Native American Heritage Month

By Elissa Heller, Membership Specialist

November is Native American Heritage Month, so I’d like to celebrate by giving some thought to sex and gender in Native American societies. A wide variety of non-binary gender roles and non-heteronormative sexual activity has been around in Native societies for centuries. Europeans arriving in the “New World” were shocked by the unfamiliar gender behavior they observed among some tribes. One Spanish missionary noted, “We have seen heathen men wearing the dress of women…. We have not been able to understand what it means, nor what its purpose is…,” according to James A. Sandos in his book Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Attempting a translation of the local Chumash, the Spaniards called these cross-dressers “joyas” (meaning “jewels” in Spanish). Joyas performed women’s work, married men, and could engage in sexual activity with both men and women. They were an elite third gender; for example, one privilege was that they could engage in consensual sex with any married woman in the tribe.

Joyas are just one example of a broad category of third genders in Native American societies, known as “two-spirits.” A perhaps more familiar term is “berdache,” a European term derived from Arabic that refers to a young male prostitute. Contemporary scholars consider the term derogatory, too narrow, and not appropriate to Native American culture, explains David Valentine in a review of recent books on Native American gender roles. According to glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, 150 tribes have two-spirit traditions for men and about 75 have traditions for women. Two-spirits may engage in same-sex sexual activity, but it is not a defining component of the category.

I am particularly interested in drawing attention to two-spirits in early Native American history. Today, with the prominence of the LGBT rights movement, we are witnessing a growing understanding and acceptance of a wide variety of gender roles and sexual leanings. The feminist movement, too, asserts that women and men’s roles are not a rigid binary. Yet gender fluidity in the past is easily forgotten or erased. We would do well to remember that there have been genders other than “woman” and “man” in many time periods. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are part of contemporary categories that also follow traditions established in the past, such as the two-spirits in Native American tribes.

Learn more about Native traditions — check out events and online exhibitions for Native American Heritage Month at http://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov.

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