Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

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Same-Sex Marriage: An Ancient Indigenous Tradition


2013 Montana Two-Spirit Gathering

As many Indigenous peoples listen to the current discussion across the United States about same-sex marriage being an unprecedented and previously unheard-of phenomenon, they shake their heads and wonder how many more centuries it is going to take before non-Indigenous Americans learn the histories of this land.


The indisputable fact about the presence of marriage between same-sex and multiple-gendered peoples Native to Turtle Island is evident from their ancient creation stories to data gathered from EuroAmerican anthropologists to linguistic studies to the living nations today who still honor their gay people and honor their marriages. Native Americans are highly-evolved, culturally sophisticated nations that, though far from perfect or immune to human shortcomings, generally express social inclusion. This, of course, varies widely from nation to nation and has been greatly disrupted by European colonization that brought with it rigid gender roles, subjugation of women, and persecution of gay people. But thousands of years before the Mayflower landed, gay Native Americans were getting married.



Creation stories, like western culture’s story in Genesis of the Bible about Eve and Adam, express a culture’s beliefs about women, men, and gender, among other things. In the creation stories of hundreds of Native American nations, gay deities are present and do some of the creating. Often the deities in Indigenous creation stories have a blended or mixed female/male identity, not just one rigid definition of gender, like being “all woman” or “all man” as we tend to think of people in western culture. If you would like to read some of these stories, check out Jim Elledge’s book Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Myths (Peter Lang Publishing 2002).  You will see below onthe book’s cover a photograph from the 1800s of an Indigenous gay couple.




Studying language is a particularly powerful tool to understand a culture’s values and beliefs. In Native American cultures, there have been recorded literally hundreds of words across hundreds of nations that indicate the presence, and respect, for gay people. Terms like Winkte (Lakota), M’netokwe (Potawatomi), I-coo-coo-a (Sauk), Tuvasa (Shoshoni), Kwido (Tewa) are but a very few examples of words that describe people with a blending of genders. Unfortunately, because of the pervasive in-roads of missionary beliefs, some Native people today openly deny their own traditional culture that accepted gay couples. Since the Conquistadors went out of their way to violently target and kill gay people, contemporary Native peoples who distance themselves from traditional beliefs is certainly understandable.  


One important reason gay couples were not a threat to traditional Native American social structures, as they are wrongly perceived as threatening American family structures today, is because of Native American Clan Systems. When a family is understood as being a spiritually-connected group of people who may or may not have biological affiliation, it is much easier to include gay couples. In a system where all the adults are charged with co-parenting children and there is a system of many mothers and fathers (that has nothing to do with biological reproduction, sexual orientation or gender identity), gay couples naturally and seamlessly belong. Hence, there was simply no need to exclude or demonize same-sex couples as the nuclear family structure of western culture has done.


If you would like to watch an excellent film that discusses Navajo beliefs about the four genders in their creation story, along with interviews of people in the Indigenous gay community, see Two-Spirits by Lidia Nibley at The film follows the tragic story of Fred Martinez, a Two-Spirit teenager.



When it comes to the so-called “radical newness” of gay marriage, Indigenous peoples across the Americas just say, “It only took you 500 years, but at least you finally got there!” For all the non-Native American LGBTQI sisters and brothers on Turtle Island, they can perhaps be proud that they are merely following a long-practiced and deeply respected ancient tradition of being who you are and marrying who you love!


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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


  • Harita Meenee
    Harita Meenee Tuesday, 30 June 2015

    Fascinating! Many thanks for this blog post. :)

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