Content warning: this article discusses the topic of Indigenous youth suicide.
In late 2020, in a sombre winter of social distancing, when conversations about how isolation was impacting the mental health of youth across Canada were ubiquitous online, Sheri Osden Nault became concerned about Two-Spirit youth specifically.
Nault is Michif and nêhiyaw of the Charette, Bélanger and Nault families. They’re also Two-Spirit and an artist, working with mediums such as sculpture, beadwork and tattooing. Though they acknowledge that more people are slowly becoming more aware of Two-Spirit identities, Nault still finds themself battling stigma as a Two-Spirit person. Outside of Indigenous spaces—amongst settler LGBTQ+ people —they find their specific Two-Spirit needs overlooked, whilst within Indigenous spaces, they find themselves excluded from certain communal activities because of their appearance.
“I am a non-binary transmasculine-leaning person-—I don’t wear skirts, but because I am perceived as a woman and I won’t wear a skirt, I’m excluded from certain Indigenous ceremonial spaces,” they say.
Lived experience has shown Nault the importance of having a targeted approach to this specific, intersectional community—Two-Spirit communities have their own specific needs.
So, to brighten the days of the young people they’d been thinking about, Nault set out to find Two-Spirit youth who they could send gift bundles to.
Nault compiled a couple of Land Back patches and stickers they had received from artist friends, and some earrings they had beaded themself, and decided to put them together into four gift bundles. They’d figured it would be one way they could give back to the community. “My mind was immediately like, ‘This concerns me and I have some cute things, and I could make a few people smile.’” They posted a photo of the gift bundles on Instagram with a caption asking for donations to cover the cost of sending the packages to Two-Spirit youth across the country.
Nault ended up exceeding their donation goal—and was delighted to discover there was an earnest desire from the community to support Two-Spirit youth. The experience inspired them to harness the kindness of strangers to send gifts to youth nationally—and they realized that, since no gift-giving project like this existed anywhere else in Canada, they were going to have to create their own. Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth was born.
In that first year, the project had help from their friend Marta—who emailed a bunch of organizations to see if they wanted to donate to the project. One organization—Cheekbone Beauty, an Indigenous beauty company—responded by donating 25 box sets of lipsticks. While Nault had initially only planned to send the gifts to four recipients, the high number of donations they received meant they were able to donate gifts to 23 youth in total.
Following the success of the first year, Nault decided to do it again in 2021 with another friend, Jess Murwin, helping them to send 52 gifts.
This February, the trio will send out gifts for the third year, and are aiming to send packages to 50 youth.
While they are primarily focused on youth in Canada, the team have occasionally sent gifts to the U.S. as well.
All the work for Gifts for Two Spirit Youth is done on a volunteer basis. The three coordinators solicit donations from Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses and artists all over the world. Gifts donated range from jewellery, to books, to clothes, to bead kits.
Using a Google Form application, participants sign up to either send a gift to someone else or request one for themselves. Nault and the team then work together to match each applicant with donations they’ve received.
“In the Google form, the youth provide personal information about themselves and we use that information to make sure we get the right gift for them,” says Murwin.
One contributor, Shyann Vermillion, is based in Indiana, and has been doing beadwork since picking it up as a pandemic hobby. She decided she wanted to contribute to the project after seeing it shared on her Instagram feed.
“I really liked the idea of just sending gifts to the Two-Spirit youth population so they know that there’s others out there who appreciate them,” she says. “It’s important to let them know they’re seen and heard, especially considering the high suicide rates.”
Higher vulnerability to poor mental health is one of the most pressing systemic issues facing Two-Spirit youth. Research has revealed that Two-Spirit youth are more likely to experience depression and anxiety and that these symptoms are usually either caused or exacerbated by the intersections of homophobia and transphobia, and racism and intergenerational trauma.
These low mental health outcomes translate into the higher rates of suicide amongst the community—in the U.S, Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. Though specific data isn’t available in Canada, the disparity is still widely acknowledged to exist.
Research also reveals these vulnerabilities can be exacerbated by a lack of access to culturally appropriate services. Studies have shown that suicide risk can be diminished when Two-Spirit people are connected to their culture and traditions.
Providing Two-Spirit youth with a direct link to their culture is something the Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth has succeeded in: not only does the project follow the tradition seen in many Indigenous nations where gift-giving is sacred, but it also provides the youth with specific items that help to affirm both their Indigenous and Two-Spirit identities.
For example, some gift boxes include items such as seeds of medicinal plants, as well as zines instructing how to plant them. Some boxes include makeup.
Gifts may also focus on health, and youth can request specific menstrual products to be included in their boxes.
“The project tries to respond to what each youth needs. We try to personalize the gift as much as possible,” says Murwin.
To Murwin, the personalized approach is important to not only honour the uniqueness of each person who receives a gift, but also to respect the gift-giving tradition in Indigenous culture.
“We would never want to just have it be an assembly line of packing up boxes and everything being the same. We really want to keep it individualized and adapted for each of the youth that are going to receive something,” they say.
One youth who’s participated is Azha’ose Makwa, a Two-Spirit Anishinaabe from Peguis First Nation who received a gift box last year. (Makwa is from Treaty 1 territory, which is where the term Two-Spirit [also expressed as 2Spirit] originates, they mention, sharing that in 1990, it came to Anishinaabe elder Myra Laramee in a dream from the ancestors and elders. But though the term is relatively new, Two-Spirit roles and identities have existed for thousands of years.) Makwa is a passionate planter of medicinal plants, and they were beyond delighted to discover they’d received tobacco seeds in their gift box earlier this year. They’d always wanted them and relished the opportunity to plant them.
After germinating the seeds in a community greenhouse in the west end of Winnipeg, Makwa moved the seeds to grow them in the garden of the legislature of Manitoba. Here, a sacred fire had been burning in response to the 2021 discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops—the flame was intended to stay lit until all the residential school graves across the country had been discovered. It was, however, dismantled by the province in October 2022.
“Tobacco-growing is used as an offering when we pray, so to have it so close to the sacred fire on the legislature was amazing,” says Makwa. “It was like a way of establishing our own sovereignty.”
Besides the tobacco seeds, Makwa also received T-shirts, stickers and bead kits.
“But, of course, being an Indigenous person, I gave many of my gifts away to other Two-Spirit youth,” they note with a laugh. “I gifted my earrings to someone, and with my bead kit, I beaded together a medallion that I gifted to someone else.”
“In my tradition, there’s a teaching that, the first thing you make, you don’t keep,” they add.
In this way, the gift-giving project spreads beyond just the people who receive packages—as Mawka notes, one gift box directed to an individual has instead spread into the community, and has been used to help more than one Two-Spirit youth, representing care expanding out over community members like an unfolding warm blanket.
“What’s most significant about the project is that it comes out during the wintertime: even though Two-Spirit roles have existed in Indigenous communities, on the reserves, it can still be homophobic, transphobic and patriarchal due to colonial ideals. Our families can disown us, so any form of community care can help us feel less alone [around that time],’ they say.
Summer Taylor—whose Indigenous name is Niibin—is an Anishnawbe from Ginoogaming First Nation and another Two-Spirit youth who is grateful for the community care they felt when they received their gift. They had been having a really difficult day when they opened their gift and unpacking its contents lifted their spirits.
“It was very emotional. It also made me so glad, because I know a lot of Two-Spirit youth do not have the resources in those gift boxes; they’re hard to find,” they say. In their gift box, Taylor received stickers, zines and a pair of earrings they cherish.
Taylor was also given an opportunity to work on Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth, the first—but probably not last—Two-Spirit youth to directly contribute to it. Nault, Murwin and Marta used some leftover donation money from the previous year to pay Taylor to create a graphic and logo for Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth that is now featured on the project’s website and some of its social media.
“We were so grateful to have Summer’s work,” says Nault. “It really exemplifies part of what we’re trying to do with the project—to make sure that none of the money goes to us, the coordinators of the project, but to Two-Spirit youth only.”
Both Taylor and Mawka see themselves maintaining a relationship with Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth in the future.
“Once I get older and perfect my beading, I’d love to be able to send in my own contributions to help other Two-Spirit youth,” Makwa says. “It’ll be a way to give back. Again, that’s very Indigenous: when you need the help you take the help, but then you offer help back.”
Being able to donate gifts directly, instead of just giving money, is an aspect of the project Vermillion admired most when contributing her gift. “Many want to help, but people are struggling financially: not all of us have money, but we do have talents.”
To Nault, Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth represents an approach to community care that is more rooted in Indigenous practices and is therefore more sustainable. Though they would like to see the project continue on and on, they don’t want to see it grow beyond their limits and workload capacities.
One challenge they’ve experienced is not receiving donations of specific products they’d really like to provide to the youth. For example, last year, Nault reached out to three different reusable period-product companies to get a heavily discounted rate on pads, but none of them responded. Finding long-term partnerships with companies is ultimately what they strive for.
Seeing Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth continue to thrive in the future is something Nault deeply hopes for, not only because it supports Two-Spirit youth, but because it also provides Nault with relief; Nault feels like they’ve been lifted up in the process of lifting others.
“The state of the world is horrible, and when things get overwhelming, I think to myself: ‘It’s okay. I’m gonna collect donations from allies and contributions from community members, and send epic gifts to 50 queer Indigenous youth. And even if everything in the world sucks right now, this cool, amazing thing is gonna happen.’ Being able to focus on that is very therapeutic to me.”
Gifts for Two-Spirit Youth is still collecting donations and gift contributions for this cycle.