What does two-spirit mean?
There is a lot of confusion around the term two-spirit. I’ve been told that the words ‘niizh mnidoowag’ originally came to an Elder in a dream. And later these words were selected as an umbrella category in during the third annual Indigenous Gay and Lesbian conference in Winnipeg in 1990, to represent the entire spectrum of sex and gender identities across many different Indigenous cultures.
Culture is fluid, it changes over time, and often the courtesy of flux and change is not extended to indigenous cultures because they are often type-casted in romanticized notions of the past that erase or ignore today’s realities. Some have questioned the validity of the term two-spirit because it is not ‘traditional’, or it is ‘just made up’ but one must remember that all culture is just ‘made up,’ and the term ‘gay’ itself is not that old. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest written use of the word ‘gay’ in its modern sense is 1922, and it probably dates back to the turn of the century. It makes sense for Indigenous people to choose their own words to describe their own identities, rather than simply relying on Euro-centric terms when it comes to sex and gender, especially given the history of colonialism, colonization, and sex and gender based violence. Traditional indigenous understandings of sex and gender and spirituality have been eroded by colonization and indoctrination into western culture and non-indigenous ways of thinking that include sexism and homophobia.
Other questions that often crop up surrounding the term two-spirit are the following: “Is it even any different than being gay?” and, “Is it even necessary?” And the short answer to both questions is ‘yes!” because two-spirit is an umbrella category. Many different people from vastly different cultures identify as two-spirit. They may be Anishinaabe or Cree or Dene, they may be women or men, they may be gay or straight, they may be trans, they might occupy traditional gender roles that have no counter-part in Western culture (agokwe, winkte, nadleehe etc.), or they might simply be uncomfortable adopting the terms and cultural categories of the colonizer and the baggage that comes with Western conceptions of sex and gender.
There is a distinction I would like to make between the terms two-spirit and agokwe. They are not necessarily the same thing. The term agokwe is an Anishinaabe gender-identity category that has no counterpart in Western conceptions of sex and gender. According to one translation of the word agokwe: ‘egwa’ means ‘and’, and ‘kwe’ means ‘girl’, so a literal interpretation of the word is ‘and-woman’. What this means, is literally, a man who is also a woman, someone who literally has two spirits (and for this reason the term two-spirit is particularly appropriate for agokwe people).
An example of this could be historical figure of Yellow Head. They are described as being agokwe, and performing the gender roles of both genders, (much different from much of the ‘trans’ theory, which is largely concerned with transforming/becoming another sex or gender. Agokwe does not have the same concept of transformation, or change, rather it has a sense of already being.
When one takes into consideration the vast array of Indigenous history and culture on Turtle Island, and the different cultural understandings of, and roles, for people across an entire spectrum of sex, gender, spirit, and prosperity, one begins to understand the necessity for a specifically Indigenous term.
Two-spirit people of all stripes were historically considered lucky, advantageous, and beneficial members of society, and respected specifically because of their perceived advantages. In many cases, two-spirit peoples were able to take up the work of both men and women, a clear economic advantage, or they were thought to have special skills and abilities.
There are many many, words in Indigenous languages to identify all sorts of different types of people, and ‘two-spirit’ is the term many indigenous people use today to identify themselves, as apposed to the terms created by western culture, or terms like ‘berdache’ chosen by anthropologists. Two-spirit is a great term to reclaim traditional understandings of sex, gender, and spirit that are different from colonial understandings, and to return two-spirit people to their traditional places of respect within our communities.