Diikahnéhi Akwirá’es Delaronde, Lexington
Within Native American communities, our relations to one another have always been the foundational force in how we find meaning in our identities. Our beloved relations extend through and past us, connecting a singular individual to both the living and the dead, to the ancient past, the sprawling present and the dawning of the future. Within our world, an individual is but a collection of stories that ties us to a larger sense of being as we look to our families, clans, and Nations as reflections of how we should live our lives.
What it means to be ‘Native’ can be found in this sprawling web that reaches throughout time and space, through human and non-human beings, collecting memory and dream in its pockets. We have always been complex peoples, even in our own eyes. We sometimes get lost in the dazzling array of connections that surrounds us and tells us who we are meant to be.
As we look to each other for insight and inspiration to guide us as we create and solidify our own identities as Indigenous peoples, we discover the dark depths of colonialism have polluted our eyesight, fogged our mirrors, so that we see each other less clearly than we ever have before. We are flooded with images at all turns of what a ‘Real Indian’ (because they always use that word) should be, how this relation-less being must look, what it must believe in, and how it must conduct its life. We have been inundated with Non-Native depictions of what Natives are conceived of being for so long that when we look in the mirror, we are no longer sure whose face we are supposed to see.
Are you really Indian if you don’t have long hair that you pull ever so graciously into braids? Are you really Indian if you’ve never mounted a horse, the simple idea of which kind of terrifies you? Should your nose be flatter, should it be smaller? Is your skin too dark, or not dark enough? Why don’t you know how to hunt, or fish, or sew, or pray? Why do you live in a city? Why don’t you leave the Rez? What does an Indian sound like, walk like, smell like, look like, feel like?
What is a ‘real Indian’?
As more images are created of us without our own input, these lines and boundaries cut deeper into our skin. No matter how hard we try to sanction our minds against the waves of ideas of Nativeness that surround us, these ideas will still find even the smallest of cracks to leak through and blur our understanding of ourselves.
If being Native was complex even before the introduction of outside concepts of how we should live our lives, it has become even more so in the last hundred years. We have become restricted by a paradox that governs our every move— afraid of both defying and conforming to the images that surround us, afraid of never finding that perfect balance that will sanctify us as ‘True Natives’.
Buried beneath all of these conversations, there is a reality that has been purposefully covered by colonization that refuses to go ignored any longer. Two-Spirit is a term that, since its conception, has been defined by Natives both within and without the identity in endlessly different ways–even a quick google search will undoubtedly leave you with more questions than answers. Therefore, my goal is not to try and provide a singular definition for all of us who carry the Two-Spirit identity, but to instead focus on the experience that connects us all, even if our personal definitions of Two-Spirit differ: historical, cultural, and contemporary erasure.
I challenge you, dear reader, to name one Two-Spirited author— or singer, or doctor, or politician or dancer, or even a fictional character.
Are you at a loss for words? So are many Two-Spirited people.
As the impact of representation has been discussed on an intersectional platform for decades now, from classrooms to television shows, Two-Spirited people find our hands empty at almost every corner we turn to and we are forced to ask ourselves ‘why?’. It is no secret that colonialism has violently shoved a sexual and gender binary into spaces it did not previously fit, and as a result, almost all Two-Spirited people have grown up in what we are led to believe is isolation. We are tricked into perceiving ourselves as flaws in the greater systems of being, a processing error in the cogs of the machine that is designed to prevent such deviations. Because of the fact that our existence has been torn from the pages of history, we are left flipping through endless stacks of books looking for shreds of hope that we are not alone. I can count the amount of positive representations of Native Americans in mass-media on one hand–none of which actively includes Two-Spirited Natives.
If we are a people that look to one another as models of how we should shape our own identities, how can those of us who are Two-Spirited be expected to process our experiences if we are not even taught about our own existence?
We have existed since time immemorial, but we have coined the term “Two-Spirit” because our gender and social roles along with the language that once flew freely to describe us have been burned in the fires of colonialism, they have been hushed by the prayers of missionaries. Conversations are arising around Indian Country to reinvigorate the torches Two-Spirited people have once carried, but what we know to be happening in theoretical spaces still differs largely from what we see in our daily lives.
The traumas we face at the crossroads of Indigenous and Two-Spirit have left us breathless, winded from long arguments over our right to existence. We are constantly told that we should change the way we dress ourselves, the way we speak our minds, change the way our hearts look at other people–” to fix” what we’ve never known to be broken. Suddenly, another facet of our identity, which is as natural as the colour of our skin, denies us access to our inherit Indigeneity. We should act like “other Indian boys and girls”, looking to our relations who haven’t yet understood our needs as Two- Spirited people for inaccurate reflections of ourselves. If we turn to queer spaces outside of our communities seeking safe havens, we are met with cutting questions that bite at our Nativeness, making it very clear that our place in such colonial queer spaces comes at a steep price of cultural ignorance.
Where, then, can we seek out mindful relations with whom we can be whole and balanced? The key to our survival as Two-Spirited individuals lies in the connections we make to one another. We as Native Americans are often culturally expected to bring all parts of ourselves into the relationships we share with other beings, and we can only be truly whole and walk in complete relations with one another and with ourselves when we are not afraid of the parts of our spirits that deviate from colonial norms. Our existence as Native Americans, whether Two-Spirited or not, is inherent resistance to the structure of colonialism that would rather see us buried in the past, and we should only reach out to each other in tenderness and hope, even when we do not understand where our relations are coming from.
Education on any issue is a two-fold process: first unlearning what you’ve already been told, then opening yourself up to the learning that lies ahead of you. As our Non Two-Spirited relations learn what it means to be safe spaces for us, we Two-Spirited people must stretch across these imaginary boundaries and enforced isolation until we can meet one another face to face. Our strongest allies are the ones we find in each other.
It is not with shame or reluctance that I am writing this piece; everywhere I go, I have learned to speak with the collection of voices I have discovered, using their wisdom to shape my own. I write this article with humility, knowing that my privilege of having attended university is still uncommon among Two-Spirited people but I will say this: it is not through academia that I have discovered the unbroken history of Two-Spirit bravery, talent, creativity, strength and resilience–it is through the relations that I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with that I continue to learn and grow. The internet has been a remarkable tool in expanding my horizons in all directions. Not only have I been able to connect with other communities outside of my own in our resistance against colonialism and oppression, but I now have more fellow Two-Spirited friends than ever before in my life– it only took just shy of twenty-two years for that to happen. We as nonconformists to the strict rules of settler-colonialism often must wait until later in our lives before we come into the riches that privileged people have enjoyed their entire life–safety, community, acceptance, love, education, representation– the list could outnumber the stars in the sky. What I do know, is that the parts of me that were taught to hide behind walls and deep in the depths of my own spirit are finally rejoicing at all the Two-Spirited people and history I have come to know! My life is full of reflections of myself that I can look to as examples of how to exist as a wholesome, just, Two-Spirited person.
Everyday, I scream off-key along to the melodies of Black Belt Eagle Scout and Jeremy Dutcher as I drive too quickly to work. I hide my tears and catch glimpses of myself between the pages of the exquisite works of Joshua Whitehead and Billy-Ray Belcourt. I am humbled by the wisdom and perseverance of Dr. James Makokis who has dedicated countless years of his life to bringing accessible healthcare to Trans and Two-Spirited people. I couldn’t even begin to list the names of all the life-changing Two-Spirited people who I have come to know throughout my ever growing time here on this Earth. The chains of isolation we are given upon birth by these oppressive powers are not stronger than our own resiliency. One thing I have seen to be true time and time again for all Native people, is that we will always, undoubtedly and subconsciously, find each other. We are a people of community, defined by the way we treat and see one another. Let us unfog our mirror, unclench our jaws, and look each other square in the face–we are all owed that amount of respect.
To my Non-Indigenous readers: find Indigenous voices. We are not hiding, we are being ignored. The easiest way to break that pattern of ignorance is to begin looking. Let Indigenous voices guide you in your search. You will be wrong, you will make mistakes, you will be uninformed. Remember to unlearn before you ready yourself to learn. Know whose land you occupy and how it came to be occupied. Give space, give money, give attention, give credit where each is due.
To my non Two Spirited Natives: approach your Two-Spirited kin as you do with all other beings. Look us in the eyes, communicate with us, open yourselves to other ways of being and understanding the endlessness of creation. We owe each other safety, compassion, healing, and learning. Learn so that you can be safe for your Two-Spirit relations.
To my Two Spirited readers: I hear you, I see you, I walk with you. You are not alone. We have always existed and we will always exist as long as the sun rides across the sky. We are a people that cannot be broken or ignored. Don’t let your anger poison the beauty of this world, but know when poison is useful. Be kind to yourself, for you are your closest relation.
Niá:wen tánon’ skén:nen kénhak.