Our Stories: Gender Identities

This chapter examines how human rights, based on gender and sexual orientation, intersect with indigenous sovereignty and group rights. It examines the history of nonbinary genders among indigenous peoples, and how colonization erased and discriminated against them. How do these legacies continue to affect Native peoples of all genders today? Once again, this situation displays the intersection of group, community, and individual rights.


This chapter focuses on three main areas of gender realities within Indigenous communities: specifically, Two-Spirit identities, Indigenous masculinities, and women’s issues. It is important to note that the distinction and separation between these different areas is in many ways arbitrary. Understanding any one of these topics requires an understanding of all of them, particularly because they do not and should not exist in the same binary framework that is often understood to underpin Euro-Western notions of gender.

For this reason, we will begin like many discussions of gender issues within Indigenous communities: with an exploration of Two-Spirit identities. This is an area that is particularly ignored in literature focused on gender issues, even within Indigenous writing, because of cissexism, but offers some key understandings of how gender functions within Indigenous Nations.

Two-Spirit Identities


Wewhe, or We'wha, Zuni (present-day New Mexico, US). Portrait of Crow two-spirit partners.

Gallery 5.4 Two-Spirit photographs: Wewhe, or We'wha, Zuni (present-day New Mexico, US) and Portrait of Crow two-spirit partners.

“Two-Spirit” (which is represented by the acronym 2S or 2SQ – the “Q” stands for queer) is a community-derived term that has been used to describe the Indigenous gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer community (GLBTQ) and was originally coined as a way to reassert “belonging to cultural traditions by displacing anthropological terms – notably berdache – thereby setting a new basis for Indigenous knowledge” (Driskill, Finley, Gilley, & Morgenson, 2011, p. 10). This was important for several reasons, not the least of which was that “as a critique of anthropological writing based in colonial and western notions of gender and sexuality, the category Two-Spirit creates a distinct link between histories of diversity and Indigenous GLBTQ2S people today” (p. 11).

These histories, and particularly the anthropological analysis of them, are important because as Brian Joseph Gilley (2011) notes, “Native heteronormativity is an accommodation to colonial heteronormativity – because it adapted traditional sex segregation to colonial sexual logics, in order that colonial projects would seem to be compatible with how Native people lived gender and sexuality” (p. 130). This rigid reinforcement of gender, rooted in cissexism and heterosexist binaries, also occurred in places such as residential schools where those attending were separated into colonial heteronormative gender roles, which were reinforced by the ways labour was divided (such as teaching boys trades and teaching girls domestic and craft skills), and by dress and styling (Morgensen, 2015, p. 48; Simpson, 2017, p. 125). As Leanne Simpson (2017) notes in As We Have Always Done, “2SQ Indigenous peoples flourished in many Indigenous nations and were highly visible to the first European ‘explorers’. The archival and Western historical record sets down this visibility and the anti-queerness of these explorers, translators, traders, and missionaries in the 1600s and 1700s” (p. 124).

Indigenous Sovereignty and Two-Spirit Identities

The politics of and theory behind Two-Spirit identities must be tied to notions of both personal sovereignty and sovereignty within Indigenous Nations and cultures – which means discussions must reach beyond the normal discourse on LGBTQ+ issues. More specifically this requires these conversations to be generated and led by Two-Spirit folx within the cultures they come from.

The term and concept of Two-Spirit identity are not pan-Indigenous; each individual who identifies with the term will have their own understanding of it. This is expanded on at some length in June Schudeler’s analysis of the work of Métis poet Gregory Scofield who talks about the fact that “one’s sacredness, one’s pawatew, like sexual identity is not easy to define” (Schudeler, 2011, p. 197).

In this way “Two-Spiritedness is described as ‘cultural constructions of multiple genders (i.e. more than two) and the opportunity for individuals to change gender roles over the course of their lifetimes’” (p. 198) and further “for Indigenous nations that practised gender variance, gender was remarkably fluid. For some of the nations that practised gender variance, Two-Spirits were able to decide their gender roles and change them over a lifetime” (p. 198), which is set up in opposition to “western conceptions of gender” (p. 198).

Discrimination Against Two-Spirit Peoples

Indigenous Two-Spirit people face discrimination from many different groups. They are “discriminated against by gay white male society, but also by other Aboriginal peoples. However, discrimination within Aboriginal communities can be even worse. A legacy of colonization is that many Native peoples have lost touch with their Two-Spirit traditions, prompting many people to leave the reserve” (Schudeler, 2011, p. 205). This is something Simpson (2017) speaks about at length in her chapter on “Indigenous Queer Normativity” in which she references important work by scholars and community members such as Alex Wilson, Ma-Nee Chicaby, Waawaate Fobister, Louise Erdrich, Dana Wesley, and Billy-Ray Belcourt, and the work of community groups such as the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and Women’s Earth Alliance who are focusing on how to reinterpret and understand colonial notions of gender and what it means to exist both contemporarily and historically as 2SQ in Indigenous communities.

There is an urgent need to discuss and promote understanding around Two-Spirit identities. Statistics on HIV/AIDS, suicide, and interactions with the justice system clearly show that Indigenous Peoples have higher levels of negative outcomes in these areas. This is particularly acute for Two-Spirit individuals (Driskill et al., 2011, p. 211-212). As Driskill et al. (2011) note, “queer Indigenous people experience multilayered oppression that profoundly impacts our safety, health, and survival” (p. 212).

To be Two-Spirit, however, can also be seen as empowering. As Louis Esme Cruz notes in “Medicine Bundle of Contradictions” (2011):

A few things Two-Spirit people from all Native Nations have in common are that we can embody, literally, masculinity and femininity roles with strength: we can play with our genders, sexes, and sexualities to point out how serious all of us can be; we’re sexy, hot, and fierce; and unfortunately, we have had our experiences appropriated, misunderstood, categorized, diagnosed, institutionalized, neglected and hated simply because we exist. The things that bind us are not separate from each other. Of course we have always been fabulous, but we’ve become ultra-fierce since having to deal with being hated by our families and living in cities with our new families. (p. 54)

This understanding of Two-Spirit identities and the flexibility that was formerly given to individuals within Indigenous cultures to define their gender and work as best suited them also extends to how both Indigenous masculinities and the role of women within Indigenous communities have changed since colonization and how those changes have been reinforced through community structures and legal frameworks.

Indigenous Masculinities

Photo from a book cover: Indigenous men and masculinitries.

Indigenous Men and Masculinities (book cover)

As Scott Morgensen imparts in his essay “Cutting to the Roots of Colonial Masculinity” contained in the groundbreaking work Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration (2015), one of the most important things to understand about Indigenous masculinities is that they have been impacted by colonial masculinities that “arose to violently control and replace distinctive gender systems among Indigenous peoples” (p. 37). Colonial understandings of gender imposed a rigid binary system on Indigenous Nations that discounted and disadvantaged the cultural role of women and did not allow for systems outside of heteropatriarchy to exist (p. 38).

The role of Indigenous masculinity cannot be understood without an acute understanding of the history and ways that women and Two-Spirit folx have been subjected to violence (both interpersonally and state sponsored) under legislation and culture stretching all the way back to the Indian Act.

Gendered Impacts of Colonization

When Indigenous Peoples and Europeans first encountered each other, they had very different understandings of gender that affected their societal roles, political systems, and world view. Europeans found the non-binary, non-patriarchal Indigenous understanding threatening to their colonial project. As Morgensen (2015) notes:

Indigenous feminist and Two-Spirit critics demonstrate that Indigenous gender systems appeared to Europeans to be ambiguous or aberrant. Indigenous scholars show that when Europeans encountered the complementarity of Indigenous women’s and men’s authority and leadership, they perceived it as a barrier or threat to imposing heteropatriarchical rule via economic, political or religious means. (p. 42)

One of the reasons that the Indian Act created the Chief and Council system was to destabilize Indigenous leadership structures and reinforce men’s leadership in communities. With this change came the introduction to Indigenous culture of the same sort of toxic masculinity that infused colonial narratives (Morgensen, 2015) and sustains the patriarchal system – masculinity closely associated with violence. This is reflected in the rates of murder for Indigenous men (Morgensen, 2015). Acknowledging the violent masculinity sometimes found in Indigenous communities is not to ignore the fact that Indigenous men also experienced violence under the colonial system, and often that violence was gendered, particularly for individuals who did not live up to European standards of masculinity (p. 43). Furthermore, Indigenous men continue to bear the brunt of machinations of colonialism that make them both perpetrator and victim of their violent acts (see the section on Indigenous Over-Representation in the Criminal Justice System).

Nevertheless, the logic of the patriarchal system that was put into place with colonialism has had devastating effects on women, who often struggle to find justice: “colonial masculinity sustains both colonial and heteropatriarchical power by presenting its victims as the cause and proper recipients of its own violations” (Morgensen, 2015, p. 55).

A Historical Example: The nehîyaw Culture

Photo of a book cover: Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nehiyaw Legal Systems

Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nehîyaw Legal Systems (book cover)

To understand the gender roles within an Indigenous community, we might consider the nehîyaw (originally a Woodlands community). The nehîyaw were influenced by other nearby Plains cultures (likely through inter-marriage and trade) and came to adapt some aspects of their warrior societies, including their leadership structures. However, they maintained some of their own cultural practices like women owning and being responsible for the migiwap (tipi or lodge). The role of each gender in nehîyaw culture has been preserved in cultural artifacts like stories, as Gregory Scofield references in a post celebrating International Women’s Day on social media in March 2018:

On International Women’s Day. I woke up thinking about a teaching I’d been given a number of years ago. The teaching was simple. It referred to a time before The Great Colonial Flood when women owned everything in the lodge – everything except for their husband’s medicines and weapons. Women made every decision in the lodge, including whether they wished for their husband to take another wife. In fact women were so powerful they had the power to kill their husbands by simply stepping over them during their sacred moon time. I woke up thinking about the lodges of old and the thousands of women – before the Great Colonial Flood – who owned every pole, every sleeping robe, every dish, every utensil, everything except for their husband’s medicines and weapons. I woke up thinking this was a time before our sisters went missing, before our sisters were stolen. But I also woke up thinking about all of the iskwewak I know, both young and old, who continue to swim above the Great Colonial Flood. kinanâskomtinawâw to all my sisters, who are swimming while holding onto their power. (Scofield, 2018)

These understandings of the roles of women within nehîyaw society are echoed by Sylvia McAdams in her work Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems, which references the role of nêhiyaw women as lawkeepers (p. 28).

This is just one example of how men, women, and Two-Spirit peoples would have fit into one Nation. There are many resources available that describe how Indigenous Nations within Turtle Island and beyond organized their societies and incorporated diverse understandings of gender – based on cultural structures rooted in place.

Reclaiming Indigenous Masculinity

There has been an emergence of scholarship on Indigenous masculinity led by academics such as Robert Innes, Brendan Hokowhitu, Kim Anderson, and others, partly as a response to the prevalence of work around Indigenous women’s identities that has been developed by feminist and Two-Spirit scholars in the fields of Women and Gender Studies as well as Indigenous Studies. These scholars seek to reclaim Indigenous masculinity from colonial definitions and understandings. The Biidwewidam Indigenous Masculinities (BIM) project, which is a collaboration between Indigenous scholars, universities, the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, is working to explore and develop new narratives for Indigenous masculinities, and develop policy recommendations and research priorities in this area.

Women’s Issues

Photo of a book cover: A Recognition of Being

A Recognition of Being (book cover)

In her landmark work A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood, Kim Anderson (2000) posits that colonialism dismantled the protections for women that originally existed in Indigenous cultures.

There are considerable differences between the Indigenous nations of the Americas. Nonetheless the values, lifestyles, and systems that existed in our communities prior to the arrival of Europeans generally secured the status of Native women. Many Native cultures, values and practises safeguarded against the kinds of abuses permitted and often encouraged by western patriarchy. We had ways that protected us against the “isms” – sexism, racism, ageism, heterosexism. (p. 57)

Indeed, as Anderson references throughout her work and is confirmed by the many Indigenous women she interviewed for the book, the lives of Indigenous women have been consistently impacted by colonization, “a process that began 500 years ago, and […] continues today. The dismantling of Indigenous womanhood took place all along this path, and at different times for different peoples” (p. 58).

One part of that dismantling has been dividing gender roles around work in a way that did not originally exist in Indigenous Nations, as Anderson (2000) notes:

Although men and women had their spheres of work, they were not restricted from engaging in each other’s work, if it became necessary… For example there have always been a limited number of Native women warriors in the various nations. In some societies, neither men nor women were restricted from doing each other’s work if they felt they were more suited for it, or if it made better use of their abilities. (p. 59)

This kind of flexibility is key to understanding both how the roles of men and Indigenous masculinity have changed, as explored previously, but also how colonization and white supremacy has impacted the freedom and roles of women within Indigenous cultures across the world.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit Peoples

The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit peoples (MMIWG2S) has been documented at length through the Sisters in Spirit campaign by Amnesty International, which worked with the Native Women’s Association of Canada to research and report, as well as apply pressure to governments and the RCMP to take action, on the ways that Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit folx are targeted for violence. As Emma LaRocque asserts, “the dehumanizing portrayal of the squaw and the over-sexualisation of Native females such as Disney’s Pocahontas surely render all Native females vulnerable” (Anderson, 2000, p. 108).

Anderson explains that these negative portrayals of Indigenous women have created structural barriers that make them more likely to be abused and less likely to be supported and helped (p. 111). One such structural barrier is the way that violence against Indigenous women is often minimized or dismissed both within and outside of Indigenous communities. In particular, the justice system has been slow to recognize the disproportionate incidence of violence experienced by Indigenous women – as evidenced by the sheer number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Groups like the Native Women’s Association and Sisters in Spirit have worked for decades to get the RCMP to acknowledge the MMIWG2S, work that eventually led to the national inquiry (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2016). The inclusion of Two-Spirit people in this discussion is newer and an important addition given what was covered previously.

Gender Discrimination in the Indian Act

Scholars and community members such as Lynn Gehl have extensively documented the ways that Indigenous women have been impacted by the Indian Act – building on the work of Mary Two-Axe Early, Jeanette Lavell, Yvonne Bedard, and Sandra Lovelace (p. 64) who addressed the gender bias inherent in the Indian Act and in many cases legally challenged Canada at the level of the Supreme Court in order to enact changes to make the Indian Act more equitable regardless of gender under law.

As Gehl (2016) notes, “the oppression of Aboriginal women is of a particular nature as their cultural identities are entangled with legislation” (p. 64). What she is referring to here is how the Indian Act reinforced not only a gender binary, but the practise of “patrilineage,” which meant that “Indianness was defined as any person whose ‘father or husband was a registered Indian’” (p. 64). This practice also occurred with the Métis; the government designated men to be the heads of households and would only grant them scrip (Devine, 2014, pp. 142-143). The government also insisted that men be in charge of decisions regarding their children – which was contrary to the types of kinship structures that were in place prior to the policy.

As a result, women faced paternalism and discrimination, and were disenfranchised within their communities, a situation that has been spoken about at length by Bonita Lawrence (2004), Kim Anderson (2000), Leanne Simpson (2011, 2017), Brenda Child (2012), Sylvia McAdam (2015), and many others. Even the policies of the Indian Act that have since been revised retain their sexist roots, including the landmark revisions of 1985 to bring the Act in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Bill C-31 amendment). For example, in her work, Gehl (2000, 2016) explores the issue of unstated paternity. This was a policy that assumed any children with unstated paternity were from non-status fathers. In contrast, “an Indian man was allowed to retain his status and pass it to his non-Native wife. This inequity prevented Indian women from passing Indian status on to their children (in their own right), while permitting Indian men to do so” (Gehl, 2016, p. 65). Bill C-31 attempted to address this discrimination based on sex but did not entirely solve the problem – it created a more complicated registration process by implementing two tiered statuses under Section 6 (6(1) and 6(2) respectively) (p. 67).

While the Canadian government has acknowledged the impact of the Indian Residential School system, and to a lesser extent the Sixties Scoop, there is still little to no acknowledgement of how devastating its discriminatory policies have been on the lives of Indigenous women and children over the last 150 years or the irreparable damage that has been done to kinship networks and communities (Lawrence, 2004).


This chapter has attempted to summarize some of the ways colonization has affected gender roles in Indigenous communities, but it is also important to acknowledge the limitations of this overview. Analysis of the ways that gender in Indigenous communities has been interpreted historically and the ways that it has been affected by heteronormativity, cissexism, patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy, and the systems that are upheld by them, is work that continues.

This chapter is not meant to be an exhaustive look at Two-Spirit identities or the way that gender has been impacted by legislation and colonization; rather it should serve as an introduction to an exciting emerging field. There are many brilliant scholars and community members doing important and groundbreaking work in these areas, and students are encouraged to look at the sources provided and do their own research to learn more.

Authors: Meera Mather and Carol Roffey, https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/indigstudies/chapter/gender-identities/
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2021, 3:19 PM