This week, for the first time in history, Opaskwayak Cree Nation raised a Pride flag. The unveiling of its flag kicked off the community’s first Pride Week.
On Monday, OCN Chief Christian Sinclair called on First Nations everywhere to do the same.
"I challenge all Indigenous communities to implement the same approach," Sinclair said, "in sending the message to their own people that (LGBTTQ+) are equal members of all our communities and should be gratefully acknowledged and respected as such."
In a week, the term "two-spirit" (the name most often used by Indigenous lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals to describe themselves) celebrates 30 years of its inception. On Aug. 4, 1990, at the third Gathering of Native American Gays and Lesbians near Beausejour, Indigenous leader and grandmother Myra Laramee offered the ceremonial term "two-spirit" to describe the traditional roles and identities they shared. Groups adopted the term and it has become standard.
"Early colonial governments and churches attempted to abolish all forms of Indigenous spirituality and identity, and over generations traditional names were eventually replaced with derogatory homophobic and transphobic slurs," said Albert McLeod, co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba.
Everyone knows one of these slurs. I heard them everywhere growing up.
Even though I had Indigenous two-spirit people among my friends, family, and community I found myself using them, especially at the hockey rink.
The term two-spirit represents people who are "conduits between the physical world and the spiritual world" and hold both feminine and masculine spirits. More recently it’s come to mean people who embody vision, transformation, belonging, equality, strength, and sexuality.
In Treaty 1 territory, we use the term niizh-manidoowag, literally meaning two-spirit.
Every single Indigenous nation has two-spirit peoples who perform crucial roles in ceremonies, government, and families.
Among Anishinaabe, our first teacher is the being Waynabozhoo, who transforms into many genders and bodies. The only pronoun one could use to describe them is "they."
Two-spirit definitions, like the people themselves, are growing. The national organization We Matter is running a campaign that asks two-spirit youth to explain how they define the term for themselves.
Still, even though two-spirit peoples offer critical gifts to Indigenous societies, many experience discrimination, marginalization, and violence.
Homophobia in Indigenous communities, like mainstream society, is real. This often takes the form of harassment, bullying, and abuse — particularly in communities impacted by churches and residential schools.
This trauma results in Indigenous two-spirit peoples (and in particular youth) experiencing "higher incidences of suicide, smoking, substance abuse, depression, low self-esteem, unemployment, experiences of violence, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS" according to a report by the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition.
Accessing resources and supports often comes with "outing" yourself so, even if services are available, many feel unsafe to do so.
Indigenous two-spirit peoples will often "postpone using services for fear of prejudice, discrimination or misunderstanding," reports the coalition, as "health professionals focus their energy on fixing their patient’s orientation or identity instead of taking care of the presenting concerns."
So, with safe spaces often hard to find, it’s on all of us to stand up and advocate for our two-spirit relations.
When I was 12, I remember an elder telling an audience that there was no such thing as "gay Indians." I knew this wasn’t true because there were gay people in the group she was speaking to.
I wished at that time I had spoken up for my friends, family, and other two-spirit relatives in my community. I am still ashamed of my silence today.
So, we must be silent no more.
Acts like those at OCN are big steps in reconciling the crucial cultural and political spaces two-spirit peoples have in every Indigenous community. Flying a flag and holding an honour week are good first steps, but two-spirit pride must become a part of all segments of society.
"This is why 32 of the calls for justice from the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry final report relate to LGBTTQ+ issues," McLeod tells me.
These involve a national action plan to deal with violence against two-spirit peoples, funding for two-spirit organizations, and the removal of barriers against two-spirit couples (who cannot pass on to their children treaty rights like heterosexual couples, for example).
Honouring two-spirit peoples means honouring our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our uncles and aunties, parents, and grandparents.
This teaching, of love and life, may be the greatest two-spirit gift of all.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.