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Two Spirit: A reclaimed identity

Photo courtesy of: Megan Posein Photography

TRIGGER WARNING: substance abuse, colonization and violent assimilation, intergenerational trauma, homophobia, and mental, physical and sexual abuse

Before contact with colonizers, Two Spirit individuals were trusted and integral members of Indigenous communities. These Indigenous people identified as neither female nor male, but rather transcended the binary of gender, with many communities recognizing multiple genders. They were often seen as healers, teachers, spiritual leaders and medicine people. Being able to relate to both male and female perspectives, they would mediate conflict. Inclusiveness and acceptance in the community allowed for Two Spirit individuals to fulfill unique roles. However, colonization disrupted—and continues to disrupt—how Two Spirit people are viewed both inside and outside Indigenous communities.

In the early 1880s, Canada’s federal government opened its first residential schools, aiming to re-educate Indigenous children and assimilate them into Canadian culture and values. Children were forcefully taken from their homes and forbidden to speak their languages—even in letters to their families. The long hair of boys was cut off and traditional clothing was replaced by uniforms. The schools were funded by the Canadian government and the Christian churches that ran them. Christianity replaced Indigenous cultural practices. Many students were abused in residential schools: mentally, physically and sexually. Often, when students or parents came forward, nothing was done to remove an abuser. All of this was done in the name of creating “civilized” children. [1]

“I can hear it in my head and I feel the words again, like it was yesterday.”

Cheyenne Mihko Kihêw

In the mid-1990s, the last residential school in Canada was finally closed. According to Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, approximately 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children attended residential schools, with thousands more missing or dead. One of the lasting outcomes of residential schools is intergenerational trauma [2]: surviving children, after returning home, lacked the tools to live or cope with their traumatic experiences. Their institutionalization is still felt by generations of Indigenous people.

“As long as I can remember, there has always been violence”

Cheyenne Mihko Kihêw (mee-go key-oo) is warm, bubbly and eloquent. As the community liaison for the Edmonton 2 Spirit Society, and a Two Spirit individual themself, they know firsthand the impact of intergenerational trauma.

Mihko Kihêw’s grandparents were residential school survivors who resided in Driftpile Cree Nation. When their mother was young, her grandmother moved the family from Driftpile Cree Nation to Edmonton to give the family a better life. After Mihko Kihêw was born, they were raised by their mother, but substance abuse problems meant they were taken in by their aunt, whose home they describe as extremely mentally and physically abusive during that time. “As long as I can remember, there has always been violence,” said Mihko Kihêw, who accepts she, but prefers they as a pronoun.

At 14, they left home. In the beginning, still recognized as a child, they were shuffled in and out of group homes. But not long after, they ended up living on the streets and became addicted to meth. For how long is hard to say. Given the trauma, the timeline of events for Mihko Kihêw is scrambled; in times of severe stress the brain can suppress memories. Although this time in their life was hard, Mihko Kihêw is thankful for it. Not only has Mihko Kihêw’s relationship with their aunt and family improved significantly, especially around their gender and sexuality, but these challenges taught them the power of community and led to the work they do now.

“It was meeting people who took the time to say, ‘this isn’t just another dumb teenager, this is someone who’s hurting and who needs kindness and empathy,’” Mihko Kihêw said. “It was kind of ironic, being called a dyke; at the time, I didn’t really know what my gender was, what my sexuality was. I was already kind of a tomboy so I was rejecting gender norms from an early age.”

Creating conditions for healing

“We talk about intergenerational trauma in terms of the impact the trauma has on previous generations and has on the upbringing of the generations that come after them,” says Edmonton psychologist Lauren Groves, whose practice focuses on clients who identify with the 2SLGBTQQIA+ [3] community. She approaches her work from the perspective of intersectional feminist therapy.

“The process of healing implies that you have some distance from the trauma you’re experiencing,” said Groves, explaining that if someone is trying to deal with the impact of their trauma and trying to parent at the same time, their trauma can inhibit them from developing secure attachments with the next generation.

“With the continuous impact of colonialism, racism and homophobia, a lot of the trauma people are experiencing [doesn’t] stop. You are not actually able to create the conditions in which you heal from the trauma if it’s something that you’re still experiencing.”

The solution to the cycle of trauma is difficult to conceive. Groves stresses the importance of consulting with Indigenous people on its impact, but the most effective solution is to “dismantle the causes of the trauma.”

‘How do I know if I’m Two Spirit?’

When they were 16, Mihko Kihêw’s mom started to deal with her substance abuse issues and they moved in with her; she also helped them recover from their own addiction. Being sober and meth-free helped them become a better student and, in 2008, they graduated from high school.
Soon after, they enrolled at MacEwan University and, in 2019, graduated with a degree in sociology. Mihko Kihêw credits their time at MacEwan, as well as the Boyle Street Education Centre, for helping them reconnect with their culture.

You are not actually able to create the conditions in which you heal from trauma if it’s something that you’re still experiencing.

While enrolled at MacEwan they began to question their gender identity after hearing more about Two Spirit people. It wasn’t until a session in a sweat lodge—a small, heated hut, used by many Indigenous people for purification and health—that they began to see themselves more clearly.

Mihko Kihêw was sitting with students, staff and elders from kihêw waciston, MacEwan University’s Indigenous Centre. The heat is meant to promote sweating, and is believed to rid the body of toxins and damaging energy. Above all, the sweat lodge is considered a sacred place. One of the elders asked if anyone in the lodge had anything they’d like to ask. Without hesitation, but without meaning to, Mihko Kihêw heard themself say, “How do I know if I’m Two Spirit?”

This moment was extremely transformative for Mihko Kihêw: “I can hear it in my head and I feel the words again, like it was yesterday.”

In a dismissive tone, the elder said, “Don’t concern yourself with that. You just need to follow your path and have babies.” Mihko Kihêw interpreted his comment as a belief that women should only concern themselves with womanhood and childbearing. In a later round, Mihko Kihêw openly cried in the lodge, feeling confused and hurt.

Reclaiming culture: ‘I am. I know it. I feel it.’

Because of the impact of residential schools and imposed Christian values, Two Spirit traditions have been damaged or completely lost, and some Indigenous communities now propagate homophobic and transphobic beliefs, as noted in a 2016 study by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health. In some cases, it’s difficult for communities to remember traditions where Two Spirit individuals were respected and gender non-conformity was accepted. It’s equally difficult for Two Spirit people to understand their own identity.

It’s important to note that while Two Spirit individuals can describe a multitude of orientations and gender expressions, the term is not interchangeable with 2SLGBTQQIA+, nor do they mean the same thing. But many Two Spirit and 2SLGBTQQIA+ Indigenous people often face similar discrimination, and even violence, within both non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities. Some living in Indigenous communities find it difficult to be open with their gender expression and sexuality out of fear of exclusion, public ridicule or assault. Some are forced to leave their communities for larger cities where there is perhaps more acceptance for 2SLGBTQQIA+ and Two Spirit orientations.

Some Indigenous communities have begun the process of reclaiming their culture and autonomy through decolonization, and returning to historically accurate practices and beliefs about gender and sexuality. Many Two Spirit people, 2SLGBTQQIA+ individuals and women have emphasized gender variance, self-determination, the contributions of women and reconnecting with the traditional roles within their communities.

Mihko Kihêw’s reconnection began in that sweat lodge.

“It just came to me. It was the lodge that answered me, and I came out of that lodge like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’m Two Spirit. I am. I know it. I feel it.’”

Today, Mihko Kihêw’s work helps the Two Spirit community access their culture, teachings, social gatherings and ceremonies, both locally and nationally.

In recent years, many Two Spirit communities have sought out space in both traditional and educational settings, and in the process of reclaiming their own culture and traditional role, Mihko Kihêw is learning more each day about their own heritage. The resurgence of acceptance towards Two Spirit is happening, but the process is slow.

“A lot of that toxicity is deeply ingrained. A lot of that is deep-rooted and that stuff is hard to take off. The work is being done, but there’s still a lot more to do.”


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[1] For a more in-depth look at Canada’s residential school system, go to:
AFN’s policy work to redress these historic injustices (Assembly of First Nations)
Residential Schools (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

[2] For more information about intergenerational trauma see:
Understanding Intergenerational Trauma and how to stop it (APTN)
Intergenerational trauma and residential schools (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

[3] For the purposes of this article, we placed the 2S at the front of our 2SLGBTQQIA+ acronym to acknowledge the presence of Indigenous Peoples on this land before contact. Both terms are included in out glossary for clarification.


Jordaline Robinson

Jordaline Robinson (she/her) aspires to work as a full-time online content creator, including expanding her social media presence, after graduating in 2022. She has found that learning about intersectional feminism is like planting a tree and watching it grow. Even if cereal is technically a soup, it is not practically soup.