What it means to be two-spirited

John Sylliboy

Queer Indigenous people share their journey to finding their identities and help others discover their own paths


ast year Holly Green discovered their own identity as “two-spirit.”

Aside from their mother and a few members of the Indigenous queer community, Green is nervous about sharing this revelation.

“In closed situations, I feel unable to come out and I don’t want to,” they say. “I see clearly, and I think that’s enough. I don’t happen to give my full identity as an Indigenous, two-spirit, deaf person. It depends on the situation and how much I am going to share. Sometimes, I’ll share everything, and I don’t care if they don’t like it because that’s who I am. Other times, I don’t necessarily feel it’s the right time.”

It’s a challenge to explain the meaning of “two-spirit” because the answer varies among people within the Indigenous queer community. For Green, it means having a feeling of having both masculine and feminine spirits.

Holly Green

Throughout life, Green has always felt they had to prove themself. “Most people in the deaf community that you do encounter are white, so I felt like I had to prove myself more and prove myself as a Mi’kmaw person as well,” Green says. ” I feel like I don’t fit in either of them. I’m always proving myself while containing those two identities within me. I’m faced with so many questions about my identity all the time.”

Many in the two-spirit community don’t know where to turn for support. For Green, that changed when they met John Sylliboy, executive director of Wabanaki Two-Spirit Alliance (W2SA). Green says it was a life-changing moment because they never felt judged during the encounter, instead they saw Sylliboy’s attitude as inclusive and open-minded.

Sylliboy came out to their family community back in 2007. They were unfamiliar with the two-spirit concept until a chance encounter with a friend at a First Nations health conference. “He said, ‘Hey, congratulations. I heard you came out. You are two-spirited,’” Sylliboy recalls. “I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying. He sort of planted questions in my mind: so what is two-spirited?”

In their work as a community researcher, Sylliboy started understanding what two-spirited was from a Mi’kmaw perspective and delved into other cultures. It was the basis of their master’s thesis and ignited an ongoing debate about how two-spirit and identity are intertwined.

“The term itself is fluid; it’s an Indigenous concept,” Sylliboy explains. “It is something that captures the identity of a person who is not unibinary, not conforming to the expectations that Europeans had, for example, put on as recognizing themselves as male or female. It also encompasses the notion of your sexuality.”

Sylliboy and Tuma Young formed the W2SA 10 years ago to serve a community that felt isolated, helping support organizations such as Halifax Pride, the Youth Project, and the Rainbow Action Project to understand the two-spirit concept. It came at a time as a crisis loomed with a rash of suicides within their community, many of the victims identifying as two-spirited.

“We didn’t understand if it was something they were feeling or either homophobia or whether they didn’t feel comfortable in sharing who they were with our culture or in our community,” Sylliboy says. “A lot of challenges face are within other peer organizations who may not necessarily understand who or what is a two-spirited person.”

Overall, the W2SA’s mission is to build understanding of what services Indigenous people need and share that with community organizations. One primary focus was the coming out experience for Indigenous people. “The contact organizations existed without knowing the specific needs that Indigenous people had,” Sylliboy says. “These are things that people feel they need for having safe spaces for Indigenous people.”

Already, W2SA is sparking a chain reaction. This year’s Halifax Pride festival marks the first time a two-spirit teepee stood tall at Garrison Grounds’ social site to demonstrate the cultural relevance of the event.

There were multiple events specifically for two-spirited people, plus spaces for interaction. On the final weekend of Halifax Pride, July 25 from 1–4 p.m., there was an event with stories on Mi’kmaw history, education, treaty education, games, and drumming on the Garrison Grounds.

Green took a very active role as the Two-Spirit and Site Coordinator. With Halifax Pride held on unceded Mi’kmaw land, it’s fitting to recognize the land, the connections, and Indigenous people.

But Green feels there is more work to be done.

“Many Indigenous people are being left out from government affairs and COVID-19 is not helping that,” Green says. “There’s a lot of isolation. Even if you talk about COVID-19 testing or mental health supports, there is a lot of exclusion still happening.”

Sylliboy believes the city needs to seize the opportunity to share the Indigenous perspective through events such as next summer’s North American Indigenous Games as a platform for societal change.

“People need to shift from how they view us Indigenous people,” they say. “We have to shift people’s mindset. We have to do it in a way so that people associate us with and not just do it. We’re going to celebrate: we’re going to dance, we’re going to drum, share our cultures with other organizations and people who are not only two-spirit but also a big community so they can better understand more of who we are. These are important opportunities. We can’t let those pass.”

While W2SA targets everyone, Sylliboy emphasizes empowering youth by fostering a positive cultural identity, which will act as a barrier to racism. “Things are happening that are exciting; instead of one step forward and two steps back, we’re feeling like three steps forward and one step back,” Sylliboy says. “It’s shifting to another level. We know the two-spirit community is a bit more supportive here than in other regions.”

Green hopes their experiences will empower others to follow suit. “With the W2SA creating safer spaces and those safer spaces are going to bring out people who will be able to talk about their experience and find people who identify the same as them, be acknowledged, recognized, noticed and seen,” Green says. “I think about the future as being safer and people being able to think about the future for themselves.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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