The Decolonization of Two-Spirited Peoples in Canada

Updated: Mar 29

Opinion by Dilki Jagoda

Two Spirited Flag(10)

Note - For the purposes of this article, the following definition of Two-Spirit will be employed upon consultation of OUT Saskatoon:

Two-Spirit is an umbrella term and fluid identity, and each tribe and Indigenous person has their own understanding of what it means to be Two-Spirit. It is important to note that identifying as Two-Sprit is specific to being Indigenous and points to the important roles that Two-Spirit individuals held before colonization.

For more information, the link to the website has been provided below.

When the Europeans arrived in Canada, they forced Indigenous communities to abandon their practices and adopt Western customs. Arguably, the cis-heteronormative hegemony imposed by colonial practices remains the status quo for many settlers. This piece will argue that the imposition of Western gender binaries, through policies and societal norms, within Canadian society obstruct the process of decolonization and result in violence and discrimination against non-heteronormative members of Indigenous communities, notably Two-Spirit Peoples.

Foremost, in order to lay the foundation to discuss the implications off the heteropatriarchal framework within Canadian society, the definition of heteropatriarchy must be established. Heteropatriarchy can be understood as “the social systems in which heterosexuality and patriarchy are perceived as normal and natural. (1)” The primary importance of this definition is that heteropatriarchy results in all other dispositions being depicted as anomalous, abnormal, and/or abhorrent within society (2). This mindset has not only been carried forward by settler mentality, but has been equally fortified and promoted within settler institutions. Joanne Barker, a professor at San Francisco State University and member of the Lenape tribe, presents an accurate example of this mindset in her book Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies where she discusses the Supreme Court as one of the many state-endorsed institutions that enable settler-colonial governments to “manage racial, gender, sexual, and Indigenous differences” (3). This consequence offers a rationale as to why Two-Spirited peoples and other non-heteronormative members within Indigenous communities were disregarded through the imposition of structures such as Western gender binaries.

In addition to these injustices, non-heteronormative members of Indigenous communities face other forms of discrimination such as transphobia, homophobia, and sexual assault alongside existing struggles associated with simply identifying as Indigenous. In 2015, during a study conducted by the Stigma and Resilience among Vulnerable Youth Centre, it was revealed that out of the queer Indigenous participants within their surveying process, approximately 70% had faced some form of sexual assault (4). This statistic is alarming due to the fact that it is a problem largely overlooked due to the lack of intersectionality in the LGBTQ2+ community. Due to the norms accepted within settler society, many non-heteronormative Indigenous individuals are often excluded from discussions regarding LGBTQ2+ issues, resulting in policy resolutions and social programs that showcase a lack of regard for certain vulnerable groups (5). This is all due to the fact that the gender identity of Two-Spirit Peoples goes beyond the rigid understanding of the term “queer” enforced within the Western Society according to Qwo-Li Driskill, a non-citizen Cherokee Two-Spirit and Queer writer, activist and performer as well as Graduate Studies Director at Oregon State University (6). Two-Spirited individuals often find themselves attempting to break down the barriers set by the cis heteronormative standards in settler society and as Driskill describes, struggle to identify with terms coined by the white LGBTQ community because they are often not applicable and/or understanding of the deep spiritual and historical roots associated with being Two-Spirited (7). For instance, many Two-Spirited individuals refuse to identify with terms such as queer, gay, transgender, etc. as they are not encompassing of their identity. Furthermore, it is also seen as a way of decolonizing the narrative surrounding their identities. Prior to colonial contact, none of them were considered “queer”, “trans”, or any other terms coined according to Euro-American standards. These grounds are important to consider when attempting to understand why the passing of Bill C-16 was a landmark moment for the Two-Spirit and LGBTQ2+ community in which “gender identity and gender expression” was finally added to the Canadian Federal Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (8). This bill finally offered Two-Spirited individuals an opportunity to solidify their protection against hate and discrimination by granting it official legal grounds within a few of Canada’s official documents.

Lastly, the subject matter covered here regarding the struggles of Two-Spirited people cannot negate the grievances of all other Indigenous peoples and it needs to be understood that all Indigenous peoples have had to face ill-treatment and injustices. However, the focus of this text lies with Two-Spirited and other non-heteronormative individuals because they face discrimination in ways that cis-gendered Indigenous peoples would not have to face.

(1) Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Foundations 25, no.1 (2013): 13. doi:10.1353/ff.2013.0006.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Joanne Barker, ed. “Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies”. (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2017), 208.

(4) Andy Holmes and Phebe Ferrer. “Canadian Bill C-26: Decolonizing the Protection of Two-Spirit, Gender Non-Binary and Transgender People.” (2018), 15.

(5) Qwo-Li, Driskill. “Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16 (2010): 70.

(6) Qwo-Li Driskill. “Stolen From Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 16 (2004): 52.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Andy Holmes and Phebe Ferrer. “Canadian Bill C-26: Decolonizing the Protection of Two-Spirit, Gender Non-Binary and Transgender People.” (2018), 13.

(9) Ibid., 14.

(10) Mjeffries4, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.