History of the Third Gender in Native American Culture
Before Christianization mangled their culture, numerous Native American tribes accepted a third gender. The third gender (also known as “two spirits” or “llamana”) were biological males that were culturally identified as belonging to a gender that is separate from male and female.² The population of a fourth gender, biological females that didn’t identify with the gender they were born as, was much smaller. According to Trista Wilson, there were about 155 Native American tribes that culturally accepted the third and fourth gender.²
Compared to many other Western societies, Native American tribes had tolerant ways of understanding sexuality and how important gender is for determining an individual’s identity.³ One particular tribe, the Zuni people, believed that those who discovered themselves as third gender were the smartest and toughest in the clan. ³ According to most tribes, third genders were formed by a supernatural power, and learned of their third gender through visions or dreams.² Those who possessed “two spirits” were revered, as most tribes held the belief that the third gender had a strong relationship with “the Creator” because they were able to link the gap between men and women.³
Third gender could be considered parallel to transsexual, but it is significant to note that people of the third gender did not take any measures to physically become a member of the opposite sex. Native American cultures truly thought that “two spirits” had their own separate gender, and unlike modern society, there existed no attached stigma. It is to be emphasized that these people were not considered homosexuals, and that the concept of third gender was less about sexual orientation (although third genders did form sexual relationships with same and different sex individuals) and more about gender roles. For example, a third gender woman would take on more female traditional roles, and her/his craft was favorable compared to the other women. Since the roles between men and women were so distinct in these Native American tribes, it was prized to be a person of the third gender, as they could complete both duties for males and females.
Another main idea that is central to understanding the third gender is that they did not adhere to the binary standards of either being fully male or fully female. These highly respected individuals experienced the gender spectrum fluidly and they were never condemned for who they were.
The story of We’Wha
We’Wha was born male in 1849 to the Zuni tribe. As he grew older, his “two spirit” became clear through his feminine attributes, and from that point on he was raised by women and taught the various skills of both men and women. We’Wha grew up to become a famous weaver and spiritual leader. You can learn more about We’Wha in a book called the Zuni Man/Woman written by Will Roscoe. The passage below demonstrates the influence We’Wha had in her/his tribe and even the world:
Two spirits often held honored and influential positions. We’wha was an accomplished potter and weaver, and a recognized expert in Zuni religion. That such an individual could become a representative for his tribe underscores the degree to which individual differences in gender and sexuality were accepted. In most tribes the ability to combine male and female skills was not viewed as a liability but a talent. It came as no surprise to the Zunis that We’wha would travel thousands of miles, overcoming the obstacles of language and culture, to live and mingle with the leaders of a powerful nation. Berdaches were expected to be extraordinary.¹
We’wha’s extraordinary weaving talent became so recognized that she/he was sent to Washington DC in 1886 to meet President Grover Cleveland and to present his/her Zuni weaving skills at the Smithsonian. Everyone was so charmed with We’wha in Washington DC, that they were unaware that she/he was biologically male. It is ironic how in 1886 they did not question We’wha and his/her blend of female and male characteristics, while in contemporary times there is still a vast amount of controversy over the transgender population.
The Two Spirit and Its Relation to Modern Day
When anthropologists first started observing the Native American culture, they coined the term bedarche for the people of third gender. Bedarche is pejorative, associated with the Arabic word meaning “male prostitute.” Christianization by European settlers ended third gender practices and raised homophobia within the tribes. Those who were third gender went underground, and conservative European ideas about traditional gender roles conditioned the Native Americans into believing non-heteronormative practice was sinful. Before the LGBTQ activism of the 1990s, homosexuals within the Native American community were subject to physical and verbal abuse.
Randy Burns, founder of GAI
Gay American Indians (GAI) was the first organization for LGBTQs in the Native American community. Randy Burns and the late Barbara Cameron established GAI in 1985. The book Zuni Man/Woman was published in 1991 and sparked the fight for the GAI. Rediscovering the historical prominence of We’wha and the third gender influenced GAI to fight for their own rights and break barriers of prejudice within the Native American community. In 1993, the GAI enforced the end of the derogatory term Bedarche by meeting with anthropologists to explain how the term is offensive. Anthropologists agreed to change the name to “two spirit” for those who identified as neither a man nor woman. After this, the GAI held meetings where LGBTQ could feel comfortable in sharing information to anthropologists about their scholastic knowledge of gender and sexuality. ¹ These meetings helped Gay Native Americans further discover their roots and taught them to embrace their homosexuality with pride. The collaboration of anthropologists and contemporary “two spirits” has helped continue the legacy of the third gender as an important part of Native American culture.
1. Silva, Sandra F. "Anthropologists and Two Spirit People: Building Bridges and Sharing Knowledge." N.p., 2011.
2. Holliman, Sandra E. "Third Gender." The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality, 20 Apr. 2015.
3. Wilson, Trista. "Changed Embraces, Changes Embraced? Renouncing the Heterosexist Majority in Favor of a Return to Traditional Two-Spirit Culture."American Indian Law Review 36.1 (2011): 161-188.
Last Updated 15 February 2016.