My Gender is Indigenous, courtesy Ryan Young.  

Explanation of Two-Spirit Terminology by Harlan Pruden

Two-Spirit is a way for the Two-Spirit communities to organize; in other words, a way to identify those individuals who embody diverse (or non-normative) sexualities, genders, and gender expressions[1] and who are indigenous to Turtle Island.[2]  As an organizing tool, when individuals show up at a gathering or some other Indigenous event, the first question that is asked is “What Nation are you?” If the individual, who is male-assigned, and is Anishinaabe, then we gift and/or honor them their word “agokwe”; if the individual is female-assigned, we would use the word “okitcitakwe” – if these individuals do not know these words already.

“Two-Spirit” is a community organizing strategy or tool. Although it is often positioned as an identity, it is neither an end-point nor an identity. When treated and positioned as an identity, it becomes highly problematic.

 There are about 130 terms within our own languages that name, account and identify these other genders – each word is Nation specific.  After these individuals have received their word, along with a framework to understand it and to (re)learn of this almost-lost history and tradition(s), these individuals come to an awareness, or an awakening, and begin the coming-in process.[3] Expanding upon the above Anishinaabe example, this awakening is marked when the individual begins a self and communal discovery: “What does okitcitakwe mean? Who is okitcitakwe and what is my role and purpose as an okitcitakwe for my Anishinaabe people?” Thereby, “okitcitakwe,” a female-assigned Anishinaabe Two-Spirit person, will have different socially defined or expected role(s) than someone who is “iskwêhkân ,”[4] a female-assigned Cree Two-Spirit person.


[1] I am intentionally not using the Western frameworks, concepts, or identities of LGBTQ+. Instead I am opting for the descriptive statement of: “who embody diverse (or non-normative) sexualities, genders, and gender expressions.”

[2] Turtle Island is harkening to some of the first peoples’ creation stories (Anishnaabe, Lenepe, to list a few) and is used to name the land that we have come to call North America. Turtle Island is used to reference this land mass while not affirming or recognizing the two nation states of Canada or the United States of America.

[3] “Coming In” does not centre on the declaration of independence that characterizes ‘coming out’ in mainstream depictions of the lives of LGBTQ+ people. Rather, coming in is an act of returning, fully present in ourselves, to resume our place as a valued part of our families, cultures, communities, and lands, in connection with all our relations” Wilson, A. 2015a. Our Coming In Stories: Cree Identity, body sovereignty and gender self- determination, Journal of Global Indigeneity, 1(1). Retrieved 12 August 2017.

[4] The following words were validated by 21 Cree elders (and speakers), these elders were the advisory council for the Alberta Aboriginal Association of Friendship Centre: napêw iskwêwisêhot (nu-PAYO ihs-gwayo-WIH-say-hoht), a man who dresses as a woman; iskwêw ka napêwayat (ihs-GWAYO ga nu-PAYO-wuh-yut), a woman dressed as a man; ayahkwêw (U-yuh-gwayo), a man dressed/living/accepted as a woman.  I can see the “woman” part of this word, but I am confused about the possible meaning of the rest of the word.  Some have suggested this word can actually be used as a “third” gender of sorts, applied to women and men; iskwêhkân (IS-gwayh-gahn), literally “fake woman,” but without negative connotations; napêhkân (NU-payh-gahn) literally “fake man,” but without negative connotations.

Historical Thinking Questions

Explore the following links and answer the questions. 

Our Coming In Stories: Cree Identity, Body Sovereignty, and Gender Self Determination

Journey of Indigenous Gender Identity

Egale, Canada Human Rights Trust

Ten Crimes of John A. MacDonald  (Read number 3)

1.  Up until recently, why have First Nation communities generally not talked about Two Spirit knowledge when they would have in the past?  (Cause and Consequence, Historical Perspective)

2.  How does the art work of Ryan Young help us to understand traditional Indigenous teachings from the past and the impacts of colonialism on Two-Spirit identity?  (Historical Significance) 

Recommended Reading

Two-Spirit Resources