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Free To Be: Two Spirit Teachings

By: Joanne Dallaire, Elder and Traditional Counsellor
June 30, 2016
The two spirited symbol hangs over Ryerson campus, a place welcoming of the Two Spirited.

From June 27–July 1, 2016, we engage in a series written by members of the Ryerson Community that explore the questions, “How do our sexual and gender identities intersect with other aspects of our identity and how does that affect building our ideal campus?”

What I am about to share on Two Spirit teachings have been accumulated by myself and by no means are a total reflection of all the teachings and stories related to Two Spirited held by the many nations of Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit people.

Two Spirit people have been a natural part of Indigenous cultures across Canada. Before first contact with European colonizers, most Indigenous people recognized the importance and commonness of Two Spirit individuals and the special abilities they possessed. How the individual expressed themselves was not under scrutiny, it was accepted as a part of the individuals’ ways of being like all members of the community. There was no judgement, simply freedom of self expression and loving who you love.

A Navajo two-spirit couple.
A Navajo two-spirit couple is seen in this photo from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico. Photo by Bosque Redondo, 1866.

They were visionaries, medicine people, healers, shamans, mediators in marriage and tribal disputes, keepers of history and lore. They took part and often lead social and spiritual ceremonies and were leaders of their communities, respected as equal and vital members of Indigenous societies. There are individuals documented in history, great women who took wives and carried the bow and men carrying out duties usually assigned to women.

Mask of Ko'lhamana, Zuni two-spirit kachina
Mask of Ko’lhamana, Zuni two-spirit kachina

For some, rituals determined if the person was two-spirited and taught young boys to do women’s work in addition to that reserved for men. Similar rituals applied to girls. Children of both genders would also spend time with healers, often two-spirited people themselves. Above all, their childhood was marked by acceptance and understanding by the whole nation.

The notion of shame of who one is was introduced with the arrival of others to this land.  The idea that man was superior over all other living things assisted in their judgement and offered a sense of one right way of being. If one feels superior, then you can give yourself license to deem your way as the only right and proper way to be.

Whe-Wa, two spirted individual from the Zuni tribe.

With this belief one can feel justified to suppress, devalue, or eliminate anything you choose. They destroyed what or who is in their way, ruling supreme, and suppressing or killing all that oppose. Certainly Christianity played a huge role in the shame/blame game and compounded the sense of right and wrong, good and evil.

Due to the strong influence of Christianity on our people, unfortunately these judgements prevail. There are initiatives to promote sexual health and inclusion with Indigenous youth and in our communities in general. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network, external link explores sexual questions, seeking sexual awareness, acceptance, and answers around all sexual questions. Most Aboriginal agencies within the GTA offer services and groups that touch on or directly address the promotion of sexual health.

Crow Two-Spirits, 1928.
Crow Two-Spirits, 1928.

The future is bright for the next generations to once again be free to be who they are and love who they love. The continued use of signage that is reflective of Indigenous two spirited and other sexual gender identities offers a welcoming and inclusive feeling by the Ryerson community. Ryerson has included representation from the Indigenous community in initiatives on sexual health and I would ask that this continue. Also to include teachings or persons that represent the Indigenous concept of acceptance and inclusion to all gender and sexual identities and knowledge.

All my relations.

Two spirited heart postcard
Joanne Dallaire portrait.

Joanne Dallaire, Elder and Traditional Counsellor

Joanne, Shadow Hawk Woman of the Wolf Clan, is Cree Omushkego with ancestry from Attawapiskat, Ontario. For the past 10 years, she has worked at Ryerson as an Elder and Traditional Counsellor. While Joanne is most often found working closely with Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services and the Aboriginal Education Council, her services are available to the entire Ryerson community. In her role, she provides traditional openings and closings, presentations, information on Aboriginal issues and training and counselling for Aboriginal events or ceremonies and more.

Joanne has spent over 30 years in the areas of counselling, advising and educating Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals and organizations on various Aboriginal topics. In 2011, she was celebrated at Ryerson with an Honourary Doctor of Laws Degree by the Faculty of Community Services for her tireless and many achievements. She is also a proud mother and grandmother.

Tomorrow on the Identity Intersections: Building a Proud Campus from the Whole Self series: A Place to Be Safe: RyersonSA’s Efforts in Inclusive Programming