Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The life of Zuni Pueblo Indian We’wha, who had adopted the Zuni-recognized gender role of a lhamana, or two-spirit person, was one of the most well-documented of the nineteenth century. His life inspired later interest in the experiences of gay and lesbian American Indians and in the concepts of third gender and transgender in indigenous cultures.

Summary of Event

The social role of a lhamana Lhamana, definition of (a Zuni term for a person, most often born male, who adopts the clothing, social roles and obligations, and customary duties of an other gender) is a widely documented cultural practice in more than one hundred American Indian societies, each culture naming the lhamana differently. Western European immigrants to North America had no knowledge of such a gender category. For western Europeans, biological sex and social, or gender, identity were, and still are, considered equivalent. [kw]Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C. (Jan.-June, 1886) [kw]American Indian Visits Washington, D.C., Two-Spirit (Jan.-June, 1886) [kw]Indian Visits Washington, D.C., Two-Spirit American (Jan.-June, 1886) [kw]Washington, D.C., Two-Spirit American Indian Visits (Jan.-June, 1886) Two-spirit persons[two spirit];nineteenth century Gender ambiguity;American Indians and American Indians;and two-spirit persons[two spirit persons] Third gender Transgender/transsexuality[Transgender transsexuality];American Indian cultures and [c]Transgender/transsexuality;Jan.-June, 1886: Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C.[0080] [c]Race and ethnicity;Jan.-June, 1886: Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C.[0080] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Jan.-June, 1886: Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C.[0080] We’wha Stevenson, Matilda Coxe

French explorers of North America used the term Gender ambiguity;terms for “berdache” Berdache, definition of (male homosexual or prostitute) to describe persons such as the lhamana, but berdache has since been rejected by American Indians and others as a pejorative. “Berdache,” in French and other languages, traditionally meant a passive homosexual partner or “catamite,” a younger person (usually a boy) in a sexual relationship with a man, a relationship connoting pederasty.

A rare image of We’wha.

(Courtesy, Catherine Lavender/CUNY)

Beyond the stories from the few contacts on an individual level with settlers, soldiers, or missionaries, little accurate information existed about the lhamana. Their home cultures were faced with destruction and massive changes because of the military and cultural pressures exerted by the expansionist United States. It is known that an lhamana was a two-spirit person, one who possessed aspects of both male and female souls and was thus capable of spiritual fulfillment only by having this duality recognized and acknowledged through distinctive dress and activities, often but not exclusively ritual in nature.

One distinctive American Indian culture that had resisted assimilation included the pueblo communities of New Mexico. Among the residents of the western settlement of Zuni, the category of lhamana had specific characteristics, dress, and duties. For a period of six months in 1886, anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson, who had been conducting fieldwork with the Zuni pueblo in western New Mexico for the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology, returned to Washington. Accompanying Stevenson as a cultural ambassador for his people was her friend and informant We’wha, who many years earlier had adopted the socially acceptable role of a lhamana in Zuni culture.His ease of adaptation to white American urban culture and society were commented upon favorably by Washington society, within whose circles he moved freely; he was even asked to participate in a public ceremonial performance. On June 23, 1886, We’wha, in full ceremonial dress, called on President Grover Cleveland Cleveland, Grover at the White House, who thus became the first American president to meet a lhamana.

Significance

Several factors contributed to the prominent coverage given to We’wha’s visit to Washington, among them the absence of American Indian women in the delegations that had up to that time paid formal visits to the United States capitol. As a lhamana, We’wha likely was considered a legitimate American Indian women “representative.” Other factors included the prominent social status of We’wha’s hosts within Washington social and scientific circles, the desire of the Bureau of Ethnology to capitalize on a rare opportunity to work with a member of Zuni culture, and the curiosity of the city’s residents about someone they considered to be an “exotic” American Indian.

During his six months in Washington, We’wha received significant social notice and the attention of many journalists. He also adapted quickly to the mores of local society and mastered a sufficient degree of English to be able to converse. At the request of the bureau, We’wha demonstrated the use of a backstrap loom and the techniques of weaving, and performed a prayer ceremony at Stevenson’s home during the solstice.

Accepted as a woman during his trip to Washington, We’wha also had become one of the most documented cross-gender or two-spirit persons in the literature of North American anthropology. His life experience provided a basis for the later resurgence of interest in gay and lesbian and cross- or transgender individuals within Native American culture, not without debate, however. He was referenced in standard anthropological works such as American anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934). His sexuality, however, was not commented upon by anthropologist Stevenson, and has been the subject of speculation since his death in 1896. Two-spirit persons[two spirit];nineteenth century Gender ambiguity;American Indians and American Indians;and two-spirit persons[two spirit persons] Third gender Transgender/transsexuality[Transgender transsexuality];American Indian cultures and

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester B., ed. Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lang, Sabine. Men As Women, Women As Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. 1986. New ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

November 11, 1865: Mary Edwards Walker Is Awarded the Medal of Honor

1869: Westphal Advocates Medical Treatment for Sexual Inversion

November 21, 1966: First Gender Identity Clinic Opens and Provides Gender Reassignment Surgery

1975: Gay American Indians Is Founded

1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop

January 21, 1989: Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton

1996: Hart Recognized as a Transgender Man

Categories: History Content