Joshua Whitehead: Celebrating Two-Spirited Indigenous Culture

During Native American Heritage Month, it is important to honor the many contributions Native Americans make to our society.  Joshua Whitehead is a Canadian member of the Peguis First Nation and a Two-Spirit Indigenous author. Being Two-Spirited means having both a masculine and feminine spirit. It is an umbrella term that many indigenous people use to describe their sexuality or gender. In Winnipeg, Canada during the Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in 1990, Elder Myra Laramee proposed the use of the term Two-Spirit. It is a translation of the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag. Through his literature, Whitehead has simultaneously helped his Native American and LGBTQ+ communities, leading young readers to learn more about queer Indigenous people and their struggles. 

Whitehead wrote Full Metal Indiqueer and Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed won the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. Full Metal Indiqueer was one of the nominees for the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender poetry,  however, Whitehead withdrew the book from consideration because it was not about being transgender, it was about being Two-Spirited.

His first book, Full Metal Indiqueer, is a collection of poems. It is a cyberpunk dystopian vision of modern queer Indigenous life. His poetry focuses on identity and the question “Who Am I?” His poem “D Pairs Well with Vowels” said, “Can’t I just be a body that loves? / Why do I have to be a thing? / I exist in the bone / and nothing really matters.” Gwen Benaway, an Indigenous transsexual author, interprets the stanza as the desire of Indigenous people to escape colonial pressure. “I read Whitehead’s argument for a return to our traditional ways as an escape back into the intellectual and emotional sovereignty of our nations, a way to finally stand within ourselves outside of colonization, queerness, or whiteness,” Benaway said.

Johnny Appleseed is about a young Two-spirit Indigiqueer, Johnny, who struggles with love, trauma, and loss as he prepares to go back home to his family’s reservation to attend his step-father’s funeral. We see how Johnny struggles with trauma, current relationships, and family. Whitehead’s remarkable way of introducing us to a troubled protagonist yet still managing to give the story some light is what makes his work enjoyable for all. 

Whitehead is now a lecturer, Ph.D. candidate, and Killam Scholar at the University of Calgary. He currently studies Indigenous literature, culture, and g ender studies and is working on a second book, Making Love with the Land. “These queer stories are already ingrained in the land, and I’m just trying to find them. Things are never forgotten, they’re just forgone,” said Whitehead in an interview with Jessica Johns for Room Magazine. Whitehead sharing his own experiences with his identity and speaking out about issues in his community will encourage others to do the same. Many of his books will help younger Two-Spirited Indigenous people learn more about their identities and culture.