In some First Nations, two-spirited people are a common part of the history of their culture.
Will Roscoe, for example, writes in the book The Zuni Man Woman (1991) that two-spirited people have been documented for centuries in over 130 North American tribes in every region of the continent.
The term refers to homosexuality or gender variation. Aboriginals who are gay or transgendered are two-spirited, with both masculine and feminine spirits, and a connection to the spirit world.
Duane Gastant Aucoin is a Yanyedi (wolf) clan executive councilor for the Teslin Tlingit Council, and is two-spirited. Aucoin identifies as a gay male, and takes the role of being a two-spirited person seriously. However, Aucoin could not always live openly.
“When I was a teenager, I had a boyfriend in high school, but I was too afraid to tell anyone about it,” he says. “There was even a point when I tried to commit suicide because I was ashamed of who I was.”
After many years he finally came out to his community.
“I was tired of lying,” Aucoin says. “I wanted to be honest about who I was.”
Now he receives the support of the Teslin Tlingit Council.
“I think colonialism damaged a lot of our traditions and stories,” Aucoin says. “Some of the shamans from different First Nation bands were two-spirited, and Christian settlers would put bounties on their head, and encourage everyone to believe that being gay was evil.”
To create awareness, Aucoin, who has extensive film experience, made a documentary called Children of the Rainbow, celebrating the culture of two-spirited people.
The film won the 2003 XtraWest Community Achievement Award in Vancouver.
Fellow two-spirited person Shaun LaDue is a member of the Ross River Dena Council First Nations, and identifies as a transgendered male.
“For me, it was never a question of deciding to become male, but when to become a male,” he says. “I take hormones, and have been approved for top surgery(breast removal, and constructive chest surgery). In the meantime I live my life as a man.”
LaDue says that his family and members of his First Nation have been supportive. However, he is aware that not everyone is that lucky.
“My heart just breaks when I hear stories about teens that kill themselves because they are bullied about being gay or transgendered,” he says.
LaDue has this advice to those struggling with coming out: “Bullies will eventually grow up and stop. Suicide is not the answer, be true to yourself.”
Currently LaDue lives in Vancouver where he is studying to become a scriptwriter. He is working on his own television show called The Switch, a comedy about living in Canada as a transgender person.
However, acceptance of two-spirited people among First Nation members is not universal. An elder from LaDue’s community who wishes to remain anonymous says, “We were never taught about two-spirited people. Those types of stories never existed in our culture and traditions.”
The elder has a theory two explain First Nation people with gay or transgendered lifestyles.
“A lot of abuse took place within the residential Christian schools. Some of the things that went on there were absolutely demonic. I think some people choose to be gay as a coping mechanism for what happened there. In our culture men are expected to be strong and tough. A lot of them would not talk about what happened, where as women would talk more amongst themselves, thus making it easier to deal with and move on.”
This elder in not in favour of two-spirited lifestyles and believes that such people are lost.
“There should be more counselling from the elders to younger people. A lot of them suffer from a lost identity.”
Despite differing opinions, the preservation and revitalization of culture remains critically important to First Nations people — whether they interpret two-spirited as part of their culture or not.