What are Two-Spirit People?


Continuing our discussion of spirituality and shamanism we’re going to be exploring the idea of two-spirit people this week. There are some essential things to understand about the term and the various meanings it has within the vast array of cultures and languages of the First Nations peoples in North America. I am by no means an expert on the topic but I hope to shed some light.


Two-Spirit, An Umbrella Term

For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using the term First Nations to represent the indigenous people of North America regardless of where they reside. The term two-spirit was coined in 1990 to represent a group of people fulfilling specific social and ceremonial roles within First Nations culture and to distinguish them from non-Native people.

It was never meant to be an absolute, nor to replace words with similar meanings in the many languages spoken by these diverse groups. While the term two-spirit has been widely adopted it hasn’t been universally accepted. Some feel that it erases the nuances found in the many words used to describe similar concepts in their original languages.


Two-Spirit is not the same as LGBTQ+

It is important to understand that the term doesn’t refer to membership in the LGBTQ+ community as many people assume. It was designed to be taken in a First Nations’ cultural context which is entirely different from the culture at large.

Two-spirit is not synonymous with gay. The term gay refers specifically to same-sex attraction while two-sprit is more about how a person embodies gender. A two-spirit person may be gay, but not necessarily. A gay person might be two-spirit or not.

Identifying as two-spirit means you accept a role that your specific First Nations culture has for two sprint people. This often means acting as a caregiver and balance keeper. The specific cultural and ceremonial roles vary widely if and when they exist.

Two-spirit is simply a term to be used with general audiences and not to reflect some sort of universal belief held by the First Nations peoples. The term doesn’t reflect a belief in binary concepts of gender. Many First Nations cultures do not see gender that way. An alternative, Indigequeer, is sometimes used to avoid the issue.


Two-Spirit is not a New Age Idea

The term two-spirit was not born out of the “New Age” movement and doesn’t make sense in that context. From their very western perspective, new age thinkers would more likely believe that everyone has both a male and a female spirit. Whether you agree with that, or not, it isn’t a First Nations perspective.

It’s important to remember that the term should not be used by non-Native queer people to describe themselves. Simply adopting a term without being part of the cultural context it comes from disrespects that culture. Appropriation of the traditions, terms, and dress of the First Peoples is a destructive result of colonial attitudes.

Understanding two-spirit people and appreciating their roles in First Nations’ culture is a first step in embracing those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. While we shouldn’t adopt the two-spirit identity it can certainly help us enrich our view of the role we could play within our own cultures.


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