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Discovering two spirits

I have always known that I was gay, even before I knew there was a word
for it. But Two-spirit? That’s another matter.

I am Cree, from a small reserve in northwestern Alberta. My family moved away
from the “rez” when I started school, and we settled in a community that did
not have many other aboriginal families. Growing up in this community was not
easy. I was the shy, quiet kid who sat in the back, trying to blend into the
walls or the floor so no one would notice me. This exaggerated fear and
shyness followed into my first year of university.

It wasn’t until 1993 that I knew that my life was going to be altered
forever. It was then that I was hired as a Street Liaison Worker/Educator for
an Aboriginal AIDS Service Organization called Healing Our Spirit in
Vancouver, BC. You see, growing up I didn’t feel proud of my Native heritage.
Whenever we made trips to the reserve the other children would make fun of us
and call us “white Indians,” and when we returned to our little community we
were always reminded that we were “dirty Indians.” It was a difficult
situation to be in.

But during my work in the field of HIV and AIDS in Vancouver I stumbled
across a new term that I never heard before: Two-spirit. Two-spirit is what
we as gay and lesbian aboriginal people use to describe ourselves. It refers
to the male and female spirit which is in all of us, but for the Two-spirit
person the connection between the two is stronger.

Pre-European contact, and before colonization, Two-spirit people were well
respected within our communities. Depending on which nation that you are
from, Two-spirit people were not shunned nor made a source of ridicule. We
held positions of prestige that could include medicine man or woman, healers,
leaders or people who educated the youth.

Traditionally, if a person is born with a “difference,” this difference was
looked at as a gift, and a gift that we are to learn from. Again, depending
on which nation an individual was from, Two-spirit people where held in high
regard.

The one common factor among different nations and Two-spirit people involves
mediation. Whenever there were two opposing factions within the community, it
was the Two-spirit people who were called upon to settle the dispute. During
the sun dance ceremony, where participants pierce their skin while tethered
to a centre pole, traditionally it was the Two-spirit person who was asked to
choose the centre pole. This was considered a great honor.

Where I come from, the Cree word for a Two-spirit person is “aayahkwew.” This
does not mean “man” and it does not mean “woman,” and it does not mean “not a
man” or “not a woman.” It is a separate gender: there is man (napew), woman
(iskwew) and aayahkwew. Like Cree, most aboriginal languages have a term such
as this to describe a Two-spirit person.

The term Two-spirit was coined in 1990 at the North American Gay and Lesbian
Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where a delegation of aboriginal gays and
lesbians joined together for a satellite conference and coined the term.
Two-spirit is a relatively new term, but it is becoming widely used
throughout Turtle Island (North America), as well as around the world.

Two-spirit has powerful connotations that many aboriginal people find
appealing, although it is still not totally embraced by all. There still
needs to be more education about Two-spirit people and our rich history, both
with the general public as well as within aboriginal communities. When I
buried my older brother a number of years ago I came out to my community and
used the term “aayahkwew.” While many people were mystified by the term, the
Elders seemed to understand.

Growing up as both gay and aboriginal was difficult. I felt that I had to
stay away from the two aspects of my life that defined me because I was
constantly bombarded with slurs, racist insults and derogatory remarks.
Today, largely because of my work with Healing Our Spirit and my discovery of
the term, I now stand proud as a Two-spirit person and as an aboriginal, and
no longer do I need to blend into the background. V 

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