Less than 500 years ago, European colonists found themselves historically lost on the North American continent – yet, being the same people who believed that the world was flat, all women over forty were witches, and sensuality was the work of the devil, they also believed that an all-powerful white man in the sky chose them as superior beings – and it was this belief that would prove to be the most damning of all, setting the stage for hundreds of years of cultural oppression, trauma, and violence.
Before the onset of the European invasion, North American communities had been established for over 15,000 years. And while most known scholarship regarding pre-colonial American sexuality and gender comes from the journals of early European colonizers, it should be noted that these roles and identities had been established in Native culture for thousands of years. In more than 150 different pre-colonial Native American, First Nation, and Canadian Aboriginal cultures the identity of a “third gender,” was not only recognized, but revered.
While specific interpretations of Two Spirit and third gender people varied by community, what is apparent is the innate understanding and appreciation of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. By acknowledging and listening to a culture that precedes most others, not only are we creating space for the necessary work of intercultural exchange, but we can be better taught the values of respecting and celebrating the Two Spirits among us. Historically, many groups have held gender non-conforming members of their society in high respect, focusing on their spiritual gifts and assigning them as spiritual leaders and teachers within the community.
This article is meant to celebrate Two Spirits and those who identify with the third gender, yet this reclamation would be incomplete if it didn’t address the colonial violence, forced assimilation, and cultural disembodiment perpetrated against Native Americans. Not only were Indigenous peoples marginalized based on an anthropomorphic ethnic divide, but the Christian European colonizers condemned same-sex relationships and gender variance as being sinful, and used these beliefs to further dehumanize Indigenous people.
So if you’re looking to plan your next excursion to the northern territories of North America, bear in mind each destination’s complex history rooted in spirituality, violence, and endurance. Mindful wandering is not passive, but active – and having the luxury to travel means you also have the responsibility to meaningfully contribute to the places you visit. In celebration and in honor of both Pride and National Indigenous History Month we’ve highlighted three prominent Canadian cities – Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Montreal – and have attempted to emphasize the intersections of love, community, and culture.
Cultural Role & Responsibility
The role of being a Two Spirit predates western religion by a significant margin, and held a sacred role in communal structure. In many groups, Two Spirits were considered to be the balance keepers – the “dusk” between the male morning, and the female evening; and as the bridge they were typically the visionaries, healers, and medicine people. While the role has evolved over time, the reclamation of their rightful place in Native culture has brought much needed balance, restoration and healing to the spirit.
The forces of colonization have severely deprived cultural understandings and roles of Two Spirit people, and many Native people have adopted the homophobic attitudes perpetrated by their oppressors. Yet Two Spirit people are beginning to relearn their roles in Native communities – heightened awareness, extreme perseverance, and ongoing education have opened the doors for spiritual and cultural reconciliation. There are a multitude of organizations working, diligently and tirelessly, to create communal spaces for such healing.
xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ
(Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation)
With 204 Indigenous communities and more than 30 Indigenous languages, today’s territory of British Columbia offers six diverse and beautiful regions for travel and exploration. From impressive waterfalls and temperate rainforests, or more urban experiences such as the Butchart Gardens and renowned Stanley Park, BC offers a little something for everyone.
Yet for over 10,000 years “British Columbia” was home for hundreds of generations Indigenous peoples until the arrival of British explorers in the late 18th century. The unique climate of BC lent itself to an abundance of natural resources – this not only aided in the development of complex coastal communities, but made it an attractive “settlement” for European explorers. The legacy of imperialism in BC is unfortunately unique in that, with very few exceptions, no treaties were signed as forced settlement and displacement occurred.
Today, at the southern coastal point of BC lies the city of Vancouver – known for its hybrid cityscape of advanced urban features and astounding natural surroundings. In metro Vancouver you’ll find the only Indigenous-owned and operated restaurant, Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro, which uses traditional flavors and pairings to create authentic dishes for guests. You should also make sure to check out the Vancouver Mural Festival, whose Indigenous Program supports artists and organizations in the creation of public art and workshops for youth. Towards the outskirts of the city, be sure to make time for the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which provides an array of experiences from workshops, school tours, craft activities, and rotating exhibits.
Vancouver is also the headquarters for the Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA), which focuses on supporting Indigenous youth excellence by amplifying and supporting their voices. By providing a diverse continuum of advocacy, preventative and supportive services, and cultural remediation that responds to immediate and long-term needs, UNYA fosters an environment focused on empowerment, conviction, and healing. Through various events, ceremonies, workshops, and collaborations with other programs, the UNYA’s 2-Spirit Collective ensures a safe space for youths to come togethers and explore their identities.
Anishinaabeg, nêhiyaw-iskonikan, ᐊᓂᐦᔑᓂᓃᒧᐏᐣ, Chipewyan, and Dakȟótiyapi
(Ojibway, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dene, and Dakota Nation)
Winnipeg has a 6,000 year history of Indigenous habitation, and the first French-Canadian explorers only paddled up the Red River less than 300 years ago. This era of colonial violence was contextually situated in a fur trade that would last more than 150 years, but it was the lasting effects of cultural dissemination, oppression, and murder that would shape the city of Winnipeg in the Manitoba Province of central Canada.
The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) and Travel Manitoba have partnered together to assist in the sustainable growth of the Indigenous tourism industry. As a response to the mounting demand for authentic, meaningful experiences the Manitoba Indigenous Tourism Strategy has been created to connect conscientious travelers with experiences that help to change perspectives, preserve culture, language, traditions and ultimately provide Indigenous communities with the opportunity to reclaim their rightful space.
Winnipeg is home to one of the largest urban Indigenous populations in Canada, and is a center for cultural representations of art and music. Head to Feast Cafe Bistro where Chef Christa Bruneau-Guenther, who is a member of the Peguis First Nation, shares her culture though seasonal dishes that are a modern take on traditional Indigenous foods, and pays respect to the animals and plants that nourish those who eat there. Or, head to the Urban Shaman Gallery – an Aboriginal artist-run center dedicated to meeting the needs of artists by providing a vehicle for artistic expression in all disciplines, and at all levels, by taking a leadership role in the cultivation of Indigenous art.
Winnipeg also serves as the hub for the non-profit organization, Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, Inc. A resource for LGBTQ+ people and allies, their pillars focus on spirituality, visioning, belonging, transforming, equality, strength, sexuality, and advocacy. Their volunteers provide awareness and educational workshops, advocate to prevent homophobia and transphobia, and organize various community events. You can learn more about their work and advocacy on their website, and make a financial contribution here.
(The Six Nations: People of the Longhouse)
When the European colonizers first arrived in the (modern day) Quebec Province, the original inhabitants belonged to the Abenaki, Algonquin, Atikamekw, Cree, Huron-Wendat, Innu, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, and Naskapi tribes. When Quebec’s boundaries were drawn, it was without reference to the territorial boundaries of Indigenous nations, and because of this, most of the First Nations in Quebec have territory that extends into neighboring provinces and states. Today’s Montreal, in the southern portion of the province, has an Indigenous history that is at least 8,000 years old – and current reclamation strategies are seeking to elevate and bring forth their narrative.
The Montreal Indigenous Community NETWORK seeks to support the ecosystem of individuals and groups committed to improving the quality of life of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities living in the greater Montreal area. Acting as a hub for Indigenous resources, knowledge, and partnerships, The organization has launched several committees to address gaps in services for Indigenous community members in the areas of: art and culture, employability and education, health, youth in foster care, homelessness, justice, food security, and in COVID-19 response.
The city is also working towards elevating cultural awareness, and accessibility, of their original inhabitants. Spend some time at the Kahnawake Brewing Company, the first Native-owned microbrewery on a First Nation’s territory in Canada. Visit the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KORLCC), a vital and dedicated catalyst for change which offers various community workshops, events, and educational programs. And this year, from August 9th through the 18th, you can participate in the First Peoples’ Festival where Indigenous peoples and allies will partake in concerts, dances, poetry, live performances, and present more than 60 films.
Furthermore, organizations like Project 10 work within the communities of Montreal to promote the personal, social, sexual and mental well being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, intersex, and questioning youth and adults. Through advocacy and education, and using a harm reduction approach, Project 10 aims to facilitate the empowerment of youth at the individual, community, and institutional levels with an emphasis on supporting individuals and groups who experience multiple and intersecting oppressions. Their services are free of charge, confidential and anonymous, and are offered in both English and French – you can find more information, and make a financial contribution to support the organization’s growth, here.
The survival of Indigenous cultures in the face of violent assimilationist programming is more than a testament to their resiliency – it is a testament to their necessity. Today, the term Two Spirit is being reclaimed and reinstated with its sacred connotation, thanks only to the continued perseverance and advocacy of the First People.
As a sustainable tourism brand, not only do we procure environmentally sound experiences for conscientious travelers, but our mission is to also bring forward and elevate the narratives of those impacted by the tourism industry. North America is no stranger to immoral and unjustified land acquisition and Indigenous displacement. All land is Native land, and the various sights you get to enjoy, and parks you pay preservation fees to visit, are on stolen land – and a part of being a mindful wanderer is not only bearing this in mind, but actively learning and supporting these communities.
This requires that we not only consider, but actively participate, in the dismantling of anthropocentric worldviews that have dictated and determined our relationships with one another and our environments. We must proceed with the understanding that our mere acknowledgement is not a sufficient response to our complicity in the violence committed against Indigenous peoples – whose territories we all occupy. It is our collective responsibility to commit ourselves to listening, learning, and accepting the needs and experiences of Indigenous peoples.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.
Want to learn more?
Two Spirits Among Us – GLAAD
Two Spirit & LGBTQ+ Identities – Human Rights Campaign
The ‘great indigenous divide’ – The Guardian
2-Spirit Collective – Urban Native Youth Association
15 authentic ways to connect with Indigenous Canada – National Geographic
Manitoba Indigenous Tourism Strategy – Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada
Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, Inc. – Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, Inc.
Reserves in Quebec – The Canadian Encyclopedia
Our Approach – Montreal Indigenous Community NETWORK
Kahnawake Brewing Company – Kahnawake Brewing Company
Welcome to P10! – Project 10