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Two Spirit are Not Gay!

Part One: Men

Editorial by Carey Rutherford (From GayCalgary® Magazine, October 2014, page 5)
Argintina Hailey-Dior
Argintina Hailey-Dior

Well, THIS hasn’t gone so smoothly. When curiosity about the true nature and historical significance of the First Nations’ two spirit gender persona stimulated this story, the first three native historians I interviewed had never heard of the term. In fact, the first expert, who called himself ‘a traditional man’ (always a red flag), politely refused to even discuss the history of the gender spectrum in native cultures.

"Because we shunned these people in the past, I don’t want to talk about it, even though today people consider it more acceptable." This is when he brought up the ‘traditional man’ label and, you will find out, he is apparently wrong.

While a homophobe, he was at least polite, but declined to be named. Tina and Jeanette, both of the Tsuu T’ina Culture Museum (also native themselves), had not heard of the term two spirit either. They were, however, willing to direct me to sources of information that might provide some historical perspective. Alas, those sources too were futile.

Until I spoke to Joanne Schmidt, the Collections Technician at the Glenbow Museum’s Indigenous Studies area, I was drawing blanks. Not only had she sat in on a two spirit seminar, she was also able to connect me to the collection’s former advisor, Cliff Crane Bear.

"I see (gay couples) on the (Siksika) reserve, men (or women) holding hands, and their life is their business. It doesn’t bother me," he said. "That’s how I was raised." He sees a change in Siksika/Blackfoot attitudes around this issue happening most significantly since the 1950s, "because of the way media shows them," he believes.

Cliff (and a Tsuu T’ina historian he directed me to) told me, "what goes around comes around", and how one treats others will affect the Creator’s treatment of you or yours in the future.

Even this former Blackfoot Crossing storyteller needed reminding of this way of thinking. Having lived ‘in the city for a long time’, Cliff describes a situation when he and his young son discovered a clear indication of grave desecration occurring on the reserve. When he asked a band elder what they should do about it, the elder reminded him that it was not an individual’s place to ‘punish’ others, but to recognize the Creator’s ultimate responsibility for teaching such lessons.

"It may not be me, or my immediate family, but it will come back to me (if I’ve done someone wrong)," he said. And, in the pre-colonization Siksika culture, "it’s not one person’s place to judge and criticize another because of the differences between people."

Go figure!

While ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are modern (and, he says, judgmental) descriptions of people, Cliff starts off by pointing out that "a place was made for differences, and the Siksika people, strongly spiritual, wanted to respect all of the things made by the Creator."

Of great interest is how Cliff doesn’t frame these issues as a sexual: some of his stories are about ‘two spirits’ (not a native term) and their ‘gifts’. Whatever name is used, they were not shunned, but valued for what their difference (not just sexual) brought to the band. When bands gathered as a tribe, different parts of the nation could have people unique to their extended family, and mutual respect amongst those gathered was considered the norm.

Cliff mentions, as others do, that a ‘non two spirit’ man might marry a two spirit man because of the physical strength advantages ‘she’ would bring to the family, though he may have no interest in her sexually. And even if he did, relations between the two spirit and ‘straight’ native had no impact on their social standing in the tribe. In fact, it often ADDED to the ‘straight’ man’s standing, because of the gifted aura that two spirit people have: he had slept with a blessed person.

To return to the current century, let’s talk to Argintina Hailey Dior-Santos, Her Imperial Majesty 37 of the ISCCA, (and Ms. Gay Calgary 17, Miss Gio’s 2001-02, Miss Club 2000, ’01-’02, Miss Purdy’s 2001-’02, Gemini Empress 4 1/2, Her Imperial Sovereign Majesty Empress 31 1/2, Miss Canadian Rockies International Rodeo Queen 2011, and Elder Princess 36 Sacred Buffalo Woman, ranging from Calgary to Edmonton to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Houston, and elsewhere).

"I have many titles," Argintina (Cleavon) understates. "I’m still learning how we are moving forward, in the modern times, with being a two spirit person, because you hear stories about what we were once respected for. Here in my home nation (Stoney Nakoda) a lot of these kids that are in their mid-20s look up to me as being an older, positive, modern two spirited role model.

"When people ask me What does two-spirited mean? I try my best to explain that (it’s when) a person has both a man-spirit and the knowledge of what a man stands for, and the woman-spirit and what they stand for."

She mentions that she is learning from her own role models, some of who are positive, and others not so much. Some were victims of the standard homophobic training "and tried to live their lives as if they weren’t gay. And others lived on the reserve as two spirited people, and were generally respected."

"So when I was coming out (at 19), and trying to find out who I was, one of my uncles mentioned that I was two spirited, and he kind of explained to me what (that) was... as opposed to the homophobic remarks (that I was also hearing).

"I think (being two spirited) is coming back to what it used to be respected for, (instead of) what most of the older generation were taught: I think it’s mostly from the residential school era."

Argintina agrees with what Cliff and other historians say about the inclusiveness of pre-colonial tribal culture because of what she has learned herself: "People were always accepted for being who they were. (However), there were certain clans that believed in the Bible, so they were more against people that were two spirited.

"When I started to explore myself, my mother was like that. She would say (I was gay) because of hanging out in the city, with friends that were not part of our culture... She would say That’s their way; it’s not our way."

To be continued.


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