My Oral History About “Two-Spirited”

One of the first times I remember hearing about various roles in the community was from a guest lecturer I had invited during my first year of sessional teaching. It was at St. Joseph’s College, CHRTC 221, “Interactions Between Indigenous Spiritual Traditions and Christianity.” Lewis Cardinal presented from his own research. He informed us that historically Elders in the community had different roles. In times past, areas of specialization could have included medicines – someone knowledgeable about plants, what they do, when to pick them, how to store them, how and when to use them – and someone who can interpret dreams and anything associated with the spirit world. I was intrigued and was determined to learn more.

Another “teaching” I heard was about someone who can “see’”in the spirit world but lives in this world. The person with this gift may have been referred to as a shaman or “two-spirited” because they “live” in two worlds.

Some time passed then I had the pleasure to attend the Annual International Pow Wow in Toronto in 2015. The day I attended there were all day, one-hour workshops, one of which was advertised “Two-Spirited” at 2:00 pm. Of course, I wanted to attend that one.

The speaker was articulate, charismatic and introduced himself with, “I am Native, I am gay, but I am not ‘two-spirited’.” He then talked about how the term “two-spirited” became connected with Native people. There was a conference in California. (I don’t remember what it was about). Apparently, a Native person was talking about “two-spirited” and happened to be gay. Someone thought they were directly connected and that is how “two-spirited” became associated with gender. I regret not writing down his name.

I talked to the speaker afterward and asked him about what “two-spirited” meant. I told him my understanding was that two-spirited was someone who walked in two worlds: could see in the spirit world but walked in this world. It had nothing to do with gender. He agreed that could be it.

Most recently, August 2019 I attended a cultural session presented by Dean Cardinal, originally from Saddle Lake. He shared some of his own story, tipi teachings, and very interesting and inspiring knowledge. One of the most interesting things he shared was, “The old men say we all have one spirit. When you say you are ‘two-spirited’ you put yourself above God. Even God has one spirit.”

This is one of the most powerful teachings I have ever heard. I’m still processing it.

Sharon Pasula is an Indigenous spiritual and cultural resource person who lives in Boyle Street.

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Janis Irwin MLA
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