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As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, it is helpful to reflect on Two Spirit and LGBTQ identities in Native American communities, beginning during pre-colonial times, and the impact of colonialism on these identities today.
Most known scholarship about pre-colonial American sexuality and gender comes from the journals of early European colonizers. The most prominent accounts note seeing men married to men, whom they called “berdache,” and “passing women,” who were assigned female at birth but took on masculine roles.
Research shows that more than 150 different pre-colonial Native American tribes acknowledged third genders in their communities. And that may have been a unifying feature of different pre-colonial cultures. Historians have also documented the highly regarded role of spiritual leaders in pre-colonial West Africa who were assigned male at birth but presented in a feminine manner, the existence Muxes in Zapotec culture in what is now Southern Mexico, Bakla in pre-colonial Philippines and Hijra in South Asia. All of these individuals were assigned male at birth but their gender expression and/or community role was more feminine.
By no means did all pre-colonial Native American communities accept or celebrate gender and sexual orientation diversity. Often when tribes were conquered, they were taken as slaves or forced to submit sexually to their conquerors. However, we also know from writings of the European colonizers that not everyone they wrote about self-identified as third gender — some of them were conquered warriors who were forced to dress femininely. Interpretations of the role and standing of Two-Spirit and third gender people varied by tribe. What is clear from these accounts is that gender and sexuality was certainly more fluid in Native American society than it was in European society.
The effects of colonialism in Native American communities resulted in both marginalization on the basis of racial/ethnic identity and also of gender and sexuality. Christian European colonizers condemned same-sex relationships and gender variance as sinful and used these beliefs to further dehumanize Indigenous people. Native American Heritage Month enables us to honor and build awareness of the legacy left by many whose stories are rarely told.
Below we highlight two prominent Two-Spirit leaders from the 1800s:
We’wha was a member of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico (as seen in header image). She was what the Zuni called Lhamana, which was a traditional Zuni gender role who was assigned male at birth but lived in part or mostly as a woman and wore women’s clothing. Llamana people did a mix of women’s tasks in daily life but also fulfilled special functions (usually reserved for males in Zuni society) that included spiritual, meditation, skill in crafts and the knowledge for instructing others.
In 1886 We’wha was hosted in Washington, D.C., by anthropologist Matilda Stevenson. During that visit, We'wha met President Grover Cleveland and was generally mistaken for a cisgender woman. One of the anthropologists close to her described We'wha as "the strongest character and the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe."
Osh-Tisch was a leading baté of the Crow nation and held an esteemed position in her society. In the Crow nation, it was not only acceptable for one to be baté, but they were often regarded highly as being the bridge between the two genders. Being baté, Osh-Tisch was allowed to take on both traditionally female and traditionally male roles and was known for excelling at both. She was esteemed not only for the amazing sewing skills that earned her the right to make the Crow Chief Iron Bulls a buffalo skin lodge, but she was also known for her ferocity in battle. Her strength as a warrior is what earned her the name Osh-Tisch, which translates to “finds them and kills them.” Not only incredibly threatening and impressive, but it also refers to the time she helped another soldier by shooting a wounded enemy in the Battle of Rosebud.
We encourage you to learn more about Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Native American identity and history by visiting the following websites: