Gender and Sexuality in Aboriginal America

Suzanne  -  Jun 18, 2013  -  , , , ,  - 

Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, by Will Roscoe

Prior to colonization, Aboriginal cultures across the Americas understood that there was a gender spectrum, and Aboriginal societies featured at least three and sometimes four genders: men, women, men-women, and women-men. Men-women and women-men often entered into relationships with same-sex partners, which is why “two-spirit” has now become the accepted term for Aboriginal gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Two-spirit roles were one of the most widely shared features of Aboriginal societies in the Americas, according to scholar Will Roscoe. In his book Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, Roscoe writes that “[Two-spirits] have been documented in every region of the continent, among speakers of every major language group, and in every kind of culture, from the hunters of the Arctic to the foragers of native California, to the Pueblo farmers of the Southwest and the nomadic warrior-hunters of the Great Plains.”

Two-spirit people often held honoured and influential positions, and various two-spirits are still recognized today as some of the most important figures in their nations’ histories. We’wha, a Zuni man-woman, was an accomplished potter and weaver and a recognized expert in Zuni religion. Born in 1849, s/he visited Washington in 1886 to work with anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution. Osh-Tisch was a Crow two-spirit who joined an 1879 battle against the Sioux and Cheyenne, earning the name Finds-Them-And-Kills-Them. An accomplished craftsperson, Osh-Tisch also made tipis and leather goods, decorating them with intricate quill- and beadwork. Navajo two-spirit Hastiin Klah was an expert weaver and powerful medicine person whose family recognized that s/he was a two-spirit when s/he was a small child. S/he conducted complex Navajo ceremonies and also co-founded the Wheelwright Museum of the Native American in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kuilix (Red Shirt), a Kalispel/Flathead woman-man from western Montana, was a renowned warrior most famous for chasing enemy Crow with an axe during an 1846 battle.

We'Wha, a Zuni man-woman

Because men-women (men who adopted the cultural roles of women) often entered into sexual relationships with men, and women-men (women who adopted the cultural roles of men) often entered into sexual relationships with women, they are considered to be examples of institutionalized homosexuality within Aboriginal cultures. However, this is problematic, as it frames Aboriginal cultures within a European worldview that constructs gender as a binary equation – either male or female – and sexuality as innate, with same-sex relationships considered deviant from the so-called “norm.” In reality, ideas about gender roles and sexuality within Aboriginal cultures in the Americas were much more fluid: both gender and sexuality were considered to be part of a spectrum, with sexual choices not necessarily relating to gender choices, and vice versa.

In pre-contact Aboriginal cultures, men-women and women-men were understood in terms of their gender roles. Two-spirit people are examples of third and/or fourth genders, apart from the male-female binary; neither male nor female, but genders of their own. The gender of the people they chose to take as sexual partners wasn’t really important. So in that sense, using two-spirit as a synonym for “homosexual” doesn’t really work. Nevertheless, many contemporary Aboriginal gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people have adopted the two-spirit label as a way to connect to ancestral practices.

Dr. Evan Adams is a Coast Salish physician and actor from the Sliammon First Nation near Powell River, B.C. He appeared in the film Smoke Signals, and was appointed Deputy Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia in April 2012

The fact that two-spirits were classified as separate genders – and not by sexual identity – is reflected in the words used to refer to them. These words are different from the words for “woman” and “man” and often indicate that women-men and men-women are seen as combining the masculine and the feminine:

  • the Cheyenne call women-men heemaneh, which translates as “half man, half woman”
  • the Pueblo of Isleta call women-men lhunide, which translates as “man-woman”
  • the Pueblo of Zuni call men-women katsotse, which translates as “boy-girl”
  • the Shoshoni call both women in men’s roles and men in women’s roles tainna wa’ippe, which translates as “man-woman” (in Shoshoni, tainkwa or tainna means “man” and wa’ippe means “woman”)
  • the Dineh, or Navajo, call women-men and men-women nádleehé, which translates as “someone who is in a constant process of change”
  • the Plains Cree call women-men and men-women ayahkwew, which translates as “one who is neither male nor female, and who has both sexes”

Because Aboriginal cultures recognize multiple genders, sexual relations between a man-woman and a man – or a woman-man and a woman – are considered homosexual on the level of physical sex but not on the level of gender. And a same-sex relationship is not considered the same as a same-gender relationship.

Gail Maurice is a Cree/Métis actor, screenwriter, and director from northern Saskatchewan who speaks Michif, an endangered language with less than 1,000 speakers. Maurice’s film Misawac Kâwi Na'wapamitin (Until We Meet Again) premiered at the 2011 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Festival

Anthropologists studying the Yuma of California in the early 20th century noted that casual homosexuality was present among both women and men. This was not considered objectionable. However, people who engaged in homosexual relationships would object to being called elxa’ or kew’rhame – the Yuma terms for women-men and men-women. These two kinds of behaviour (sexual versus gender) were very clearly distinguished, and illustrated by the fact that there are separate words in the Yuma language for two-spirits, for women who sleep with women, and for men who sleep with men.

In Navajo culture, a homosexual relationship is defined by and based on gender and not the characteristics of biological sex. A relationship between two individuals of the same gender – i.e., two men, two women, two female-bodied nádleehé, or two male-bodied nádleehé – or of closely related genders, such as a woman and a male-bodied nádleehé, or a man and a female-bodied nádleehé, is considered homosexual, while a man and a male-bodied nádleehé, or a woman and a female-bodied nádleehé, are considered to be in a quasi-heterosexual relationship because they are of different genders.

Two-spirit people don’t just reflect ideas about gender construction and/or identity within Aboriginal cultures – they also reflect a worldview that emphasizes change and sees transformation as sacred. Within Aboriginal cultures, changing gender – sometimes more than once during the course of a lifetime – is not seen as abnormal but is considered part of the natural order of things. People are expected to go through many changes in the course of a lifetime. Men-women and women-men could decide later in life to become men and women again if they chose to do so. Gender was not based on biology, and changing one’s gender did not involve changing one’s body.

Not all women-men or men-women in pre-contact societies were cross-dressers. Two-spirit people mixed, blended, and split gender roles to varying degrees, with some men-women/women-men taking up the role and manners of another gender completely, others only partially.

Kent Monkman (Cree) is a visual and performance artist with work in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, the Glenbow Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the Vancouver Art Gallery

Because transformation is understood as sacred within Aboriginal cultures, two-spirit people were usually presumed to be people of power because they had both maleness and femaleness within one body, and saw with the eyes of both men and women. As a result, they often served as mediators. Because many two-spirits had a spiritual basis for their gender role – a role that could emerge or change as a result of a vision or dream – two-spirit people were often asked to do spiritual work. The terms “gay” and “lesbian” feel restrictive to many contemporary two-spirit Aboriginal peoples because those identities are defined in terms of sexual behaviour instead of by the complex, often spiritual, roles played by two-spirit people, who embody transformation and vision.

Although two-spirits were seen as spiritually powerful people, the status and role of two-spirits varied from nation to nation, and no two-spirit person would be given a spiritual role unless they had a gift for that kind of work. And not every two-spirit had a spiritual basis for being gender variant: the Dene people of the Northwest Territories, for instance, believe gender variance can occur as a result of cross-sex reincarnation.

Lozen (top row, 4th from left) and her partner Dahteste (to Lozen’s left) “Lozen is as my right hand. Strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy, Lozen is a shield to her people.” – Apache chief Victorio

One of the most famous two-spirits in Native American history was Lozen (Little Sister), a Chiricahua Apache medicine person, seer, and warrior. Born circa 1848, Lozen was skilled in horse riding and fighting, and could use her medicine power to heal wounds and locate enemies at great distances. S/he was a valued contributor to war parties and raids, and was invited to attend war dances and councils alongside the men. However, Lozen chose to perform women’s duties while in camp. Lozen studied with older shamans, and would travel alone to the mountains to fast and pray.

After 1877, Lozen helped the Chiricahua evade Mexican and American forces who were attempting to confine the Apache to reservations. When her brother, Chief Victorio, was killed, Lozen joined Geronimo’s band. There, s/he met Dahteste, who had joined Geronimo’s band with her husband. Dahteste and Lozen became partners, prompting Dahteste’s husband to return to his first wife. Geronimo’s band of refugees evaded capture for two years, but finally surrendered to the U.S. Army in 1886, after which they were shipped in cattle cars to a prison in Florida. After poor conditions led to many deaths, the Chiricahua were relocated to a prison in Alabama, where Lozen died of tuberculosis sometime after 1887. Today, Lozen is remembered as one of the most powerful warriors and medicine people in Apache history.

Waawaate Fobister is Anishinabe from the Grassy Narrows First Nation near Kenora, Ontario. His debut play, Agokwe, premiered at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times theatre in 2008 and won six Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including Outstanding New Play

Unfortunately, such remembrance is rare. The systems and institutions of the dominant society – including but not limited to churches and residential schools – have changed Aboriginal peoples and their understanding of gender and sexuality. Today, two-spirit people are no longer accepted within many Aboriginal communities, let alone recognized as being important or powerful people. Although the situation differs from community to community, two-spirits are now often seen as deviant in many communities – particularly on-reserve communities – and are often bullied, abused, or exiled. In many cases, the two-spirit tradition has been rendered invisible: the Cree word for two-spirit (ayahkwew) doesn’t even appear in the Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary.

All is not lost, however. Today, two-spirit people are redetermining and reclaiming their place in Aboriginal communities and within the dominant society (where racism and stereotyping from within gay and lesbian communities is an unfortunate reality). As the contemporary photos in this post show, two-spirit people today are challenging homo/gender phobia and other oppression, reviving Aboriginal worldviews regarding gender and sexuality, and making their voices heard.


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Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, Will Roscoe | Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures, Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, eds.

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