Almost all Native American tribes traditionally recognized “two-spirit” people of mixed gender. Sometimes they played a spiritual role. They appear as sacred figures in Native American rituals and myths. Two-spirit Native Americans are honored today for Columbus Day, which commemorates the arrival of European explorer Christopher Columbus in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492.
Before Columbus arrived, most Native American societies valued people who mixed male and female roles or characteristics. Their languages had words for third and sometimes even fourth genders. “Two spirit” is one of the many and varied Native American terms for alternative genders because one body housed both feminine and masculine spirits. Sometimes they served as spiritual guides who mediated between the realms of body and spirit, male and female. From a Western cultural viewpoint, the two-spirited people have been seen as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or queer.
Contemporary artists have tried to re-envision the freedom of two-spirit people before the Europeans arrived. In the image above, Wisconsin artist Ryan Grant Long includes an unknown Mayan couple enjoying a playful moment together in his series “Fairy Tales” series of same-sex love throughout history. For more info, see my article Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long.
“Employments of the Hermaphrodites,” engraving based on a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)
The earliest known European depictions of Native Americans include two-spirit people. “Employments of the Hermaphrodites” is based on a watercolor made by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues while exploring Florida in the 1560s. It illustrates his report that two-spirit people’s duties included caring for the sick and carrying the dead on stretchers.
Two-spirit people were not only accepted in many Native American societies, but also appear as sacred figures in Native American sacred rituals and mythology. For example the Zuni have a two-spirit god called Ko'lhamana, and Hopi and Acoma-Laguna myths tell about a whole tribe of two-spirit people called the Storoka.
“Dance to the Berdache” by George Catlin (Wikipedia)
George Catlin, famous artist who specialized in portraits of Native Americans in the Old West, sketched the “Dance to the Berdache” in the 19th century while on the Great Plains with the Sac and Fox Nation. He depicted a ceremonial dance to celebrate the Berdache, a European term for two-spirit people. But Catlin refused to give two-spirit people a place in his paintings of “traditional” Indian life.
“Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” by John Giuliani, 1996
While Europeans were mostly hostile to two-spirit people among the Native Americans whom they converted to Christianity, a contemporary icon offers hope of reconciliation by showing holy same-sex love with both Christian and Native American imagery. For example, John Giuliani's “Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” shows Jesus and his male beloved in the native dress of the Aymara Indians, descendants of the Incas who still live in the Andean regions of Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Giuliani is an Italian-American artist and Catholic priest who is known for making Christian icons with Native American symbols. He studied icon painting under a master in the Russian Orthodox style, but chose to expand the concept of holiness to include Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the Americas.
“Warharmi and Madkwahomai” by Brandon Buehring
Artist Brandon Buehring included several two-spirit groupings in his “Legendary Love: A Queer History Project.” In one sketch he portrays Warharmi, a “half-man, half-woman” and twins named Madkwahomai from the creaton myth of the Tipai tribe of the Kumeyaay people in California’s Imperial Valley.
Buehring uses pencil sketches and essays “to remind queer people and our allies of our sacred birthright as healers, educators, truth-tellers, spiritual leaders, warriors and artists.” The project features 20 sketches of queer historical and mythological figures from many cultures around the world. He has a M.Ed. degree in counseling with an LGBT emphasis from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He works in higher education administration as well as being a freelance illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Executions for homosexuality were common in Europe for centuries, and Europeans soon imported homophobic violence to the Americas. For example, the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa found homosexuality among the Native American chiefs in 1594 at Quarqua in Panama. He ordered 40 of these two-spirited people thrown to his war dogs to be torn apart and eaten alive to stop the “stinking abomination.”
Balboa executing two-spirit Native Americans for homosexuality in 1513 in Panama -- engraving by Théodore De Bry, 1594 (Wikimedia Commons).
Despite the violence, some two-spirit individuals are still remembered in history and contemporary art. They include We’wha of Zuni and the Woman Chief known as Pine Leaf. Their portraits and stories are posted for Columbus Day on the Jesus in Love Blog.
“We’wha of Zuni” by Br. Robert Lentz OFM, TrinityStores.com
We’wha of Zuni
We’wha was a two-spirit Native American Zuni who served as a cultural ambassador for her people, including a visit with a U.S. president in 1886. We’wha (pronounced WAY-wah) was the most famous “lhamana,” the Zuni term for a male-bodied person who lived in part as a woman. Lhamanas chose to specialize in crafts instead of becoming warriors or hunters.
We’wha (1849-1896) was a skilled weaver and potter who helped Anglo-American scholars studying Zuni society. In 1886 We’wha traveled from her home in New Mexico to Washington DC, where she met president Grover Cleveland. She was welcomed as a celebrity during her six months in Washington. Everyone assumed that the 6-foot-tall “Indian princess” was female.
The spiritual side of We’wha is emphasized in the above icon by Brother Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. She is dressed for a religious ceremony as she prepares to put on the sacred mask of the man-woman spirit Kolhamana.
We’wha is the subject of the book “The Zuni Man-Woman” by gay anthropologist Will Roscoe. He also wrote “Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America” and “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love.” Roscoe’s website willsworld.org offers resources in the Native American two-spirit tradition, third genders in the ancient world, and studies in early Christianity.
“We’wha” by Jim Ru
Jim Ru painted We’Wha with a dramatic blue background His icon was included in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee Arizona in the 1990s. He discusses it in a video.
“Biawacheeitche or Woman Chief aka Barcheeampe or Pine Leaf” by Ria Brodell
Pine Leaf or Woman Chief
“Woman Chief” is one of the names for the two-spirit tomboy born around 1800 to the Gros Ventre tribe. She was captured by the Crow nation when she was 10 and was so adept at hunting and warfare that she rose to become their chief.
Historical accounts say that she wore women’s clothes but had “all the style of a man and chief,” with “her guns, bows, lances, war horses, and even two or three young women as wives.”
“Pine Leaf, Indian Heroine” from “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth,” 1856 (Wikipedia)
She was killed in 1854 by the Gros Ventre tribe, but her story lived on in the popular memoirs of a freed slave and fur trader named James Beckwourth. He called her Pine Leaf because he refused his multiple marriage proposals by saying she would wed him “when the pine leaves turn yellow.” Later he figured out that pine leaves never turn yellow.
She is portrayed in the “Butch Heroes” series by genderqueer Boston artist Ria Brodell. For more on Brodell’s work, see my article “Artist paints history’s butch heroes.”
Two Spirit People at the Legacy Walk
Kent Monkman (Canadian artist of Cree ancestry whose work has strong queer or gay male imagery dealing with sexuality and Christianity)
Top image credit: “Unknown Mayan Couple” by Ryan Grant Long
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.