January 16, 2015

Two Spirit People: A talk by Harlen Pruden (First Nations Cree)

As a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Pride Collective hosted Harlen Pruden to present on Two-Spirit identities in the past and present. Pruden was born in northeast Alberta and moved to New York City in May of 1995. Pruden was the first person in their family to attend university and has dedicated their life to First Nations community organizing, Two-Spirit activism and social justice. They are the co-founder of the North East Two-Spirit Society and serves on the board for the American Indian Community House, as well as is the co-chair of the National Native HIV/AIDS Coalition in the United States.

Pruden started off the event with a brief First Nations 101. According to their statistics, only 4.3% of the Canadian population is Indigenous. Although this number is small, there is vast diversity within each Aboriginal community that makes up this population. For instance, there are 1,290 government recognized Native governments, 630 of those being in Canada.

Pruden maintained that the term Two-Spirit must be contextualized within a Native American frame, and has different meanings within each particular Nation. Generally, the term Two-Spirit refers to someone who embodies a combination of masculinity and femininity traits. For example, someone who is born male but takes on female roles within their community and vice versa.

It was stressed that Two-Spirit is a gender analysis, and cannot be conflated with sexual orientation. Pruden stated that historically, First Nations have acknowledged more than two genders, where some Nations had 3, 4, and even up to 6 gender identities. Pruden argued that because of this historical context, Two-Spirit is more akin with a traditional understanding of gender in comparison to the LGBTQ rights movement. Because the term Two-Spirit is specific to a First Nations context, it is important to remember that it can only be used to people who are members of First Nations communities, and that it would be cultural appropriation to apply it outside of a First Nations context.

From 1492-1990, the term Berdache was imposed on First Nations people who transgressed the gender binary by French missionaries. French missionaries did not understand why people in First Nations communities didn’t fit into their rigid gender roles, and used this word to describe Two-Spirit identities in a paternalistic and derogatory way. Colonizers used the term Berdache to describe a passive homosexual partner, who practiced sodomy. The term only applied to men and failed to acknowledge Two-Spirit women. Moreover, the term Berdache is a word imposed by the colonizers in attempt to explain Two-Spirit identies from a Eurocentric lens. However, it is an inaccurate representation of Two-Spirit people and acts as a form of colonial erasure of First Nations culture, identities and language.

Pruden gave several examples of roles that Two-Spirit people have traditionally had in their communities. Roles of Two-Spirit people include: mediators; social workers; name givers; match makers; holy people; puberty ceremony facilitators; peacemakers; doctors/medicine people; and leaders of Sun dance ceremonies.   

During the reservation system, Two-Spirit people were killed, ostracized or closeted by missionary order and threats. In some instances, missionaries fed Two-Spirit people to their dogs. Missionaries cut of Two-Spirit’s hair without their consent, and forced them to wear clothing that didn’t fit with their gender identity. Missionaries intimidated and threatened First Nations Chiefs, which made leaders reluctant to defend their Two-Spirit people. Sometimes, elders encouraged Two-Spirit people to go under cover in order to protect themselves. Although this coping strategy may have saved their lives at the time, reclaiming and recovering these lost identities takes to generations to achieve. Pruden mentioned his personal experience of how historical-trauma has led to intergenerational trauma, and how his activism work has contributed to overcoming internal self-hate of his Two-Spirit and Cree identity.

After the event, it was evident that Pruden had left a powerful impact on the audience. People raised their hands with comments and questions that were personal, emotional and inquisitive. UBC was lucky to be graced with such a passionate and engaging eloquent speaker, who contributed to a much needed dialogue on UBC campus. 

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