Painting by Leah Dorion, a Métis artist based in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, titled, “A Tribute to Aboriginal Women”

Decolonizing Sexualities

“Indigenous sexualities are important sites of resistance and resurgence. They resist heteronormative colonialism; they embody the possibility of radical resurgence. Indigenous sexualities matter beyond sexual politics because they expand the political imagination, not sexual vocabularies.”

Manuela L. Picq, “Decolonizing Indigenous Sexualities: Between Erasure and Resurgence,” 182.

The authors we will listen to and read this week get us thinking about the lasting impacts of colonization on sexuality, and how our ideas about sex and sexuality are deeply structured. As we have seen in this course, to say that sex and sexuality are structured means that our intuitions and beliefs about sex and sexuality are not merely personal or private, but are collective, historical, and shaped in and through power relations, institutions and processes such as patriarchy, capitalism, the state, and colonization. 

To begin, ask yourself: How does capitalism structure sex, sexuality, and sexual relationships? How has the Canadian state shaped dominant understandings of sex, sexuality, and intimate arrangements? What does colonialism have to do with sexuality? How does patriarchy shape your understandings of sex and your own sexuality? It is difficult to imagine what sex and sexuality would look like outside of the confines of these structures! This is particularly true for Indigenous people, whose traditional understandings of gender and sexuality were targeted for cultural assimilation by institutions such as the Church and the residential school system. This is why the idea of decolonizing sexuality is so important for many Indigenous scholars and activists who write about gender and sexuality. Decolonizing sexuality requires thoroughly understanding the history of settler and sexual colonization, its effects on psyches, bodies, families, and collectives.

Indigenous ecologist Melissa K. Nelson

“After centuries of oppression, expressing the joy and diversity of our Native sexualities is truly an anticolonial, liberating act. Questioning the internalized authoritarianism that denies and demonizes our psychospiritual and animal closeness to ‘nature’ is a decolonial and revolutionary act of survivance.”

Melissa Nelson, “Getting Dirty: The Eco-eroticism of Women in Indigenous Oral Literatures,” 235.

In one of the assigned readings for this module, “Getting Dirty: The Eco-Eroticism of Women in Indigenous Oral Literatures,” author Melissa K. Nelson considers the impact on Indigenous people of having Christian understandings of sex and nature imposed on them. In particular, Christian ideas of sex as sinful and dirty, and of nature and animals as “man’s dominion,” alienated Indigenous people from the more-than-human world and their own bodies and desires. Although Nelson’s title, “Getting Dirty,” plays on the Christian notion of sex as “filth,” polluting, or evil, her article avows and celebrates an erotic relationship to dirt and other aspects of the natural world.

University of Alberta Professor of History and Native Studies Sarah Carter

One historian of Indigenous peoples in Canada who helps us to understand the history of settler colonization of sexuality is University of Alberta professor of History and Native Studies Sarah Carter. In her 2008 book, The Importance of Being Monogamous, for example, Carter demonstrates how the “one man, one woman” model of marriage was violently imposed by settlers on Indigenous people.

Sarah Carter’s The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada in 1915

Another University of Alberta professor who researches the history of settler colonization of Indigenous people’s sexualities is University of Alberta professor of Native Studies and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society, Kim TallBear. Given that, as Professor Carter has shown, monogamy was imposed on Indigenous people by European settlers, in her own life and work Professor TallBear explores what she calls Critical Polyamory as a strategy for decolonizing sexuality. Critical Polyamory is distinct in that it not only interrogates the norm of monogamy, but situates this norm in relation to histories of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and other oppressive structures.

In lieu of a video lecture for this module, you will:

  1. listen to a podcast with Professor TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate),
  2. listen to a podcast with two acclaimed Indigenous poets and scholars, Joshua Whitehead (Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba) and Dr. Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation)
  3. watch an interview between one of the WGS 270 instructors and University of Alberta WGS professor and artist Lana Whiskeyjack (Saddle Lake Cree Nation), and, finally,
  4. watch a 20-minute documentary on Two Spirit People.
Kim TallBear

The first of the podcasts is from Strippers and Sages and is titled “Decolonizing Sexuality through Critical Polyamory,” with Dr. TallBear. In the podcast you’ll hear TallBear discuss the concept of “compulsory monogamy”; as you listen, think about what you’ve learned earlier in the semester on Adrienne Rich’s argument about compulsory heterosexuality and how similar arguments can be made about monogamy. What are the connections between compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy?

In the podcast interview, TallBear also contemplates whether polyamory is best considered a sexual identity or an approach to relationality and she also reflects on whether similar arguments can be made about sexual orientations. Referencing Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality that we saw earlier in the semester, TallBear considers the history and social processes through which sexual relations are calcified into sexual identities, as well as the political necessity of sexual identity in a context where particular types of sexual relations are stigmatized.


Connecting to the reading by Indigenous ecologist Melissa Nelson for this module, TallBear discusses how part of her understanding of Critical Polyamory is the cultivation of kin with the more-than-human world. As TallBear describes, she loves not only her lovers but also the wife of a lover with whom she is not having sex, and also lizards, thunderstorms and how the air smells after a heavy rainfall, and rivers. Unlike most settler polyamorists, for TallBear, polyamory means not only an openness to erotic and romantic relationships with more than one human, but also with animals, elements, weather events, and bodies of water. In this context, TallBear also contemplates Donna Haraway’s motto, “Make Kin, Not Babies,” or, less controversially, “Make Kin, Not Population,” with kin understood to extend beyond our human biological relations.

Tipi Confessions organizers, from left to right: Kirsten Lindquist, Brittany Johnson, Charlotte Hoelke, Kim TallBear, Tracy Bear (photo: Jun Kamata)

Finally, TallBear discusses the need for sexual healing and spaces of sex positivity in Indigenous communities, given an ongoing history of sexual abuse and sexual colonization. On this topic, TallBear explains the collaborative work she is doing with other Indigenous sexuality studies scholars through their Tipi Confessions project in order to address this need for sexual healing.

Tipi Confessions
Kim TallBear on Decolonizing Sexuality through Critical Polyamory”
Listening Time: 1 Hour 18 Minutes

You can find the podcast with Kim TallBear here.

Ojibway artist Daphne Odjig, from the Wikwemikong Reserve in Ontario, Nanabush Giving the Racoon its Colours, 1969.

Two Spirit and Indigiqueer

The term Two Spirit is an intertribal term that is intended to communicate numerous tribal traditions and social categories of gender outside dominant European binaries. The term resists colonial definition and expresses Indigenous sexual and gender identities as sovereign from white LGBTQ movements. This means that the inclusion of “2S” in the LGBTQIA2S umbrella is complicated. On the one hand, inclusion under an umbrella risks erasure of the cultural and historical specificities of Two Spirit identity into Western sexual identity frameworks. On the other hand, in some cases Two Spirit people request and appreciate this acknowledgment of their existence by the larger queer community. The added layer of complication is, of course, the erasure of historical and ongoing colonization in many queer movements and organizations.

The second podcast that you’ll listen to for the Big Ideas & Lessons part of the module is Episode #6 of All My Relations, “Indigiqueer,” and features an interview with two highly accomplished Indigenous authors, Joshua Whitehead and Billy-Ray Belcourt. While Whitehead identifies as Two Spirit, Belcourt does not, and both authors identify as Indigiqueer. The episode explores these concepts and identities as well as a range of other issues, including the oppression of Indigenous people in the Canadian health care system.

 Oji-Cree Two–Spirit poet and novelist Joshua Whitehead

Whitehead is a member of the Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1) and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary. His academic work explores Indigenous gender and sexuality in Indigenous literature. Whitehead is also the author of several books, including the poetry collection Full-Metal Indigiqueer (2017) and the novel Jonny Appleseed (2018), in addition to being the editor of Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (2020).

Driftpile Cree poet and University of British Columbia Creative Writing professor Billy-Ray Belcourt

Belcourt is a member of the Driftpile Cree Treaty 8 (Treaty 8) and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Belcourt is the author of four award-winning books: two poetry collections, This Wound is a World (2017) and NDN Coping Methods: Notes from the Field (2019); a memoir, A History of My Brief Body (2020); and a novel, A Minor Chorus (2022). The first assigned reading for this module is a short, autobiographical story by Belcourt titled “Outside, People Were Crying, or They Weren’t.”

In the podcast that you’ll listen to, Belcourt states that he is too post-structuralist to identify Two Spirit. Post-structuralism is an intellectual movement that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in France, and is usually associated with authors such as Michel Foucault who we read earlier in this course. Post-structuralism influentially challenged binary ways of thinking, including the idea that there are two opposed genders, male and female. In saying that he is too post-structuralist to identify as Two Spirit, Belcourt is thus contesting the idea that there are two and only two genders which is embedded in the term “Two Spirit.” That “Two Spirit” relies on a binary understanding of gender is a criticism of the term that has been raised by a number of Indigenous critics, who argue that this dichotomized understanding of gender is alien to Indigenous cultures.

Joshua Whitehead and the cover of Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut book, This Wound is a World
All My Relations podcast, Episode #6 “Indigiqueer”
Listening Time: 56:00 Minutes

The podcast episode with Whitehead and Belcourt can be found here.

A detail of a painting by Winnipeg-based Indigenous artist, Dee Barsy, titled My Four Grandmothers (2017).

Rematriation and Indigenous Genders and Sexualities

In the interview below, University of Alberta Women’s and Gender Studies professor Dr. Lana Whiskeyjack will introduce another Big Idea in this module: Indigenous rematriation. In addition to explaining rematriation, Dr. Whiskeyjack will explain how it differs from Indigenous feminisms and introduce some of the topics she explores in her courses on Indigenous genders and sexualities.

Lana Whiskeyjack on Rematriation and Indigenous Genders and Sexualities
View Time: 29:16 Minutes
Lana Whiskeyjack on Rematriation and Indigenous Genders and Sexualities

“Two Spirit People” documentary

Two Spirits flag

The final part of the Big Ideas & Lesson section for this module is a short documentary, “Two Spirit People,” which includes an extended discussion of the meaning and history of the term Two Spirit. As the documentary explains, Two Spirit was introduced to replace the European word “berdache,” which settlers applied to Indigenous people who did not conform to European norms of gender and sexuality. Variations of the word exist in several European languages, for instance bardache in French and bardassa in Italian, and it was first applied to gender and sexually non-conforming Indigenous people by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. The word derives from an Arabic word meaning “slave” or “kept boy” (bardaj, بردج.), and had highly negative connotations for settlers.

A photograph from the 1880s of We’wha (Zuni, N.M.), an lhamana who is featured in the documentary for this module, “Two Spirit People.” Ihamana means “like a woman” and was a traditional Zuni gender role that would now be described as Two Spirit.

Spanish settlers originally used the term “berdache” to describe those they deemed male and to be wearing women’s clothing and performing womanly roles, including sexual roles. Only later was the term extended to those whom settlers deemed to be women wearing men’s clothes and performing masculine roles.

Because “berdache” is an offensive, settler-imposed term that ignores the pre-existing words and concepts for people who do not occupy the gender roles of either men or women in many Indigenous languages, it was decided at an Indigenous gay and lesbian meeting that took place in 1990 in Winnipeg to come up with a new, pan-Indigenous term. As was seen in Billy-Ray Belcourt’s brief rejection of the term above, however, “Two Spirit” has not been uncontentious. Indeed, some Indigenous critics have argued that, in addition to imposing a European binary understanding of gender onto Indigenous people, it again ignores the pre-existing words and concepts for gender and sexually nonconforming people in different Indigenous cultures and languages. Nonetheless, as a term chosen by a collective of queer Indigenous people, Two Spirit is far more widely accepted today than the now defunct term berdache.

Two Spirit activists and allies in Portland, Oregon

As you watch “Two Spirit People,”  

  • Consider how the documentary defines Two Spirit identities.
  • Think about the ways in which LGBTQIA organizations need to engaging meaningfully with the implications of colonization in the present when they choose to tag on ‘2S’ to the acronym.

After watching the documentary, if you would like to learn more about Two Spirit people and the concept of two-spirited, there is an optional reading in the Assigned Resources section of the module by Cherokee scholar, Qwo-Li Driskill, titled “Stolen From Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic.”

Two Spirit People
View Time: 22:51 Minutes
Video source