Combatting erasure of Indigenous Two-Spirit identity 

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Three feathers are fanned out above an orange background.
Resisting erasure is a profoundly radical act of kindness to oneself and one’s people.  Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay, manipulated lee lim

A relatively modern term for an identity that has always existed, and always will

In Kelly Geraldine Malone’s article “Journey of Indigenous Gender Identity,” Jack Saddleback, a Two-Spirit transgender man who was raised on the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta, talks about how he was ‘exorcized’ when a medicine man believed that he had another spirit inside his body, deceiving him to think he was a man. It was in that moment that he realized how much colonization had permeated its way into First Nations cultures and traditions.  

As people all over the world try to break their way out of the Eurocentric gender binary identities, more and more Indigenous people are coming out as Two-Spirit. Lori Campbell, Associate Vice-President of Indigenous Engagement at the University of Regina who identifies as a Two-Spirit individual, spoke to the Carillon about Two-Spirit identity and what it represents for her community. Campbell emphasizes that it can mean different things to different people and communities. It is important to recognize that there are different interpretations. 

“Different people understand it a little differently. For me, the Elders, and the community I belong to, I think about it in a way that in Indigenous cultures people are often defined by their roles and responsibilities, so we don’t even have pronouns in the same way as ‘he’ and ‘she,’” she said.   

Campbell mentions that Two-Spirit identity has always existed in Indigenous culture and communities even though the specific term was coined only recently. Members were defined by their roles in the community, and languages were not based on binary gender rules. Remembering her years growing up, she says, “When I used to listen to my old aunty speak who was a Cree language speaker and didn’t speak as much English, she’d be talking about somebody and she’d be saying, ‘oh your uncle, he did this, and then she went and did this.’ So, she switched the pronouns because you understood who they were talking about by the context and how they were talking”.  

“And for me, Two-Spirit people were also people who played a role within community and were recognized in that way. It was a different identified role. It is difficult to explain, but I think that we always existed and there were terms that identified us in a different way than a gender binary in most of our languages. But it was also defined by our roles, like there were terms for someone who did a role that was not quite their common role. It is a culturally-specific term that is also a modern term because it was developed in the 1990s as a kind of a common term for us to identify ourselves as Indigenous.”   

Campbell also emphasizes that Two-Spirit identity goes beyond an individual sexual identity and that it has broader implications. “It is more than speaking about our sexuality, it is speaking about how we exist and identify and conduct ourselves in our role in the broader community. So, when I say I’m Two-Spirit I am also speaking about my cultural commitment and responsibilities as a person from that community.”  

Campbell’s comments speak volumes about how restrictive the English language is for Indigenous communities, and that no efforts were made to recognize and address the same. We understand more and more about the dire impacts of colonization the more we learn about Indigenous communities, their history, languages, and cultures, none of which found its way in history from the colonizers’ point of view. It is essential to educate ourselves about the actual history of these communities lest they should be erased through negligence as well as violence. Moreso for the younger Indigenous people who struggle as it is due to intergenerational trauma and the challenges that they must overcome to break out of the same.  

Campbell recognizes the importance of awareness and representation especially as a Two-Spirit individual in a leadership role. “As I have gotten older, I have recognized how important it is to be recognized and validated for younger Two-Spirit Indigenous people. So, as a Two-Spirit person of a certain age who gets to have the privilege of holding a leadership role in a mainstream organization, I want to make it known that I am Two-Spirit because I want, for one, for Two-Spirit people to see that we can exist and thrive in all spaces and all spaces are for us and we deserve to be in all spaces.” 

She also mentions that it is important for her non-Indigenous, non-queer colleagues to understand Two-Spirit identity so that a more inclusive and respectful environment can be created overall. “For my straight colleagues, I also want them to learn as well.  I want to be visible in that way so that they know that we’ve kind of been erased just by erasure, like no mention of us, which can make you feel very invisible. So, I do make it known. My Zoom will say ‘Lori Campbell (Two-Spirit)’ whether I am meeting with the government, deputy commissioner, the president, or the students. And I do take that very seriously and I also try to make sure in all our conversations and policy discussions that those types of things are considered in how we’re making decisions so that we don’t directly cause harm or accidentally cause harm”, she said.  

Be it Campbell, Saddleback, or the thousands of other Indigenous people who have and are coming out and identifying as Two-Spirit people, an aim of all has been that for recognition. This journey is still far from reaching its conclusion and a lot needs to be done and addressed still. It therefore becomes an individual responsibility for each and every one of us to actively educate ourselves and endeavour to understand gender identity from a non-European standpoint. If we cannot affect any good we must at least try to not do any harm, accidentally or otherwise. 

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