While it has not been very evident lately, I am a huge language geek. As in, I’m a little obsessed with language and how it relates to culture, to identity, to understanding the world around you.
If you speak another language, or have even tried to learn another language, you realise pretty early on that although you might be using a comparable term in one language as in another, the connotations involved can be radically different. When you translate a word, you don’t usually unpack those connotations. Without careful thought, you may simply switch from one context to the other, and not notice that you’re no longer discussing the same things.
Not sure what I mean? Consider the English term ‘justice’. Let that word roll around in your head. I bet you can think of all sorts of variations on that term in English. Natural justice, vigilante justice, impartial justice, social justice, etc. Each variation is shaded by another layer of connotations, all rooted within a particular socio-political structure that you have likely been raised slowly learning about, indirectly and directly.
The concept of ‘what justice means’ varies depending on which socio-political context you’re in. It seems obvious when you think about it, but we don’t always actually consider it enough. When I say this word to you in English, I am pretty certain that you’ll have a somewhat comparable understanding of the term as I do (provided I’m thinking in English), though we may quibble on the details.
How I would choose to translate that word ‘justice’ into another language would depend on what aspect of justice (in English) I was trying to convey. Unless there was an easy-peasy equivalent like justicia (Spanish) or justice (French). Of course, what ‘justice’ means in different Spanish-speaking countries or in French speaking jurisdictions may (and does) also vary widely, so be careful about those supposed equivalents.
There is no such easy equivalent I can think of in Cree, so I would have to be more specific. Would I mean kwayaskwâtisiwin? Connotations of straightness, of even-handed fairness. No connotations of a rigid procedure and notions of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, no images of a court-room with a judge. Getting someone to understand English common-law procedural norms of justice would take some serious explaining, Lucy. It would take translating cultural context. There is no single word-equivalent I could rely on, making it less likely I’ll fall into the trap of using a word that seems the same but is not.
It does not take a person long to figure these things out once they spend a bit of time considering it. Yet that moment when you first realise that an ‘equivalent’ or ‘translated’ term means something very different from the same term in English, is pretty amazing. Even if you do not fully understand those differences, just recognising that because of historical and cultural differences, the way people who speak that language percieve the term is not the same way you perceive it, means you’ve been given a very important insight.
pêyâhtakêyimowin (pay-yah-tu-kay-YI-moo-win) often gets translated into English as ‘peace’. If you’re hasty, then you might start using it in the same way you use ‘peace’ in English. To mean an end to hostilities perhaps. Except that’s not what it means.
pêyâhtakêyimowin refers to peace within yourself. I suppose ‘inner peace’ might be an okay equivalent. Within the word pêyâhtakêyimowin there are aspects of taking things slowly, being careful, being quiet, not getting riled up. There are further cultural connotations involved in concepts like ‘being careful’, and ‘being quiet’ and ‘going slowly’. At the very least, I have to provide you with at least four concepts in order to even begin to give you a sense of what this word actually means.
You might argue that ‘peace’ can be used in that same way in English, and you’re probably right…but the reverse is not true. I cannot use pêyâhtakêyimowin to mean an end to hostilities. It simply makes no sense. I’d have to use the word wîtaskîwin , and even then we would not necessarily think of what this means in the same way. (Fun fact for Albertans, wîtaskîwin = Wetaskawin.)
But if you and I are talking and I have to speak in English because you don’t understand Cree, then I’m probably going to default to the term ‘peace’. In my head, I have the idea of pêyâhtakêyimowin. In your head, you have your understanding of the term ‘peace’. Every time I use the word ‘peace’ it is going to trigger English-language cultural connotations. You might start thinking of me as a hippy new-age flake if I say it too often. I might start forgetting that it makes you think of a specific thing, mistakenly believing you and I are on the same page in terms of its meaning.
This kind of thing happens all the time when you try to translate concepts into other languages. We do it because it is necessary when dealing with people who do not speak your language, and we are pretty aware that misunderstandings can occur and we need to be careful.
I came here to read about Two-Spirit identity, why am I reading this language stuff?
Oh, right, sorry. I get carried away talking about language sometimes.
In my parent’s and grandparent’s time, the term berdache was used to refer to indigenous transgendered individuals, but also got used a fair amount to refer to native homosexual men. It wasn’t the most positive term, and in 1990 during an inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in Winnipeg, the term “Two-Spirit” was chosen to replace it.
Some say that the term was a translation from Anishinaabemowin (niizh manidoowag). The term was deliberately chosen to be an umbrella term, a specifically pan-Indian concept encompassing sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity.
I think it is a useful term because it is so broad, and that kind of terminology that acknowledged indigenous beliefs and traditions was absolutely needed.
However, like many pan-Indian concepts, it is sometimes overly broad. I also feel that because it is an English term, it becomes coloured by settler beliefs. For some historical context on how indigenous traditions regarding those we now call Two-Spirited were interpreted by settlers, this blog is excellent.
Nation specific terms
I have been trying to find Cree-specific terms for Two-Spirit identities for many years. It has become easier recently with groups like the Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) Word of the Day. A lot of the terms have been forgotten and are not known by many. Still, sometimes when you ask, you receive.
Learning the words is not enough, however. Digging deeper and trying to understand the way that native peoples viewed Two-Spirited individuals is also important. Without that, all we have are ‘equivalents’, words that we cannot help but think of in the context of their English counterparts. Like or not (NOT!) most of us have been educated within the Canadian system, and European notions of homosexuality, of gender and just sex in general have found their way into every nook and cranny of our minds. Decolonisation involves becoming aware of this and consciously trying to reclaim what existed before. It is no easy task.
Anyway, I wanted to share some of the terms shared by Cree speakers, with many thanks to those who have shared what information they do have. There is of course going to be disagreement on some of these terms, most certainly in the sense of what they actually mean, but also whether they are authentic terms. There have also been many cautions that these may simply be translations from English into Cree, as no one expressed a strong familiarity with traditional roles for these people. Yet I thought it was a good start.
I am not 100% certain of the pronunciation for these words, as I may miss where a macron is needed to alter the sound of a vowel, but I’ll give it a shot!
- napêw iskwêwisêhot (nu-PAYO ihs-gwayo-WIH-say-hoht), a man who dresses as a woman
- iskwêw ka napêwayat (ihs-GWAYO ga nu-PAYO-wuh-yut), a woman dressed as a man
- ayahkwêw (U-yuh-gwayo), a man dressed/living/accepted as a woman. I can see the ‘woman’ part of this word, but I am confused about the possible meaning of the rest of the word. Some have suggested this word can actually be used as a ‘third’ gender of sorts, applied to women and men.
- înahpîkasoht (ee-nuh-PEE-gu-soot), a woman dressed/living/accepted as a man. (also translated as someone who fights everyone to prove they are the toughest? Interesting!)
- iskwêhkân (IS-gwayh-gahn), literally ‘fake woman’, but without negative connotations.
- napêhkân (NU-payh-gahn) literally ‘fake man’, but without negative connotations.
A number of people have said that it is their understanding there were no terms in Cree, that people were not labelled in such ways and despite there being pan-Indian notions of ‘special roles’ for those now called Two-Spirited, that may not have been the case in Cree communities.
Yet in these discussions, one belief is very clearly shared by most, which is that there was acceptance of fluid genders/sexual orientations/etc.
Reclaiming our traditions is more than learning our languages, but our languages do give us a ‘way in’ that absolutely should be explored. Overcoming colonially imposed views of sex, sexuality, gender and identity is no small matter, particularly since indigenous peoples are still experiencing colonialism in a very real way. We are not living in post-colonial times, no matter what Canadian politicians wish to claim.
Ideas about tradition-specific approaches to those now called Two-Spirit have been emerging for some time and are becoming the subjects of indigenous scholarship. What inspires me about this scholarship is the empowering fact that our traditional approaches to gender, sexuality and spirituality are not rooted in the very recently formed western liberal notions of ‘equality’. We do not need to learn from settler cultures how to respect our women and our Two-Spirited relations…we already have those teachings. Reclaiming them and redefining them for the 21st century is a difficult, but beautiful undertaking.
And perhaps the words we use in our own languages will be new, if they did not exist before. Perhaps they will be new because we have lost the words. Perhaps we never lost them. Perhaps they are merely waiting for us to use them again, properly. Hopefully soon I will look at the Cree words that have been suggested, and settler connotations will no longer colour my view of these words.
This is not work non-natives can or should do for us. If you know of resources and scholarship done by indigenous people on this subject, please feel free to share them. If you know of words, or different definitions than those offered above, please feel free to dispute/suggest/discuss.