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Two-Spirit health research group combines Indigenous ways of knowing with western science

A first-of-its-kind Indigenous and settler research group focused on Two-Spirit health was recently awarded funding by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
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The group will expand their work with Two-Spirit communities across Turtle Island. Turtle Island refers to some of the first peoples’ creation stories and is used to name the land that we have come to call North America.

The group, known as the Two-Spirit Dry Lab, is based at the BCCDC, Simon Fraser University, and the Community-Based Research Centre. 

Two-Spirit is a term used by Indigenous people who identify as having both masculine and feminine spirits. Before colonization, people who identified as Two-Spirit held a special place in many Indigenous communities, often acting as a bridge between women and men’s camps. With colonization and the residential school system, people were forced to be and act as either men or women, based on their sex assigned at birth. 

"No other health research group is specifically focused on the experiences of Two-Spirit people and communities,” said Harlan Pruden, co-founder of the new research group, called the Two Spirit Dry Lab. Harlan is also the Indigenous knowledge translation lead with Chee Mamuk, an Indigenous health program within BCCDC. 

“With our institutional support combined with Simon Fraser University and Community-Based Research Centre, the Lab may continue to work to better formulate health research, policies and programs that are relevant, respectful and mindful to Two-Spirit peoples and communities, so research is reconcilia(c)tion (reconciliation and action).”

The research team is made up of Indigenous and settler members who are engaged in work on Indigeneity, gender, sexual orientation, and geography. They combine Indigenous ways of knowing with western epidemiology, known as the Two-Eyed Seeing approach. 

“However, we take a twist on Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall’s approach and reframe it as Two(-Spirit) Eyed Seeing approach,” said Pruden.

One of overarching goals is to ensure health research is inclusive of Two-Spirit (or 2S) individuals and communities by collecting and analyzing data in a culturally safe and affirming way. 

”For far too long, we non-Indigenous LGBTQ health researchers have tacked ‘2S’ onto the end of the LGBTQ acronym, in an attempt to include Indigenous participants in projects framed by western notions of gender and sexuality,” said Travis Salway, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, and co-founder of the Two-Spirit Dry Lab.

“At the Two-Spirit Dry Lab, we instead focus exclusively on the experience of Two-Spirit and other gender and sexual diverse Indigenous peoples, which in turn opens new ways of thinking about how to support wellness for Two-Spirit people, using Indigenous and strengths-based analyses.”

The group will build off successes in previous work. Pruden and Salway worked with the Sex Now survey, Canada’s largest and longest running survey of 2S/GBTQ men’s health, to design a survey that Indigenous respondents could see themselves in. 

In addition to asking if someone identifies as Two Spirit, the survey includes Indigenous-specific response options across a range of key questions. For example, when asking whether participants have accessed mental health resources, Elders and Indigenous knowledge keepers are listed alongside clinical psychologists, counsellors, and therapists. 

Pruden and Salway also worked hard with community partners to increase the proportion of Indigenous respondents from 4.6% in 2015 to 9.0% in 2018. 

Working with community partners will continue to be a central part of the Two-Spirit Dry Lab’s work. They are currently in discussions with various organizations and groups to better understand what information is available and what information is needed for Two-Spirit individuals to access health and wellbeing information.

The recent funding from CIHR’s Indigenous Gender and Wellness Initiative is an important step to identifying this information. 

“The Two-Spirit Dry Lab helps improve our public health practice,” said Dr. Réka Gustafson, Vice President Public Health & Wellness, Provincial Health Services Authority and Deputy Provincial Health Officer. “Focusing on the experiences of Two-Spirit individuals both provides person-centred care and moves us forward in our ongoing journey of reconciliation.”

 Pruden and Salway have also been asked to present how they work to CIHR’s Institute for Gender and Health to increase the ability, capacity and knowledge for other researchers to engage and include Two-Spirit people in health research.

This sort of capacity building is also part of the group’s goal. By creating a focused research group, they hope to build and bridge the capacity of Indigenous and settler-ally scholars, learners, and community health leaders to conduct Two-Spirit-informed research.​

Learn more about their work: 




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