by Kai Minosh
I no longer can remember where or when I first heard the term “two-spirit.” I would like to imagine that it was a magical moment; that in that second, I understood things about myself and the world and I knew this was the word I had been waiting for. The truth is that I know better—that I remember anxious nights pondering whether this was a term that was okay to use for myself, months of uncertainty before I finally felt comfortable claiming these words for myself.
Do non-Native people who call themselves “two-spirit” have these fears? I don’t know, perhaps they do. But I think it’s more likely that they simply don’t think about it, or at least, they don’t think about it in the way that I did. Everyone, and especially those on the LGBTQ spectrum, grapples with whether or not a descriptor is a good fit for their identity. But Indigenous people have a particular layer of complexity that we fight with as we quest to identify ourselves.
Here are the facts: the term “two-spirit” was coined in 1990 at a conference for LGBTQ Native people. Some claim it was suggested as a translation of an Ojibwe phrase, others say it came to an unnamed Cree lesbian in a dream. Wherever it came from, it came to be because there was a need for it. Native people all over North America had, throughout the 1980s, rediscovered histories of members our communities who might today be described as queer or transgender. We learned that although it was popular for straight cisgender Indigenous people to claim that queerness was an infection of the white man that had not existed before colonization, the reality was that people like us were once accepted and celebrated within our communities.
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For some of us, this history was still close. Some of us knew words for people like us, had grandparents who whispered to us that we once were honored. For others, even deep research could not unearth the songs we once sang. Scholars had their own word for our queer ancestors: berdache. A French word derived, ultimately, from a word for a “kept boy,” it rang harsh in our ears. It came of misunderstandings, beliefs that our only purpose was for the illicit sexual pleasure of our more masculine brothers.
So we gave ourselves a new name. Two-spirit was never intended to be defined only literally, as non-Natives so often describe it, as a person with a male and female spirit. It was always meant to be much more than that. It was meant to be a home for queer and trans Native people in the English language, in a time when that is the language most of us know best. It was meant to encompass all of the things we experience that cannot be summed up in any other way.
We call ourselves two-spirit because there’s simply no other way to sum up what life as the target of colonial heteropatriarchy is like. It’s finding a way to explain yourself to your grandparents that won’t make them say “that’s a load of white man’s bullshit.” It’s being harassed by white men and getting propositioned on the street—if they even bother to ask before touching. It’s legacies of adoption and trying to find a history that’s been torn away from you. It’s elders translating traditional words as “faggot” because that’s the only English word they were taught for it. It’s stories of people trying to protect people like you from the extra abuse they were singled out for at residential schools, and it’s stories of people who forced others out of their own communities because the white folks in charge told them they were sinful.
I had never met another two-spirit person until I was twenty years old. We cried when we found each other, because we understood all of those things. When non-Native people call themselves two-spirit, they take all of that history, all of those things that make the LGBTQ Native experience unique, and they say it doesn’t matter. Because of their right—usually their white right—to identify however they choose.
Non-Native people have told me, “I just like the meaning of the words—two spirits. That other stuff isn’t what I mean.” This is like a straight person saying, “I like the meaning of gay as in happy, so I’m going to identify that way and ignore that other stuff.” The current trends in the LGBTQ community encourage people to try on whatever label they feel most comfortable with. But sometimes, you have to accept that certain words just are not meant for you.
For the last hundred years and more, Native people have been targeted by government policies intending to make us vanish. The loss of knowledge about two-spirit people in our communities is directly caused by these policies. Appropriation may not seem like an enormous issue, but these things are all related. When non-Native people pick up shiny remnants of our traditions, they tear them out of context and diminish the true meanings behind them. This is what happens when non-Native people use the term two-spirit for themselves.
The process of finding oneself is never easy. When you are dealing with two cultures, one struggling beneath the oppression and colonization of the other, it is so much more difficult. Identifying as two-spirit means aligning yourself with the ancestors, committing yourself to a process of decolonization that is sometimes painful with the knowledge of how much has been lost. White people cannot know this experience. Other people of color may have similar pain, but our experiences are not identical. Respect the work LGBTQ Indigenous people have done to reclaim ourselves. Respect that sometimes words are just not for you to use. Because when you take from us, it hurts us in ways you cannot fathom.
Want more from Kai? Read their work in BGD’s newest collection, The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom.
Kai Minosh is a Métis two-spirit living in the homelands of the Dakota people. They are a writer of fiction and nonfiction, an indigenous language advocate, and a disabled geek who is currently wrestling with the beast that is academia. In their work and their free time, Kai likes to dream about creating indigenous futures, building connections among oppressed peoples, and imagining worlds beyond this one.