“Two-Spirit”: A Modern First Nations Concept
The modern term “Two-Spirit” is being used by some Indigenous peoples to speak to their experiences where gender, sexuality and spirituality intersect.
Prior to European exploration and colonization, some First Nations civilizations in Canada had less restrictive definitions of gender and sexuality. In several of these pre-colonial cultures, queer and transgender individuals made integral contributions. The modern term “Two-Spirit” is being used by some Indigenous peoples to speak to their experiences where gender, sexuality and spirituality intersect along with the histories of the special roles that many LGBTQ Indigenous peoples held within their tribes.
Contemporary Origins of the “Two-Spirit” Term
As the Canadian Encyclopedia details, “Two-Spirit” is a translation of the Ojibwa words “niizh manidoowag.” Manitoba First Nations activist Albert McLeod is credited with first developing the term, suggesting that it could refer to the Indigenous LGBTQ community at a 1990 meeting of the Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference. After its positive reception at that event, the “Two-Spirit” concept began to catch on within many First Nations communities, and its usage slowly spread to groups in the United States over the next two decades.
LGBTQ People in Pre-Colonial First Nations Communities
Since each First Nations society in pre-colonial Canada possessed its own views on gender, sexuality and spirituality, the definitions used and the roles assigned to LGBTQ people would have vastly differed from tribe to tribe. The Canadian Encyclopedia does list a few examples from these cultures, such as the Cree terms “napêw iskwêwisêhot” and “iskwêw ka napêwayat” that refer to “men who dress like women” and “women who dress like men,” respectively.
Each society defined its own sets of roles assumed by queer and gender variant members. For example, people initially considered male at birth might have donned “feminine” clothing and assisted with weaving, cooking and crafting, while others normally assigned female at birth may have worn “male” apparel and joined the men of the tribe in hunting, healing and protective duties. Writing for the Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society, Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn document that some groups performed rituals for children demonstrating these kinds of behaviors before puberty. At times, some civilizations believed they were powerful individuals who might be able to perform specific functions:
- Provide spiritual guidance
- Sing sacred songs
- Intercede on behalf of their people with the gods
Difficulties With Historical Sources
Many sources speaking about the “Two-Spirit” phenomenon may disagree with each other for a variety of reasons. Indigenous peoples have elucidated that not every pre-colonial American culture treated its LGBTQ members in the same ways. When each culture ascribed special statuses to queer and trans folk, this may have required specific processes undertaken by tribal leadership, as a 2006 New York Times piece clarifies.
Moreover, journalist Mary Annette Pember explains in a 2016 Rewire article that documentation of “Two-Spirit” traditions in Native societies was often written by non-Native individuals who lacked a deep understanding of the groups they observed, combining concepts and treating all these groups as if they were a single monolithic culture. She also emphasizes that “Two-Spirit” was developed in a modern context and that many LGBTQ First Nations people find it difficult to reconnect with their histories, thanks to the destruction of their heritage and older queer and trans Indigenous peoples remaining “in the closet” out of fear.
Recovering Lost Legacies
As Indigenous peoples in North American have contended with violence, the destruction of their families, cultural erasure, the loss of their tribal lands and even extinction, they have also attempted to retain or reconstruct their heritages. As part of these efforts, some LGBTQ First Nations people embrace the term “Two-Spirit.” While documentation is incomplete when it comes to the roles that queer and trans people used to play within their tribes, modern LGBTQ Indigenous individuals have used the “Two-Spirit” concept to create spaces of mutual support, forge identities and try to recover what has been lost.
Trickster Deities in Canadian Religions
Trickster deities bend or outright violate rules or norms of social order and play important parts within several religions observed by Canadian people.
Just as real life is not without its tricksters, these individuals play important parts within several religions observed by Canadian people in modern times. Broadly speaking, trickster deities either bend or outright violate rules or norms of social order through their clever and cunning ways, often with humorous results. In his writings, psychiatrist Carl Jung spoke of this trope within First Nations mythologies, describing it as an archetype that apparently combines qualities seen as divine along with human tendencies. According to mythology, tricksters are usually deities, human folk heroes, anthropomorphic animal characters or some combination of the three.
“Let There Be Light,” or Raven Steals the Sun
As the Canadian Encyclopedia reveals, trickster deities frequently appear in the creation stories of many First Nations cultures. You might be familiar with Raven, a figure present in the tales of multiple groups such as the Inuit, Nisga’a and Haida. One famous account depicts Raven bringing light to a dark world by stealing the sun, a feat he accomplishes by turning into a hemlock or pine needle that’s swallowed by the Sun Chief’s daughter. She gives birth to a child strangely resembling the brazen bird who then begs to see the sun, which has been secreted away in a box. Once the Sun Chief obliges the child, the avian god steals the sun and flies away. Some editions of the story insist that Raven’s feathers were white prior to his theft and that the burning sun turned them black.
Baron Samedi: Lord of the Dead
Canada’s National Household Survey doesn’t include Haitian Voodoo as a separate religious category. Nevertheless, a 2010 piece in the Globe and Mail disclosed informal estimates that its practitioners make up between 30 and 80 percent of Haitian nationals in the country, which numbered more than 248,000 according to the 2011 survey. Significant spirits in most versions of Voodoo are called “loa,” and Baron Samedi is a charismatic loa said to dig the graves of the newly departed and escort them to the afterlife.
The Baron fits the “trickster” idea in both his demeanor and behavior. He’s described as having a jovial cheekiness manifesting itself in his liberal use of profanity, indulging in scandalous humor, frequent flirtations with mortal women and love of rum and tobacco. Such irreverence matches the “trickster” profile, but it’s his ability to defy the forces of death that’s most notable. The Baron has been known to refuse to dig some graves, which effectively saves the individuals in question from dying.
Loki and Mohini: Breaking the Gender Binary
As many trickster tales include some sort of physical transformation, it’s no surprise that some tricksters shift genders. Loki, a well-known charlatan from both ancient Norse legends and modern-day Heathenry, aids Valhalla’s finest in several stories while bringing ruin and death in others. One gender-bending account shows him shifting into the form of a mare and giving birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed. Some texts from Hinduism speak of Mohini, a goddess and avatar of Vishnu whose ruses include the following:
- duping a group of demons into handing over an immortality elixir
- charming another demon into mimicking her dance moves until he turned into a pile of ash
- causing Shiva to be overcome with lust and temporarily lose his cosmic powers
As long as humanity has existed, people have been fascinated with “trickster” characters. Within many cultures, these personae have often manifested as deities who frustrate plans of humans and gods alike. Although their mischief is sometimes meant in fun, in other cases it breaks the rules or challenges authority to accomplish their own agendas. Whether these actions have altruistic, selfish or more complex motivations, examining the stories of divine beings with a trickster disposition becomes a fascinating study in human nature.