Two Spirit

The contemporary term Two Spirit was first coined in 1990 at the 3rd annual Native American and Canadian Aboriginal LGBT people gathering in Winnipeg. In creating the term, the founding group wanted to reflect the historical acceptance of gender-variant peoples and diverse sexual identities within Indigenous communities in pre-contact times.

Two Spirit is meant to be an umbrella term that points to the important roles that Two Spirit people held prior to colonization; however, as an umbrella term, specific teachings, roles, meanings, and language must come from the community. For example a Cree ‘Two Spirit’ person from the plains area could go by aayahkwew (roughly translates to “neither man nor woman”) while a Mohawk ‘Two Spirit’ person could go by Onón:wat (I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body). Furthermore, the teachings, roles, and responsibilities for a Two Spirit person differs from community to community.

The identity itself was introduced by the Elder Myra Laramee through a vision she had prior to the 1990 gathering in Winnipeg. Within this vision, Myra shared the vision she had of her Anishinaabemowin name of niizh manidoowag; which roughly translates to having the ability to be neutral through the lens of having both a feminine spirit and masculine spirit within one's body.

Being Two Spirit is a very fluid identity and each tribe and Indigenous person has their own understanding of what it means to live and be Two Spirit. One important element to note however is that the identity is specific to being Indigenous, in that the identity is a direct acknowledgement of the disruption of Two Spirit teachings that took place when first-contact between Indigenous peoples and settlers was made and the ongoing impact of colonization.

Historical Roles

In most Indigenous communities, Two Spirit people were seen, loved, and respected as unique individuals. They were gifted with keen insight and the ability to see things through both feminine and masculine eyes (double vision). Many held important roles within their tribes, such as Chiefs, medicine people, caregivers, protectors, and knowledge keepers, as well because they possessed a double vision they were often marriage counselors. Same gendered Two Spirit people also took on the role of being caregivers for orphaned children.  

Traditionally in a time before colonial contact being Two Spirit was not specifically tied to one's own sexual and/or romantic orientation, instead it was tied to one's own gender and/or the roles the person chose to do in their community. Some Two Spirit people chose to marry a person of the same sex, while other Two Spirit people chose to marry a person of opposite sex. Most Indigenous tribes recognized up to 6 different genders, for example a Two Spirit person whose sex is male and has a male partner could be considered a different gender from a Two Spirit person whose sex is male and has a female partner.

Among Indigenous communities there were signs that indicated that a person might be Two Spirit. A person whose sex was male might be drawn to tasks in the community that were considered female tasks. A person whose sex was female might be drawn to tasks that were considered male tasks, or had dreams about warriors. One example of the latter would be Lozen who was a Chiricahua Apache Warrior; born of the female sex, Lozen was heavily interested in the warrior society alongside their brother. Some communities also had ceremonies for people who were Two Spirit such as the Mojav alyha ceremony.

A ceremony was prepared without the boy knowing, this was done as an initiation and a test. The boy was led into a circle with his family and various community members to witness the ceremony. It was seen as the boy’s willingness to become alyha (Two Spirit) if the boy chose to remain in the circle. If the boy chose to remain inside the circle, the singer hidden behind the crowd would begin to sing. As soon as the song reached the boy, he would either choose to dance or he would choose not to dance, “If the boy is unwilling to assume alyha status, he would refuse to dance. But if his character-- his spirit-- is alhya, the song goes right into his heart and he will dance with much intensity.” After the ceremony, the boy is bathed and receives a woman’s skirt, he is then led back to the dance ground dressed in the skirt and announces his new “feminine” name to the crowd.

Among the Dakota and Lakota tribes, their wintike were able to offer a boy a “sacred wintike name.” Possessing a wintike name was said to provide spiritual protection for the child, and helped to insure good health and a long life. To receive a wintike name the father of the child had to approach a wintike and flirt with them. If the wintike favors the father, the wintike will decide on a name. The wintike begins to prepare for the naming ceremony, by fasting and undertaking a vision quest, this is done to gain insight into the child’s future. The wintike was responsible for working with the child and family for up to a year, offering guidance. After the ceremony is over it was the wintike’s responsibility to look after the child for life, the wintike would gift the child with a medicine bag containing items associated with the wintike.

These are just a few small examples of various teachings and roles that ‘Two Spirit’ people had held within their own communities; from here we will explore how first contact and the impact of colonization has disrupted the open continuation of these aspects of various Indigenous communities.

First Contact

One of the first surviving written accounts of Two Spirit people was in 1724 when the French Jesuit missionary Joseph Francois Laifitau was observing the Liois and the neighbouring tirbes. Laifatu noted that Two Spirited people were present at all of the ceremonies of sacred Calumet pipe: “They are summoned to the Council, and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally through their profession of leading an Extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous-- That is to say for Spirits-- or persons of consequence.”

This particular train of thought was not shared by all, as we can clearly see in George Catlin’s, a famous historian, states in his memoirs about the Two Spirit culture: “where I wish that it might be extinguished before it may be fully recorded”.

This sentiment would help lead a strategic effort by a number of institutions and governments to systematically eradicate any and all Two Spirit teachings and culture.

Impact of colonization

The introduction of Residential Schools by the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church, beginning in the 1870’s, introduced rigid gender roles and heteronormative thinking to Indigenous communities. This Homo/bi/transphobia was able to flourish for more than a hundred years as Residential Schools expanded to nearly every Indigenous community in Canada and over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were torn away from their parents, family, and culture. A Lakota medicine man shares his accounts of the pressures put on wintikes in the 1920s to 1930s:

“When the people began to be influenced by the missions and the boarding schools, a lot of them forgot the traditional ways and the traditional medicine. Then they began to look down on the wintike and lose respect. The missionaries and the government agents say wintikes were no good, and tried to get them to change their ways. Some did, and some put on men’s clothing. But others, rather than change, went out and hanged themselves.”

A Lakota traditionalists reported:

“By the 1940s, after more Indians had been educated in white schools, or had been taken away in the army, they lost the traditions of respect for wintikes. The missionaries condemned wintikes, telling families that if something bad happened, it was because of their associating with the wintike. They would not accept wintikes into the cemetery, saying their souls are lost. Missionaries had a lot of power on the reservations, so the wintikes were ostracized by many of the Christianized Indians."

When Two Spirit cree/Anishinaabe elder Ma-Nee Chacaby came out as a lesbian in 1988, she was met with hostility from strangers, “In the months following my TV interview, I was attacked three times when people recognized me on the streets in Thunder Bay. Ma-Nee was also scorned by some members from her family:

“A few of my relatives yelled and swore at me. sometimes their rejection came from Christian beliefs about homosexuality being evil. Others were mad because Anishinaabe already were struggling with prejudice, and they thought that I was making it worse by leading white people to believe that Native people were gay too.   

With the last residential school closing in 1996, the harsh and dark reality of this shared history will be felt for generations.


Two Spirit people have existed since the beginning of Indigenous oral history and many Two Spirit activists are stepping out of the sands of time to help teach the traditional values of respect, love, and kindness for all human beings.

Tribes across North America, and beyond, are reclaiming traditional names for gender diverse community members and diverse sexual orientations. Indigenous communities are now holding their own Two Spirit Pride Festivals to highlight the love and acceptance the community holds for all members and the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nations held the first one in Saskatchewan on June 9, 2016. Over the years Two Spirit activists have also been vital in building bridges between the Indigenous community and the Queer community. Many Two Spirit peoples are bringing forth the need to address issues in both communities, such as racial discrimination, homophobia, and transphobia.

This work is done in different ways and are catered to the needs of the specific community from the community. One example is the Revitalizing the Circle: Saskatoon’s first Two Spirit Powwow helped to raise awareness and create space for cultural celebrations that affirm a person’s gender identity and expression.

Indigenous words for Two Spirit People

Although Two Spirit is a relatively new term, there are over 130 terms derived from Indigenous languages  to describe people who did not fit into the western gender binary. The following list is of some the Indigenous words and their meanings for their Two Spirit people:


  • Cree- aayahkwew (roughly translates to “neither man nor woman”)
  • Ojibwe - Okitcitakwe (warrior woman)
  • Ojibwe - Ogokwe (warrior man)
  • Navaho- Nadle (weaver transformed, that which changes, or he who transforms).
  • Dakota/Lakota- Wintike (double woman)
  • Inukititut- Sipiniq (infant whose sex changes at birth).
  • Mohawk- Onón:wat (I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body).



Other Cree terms

  • napêw iskwêwisêhot (nu-PAYO ihs-gwayo-WIH-say-hoht): a man who dresses as a woman
  • iskwêw ka napêwayat (ihs-GWAYO ga nu-PAYO-wuh-yut): a woman dressed as a man
  • ayahkwêw (U-yuh-gwayo): a man dressed/living/accepted as a woman.  I can see the ‘woman’ part of this word, but I am confused about the possible meaning of the rest of the word.  Some have suggested this word can actually be used as a ‘third’ gender of sorts, applied to women and men.
  • înahpîkasoht (ee-nuh-PEE-gu-soot), a woman dressed/living/accepted as a man. (also translated as someone who fights everyone to prove they are the toughest?  Interesting!)
  • iskwêhkân (IS-gwayh-gahn), literally ‘fake woman’, but without negative connotations.
  • napêhkân (NU-payh-gahn) literally ‘fake man’, but without negative connotations.


Two Spirit people

We-Wah - A Zuni Tribe Member

Lozen - A Chiricahua Apache Warrior

Dr. Myra Laramee - Inspiration of the identity Two Spirit

Albert McCleod - Internationally renowned Two Spirit Activist

Ma-Nee Chacaby - Two Spirit Elder and writer

Fred Martinez Jr. - A Two Spirit Navajo Tribe Member

Kent Monkman - Award winning Two Spirit Cree Artist

Gina Metallic - Two Spirit Mi’kmaq Tribe Member

Joshua Whitehead - Award winning Two Spirit Oji-Cree writer and poet

Further Resources

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Two Spirit Manitoba

Egale - Two Spirit


Marjorie Beaucage - Coming In Stories

Egale Canada - Two Spirit, One Voice

Lorne Olson - Second Stories - Deb-we-win Ge-ken-am-aan, Our Place in the Circle

Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and other protocols

Elders and Knowledge Keepers are vital parts of Indigenous communities. They are key to helping keep people connected to traditional teachings and bridge traditional ways of living.

When conducting cultural celebrations and ceremonies, it is important to have an Elder or a Knowledge Keeper present to ensure the event is ethically lead.

What’s the difference between an Elder and a Knowledge Keeper?:

An Elder is a person who over years of learning and practicing traditional cultural knowledge is gifted the title of Elder by the community. To be an Elder is a big honour, as the person is acknowledged by the community for their years of service and cultural practices in order to carry on the teachings to the next generations.

A Knowledge Keeper on the other hand is a person who is on their way to be an Elder. A Knowledge Keeper is like the right hand person of an Elder, they are actively learning cultural teachings, practices, protocols, languages, and meanings of their way of life.

When to ask an Elder and/or Knowledge Keeper:

  • Feasts
  • Sweats
  • Pipe Ceremony
  • Blessings
  • Greetings to the land
  • Cultural teachings

How to ask an Elder and/or Knowledge Keeper (i.e. Proper Protocol):

Tobacco is an important aspect of Indigenous cultures and it is a sign of respect and good intentions to offer tobacco to Elders and/or Knowledge Keepers whenever asking for anything culturally related. One could either create a tobacco tie, which is a small piece of cloth with a one inch pinch of tobacco tied by a ribbon, or could offer a pouch of loose tobacco, or in a pinch, one could offer a pack of cigarettes.

When offering said tobacco, it is custom to say and be clear about the intent of the ask. (I.e. “I am humbly asking for a greeting to start us off right for our conference for our youth”.) The intent is to be said before the offer of the tobacco is handed over to the Elder and/or Knowledge Keeper.

It is important to note that the Elder or Knowledge Keeper could refuse the tobacco, that is a-ok and it does happen. There are a number of factors as to why it could be refused; they may not have the ability to go to the event, they may have conflicted feelings on the ask, or they could know someone else who might be better suited for the ask.

How to offer thanks:

Gift giving, offerings of food, and honoria are important to have readily available for Elders and Knowledge Keepers as a way of thanking them for the knowledge and effort they bring.


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