year.

Three decades later, Wilson says there's a lot of variation in the term's meaning today. 

"In general ... [two-spirit is] used by Indigenous people to recognize that there's a diversity of sexuality and gender within our cultures," she told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. 

"It's a modern term that recognizes our ancient understandings of our identity." 

Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, right, with Alex Wilson, left. (Submitted by Rosanna Deerchild)

For younger two-spirit people like writer Joshua Whitehead, the term isn't static. 

"I think [two-spirit] is a placeholder for folks finding terminologies within their own language systems to name themselves and to claim themselves and to ... honour all those people who came before us who were the most badass Indigiqueers to have ever existed and made space for us to be here today," Whitehead explained.

Young two-spirit struggles

When she was young, Wilson said she felt supported and comfortable being herself at home, but realized she wasn't seen as equal outside of her community. 

"In high school, when we had ice skating, I brought my hockey skates and the teacher said to me, 'Well, you can't wear boys' skates because people will think you're a dyke,'" she recalled.

Today, Wilson conducts research on two-spirit identity to understand herself and these experiences from her youth, but also to learn how two-spirit people can stay strong in the face of homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism. 

She committed to doing this research after she learned some horrible news. 

While completing her undergraduate studies at Sacramento State University in California in the 1990s, Wilson worked as a facilitator for an LGBTQ youth group. 

"When I got back [for my final year of undergrad], I went to the youth group and I noticed that none of the Indigenous kids were there. And there were quite a few of them. And I asked, 'What happened to RJ? What happened to so-and-so?' And over the course of the summer, all of them had committed suicide," Wilson said. 

"It was devastating … and it took a while to kind of process and heal from that, but it also made me realize and wonder, what is happening in the world that is making this place unsafe for us to be ourselves?"

Wilson found that the existing research on queer, non-binary Indigenous people was sorely lacking. "There was no research written by or informed, even, by Indigenous queer people," she said. 

'Coming in' vs. 'coming out'

In speaking to two-spirit Anishinaabe, Cree and Métis people for her dissertation research, Wilson heard a lot of stories of pain and violence, but also beautiful stories of people coming together.

"The participants in that study had some common experiences, and one is that they had a place [in their community] when they were growing up," Wilson explained.

This is exactly who I am.- Joshua Whitehead on recognizing the Cree words that express his identity

"Then there were things that happened that kind of fragmented or fractured their connections, and some of them had to hide who they were, whether it was their sexuality or their gender, or for some even their ethnic background or their culture, their language."

Eventually, though, they all were able to find and create a community that supported them, which is what Wilson calls, "coming in."

Unlike when someone comes out, which is about their individual identity, "coming in" is about connection to community and being part of something bigger than yourself, Wilson explained. 

"Coming in really was not a declaration or an announcement [like coming out] ... but rather an affirmation of this interdependent identity," she said. 

"Indigenous understandings are meant to be holistic, and they always have been for tens of thousands of years." Colonialism severed those holistic ways of seeing and being, she said. 

But today, people are having "coming in" ceremonies and integrating two-spirit identity into other traditional ceremonies, such as weddings. 

Chantal Fiola, left, with her wife, Nicki Ferland, wrapped in a quilt and holding an eagle feather at their wiidiigewin ceremony overseen by Midewiwin Chief Ron Indian-Mandamin. (Submitted by Chantal Fiola/Madix Photography) (Madix Photography)

"It was important to both of us as Michif Métis women to mark [our wedding] in ceremony and to involve our friends and family in the physical realm but also our ancestors in the spirit realm," said two-spirit scholar Chantal Fiola.

Fiola is newly married and also the author of two books on the subject of Métis spirituality, Rekindling the Sacred Fire: Métis Ancestry and Anishinaabe Spirituality and Returning to Ceremony: Spirituality in Manitoba Métis Communities

Fiola and her partner Nicki Ferland were married in August of 2019 and marked the occasion with a two-spirit wiidiigewen ceremony. Wiidiigewen, Fiola said, translates to "union of the souls."

"When I started going to ceremonies 15 years ago and learned about these beautiful wiidiigewen teachings and I started witnessing these wiidiigewen ceremonies and learning that what we call two-spirit people have always existed in most Indigenous nations — and that we were and are welcome to love and participate in these ceremonies — I then started imagining and dreaming about, you know, finding my wife and raising a family and making sure these teachings were part of that," she said. 

The evolution of two-spirit

People like Wilson, Fiola and Joshua Whitehead are bringing those understandings and ways of being back to their communities. 

Whitehead didn't claim the two-spirit identity until he was in his mid-20s. He grew up in Selkirk, Man., and is a member of Peguis First Nation.

Joshua Whitehead says many communities still struggle to accept their two-spirit kin. (Tenille Campbell)

"I lived in a fairly, I would say, white and Indigenous segregated town," Whitehead, the winner of Canada Reads 2021, told Unreserved.

He said he had to separate the Indigenous and queer aspects of himself to survive. At home, he could be Indigenous, but not two-spirit or queer. In the city, he said he could be queer, but he had to hide his Indigeneity. 

Even language kept his identities separated. Terms like "gay" or "queer" felt white to him, and didn't acknowledge his Indigeneity.

When he discovered what two-spirit meant, he felt like it represented his whole self. 

"I remember going home and asking family and aunties about it. And actually, we do have words for this in Cree," he said. "I just remember thinking, 'This is exactly who I am,' that I am both an Oji-Cree diehard, but then I'm also a queer femme who likes to wear booty shorts and shake it at the club."

Whitehead says many communities still struggle to accept their two-spirit kin, because same-sex sexual assault in the residential school system demonized homosexuality and queerness, and left lingering homophobia and transphobia.

But his award-winning book Jonny Appleseed has helped readers have conversations with their families about sexuality and identity, he added. 

Today, Whitehead identifies as two-spirit and Indigiqueer, but doesn't see two-spirit, an English term, as being concrete or language Indigenous will use forever. 

Indigenous youth are changing language to find what works for them and becoming leaders in their own right, he said, pointing to new terms like Indigigaymer or Indigigoth.

"That is just so amazingly queer and so amazingly punk," he said.

"These [kids] are going to be monumental leaders in all of our communities, who will be on the front lines and will be making political and policy changes," he continued. "They're the fire of all fires that I've ever seen."

Written by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing. Produced by Erin Noel, Kim Kaschor, Laura Beaulne-Stuebing, Roshini Nair, and Rosanna Deerchild.