February, 2012 / Author:

In September, Donna Glover and I flew to Denver, Colorado, to attend the International Two-Spirit Leadership Summit 2011. Hiram Calf Looking Sr., co-ordinator for the Two-Spirit Society of Denver, invited leaders from the U.S. and Canadian two-spirit groups to attend this historical event. As co-directors of the Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc., we were honoured to be invited and made the journey to the Mile High City.

The tradition of bringing Aboriginal and Native American/Alaska Native GLBT people together began in 1988 with the The Basket and the Bow: A Gathering of Lesbian & Gay Native Americans event in Minneapolis. Eleven delegates from Winnipeg attended this inaugural event, which was captured in Mona Smith’s 1990 video, Honoured by the Moon.

Some of the nations that span the border are the Mi’kmak, Mohawk, Cree, Lakota, Siksika, Ojibwe, Blackfeet, Interior Salish, and Nun-cha-nulth.  Indigenous GLBT people have been segregated by the Canada-U.S. border since the mid-1800s so this formal uniting of nations was deeply felt.

On September 16-17, Donna and I joined 80 other delegates in the Skybox at the Hotel VQ, which is located next to the Invesco Field Football Stadium. The Cheyenne, Crow and Navajo nations were also represented. The workshop topics included decolonization, traditional/contemporary leaders, youth leadership, and non-profit grant writing.

The summit began with a pipe ceremony at a local native American community centre.  Ironically, the centre was a former Lutheran church and we gathered in the empty nave (the pews had been removed).  We sat in a circle on the floor and four pipe leaders smoked their pipes as the sun set that evening.

The ceremony mirrored the purpose and spirit of the leadership summit.  Our presence in the former church demonstrated that, despite being made invisible during the 300 years of European colonization, we had survived and we were taking our rightful place. The settlers who had built the church were long gone and it was the two spirit people who created the Sacred Circle and prayed in this time and place.

Our teachings, traditions and spiritual beliefs had also survived and much of this knowledge had been passed on to and retained by two spirit people. The challenges continue – some of the U.S. delegates spoke about being threatened and shot at by homophobes in rural areas. Despite this, the inclusion of two spirit people in human rights discourse and legislation increases.

 In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act became applicable in First Nations communities on June 19, 2011. Two-spirit people are now able to make complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission if they have experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation.  On October 24, John Yellow Bird Steele, chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, issued a proclamation in support of two spirit dignity and human rights.

 The annual international two-spirit gatherings continue; the 24th gathering will be held this fall near Washington, D.C. The chosen theme, Reclaiming Our Place in the Sacred Circle, is a call for two-spirit people to establish themselves in meaningful ways in their communities and among their political leadership. After 24 years of community building and the development of more than 28 two spirit groups across North America there is a move to empower the next generation of two spirit activists and leaders.  I believe the two spirit leadership summit was an outcome of this process.

– Albert McLeod is co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc.

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