Safety Exit

Traditional Understandings of Gender Diversity

two spirit

Gender diversity and equality are important components to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis cultures, yet are understood in different ways across cultures and communities. Further, the specific traditional roles of gender diverse and two spirit people in Indigenous cultures have been impacted by colonization and other social, political, and cultural processes.

“Two spirit” is a translation of the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag. The term was first proposed during the 1990 Third Annual Inter-Tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg. This term refers to a person who identifies as having both a feminine and a masculine spirit and is used by some Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity.

Two spirit is an umbrella term that may encompass same-sex attraction and a wide variety of gender variance, including people who might be described in Western culture as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer or who have multiple gender identities. Two spirit people may also reclaim traditions related to same-sex attraction or gender variance within Indigenous communities. The term two spirit allows Indigenous people to talk about their identity in the context of their cultural identity and to resist colonial definitions of sexuality and gender. Before colonial contact, being two spirit was not specifically tied to one’s own sexual and/or romantic orientation. Instead, it was tied to one’s own gender and/or the roles the person chose to do in their community. Because the term was developed by Indigenous people to describe experiences of their communities, this term should only be used by Indigenous people to self-identify. For some, being two spirit is more than just an identity; it is a traditional role that they now embody in their modern lives.

Historically, two spirit people were seen, loved, and respected as unique individuals in most Indigenous communities. They were gifted with keen insight and the ability to see things through both feminine and masculine eyes (double vision). Many held important roles within their tribes, such as chiefs, medicine people, marriage counsellors, caregivers, protectors, and knowledge keepers.


The teachings, meanings, roles, and responsibilities related to being two spirit are specific to individual First Nations communities.

The diverse understandings of being two spirit are also reflected in language: the Lakota’s winkt or the Dinéh’s nàdleehé both refer to men who fill social roles associated with women, while the Mi’kmaq phrase Geenumu Gessalagee refers only to sexuality, translating into “he loves men.”

Although two spirit is a relatively new term, there are over 130 terms derived from Indigenous languages to describe people who did not fit into the Western gender binary. The following list is of some words from various groups and their meanings for two spirit people:

(Cree term, which roughly translates to “neither man nor woman”)
(Ojibwe term, meaning “warrior woman”)
(Ojibwe term, meaning “warrior man”)
(Navaho term, roughly translates to “weaver transformed; that which changes; or he who transforms”)
Dakota/Lakota term, translates to “double woman.” Among the Lakota and Dakota peoples, possessing a wintike name was said to provide spiritual protection for the child, and helped to insure good health and a long life.
(Inuit term, meaning “infant whose sex changes at birth”)
(Mohawk term, which translates into “I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body”)


Oral and anthropological research and Inuit testimony suggest that gender in Inuit culture is fluid and does not conform to a traditional binary framework. Historically, Inuit have not identified as two spirit as many First Nations have done, but there is a legacy of “third genders” in Inuit culture. A man who dressed as a woman was called a choupan, and these individuals often became shamans. Once a choupan became a shaman, they were responsible for training a select group of girls to become seers or traditional healers. Gender norms within Inuit culture and identity have always been interchangeable. The focus is on the roles and responsibilities of the individual rather than the notion of roles based on sexual or gender identification. Within some Inuit communities, infants are given names of loved ones who have passed on and may be given and exercise varying gender roles of each. For instance, genetically born females may be named after a passed-on uncle or grandfather (specifically identified as male) but still display gender norms as a female, and/or both; this simultaneously is reversed for males named after female ancestors or relatives. It is believed the infant will in some form display the qualities, knowledge, and spirit of the person they have been named after, regardless of their gender. However, not all Inuit practice this tradition: many children are raised to learn both female and male traditional skills, knowledge, and social roles throughout the initial years of life in order to give them a broader skill set and range of abilities. In recent years, many Inuit 2SLGBTQ+ and gender diverse women and girls have adopted the word two spirit as a form of decolonization. Using this term also provides an opportunity to identify within the broader 2SLGBTQ+ community. Although some aspects of Inuit culture, gender equality and diversity have been lost due to colonization and Christianization, Inuit women and girls are reclaiming various aspects of sexuality and gender equality through revitalization of language, drum dancing, tattooing, and throat singing. Inuit women and girls are reclaiming their sexuality and identity in evolving and increasingly open ways, illustrating the continuing cultural importance of gender diversity and equality.


The traditional Métis language, Michif, is a unique and complex blend of French and Cree languages. Two spirit identities, teachings, roles, and responsibilities in Métis culture are similarly interrelated. For instance, a shared value in Métis and Cree teachings is respecting others by not telling them how to be; this principle creates room for gender diversity. Métis two spirit people’s specific duties and responsibilities have historically included counselling, healing, and serving as visionaries (seers) in accordance with the belief to “respect all life.” In addition to respect, Métis core values and beliefs include strength, kindness, courage, tolerance, honesty, love, sharing, caring, balance, patience, and above all, a connection with the Creator and Mother Earth. Emerging from these core values,

Métis culture was historically egalitarian: Métis women were the key pillars of their communities and were the providers for their immediate and extended families. Gender diverse and two spirit people also held important community roles and positions. As with other Indigenous cultures, colonization deprived Métis women and gender diverse people from these valued social roles, leading to widespread discrimination and invisibility of diverse genders and sexualities. However, Métis two spirit people like Gregory Scofield(a Métis poet, artist, and writer) and Cortney Dakin(a two spirit Didikai Métis community organizer) are revitalizing Métis understandings of gender and sexual diversity. Further, in 2019, the Manitoba Métis Federation created a new organization—Two Spirit Michif—to represent its two spirit and LGBTQ+ citizens.

View the sources that were used in the creation of this webpage

Algonquin College. (14 June 2019). Frida Facts: Two Spirit. Retrieved from

Arnaquq-Baril, A. (2012). Unikkaat Studios Presents Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. Retrieved from

Carlson, Mark. (14 October 2016). Two-Spirit Tales: A Berry Curious Raiding Party. Retrieved from

Crass, Barbara A. (1998). Pre-Christian Inuit Mortuary Practices: A Compendium of Archaeological and Ethnographic Sources. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

OUTSaskatoon. (2020). Two Spirit. Retrieved from

Saladin d’Anglure, B. (1992). Rethinking Inuit Shamanism through the concept of ‘third gender.’ In Northern Religions and Shamanism, edited by Mihály Hoppál and Juha Pentikäinen: 146-150. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest.

Scudeler, J. (2016). Oskisihcikêwak / new traditions in Cree two-spirit, gay and queer narratives. PhD dissertation, Department of Indigenous Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. Retrieved from

footer logo

NWAC Head Office

120 Prom. du Portage
Gatineau, QC
J8X 2K1
© Generation 4 Equality · Site byDesign de Plume Inc.