Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

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We'Wha--Zuni Transwoman

b2ap3_thumbnail_Wewha2.gifBefore the European settlers arrived, Native American nations included, indeed they welcomed, their lesbian, gay, and gender-queer people.

We know this is true because not only do many Native nations today still recognize and honor their LGBTQ people, but there are literally thousands of words in Native languages that acknowledge various gender identities and sexual orientations in both neutral and positive lights. Also, LGBTQ deities/spiritual beings are featured in many ancient, sacred Creation stories and in traditional teaching stories. That's a lot of evidence across centuries of time and from nations all over Turtle Island!  Furthermore, we know for certain that the European settler military leaders and religious leaders also knew that LGBTQ Native Americans held esteemed roles in their nations because they deliberately sought them out for attack and "conversion," even murder.

There is also very recent cultural evidence to be found in the lives of historic icons like We'Wha, pictured at left.

We'Wha was a Zuni leader born in 1849. The Zuni people live in what is now called the American southwest, specifically New Mexico. She was born a biological male, but identified as female, and thus was referred to as a "lhamana" in Zuni.b2ap3_thumbnail_WeWhaIII-e1357320040247.jpg

Many Native American nations determined gender identity as it was indicated by young children: parents and clan members watched what toys Native kids played with, their aptitudes, preferences, and personal styles. To many Indigenous nations, gender is something that biology does not determine. For example, if a biological female child had consistent interest in playing with boys, tending to traditional men's work (like forest management and hunting), and identified herself as being a "boy", this child would then be nurtured in that direction. The young transmale would be given boys' clothing to wear and would most likely have a ceremony performed over him to acknowledge his identity. Afterwards, the nation would treat this transmale as a Man and he would spend his life as a man.

To most Indigenous nations, what is of the utmost importance in a human life is to discover and follow the identity and journey the Creator made for us, not follow human-made, social rules about gender expression and which gender we fall in love and marry. Those choices are understood to be between an individual and the Divine--human meddling in these matters was strongly frowned upon in most Native nations.

The term 'berdache' is NOT Native American and should not be used to refer to LGBTQ Native individuals. Berdache is a derogatory term from the Arabic language that settler anthropologists used to refer to LGBTQ Native Americans. Unfortunately, the term has been written in books for almost two hundred years and unwittingly repeated in other people's research in still more publications, so many Americans continue to think it is an "Indian" word--it is not. The correct terminology for a Native American person identifying as LGBTQ is Two-Spirit. This term was decided upon by the Native American Two-Spirit community decades ago as a response to the conundrum of all those Native words in various languages to name an LGBTQ person. Two-Spirit is the umbrella term, though each Native nation still has its own set of terms for LGBTQ folks in their own language. The way to write about the LGBTQ community that includes Native Americans is: "2LGBTQ."b2ap3_thumbnail_WewhaII.jpg

We'wha forged a relationship with a EuroAmerican anthropologist, Matilda Cox Stevenson, because of her great talent as a weaver and potter. The two women traveled all over the United States and We'wha lived with Stevenson for a time at her Dupont Circle home in Washington, D.C. Stevenson noted We'wha was “the most intelligent person in the pueblo [and] loved by all children, to whom [s]he was ever so kind.” (Zuni Man-Woman). We'wha was an Ambassador of the Zuni nation who spoke English and educated audiences about Zuni cultural traditions. She even stayed at the White House as a guest of President Grover Cleveland. Amazingly, her Two-Spirit status remained unrecognized by Stevenson, who later found out and revealed the information to a shocked American nation.

We'wha died in 1896 of heart failure and accounts say she was dressed in the finest women's clothing for her burial, due to her high social status and reverence in the Zuni nation, after her body was spiritually prepared for death.

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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.


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