Two-Spirit: The Journey of Indigenous Gender Identity

Jack Saddleback sat in a coffee shop in Saskatoon, Sask. Canada, remembering the moment he recognized that the spirituality he had been raised with and known all of his life, may not accept him anymore.

Saddleback was raised on the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta. He explained that growing up he was always a "tomboy" and the community supported his "rough and tumble" attitude. As Saddleback got older, his family was not as quick to accept him. Saddleback is a transgender man.

"My family started to encourage me to act more female, be more effeminate in ways... like wear pink, play with dolls, be dainty," Saddleback said.

"That was an indication of that inter-generational trauma, that you can't be this gender queer person because the world is going to bully you, the world is going to discriminate against you. That was eye opening."

A member of a very supportive family, once Saddleback explained that he needed to explore his gender identity, his parents wanted to help in any way that they could. But they wouldn't be able to shield Saddleback from everything.

The story that Saddleback is recollecting on a warm fall day in Saskatoon came a few years after he had already spoken with most of his family about his gender identity. In a big move on a personal level, Saddleback had finally come out to his grandparents and was surprised by how understanding they were.

"I remember sitting there looking at my Moshum and his old, old eyes, his eyes just speak wisdom. My grandmother spoke first, and she was like 'we don't know anyone like you but we want to help you in any way that we can,’” Saddleback said.

"To me that just spoke volumes of the love they had for me."

As members of the Native American church, which consists of the traditional ceremonies previously banned by the Canadian government but maintained in the southern United States,  Saddleback's grandparents felt the best way to help would be to call up a medicine man.

Saddleback took his time, sipped a coffee, and chose his words carefully as he went back into his memories only a few years ago to that fateful experience with the medicine man.

"We sit down and he starts praying for me and I start hearing these little indications, my ears are quite attuned to those little homo-negative or trans-negative things that are said. He starts saying ‘the natural attraction between a man and a woman, the lost path’. It started coming out to me in the middle of the prayer that he was saying for me that he thought that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn't supposed to be me," Saddleback explained slowly.

"He told me that he found another spirit in me, that there were two spirits and one was making me think that I was a man. So, as he is praying for me I started to realize that he is trying to exorcise me, that's what is happening."

He said it was that moment, as he is being 'exorcized', that he realized how much colonization had permeated its way into First Nations cultures and traditions.

"We have had our culture infiltrated by such negativity. They (colonizers) have gone into our First Nations cultures and taught homophobia, taught transphobia, and now how many generations later I have to find that my medicine man, my cultural leader is transphobic, is trying to exorcise me and pretty much tell me I'm wrong as an individual rather than see me as me and accept and love me," he said.

"It's affected my life so much that for a while I just didn't want to be in my First Nation community anymore; I didn't want to do my ceremonies; and I didn't want to pray. I just thought this is wrong, this is bad."

With time and certainly thought, Saddleback came to realize that although the medicine man was never successful in the ceremony that day, it did actually give him direction.

"I remembered that our creator made me as me, and loves me for who I am," Saddleback said adding, that's when he decided to become a two-spirit activist.

"We need to get our two-spirit people to get back into our circle and to love themselves. Also to have people within our culture realize that this cannot stand, we cannot keep pushing people out, we are losing them by the day. The amount of suicides attempts and completed (suicides) is so high in the two-spirit community that we are pretty much dropping like flies."

Vice President of the University of Saskatchewan Students Union, a national face of mental health, and once again an active member with his First Nations community, Saddleback has been spreading the word that for the future of Turtle Island's First Nations Peoples there needs to be a conversation about two-spirit people.

"What's at risk when we are not talking about two-spirit issues is two-spirit people themselves, our First Nations cultures falling back into this homo-negative and trans-negative idea. At risk is our future generations pretty much learning what was taught the first year of residential schools," Saddleback said.

"Through talking about two-spirit issues we are getting to the root of decolonization. We need to renegotiate our cultures for ourselves... It was negotiated in those residential schools without our consent or our knowledge and now we are at a point where we can look at one another as the unique people that we are."

"What's at risk is lives. We will lose two-spirit people to suicide, violence, and to our own cultures, they will leave and not come back because they don't feel accepted and they don't feel loved... We need to see that not talking about two-spirit issues, that is violence against our own people. That is violence against our own future generations."



The History of Two-Spirit people in North America

Researchers and historians have estimated that First Nations Peoples have lived throughout North America for around 20,000 years hunting, raising families, and surviving what can be very harsh climates. Two-spirit people have been part of the communities just as along.

"The pre contact with European era is the longest part of indigenous history. I think it's probably the most significant and probably the place where we can learn the most about our understandings of sexual and gender diversity," Dr. Alex Wilson explained.

Wilson is from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, and the Academic Director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. As a two-spirit person, Wilson has spent a large portion of her academic and research career looking at two-spirit history.

She was also part of the two-spirit activism movement that started in Winnipeg in the 1990s and helped coin the modern meaning for the term two-spirit which is sexuality and gender diversity and a connection with First Nations culture.

"The problem (researching pre contact) is that obviously we are not living in that time now, so we have to rely on oral history which is very important in indigenous research and we have to rely on what documentation was done after contact," Wilson explained.

"There is always a layer of interpretation that is involved in going back and trying to understand history prior to European contact. According to oral history, and some of this evident in Cree and other languages, there was definitely diversity of genders and our understanding of gender and its expression and our sexuality as well."

Wilson explained an important part of interpreting oral history is looking at indigenous languages. Although indigenous languages vary, unlike English, Spanish and French indigenous languages are not usually based on a gender binary - male or female. Instead words are categorized through on animacy meaning spirit energy or inanimacy meaning no spiritual energy or purpose.

"The imposition of something like language comes with a whole world view that has meant the marginalization of certain groups of people --- LGBT, women --- because when you have a gender binary within a western framework or understanding, like within the English language or Spanish or French, it's not just a duality of female and male, it's also an implied hierarchy and it's in line with Christianity," Wilson explained.

"There is a higher power and the belief is that higher power is attached to a male or a male kind of energy. The binary is that it's not just two equals, the male has more power or energy."

For researchers, the difference expressed in indigenous languages across North America means that in some tribes there wasn't a specific word to categorize gender diverse people. That tells a researcher or historian that two-spirit people were regular members of the community. Some communities did single out two-spirit people for special roles as healers or counsellors but Wilson explained generally two-spirit people, like all other community members, lived the role that best benefited their community's chances of survival.

"In doing the research that I did, I looked at all of the anthropological writings on gender and gender variance in North America and also looked at psychological literature and writings and collected oral stories from elders, specifically in Manitoba and Saskatchewan around this topic," Wilson explained.

"I think it's really important to note that there is diversity across North America from nation to nation but the one thing that is universal on this continent is that there were gender diverse and sexual orientation diverse people in every nation prior to contact."

Wilson pointed to a serious problem that does come up while researching the subject. To do research on communities that have oral histories, Wilson had to rely on a community’s collective memory and sometimes they've had contact for so long they don't recall what it was like before colonization, an issue only made more serious by residential schools.

"We have been in contact in certain areas of the country for so long that there is nobody alive that was around before contact.... That's a challenge especially in cultures that are oral. You have to rely on different ways of understanding texts and the language," Wilson explained.

"For many people, especially during the residential school era that lasted for so long, especially in the Prairie Provinces, that influenced the language but it also influenced people's understanding of sexual diversity and gender diversity. Even people that are speaking in the Cree language, many will still frame things from a hierarchical western point of view or a Christian point of view, even though they may not ascribe to those values, it's just kind of engrained in the training that residential school forced on people."

The other problem that researchers have is going through texts about First Nations people, the colonizers are have written about them them through a western lens and have systemically left two-spirit people out because it doesn't run parallel to their values. Those values were then enforced and reinforced through residential schools and legislation.

"The Indian Act is one of the first documents that is federal policy that regulates sexuality. In the Indian Act it defines who is Indian... Women weren't even recorded, they were given the same status registration number as their husband so that the males carried the lineage...  Also only heterosexual marriages or relationships were acknowledged by Canada... even though we know in the past there were ceremonies for same sex couples that were together," she said.

"It's so pervasive that the only thing I can say is that at first contact is when homophobia started and it totally depends on the community with how they've dealt with the homophobia."

Along with Wilson, Marjorie Beaucage was active in one of Canada's first two-spirit movements only 20 years ago. As a two-spirit elder she has experience firsthand how far colonization's reach has gone into First Nations culture and teachings.

"I was totally isolated from everything until I was about 15 and we moved to the prairies. I had no idea about sexual identities and genders and all of that. It just wasn't on my radar," Beaucage, who grew up on a Northern Manitoba First Nation, said.

In her community there were and always had been two-spirit people and it had never been a problem. Beaucage explained that she was lucky because her community hadn't been as strongly impacted by colonization and residential schools because it was so remote. After moving to the urban centre, she began to get isolated from her ceremonies and by members of the First Nations community because of her gender diversity.

"There weren't that many people, traditional knowledge keepers, who had the pre contact knowledge perspective. I have spoken with a lot of people over the years... to find out what our place was in the circle originally because there were all kinds of societies and everyone had their place," Beaucage said.

"So there had to be a place for two-spirit people according to my understanding of how the traditional societies worked."

It was not an easy journey to find her place in a modern world being two-spirit. Even as an elder now, Beaucage said she can still feel seclusion in the presence of her own people.

"(In ceremony) there is no choice for the people that are moving from one (gender identity) to the other, they have nowhere to sit. That's not right because there is always respect and responsibility for who you are in that circle. If you come in and you have your place and you take it, nobody can tell you that's not your place, ever," she said.

"But it's not like that because some of that power abuse that comes from that patriarchy, it totally contaminates that process."

Also a filmmaker, story teller, and activist, Beaucage is hoping that as more research into pre contact history is done and two-spirit stories are told, elders will think about their ceremonies and where the practices actually come from.

"It's claiming that place in the circle and learning what that is in the circle this time because we are not going back, we are never going back, but we can adapt and change. How do we use our gifts today?" she asked.

Wilson agreed that because elders themselves were subjected to colonization and many to residential schools, their teachings may have been changed.

"For example, during the residential school era, those people that practiced their traditions underground it was easier to separate men and women in the residential school because they were already separated based on genitalia ," Wilson said.

"So for men it was easier to practice their ceremony without anyone finding out when they were separated like that."

Then, that practice and many others came home from the schools and made their way into some traditions.

"Some people think that just because an elder does something that it's always been that way since the beginning of time but culture changes and culture is influenced and informed by all kinds of factors and it can also change, there is room to change," Wilson said.

"There is no reason why these practices can't change to be more inclusive. Many of them that people think have been around forever haven't. That's when the collective memory of the community comes in to play, the language comes into play."

Saskatchewan's two-spirit community sees the need for change

Saddleback sits back in his chair again and lays out disturbing statistics and trends for two-spirit people trying to find their place in society.

He explained that two-spirit people have a suicide rate 10 per cent higher than the average Canadian; they have statistically higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and addiction.

"The reason why I do all of this outspoken work... for me I think about little Jack.... About how lonely I felt not seeing someone like me anywhere. Eventually I actually had a suicide attempt that hospitalized me at the age of 15," Saddleback said.

"The reason why I do this work is that so those other two-spirit youth... they know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there doesn't actually have to be a tunnel. At least they can see that they are not alone, that there is someone out there fighting for them."

Andrez Bear knew that he was gay when he was 15-years-old. Sitting on a bench near the South Saskatchewan River the calm, impeccably dressed, recent Oskayak graduate clearly has a bright future ahead, but Bear explains it wasn't always such a straight path.

"I always knew I was different when I was going to other schools... That was the time I really lost my path, I was a very lost young man. I was kicked out of high schools... all do to violence, fighting, drugs and alcohol. I was a very, very different person to who I am now," Bear explained.

"A lot of that changed going to Oskayak, finding my culture, and who I am through that culture."

He grew up between the Little Pine First Nation and Saskatoon and said his family did not practice their culture. When he realized that he was gender diverse he didn't have anything that would anchor him to his classes or his family so he started to lash out. Switching to Oskayak, a Saskatoon High School developed from First Nations teachings, Bear finally found himself as a two-spirit person.

"I see at such a blessing now because I see it as being gifted with something that people are not usually gifted with," he said.

Bear's story is the ideal one. He has had a supportive and open elder, John Sugar, and a supportive friend group in the city. But even with a solid support system it can be difficult to navigate First Nations traditions as a two-spirit person.

"At one point I was sitting with the men and I told an elder, 'well I'm two-spirited'... They were talking about the roles of being a husband and all of these things like that. I said 'where do I go? Do I sit with the women?' He said ‘no because you are a man,’" Bear explained.

"It was very difficult because even he didn't know what to do because a lot of those teachings of two-spirit people are lost. Young aboriginal people they do need to be careful around here because not everyone is perfect with their ceremonies because we do still suffer the impacts of residential school."

The intergenerational forces of residential school weave through Malachi Turner McAdam's two-spirit experiences. Growing up on the Sturgeon Lake First Nation, McAdam explained that all members of his family had been significantly impacted through residential schools.

"It was really hard for me because I was raised in a Christian home and most of my family... they were in residential schools," he said, adding his mother is a pastor.

"Nobody in our family was traditional because they only practiced going to church."

McAdam always knew he was gender diverse but was told in his home, his school, and the church he was raised in that being gay was wrong and sinful. The resulting confusion left McAdam feeling lost and isolated.

"Growing up on the reserve was very difficult for me," he said.

"I found it easier coming to the city because I didn't really know anyone here. I felt more comfortable and I was able to be myself. I didn't have those worries."

After high school, McAdam attended classes at the First Nations University of Canada campus in Prince Albert where he started learning about the impacts of colonization and the history of two-spirit people for the first time.

"I've started also getting into my culture and attending ceremonies and practicing it more. It’s really helped me as a young gay man to feel more comfortable and free in myself. I'm not ashamed anymore I'm more proud," he said.

That doesn't mean going back to Sturgeon Lake or speaking openly with his family is easy.

"I came out to my mom just this year and it was really hard. She didn't accept it at first, she stopped talking to me for a while," he said.

McAdam looked distant and sad while speaking about the possibilities of staying in his First Nations community. Like many other two-spirit people across the country, he would prefer to live in an urban centre where it can be easier to avoid homophobia from your First Nations friends and family. That doesn't mean a trip to the city would result in escaping all prejudicial views.

"In the (urban gay community) there is still is all of the stereotypes and being discriminated for being aboriginal," McAdam said.

"A lot of times it feels like they don't want to associate with you."

That's the scenario which two-spirit elder Beaucage said she has seen while working with the urban two-spirit youth.

"You don't really want to leave your home community if you don't have to but if they want to be free and open some kids... come to the city because if they stay (in their community) they will die inside cause they won't grow as humans," she said.

"(In the city) they become more endangered because they are so vulnerable because they are not city smart or not street smart. All other kinds of problems come like drugs and alcohol."

The Avenue Community Centre in Saskatoon is located in the heart of an area of the city highly populated by Aboriginal people. The Centre is geared at providing support and services for people in the LGBTQQTIA community.

"We have a lot of different people accessing our space and particularly because of our location on the west side we have a lot of First Nations people and Metis people accessing our space," Avenue Community Centre Spokesperson Joe Wickenhauser said.

"A lot of (two-spirit programming) has been focusing on support and providing a space for people where they can feel safe, both as Aboriginal and as LGBTQ. I think that's a very important thing because I think within the broader queer community there can be racism and within the First Nations community there can be homophobia and transphobia so it's very important to provide those spaces for people to safely be who they are."

As the city and province grows, with First Nations the fastest growing population, Wickenhauser said the demand for safe spaces will be even more crucial.

"I think we are realizing it’s a growing need as more and more people within First Nations communities are coming out, and we are recognizing there is a huge value to having diversified services," he explained.

Providing those services, especially culturally appropriate services, can come with challenges.

"Some of the challenges with doing that programming is you have to be really careful that you are doing programming that is respectful and in consultation with First Nations groups. We don't want to be miseducating or being disrespectful of traditions or pretending like we know things when we don't," he said.

"The other issue is not for profits don't really receive tons and tons of funding."

Saskatchewan researchers leading the way

With professors like Dr. Alex Wilson to a brand new generation of leaders, Saskatchewan's two-spirit community has been leading the way in research and understanding.

There is a still a lot of work needed to be done to fill in the gaps caused by colonization in two-spirit history across Turtle Island but Ryan Jimmy is looking at the real world impacts taking place every day in the province.

"My research project is titled Perceptions of Identity from GSD (gender sexually diverse First Nation post-secondary students) basically the study is looking at how the participants who identify as GSD or two-spirited, conceptualize or perceive their identities and how did they come into those perspectives," Jimmy explained.

Jimmy is a graduate student at the UofS in the College of Education's department of Educational Foundations. Growing up on Onion Lake First Nation, his research has tapped into his own experiences.

"Growing up on a First Nations reserve, someone who is gay, I suffered from a lot of oppression in my own community. Also moving into urban areas I also faced a lot of racism within the mainstream white community but also the larger queer community as well," Jimmy explained.

"At the same time within university, I found a way to kind of unpack those forms of oppression to the point where I wasn't feeling so bad about myself. I almost felt empowered because I was realizing that I'm just a part of this system that has been structured in a way to oppress people from my group."

He wanted to know other two-spirit people's adaptation and coping methods in order to possibly find some sort of similarities.

The study itself is qualitative and uses a fluid set of interview questions to allow two-spirit people to tell their stories, which Jimmy records and compiles. He explained this why it's an indigenous direction of research from start to finish.

"There is a lot missing from research that looks from the two-spirit perspectives... I'm trying to focus on the positive aspects of identity, what is helping these people strive and how can we use this information to help people struggling in schools and in their communities," he explained.

"Also much of the history of research around two-spirit people is very oppressive and comes from a very colonial perspective. I am aware that the importance of this research, from my perspective, will help people in my community as a First Nations person and part of the queer community."

After the research is compiled and trends are found, Jimmy said he hopes that it can be used to create a dialogue in First Nations communities and particularly within reserve schools. He hopes that it will help clear up misconceptions about two-spirit people within First Nations communities and contribute to the fight for decolonization.

"For me, this has been a really awesome journey as someone who really struggled with my identity... I just think there are so many youth out there who are still struggling. I truly believe that if there is a way that we can connect they will also strive. That's the heart of being a First Nations person, finding a way to share what you are good at," he said.

"My dad taught me every time he hunts, he goes to an elder and shares that kill with the elders because they taught him so much about being a First Nations person... So I really value my research as a way of giving back to people."