Native Americans

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Editor: Marc Stein
Date: 2004
Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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The existence of androgynous shamans from the earliest peopling of the Americas is part of a long history of respect for transgenderism and same-sex love and affection in many indigenous Native American cultures. Although a wide variety of cultures existed among the aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere, many accepted sexual and gender diversity.

It is difficult to say what proportion of aboriginal cultures took an accepting attitude toward sexual and gender diversity, in part because of the paucity of historical sources that document sexual and gender behaviors. The evidence that does exist suggests that the most accepting North American Native societies were those located in the Great Lakes region, the Northern Plains, the Southwest, California, and Alaska. However, scattered information for Northwest, Subarctic, and Eastern Woodlands cultures indicates similar acceptance in these areas. Because the eastern area of North America was so thoroughly dominated by European invaders in the colonial era, same-sex and transgender traditions may have been suppressed before adequate documentation was made. Statements by European American explorers, frontiersmen, Christian missionaries, and anthropologists are not to be trusted when they claim that homosexuality and transgenderism were denigrated by aboriginal cultures. Many such claims were more a reflection of the European and European American writers' heterosexism and gender normativity than an accurate depiction of Native American values and practices. The preponderance of evidence, both from early documentary sources and from Native oral histories, indicates that the vast majority of the indigenous cultures of North America were accepting of same-sex love and transgenderism.

Sex, Gender, and Religious Values

This acceptance was a product of several factors, most notably because sex was not seen as sinful in Native American religions. With some exceptions, sex was not restricted to its reproductive role, but was seen as a major blessing from the spirit world, a gift to human and animal species to be enjoyed freely from childhood to old age. Among cultures that practiced matrilineal kinship, women were particularly free in their behavior, since their child's family status depended on the mother's relatives rather than on the child's father; every child was automatically a member of the mother's kin group. In matrilineal societies a woman's status was not dependent upon her having a husband, and the status of the child was not dependent upon the mother being married to a man. Consequently, in matrilineal kinship groups, which werePage 316  |  Top of Article common in North America, denigrating terms such as "bastard" did not have any meaning. In such societies, female sexuality was considerably more free and open than in societies where a woman was only supposed to have sex with her husband.

For males as well as females, most American Indian religions emphasized the freedom of individuals to follow their own inclinations, based on guidance from their personal spirit guardians, and to share generously what they had with others. With such freedom-loving attitudes, children's sexual play was more likely to be regarded by adults as an amusing activity rather than as a cause for alarm. This casual attitude toward child rearing continued to influence aboriginal people as they grew up and married. Yet while sex was certainly much more accepted than in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it was not the major emphasis of Native societies. The focus was instead on the individual person's "spirit," which was defined as their basic character and was believed to come directly from the spirit world. Thus, if a person was androgynous or transgender, their personality was accepted as the result of the spirits combining both masculine and feminine characteristics within one person. Such two-spirit persons, referred to by early French explorers as berdaches, were honored as the possessor of twice as much spirituality as the average masculine man or feminine woman.

Family, Friendship, Marriage, and Reproduction

Native American societies were built upon two types of interpersonal relations: family (tying an individual to multiple people of other genders) and friendship (tying an individual to others of the same sex). The cultural value placed on extremely close friendships between two "blood brothers" or two women friends created contexts in which private homosexual behavior could occur without attracting attention. Because sex in the context of friendship was casually accepted, there is relatively little documentation about it. But the evidence that does exist suggests that the role of sex in promoting close interpersonal ties within various societies may be just as important as the role of sex as a means of reproduction. While Christian ideology emphasizes that the purpose of sex is reproduction, that is not the view of Native American (and other) religions.

Beyond their role in same-sex friendships, homosexual behaviors among many aboriginal Native American cultures were also recognized in the form of same-sex marriages. The usual pattern among American Indians focused not on two masculine men or two feminine women getting married, but instead on encouraging a masculine man to marry a feminine two-spirit male or a feminine woman to marry a masculine two-spirit female. Feminine males often had special roles as shamans, artists, or teachers, while masculine females often took on hunter-warrior roles. For example, in the 1840s a frontier trader who lived among the Crow Indians described the prominent role of a masculine female named Woman Chief. She was known for her skill in hunting buffalo and for her bravery as a warrior. She became so successful as a hunter that she became attractive to potential wives. Among the Plains tribes of the nineteenth century, wealthy husbands typically had several wives. By the 1850s, Woman Chief had four wives and a large herd of horses and was ranked among the highest status warriors of the Crow tribe.

Androgynous or transgender two-spirit roles were seen as different and distinct from the regular gender roles of men and women. Some scholars have called this tradition "gender mixing," while others have seen it as an alternative gender role. In the context of Native cultures that allowed for more gender flexibility than was the case in its Western counterpart, there was room for diverse types of persons (including transsexual, transgender, and androgynous types). Most cultures accepted the fact that these alternative gendered individuals could be sexually attracted to a person of the same biological sex, but there have also been rare instances of heterosexual attractions and behavior as well. There was a strong economic motivation for a feminine person (of either sex) to marry a masculine person (of either sex). The complementary advantages of persons filling different gender roles meant that two masculine hunters would not get married, nor would two women farmers. In aboriginal economies, a husband-wife team needed to perform different labor roles to provide the household with a balanced subsistence.

Accordingly, the husband of a two-spirit male was not defined as a "homosexual" merely because his spouse was male. The community defined him on the basis of his gender role as a man, since he was a hunter, rather than on his sexual behavior or the sex of his partner. Likewise, the wife of a two-spirit female was not defined as a "lesbian," but continued to be defined as a woman because she performed women's labor roles of farming, plant gathering, cooking, and craftwork. These cultural systems did not categorize people as "heterosexual" or "homosexual," but permitted individuals to follow their sexual and gender tastes and attractions. In tribes that accepted marriage for the two-spirit person, the clan membership of that person's spouse was much more important than their sex.

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Gay American Indians. Members of this group, one of several that serve as a liaison between the LGBT community and other Native Americans who live in cities, take part in a Gay Pride March in San Francisco. [Jill Posener]

Gay American Indians. Members of this group, one of several that serve as a liaison between the LGBT community and other Native Americans who live in cities, take part in a Gay Pride March in San Francisco. [Jill Posener]

This also meant that a person who had married a two-spirit person was not stigmatized as different and could later marry heterosexually. With the exception of the two-spirit persons, who were relatively few in number, social pressure emphasized that most people should beget children. After they had done so, it did not matter much if they had homosexual or other nonprocreative relationships. Indeed, even the two-spirit people contributed to the future growth of the tribe through their important roles as adoptive parents for orphaned children.

In many native cultures' conceptions of spirituality, the person who was different was seen as having been created that way by the spirit world. Even though they were different from the norm, two-spirit people were respected. They were considered to be exceptional rather than abnormal. For example, in the late nineteenth century a two-spirit person named We'wha was a prominent leader of the Zuni people. An early anthropologist reported that We'wha was prominent in religious ceremonials and was considered the most intelligent person in the pueblo. We'wha's word was considered law. When the Zuni sent representatives to Washington, D.C., to meet U.S. president Grover Cleveland, We'wha was presented as a Zuni princess and was thought by the whites to be a masculine-looking female.

Suppression, Continuation, and Revival of Native Traditions

Beginning in the sixteenth century, respectful attitudes toward two-spirit persons changed drastically due to the influence of Europeans in America. Bringing with them their homophobic and transphobic Christian religion, Spanish conquerors in Florida, California, and the Southwest justified conquest and plunder on the basis of the Indians' acceptance of "sodomy." This, they argued, was evidence that Native Americans were uncivilized heathens in need of Christian conversion or extermination. English and other European settlers were similarly condemning as they gained control over more and more North American territory. British, Spanish, U.S., Canadian, and Mexican government policies suppressed Native American sexuality and religion. Over time, two-spirit traditions went underground, and sex that was persecuted by Christian missionaries and government officials became secretive.

In the twentieth century, while European and European American condemnation of homosexuality and transgenderism influenced many Indian people, those who retained their traditions continued to respect two-spirit persons. This accepting attitude had a significant impact on the white founders of the homophile, gay liberation, and lesbian feminist movements in the UnitedPage 318  |  Top of Article States. For example, the views of Harry Hay, a founder of the Mattachine Society in 1950, were very much affected by his encounters with sexual and gender diversity within southwestern aboriginal cultures. In turn, LGBT Indians have been influenced by the LGBT movement to stand up openly and take pride in their accepting Native traditions. Like traditionalist Indians, they feel an appreciation for the strength and the magic of human diversity. They accept people as they are, rather than expect everyone to conform to a dualistic gender and heterosexual norm.

In LGBT-friendly cities such as San Francisco, Native groups like Gay American Indians (founded in 1975 by Randy Burns and Barbara Cameron) have effectively served as a liaison between the large urban Indian community and the LGBT community. As such, they have been recognized as valuable by the non-LGBT Indian community. On many Indian reservations in conservative parts of the nation, however, homophobic and transphobic attitudes are still common. Especially among Christianized Indians who were converted by missionaries, anti-LGBT attitudes are evident. Just as in the non-Indian population, many young LGBT and questioning people suffer from prejudice and discrimination, either from their relatives and the Indian community or from non-Indian neighbors. Some two-spirit persons have been shunned, thrown out of their homes, driven to suicide, or even murdered because of their sexualities and genders.

In response and also as a reflection of the larger LGBT movement, a number of Native American LGBT activist groups have been formed in different cities, with names like Two Spirit People of the First Nations. Prominent native writers like Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna) and Wesley Thomas (Navajo) have publicized traditions of acceptance within Native cultures. As they help to reduce homophobia and transphobia, more non-LGBT Indian relatives and friends have joined in the effort to challenge heterosexism and gender normativity. As a result, greater acceptance of sexual and gender minorities has become a part of contemporary Native American social movements. Most Native people accept the reality that people differ and that these differences provide valuable complementarities to make the world whole. Sexual diversity and gender variation are seen as part of the spiritual plan of the universe to provide benefit for all living things.


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Translated from the German by John L. Vantine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Roscoe, Will. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

——. Changed Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Roscoe, Will, ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403600353