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Although I truly wish it came as a surprise, the trend of Non-Natives referring to themselves as Two-Spirit remains a festering sore on the underbelly of the queer community. We live in an era where it’s uncouth to police another queer person’s identity, to tell them that the way they navigate their own queerness in this cis-heterosexist world is harmful, and in most cases, I agree with this position.
It is a truth very unfamiliar to queer white people, and to the white community at large, that there are identities, practices, religions, and philosophies in this world that are “closed” to non community members. To many white people, there is a hyperfocus on the idea that this means they will never be able to “sit at the cool kids’ table”, so to speak, and although that isn’t necessarily true, it misses the point of what it means when a practice or identity is closed. Far too much energy is spent “debating” whether or not closed practices and cultures even exist, which is a very poorly veiled attempt at dismissing the concerns and lived experiences of marginalized groups, particularly BIPOC, so that colonizers can continue to, well, colonize.
Closed identities and practices are, rather simply put, closed to people who have not been initiated, accepted, or otherwise born into a particular community or cultural group from where those practices originate. There are many contributing factors as to why a practice may be closed, including everything from colonial resistance, occult secrecy, hereditary power, or even simply a long history of being threatened and stolen from. All of this is to say, Native cultures, identities, and spirituality are closed in many different aspects, largely due to the violent history of colonialism literally legally banning our cultural practices*. However, many of our identities and philosophies are closed to Non-Natives simply because Non-Natives live outside of the complex webs of social roles, values, beliefs, and systems of knowing and living that have taken lifetimes to build and understand.
Being Two-Spirit is one example of such a closed societal role, an identity that is closed indefinitely to Non-Natives.
It is impossible to define Two-Spirit in a singular sentence, or in a simplified way that would only strip such a purposefully nuanced and flexible term of all its power. Even to call Two-Spirit inherently queer would be a gross misunderstanding of all the ways the identity can manifest and be understood by the people who belong to it.
The term itself is attributed to an Anishnaabe elder Myra Laramec during the LGBTQ Native American conference in 1990. She herself is accredited with receiving the term “Two-Spirit” in a dream. The term arose as a direct translation of the Anishinaabemowin term ‘niizh manidoowag’, literally meaning two spirits, and was purposefully designed to be a term that any Native who wished to connect with a historicity of gender and sexual abundance could use, as the terms “gay,” “lesbian” and even “transgender” are largely inadequate for many Native peoples. The idea of queerness and the division of sexuality from gender are foreign concepts to many peoples Indigenous to this continent, but unfortunately, colonialism has done everything in its power to destroy our original conceptions and the names that once flowed so easily to describe Native gender and sexual abundance. Two-Spirit was forged almost as a standby, until Natives from communities all over Indian Country could reclaim the words that have belonged to them long before whiteness tried to remove them from our throats.
In addition to the fact that Two-Spirit arose as a reclamation of a sea of gender and sexual identities that settlers have consistently abhorred, the term also empowered whole generations of Native youth and elders alike to reclaim the powerful roles Two-Spirituality afforded them in their traditional societies. In direct contrast to the modern, rightful rejection of toxic gender roles in white society, the reconnection to traditional gender roles has been necessary, particularly in the case of empowering Two-Spirit members of our communities.
Native identities, even simply tribal belonging, comes with a role, a duty to your Nation, community, family, clan, and ancestors. Being Native, and more importantly saying you’re Native, is not just an identity to wear or throw into conversation; it comes with a history and a purpose of belonging. Being Native is something you do and something you are born into. One could even say that to be born Native is to be born into circles of kinship, each requiring their own tending-to, a network of responsibilities that do not come lightly, although they do come beautifully.
For Non-Natives to identify with the term Two-Spirit because they feel as if there is a masculine and feminine spirit inside of them is to hyper-generalize one of many understandings of Two-Spirit, and to boil it down to an all too superficial interpretation of the text. If the word you are looking for is bigender, dual-gender, or genderfluid, those already exist without a history of being stolen. Non-Natives using that term so freely for themselves is honestly disgusting, degrading, and insulting when our traditions have been banned, when we have been whipped, imprisoned and murdered for something as simple as praying in our language. An identity that was forged out of resisting the violence of colonialism being used by the very colonialists themselves on these lands is absolutely infuriating. To claim Two-Spirituality as a Non-Native is the direct equivalent to claiming you belong to an Indigenous community when you do not. Don’t Elizabeth Warren your way through queer spaces.
I do definitely sympathize with the longing of many white queers to connect their queerness and gender abundance to a history that isn’t based in violence and opposition. I do believe in the power of these things, and the need to find spirituality in sexual and gender abundance. However, it is not our fault that Christian colonialism along with other violent forces in Europe worked to undo and erase traditional roles and identities relevant to white cultures, and you do not get to piggyback off of our suffering and our hard work. It’s a difficult, long, and frightening process to dig into history to find traditional identities, but we have and are doing that work, so do it for yourself instead of profiting off the labour of Indigenous peoples.
Also remember that tradition starts somewhere, and just because you lack a traditional or historical term, doesn’t mean the terms used now are any less valid or powerful. You can create your own traditions and be the start of a new chapter in history at any time, and I believe that is very much happening within the queer community in this very moment. Be the bearer of a torch of queer tradition that generations of queer youth will be proud to carry, one that isn’t marred by appropriation and perpetuation of colonial violence. Be the ancestors you have always wished for.
On another note in the same vein, retire that ratty dream catcher, bury the sage and sweetgrass you bought, retire smudge sticks, and get the hell out of sweat lodges. Reach into the vast history of European spiritualities to either revive or construct your own spiritual practices. Ours belong to us and would be much better off without white hands endangering our medicines and misinterpreting our ceremonies.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read this piece, and let these words sit with you until they become second nature in your mind.
Niá:wen tánon skén:nen kénhak!
*In the late 1800’s the federal government adopted the Code of Indian Offenses, which among many other policies, punished Natives practicing traditional spiritualities on reservations by whipping, withholding food rations, and even imprisonment. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that a religious freedom act was passed for Indigenous peoples in the U.S.