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Two-Spirit Identity in Ojibwe and Plains Cree Practices

Art piece created by Olive Bensler.

Tansi Ninôtemik,

Over the last week, we have discussed various Indigenous identity topics, from "Pretendians" to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in Nunavut. Following that theme, today we discuss gender identity within Ojibwe and Plains Cree practices.

In discussing gender identity, it is first helpful to establish a working definition. Put simply, gender identity refers to an individual's relationship with culturally created concepts of masculinity and femininity.[1] Cisgender people are those who identify with the gender identity that was assigned to them at birth. Transgender is an umbrella term under which a spectrum of identities exists wherein an individual's given identity does not align with their internal experience of gender.

What is the "2S" in 2SLGBTQ+?

Ojibwe and Plains Cree peoples have a long history of diverse gender and sexual identities.[2] In modern use, Ojibwe and Plains Cree communities generally use terms such as "transgender," "third gender," "gender variant," or "Two-Spirit."[3] These diverse gender and sexuality practices have deep historical roots. Pyle defines "Two-Spirit" as "Indigenous people who fall outside the accepted boundaries of modern white or "Western" gender and sexuality, both past and present."[4]

The Cree language does not have gendered pronouns nor, at least in some dialects, language for homosexuals.[5] The third person is entirely nonspecific. Still, Cree had a diversity of words to refer to an individual's identity, including ayākwāo/ayekkwe/a·yahkwew (which has evolved slightly in modern use to âyahkwêw) for a form of third gender sometimes defined as a "man who dresses as a woman" or vice versa.[6] These words did not have any negative connotations.[7]

Though the term "Two-Spirit" is a modern word, Pyle's definition is rooted in this deeply rooted history of gender identity that is unique to Indigenous peoples.[8] The diversity of Cree gender roles was outright distressing to settlers who had comparatively restricted ideas of "acceptable" gender roles.[9] For example, in the 1800s, George Catlin described a cultural practice honouring Two-Spirit as "one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs that I have met in the Indian country."[10]

Can non-Indigenous people identify as Two Spirit?

The short answer is no.

Two-Spirit people experience a unique spiritual identity that is distinctly Indigenous because indigeneity is inherently tied to gender and sexuality.[11] When a non-Indigenous person self-identifies as Two-Spirit, it is an act of colonial violence.

It is essential to acknowledge that Two-Spirit people experience a distinct form of Settler violence from non-Indigenous gender-diverse people and other Indigenous people.[12] The reclamation of gender and sexuality is not simply an act of self-discovery but a "sovereign act of self-determination."[13] So, non-Indigenous people identifying as Two-Spirit perpetuate this violence and a denial of Indigenous self-determination.

In describing Ojibwe and Plains Cree practices of gender identity, we not only unveil the historical significance of Two-Spirit but also emphasize the importance of cultural sensitivity and respect, fostering a deeper understanding of the diverse and sacred connections between Indigeneity, gender, and self-determination.

See you next week!

-The ReconciliACTION YEG Team


  1. David Perry, Rachel Pauletti, & Patrick Cooper, “Gender Identity in childhood: a review of the literature,” (2019) 43:4 Sage J 289.

  2. Kai Pyle, “Naming and Claiming: Recovering Ojibwe and Plains Cree Two-Spirit Language” (2018) 5:4 Transgender Studies Q 574 [Pyle].

  3. Pyle, at 574.

  4. Pyle, at 575.

  5. Pyle, at 582; Alex Wilson “Our Coming in Stories: Cree Identity, Body Sovereignty and Gender Self-Determination” (2015) 26:3-4 Can Women Studies 193 at 193.

  6. Pyle, at 584.

  7. Though Pyle does document at least some of these terms as being understood as insulting though it appears these are rooted in in the arrival of missionaries (page 583).

  8. Pyle.

  9. Wilson, 193.

  10. See for example, Catlin, G. 1842/1892. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, Vol 2 (Williamshiphard: New York) at 719 online at <>.

  11. Pyle at 583; Wilson at 197.

  12. Wilson at 194.

  13. Marianne Kongerslev “Dance to the Two-Spirit: Mythologizations of the Queer Native,” (2018) 27:4 Kvinder, Køn & Forskning 33 at 35.

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