We’wha

Posted November 17th, 2020 in Uncategorized.

We’wha 

1849 – 1896; age 47

By: Jak Rogers

                 In honor of the current US holiday, Thanksgiving, I wanted to dedicate the next historical blog to a Native American individual. Something that has fascinated me for the longest time is the difference between Native American culture and American culture in reference to gender variant individuals. While researching there are many sexual and gender variant individuals in each Native American tribe. In Native American cultures these people were respected, accepted, and seen as unique. Oftentimes these individuals would be the ones to lead their religious ceremonies and would even be sought out before battles to harness masculine energy. The word berdache was a word coined by French explorers when they came across gender variant individuals within Native American tribes, these people were often seen as a third gender altogether. Native American’s rebranded this word with the phrase two-spirited in 1990.


We’wha lost both of their parents when they were young due to the spread of smallpox spread by the European settlers. We’wha was unofficially adopted by their father’s sister and had many foster siblings. We’wha was a two-spirited individual who knew from early on that they aligned more with their female counterparts. The word lhamana was a term used from We’wha’s tribe specifically, the Zuni, illuminates that someone who is assigned male at birth but will socially take on the roles of the women in the tribe. Luckily for We’wha there were three other lhamanas in the Zuni tribe as well as one younger boy who had proclaimed themselves as an lhamana. What this meant for We’wha is that they would wear both traditional masculine and feminine clothing while dealing with the harder feminine chores around the tribe. Berdaches were also envied on account of their weaving skills and it was said to be the highest compliment for a possession to be like a berdache’s. 

While this was the attitude of Native American’s towards gender diverse individuals, Christian missionaries imprisoned the lhamana with an intent of converting the community. When We’wha was imprisoned in 1877 and then released because of the Zuni people, they had to walk 40 miles back to their reservation. While a test of strength for We’wha, this overall sends the message of intolerance by the American’s and discourages gender diversity. While not all Americans were trying to do this, there was an ethnologist named Matilda Stevenson that took up with We’wha. Matilda was an esteemed woman who lived in Washington D.C. which was the upcoming epicenter of the new America. We’wha was even asked to visit Mrs. Stevenson in D.C. and ended up staying with her for six months. While in D.C. We’wha was fortunate enough to meet Mr. President Grover Cleveland and his wife. We’wha stretched out a hand for the Zuni people to Cleveland after seeing how developed this part of America was which impressed the president. We’wha was then invited to stay at the White House for a few days before returning home. From D.C. press, We’wha was referred to as “The Princess”, an eccentric child of nature, and nothing but a woman. Some of We’wha’s work is also displayed in the Smithsonian.

The acceptance of gender diverse people within Native American tribes have shifted to being more unacceptable but it should hold some peace that from very early on these people were respected and valued. One thing that I found impressive about gender diverse people is they were often the spouses of well known Native Americans. For instance, the Lakota Crazy Horse was married to a berdache. 

After the death of We’wha in 1896, there was still talk of them around. In 1908, a woman named Clara True tried to drag the story and achievements of We’wha incredible through the mud by outing We’wha as assigned male at birth.


 

Sources:

https://www.kqed.org/arts/13845330/5-two-spirit-heroes-who-paved-the-way-for-todays-native-lgbtq-community

http://www.joanannlansberry.com/laura/wewha.html

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.gen.004

 

Cover photo attributed to: here