Defining Identities in North America, Part 1

All throughout history, one thing has remained true: everything changes. This universal fact also applies to something so fundamental to humanity as language. From the evolution of definitions to the evolution of the words themselves, we have seen drastic changes to our languages even within the past decade. And while it is hotly debated whether the new additions to our collective vocabularies are beneficial or not, the fact is that the additions exist, whether or not old white men writing think pieces for the New York Times like it. Within the queer community, these changes are particularly evident, with new names for old identities being revealed by the day. For now, though, we focus on one letter of the LGBT community, and the two identities that begin with that: the T. This week, we are releasing a two part series focusing on the transgender, and two spirit community within North America, and the different words and definitions that have existed throughout the history of the continent.

To be completely honest, the title of this article is somewhat misleading. We will not ourselves be defining either of these words, but instead looking at the definitions that have existed over time. And with that we will be looking at a number of words that have been used to convey different identities. In every corner of the world, and in every nook of history, there have been many different words to describe the experience of being born and assigned a gender you find out is not the one you actually are. For this article though, we will look at the term two-spirit, and its history and complexity.

Within pre-colonial America, many different Indigenous communities recognized a third gender, and each community had their own words to describe the experience. Many also had roles that came along with the identity. The contemporary understanding of these identities is found in the pan-Aboriginal word two-spirit, a term brought forward to replace the colonists' slurs that were used to describe Indigenous identities, and a way to recognize that these identities stood apart from other culture’s understandings of gender variance.

This term was brought into popularity in the 1990’s, and gained widespread recognition at the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada.

Two-spirit, however, is not meant to replace the already existing words that differ from community to community, but instead to serve as an umbrella term. The individual words deserve recognition within the queer community as well, but unfortunately, since they cannot all fit into a four letter acronym, they often get swept under the rug. It is also important to note that every Indigenous community had a different relationship with the term two-spirit, and a large reason for some people’s dislike of the term stems from how frequently it is used to replace the terms that they already have.

There are over five hundred surviving indigenous cultures within North America. Every single one of them had a unique relationship and understanding of queerness, and most of them have their own words for it. And while what we are looking at right now is the words that existed to describe the experience of not being the gender you were assigned at birth, that is not the only thing that is recognized within these words.

There is also same-gender attraction, and range of other identities. So we are not going to pretend it is possible for us to name every word every different culture used and describe the nuances of them, especially considering the existence of oral histories that we don’t always have access to. However, we are going to encourage our readers to do their own research outside of our project, and even if you don’t gain a perfect understanding of all gender variant people that existed in indigenous communities throughout North America (which you probably won’t), it is important to be aware of the history that does exist that we often forget to look into.

Because of all of this, the word two-spirit means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but one thing it is not is a synonym for transgender, queer, or LGBT. Two-spirit is its own separate term, and while it has similarities to many other terms, is completely unique. It should not be used to describe people who are not Indigenous.

There are many reasons for this fact, and they are best described by Indigenous people, who have a much better understanding of the issue than any non-Indigenous person could. One person who has been vocal about why not to use this term to self-identify if you are not Indigenous is Michelle Cameron, who wrote:

“The term two-spirited was chosen to emphasize our difference in our experiences of multiple, interlocking oppressions as queer Aboriginal people. When non-Aboriginal people decide to "take up" the term two-spirit, it detracts from its original meaning and diffuses its power as a label of resistance for Aboriginal people. Already there is so much of First Nations culture that has been exploited and appropriated in this country; must our terms of resistance also be targeted for mainstream appropriation and consumption?”

Another particularly relevant quote comes from the same paper, saying:

“Aboriginal two-spirits have identities that operate outside of the western dichotomy of sex orientation and gender. Many of the words for two-spirited were lost from various First Nation groups due to the imposition of Christianity, and dominant society. Eduardo Duran and Bonnie Duran state: "The process of self-determination starts with the ever-evolving processes of self-identification and self-construction". When Aboriginal queers decided to begin using the term two-spirited again, it was a sign of reclamation of the historical legacy that is unique to our First Nations. Two-spirited identity can thus be viewed as a counterhegemonic identity, and as a term of resistance to colonization.”

We encourage you all to read the rest of this paper because it is incredible and will give you a much more nuanced view of the history of the term two-spirit.

Words are incredible things; as a writer, this is something I believe to the core of my being, but words also have to mean something. And in this case, this word is specific to Indigenous people and their identities. While it is important to encourage fluidity and change, it is also important to recognize boundaries when they are set. Not all words are meant to be used by all people in all circumstances, because if they were, they would lose their meaning.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.],%20Gay,%20Bisexual,%20Transgender%20Definitions.pdf