Singer Shawnee identifies as two-spirit. This is her story.
“Warrior Heart.” “This is Me.” “Canadian Cry.” These are just some of the powerful song titles on Indigenous singer/songwriter Shawnee’s discography. Shawnee is a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community — she’s Mohawk and identifies as two-spirit. She’s also passionate about supporting LGBTQ2S+ youth through her inspirational music and performances. Here, she shares her story and messages of hope, positivity and strength with young people across Canada.
Tell us about yourself! Where are you from? What do you do?
“My name is Shawnee. I grew up in a small town setting in Welland, Ontario. I identify as a proud two-spirit person, my heritage being from Six Nations of The Grand River on my mother’s side. My pronoun can be she/her, but at the risk of making it complicated for some, I just see myself as two-spirit. I’m a singer/songwriter based in Toronto, Ontario.”
Who’s your favourite singer right now?
“My favourite singer growing up was and still is Melissa Etheridge. But I would also listen to Yanni to calm my inner self. Today it seems I’m standing beside anything that speaks to a female powerhouse. Billie Eilish is a great new artist, Lizzo is a force, Kat Dahlia is a great lyricist and Brandi Carlile has the voice of an angel. There are so many!”
Can you tell us what being two-spirit means to you?
“Being two-spirit is something that my ancestors knew as a tradition and honoured as a gift in their community. As I grow into the person I’m meant to become, I learn more and more about my spirits and I challenge myself and thoughts to continue on this path, moving forward in this direction. Indigenous people who walk in both worlds — carrying the spirit of both traditional male and female — have strong and powerful gifts, but it comes with its challenges. I’m learning it’s OK to recognize and learn from these challenges through my learned teachings and stories from my Elders who carry the teachings and knowledge of our cultural history and ways we walked.
The term two-spirit for me is not as simple as some would like it to be. I find, as we grow in two-spirit acknowledgement and practice, there is a lot of misconception. For example, the idea of two-spirit being genderless or gender non-conforming may only speak to some two-spirit people. There are many amazing examples and identities under the term ‘two-spirit people.’ For me, being two-spirit is a beautiful, empowering term for an Indigenous person who carries the gift of knowing, understanding and walking in both gender worlds.”
How did you know you were two-spirit?
“I remember growing up feeling ashamed of feeling a deeper connection with girls. As a kid I was secretive about it and my experiences. I tried so hard to cover up the person my spirit and inner self was begging me to be. This became a very sad time for me.
When I felt safe enough, I came out as someone who felt a connection with females, as a lesbian. As I came to know more about my culture and its traditions, I found myself overwhelmed with clarity in knowing that two-spirit is something that speaks to my heart and blood memory. It feels like home to me.”
When and how did you share that you were two-spirit with others? How did they react?
“When I came out as someone who was in love with another female, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine and there wasn’t a rainbow carpet laid out for me. For some, it was hard to accept, and this put a wedge in some of those relationships. It was hard at first, but it was important to me, my health and my wellness to finally accept this fully within myself by sharing it out loud.”
What has your experience been like as an Indigenous two-spirit individual?
“I’ve had many experiences I’m grateful for in my community and growing as a two-spirit person. It’s beautiful to me to be able to see young Indigenous people coming out with who they are and feeling empowered and loved in the world to do so. There is still a lot of acknowledgement and leg work that is yet to be done, but it’s magical to see it happening.”
Who did you turn to for support if you needed it?
“There was a time in my life I felt no hope. I remember feeling like nobody could understand and there wasn’t anybody in the world that could help the deep confusion and sadness that I once felt as a young person. Music and art became my medicine. It became something that allowed me to express my darkness and experiences in a way that made me feel empowered and inspired to give something to the world the same way that music did for me.”
Were there resources available for LGBTQ2S+ youth in your community?
“I think, because of where I grew up, there wasn’t a lot of openness and talk or support for being LGBTQ2S+. But this is an issue for many Indigenous, remote communities and places in Canada today. It’s so crucial for youth to know they’re supported and loved for who they are.”
What challenges do Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ youth face? How do you think these challenges affect mental, emotional and spiritual well-being?
“Not every young person is embraced for who they are by the ones they love. They need to feel there is a world outside of the day-to-day one they know — that there is love and a place for them to be who they are in every way. It’s crucial for them to understand their future is beautiful and bright living their authentic selves, and that this has so much to offer and add to the world. They are needed, they are loved and they are heard.”
What words of wisdom would you like to share with LGBTQ2S+ youth across Canada?
“My younger self could never have imagined I would be the person I am today. You are what the world needs in every way with every gift you have. Honour yourself, love yourself and embrace yourself to the fullest, and with every challenge you are meant to use as fuel for your brightest fire. Don’t let anybody or anything take that away from you. Connect with the world when you need it by reaching out, talking, listening, growing, learning and becoming who you are meant to be.”
What do you think is important for Indigenous youth who may be questioning their gender identity/sexual orientation/spiritual identity to know about being two-spirit?
“It’s important to know that you don’t need to know right now. It’s OK to feel the state of becoming. You don’t need to have all of your answers, and as a young person, you’re meant to ask yourself questions and challenge yourself. This is good, healthy and a part of your process. Know there is a world waiting for you when you’re ready, and there is a two-spirit community ready to embrace you as you are.”
How can others be supportive allies to LGBTQ2S+ youth?
“Using your presence in whatever way possible to show strength, love and support and giving youth inspiration and acknowledgement.”
Why are you passionate about supporting LGBTQ2S+ youth?
“My heart knows and remembers what it was like to struggle deeply as a young person. I now know what I wish I would have back then. I want youth to feel in charge of their own well-being, even when the world in their moment is not something they have control of. I need them to know there is a world that waits for them to make it a better place with what their specialness has to offer.”
Kids Help Phone would like to thank Shawnee for sharing her story and messages of courage with us and young people from coast to coast to coast. If you need someone to talk to about anything, big or small, you can reach out to Kids Help Phone 24/7.