The historical National Truth and Reconciliation event passed through Saskatoon this past weekend. I’ve had the great honour to listen to stories from survivors who have had first hand the experiences in Indian Residential Schools.
I’m gonna get a whole lot of academic on y’all with this blog, to showcase the journey of Two-Spirited people (Queer Aboriginals).
Below is presentation that I give to classes, GSA’s and at conferences covering historical facts on Two-Spirited people and the impact of colonialism.
For the purposes of description, I’ll be using the term “Two-Spirited” when referring to Gay Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans-Gendered First Nations people. As well, many of the archival accounts refer specifically to transgendered people, for example, a boy at birth who transitions into a woman. It refers to the traditional ideology held by many First Nations tribes during pre-colonial times that spoke of a person who encompassed both male and female spirits. These same traditional viewpoints, which spoke of respecting people for the unique individuals they are, were targeted by the religious groups and were able to be carried out due to the Canadian governments establishment of the residential schools in an attempt to assimilate the First Nations population. These relentless attempts at taking the traditional values held by First Nations and twisting them into “villainous ideals” has contributed greatly to the inter-generational trauma of First Nations people.
Many First Nations did not see the Two-Spirited role as a matter of personal choice; rather, it was done through natural selection and allowed to flourish without stigma. Many Two-Spirited people took on the roles of the opposite sex and were elected to a number of prestigious positions in the community. Two-Spirited people were revered in their tribes for their ability to see both the female and male perspective; they were typically seen as holy for this gift. Two-Spirited females (Meaning a man who felt like a woman) were put into roles of medicine or creators of art. One such famous example being We’wah (Way – Wa), a Two-Spirited Zuni, she was an accomplished weaver and potter, whose work sold twice the amount of regular artisans. Two-Spirited males (Meaning a woman who felt like a man) were elected to such roles as chief or warrior. They were respected as the unique individuals they were and put in positions where their talents would be positive for the whole community.
Alexander Henry, an American historian, gives this account of a man named Ozawwendib, or Yellow Head. He was the son of an Ojibwe chief at what’s now Leech Lake in Minnesota, but was then British territory as part of the Hudson Bay Company:
“Berdash, a son of Sucrie [Sucre, Sweet, or Wiscoup] arrived from the Assiniboine, where he had been with a young man to carry tobacco concerning the war. This person is a curious compound of man and woman. He is a man both as to his members and his courage, but pretends to be womanish, and dresses as such. His walk and mode of sitting, his manners, occupations, and language are those of a woman.”
Henry goes on to praise the “Sodomite’s” courage and speed, but also portrays him as wild and drunk.” Quite rightly, Europeans used the term Berdache, which is roughly translated from the Persian word Berdaj, meaning Male prostitute. The colonial viewpoint of two-spirited people was far different from the traditional viewpoint held by the First Nations people of respecting uniqueness.
-George Catlin, a famous American historian and painter, is quoted in his LETTERS AND NOTES ON THE MANNERS, CUSTOMS, AND CONDITIONS OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS as saying:
“That the Two-Spirit tradition must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.”
The number of two-spirited people was fairly low in comparison to the general population at the time, when looking at the few-recorded two-spirited people. As Catholicism and Christianity spread in North America, known two-spirited peoples numbers dropped to nearly zero. It is very difficult to know the exact events of these eras due to the prominent racism and homophobia that aided in the well-orchestrated blacklisting of two-spirited people. However, it is safe to say that religious groups, the government and settlers alike, carried out extermination of Two-Spirited people.
The government was able to further their ideals that the Two-Spirited people were an abomination through the introduction of residential schools.
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”
This motto was the forerunner for residential schools that carried out abuse upon First Nation children, all under the age of 16. Once First Nations children entered residential schools, they were no longer seen as unique individuals, but were now statistics in the government. Tens of thousands of Aboriginal children in residential schools had been ingrained with a foreign ideology through abuse and daily prayer. Residential schools and religious sects have ingrained homo-negativity into many First Nations communities through these tactics of abuse and mantras. The well-orchestrated discrimination, tried to take away the First Nations ideals that created balance. This has aided in twisting the traditional view of respecting a person as a unique individual and has contributed to the inter-generational trauma suffered by Aboriginal people.
Two-spirited people have had to face homo-negativity and racism, both in their home communities and the general public. As we know, much of the Native Rights movement was held in the late 50’s and beyond. The gay rights movement in Canada has had a similar time line. Change has happened, Change is happening. Through the de-stigmatization of homosexuality in Native communities, there is hope that acceptance of unique individuals is leading the re-adoption of the traditional values. The derogatory term, Berdache, has been abandoned as a description due to its disrespectfulness to the traditional roles.
The government had three main steps to try and eradicate the two-spirited people, first to identify who Two-Spirited people were, second, to exterminate the Two-Spirited people and lastly through residential schools, the church taught Native children that sexual identity or gender identity that was out of the ‘norm’ was wrong. It is through these steps that the Canadian government and the churches have embedded the inter-generational trauma of homo-negativity which has produced large amounts of alcohol abuse, suicide, sexual abuse, mental health problems but has also introduced the idea of homo-negativity that has shaken the First Nations community to the core. However, through the advancement of Native and Queer rights, Two-Spirited people have had the ability to step out of the sands of time, along side their people and stand as evidence that No, assimilation did not work and will never work.
Shout out to Natalya and Heather, my soul mates!
Thanks for reading,