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Native American Art  
page: 1  2  

The Status of Mixed-Gender Individuals

Since mixed-gender individuals frequently undertook the work duties of both sexes, they had a greater opportunity for personal and material gain than individuals who lived their lives in the role of a single gender. Some tribes, including the Navajo of the Southwest, granted mixed-gender individuals an elevated political and social status.

Many North American Indians believed that mixed-gender individuals contained both a male and a female inner spirit. The Sioux of the Great Plains, for example, thought that sometimes, when a woman was going to have twins, the two babies formed into one, into a half man-half woman being who was not a hermaphrodite.

Transformation and Special Powers

Mixed-gender men and women also embodied transformation, an important component of most Native American belief systems. Lembo's painting Berdache draws a parallel between the cycles of night and day (and, by extension, the seasons) and gender fluctuation. In his work, the moon is above the female side of the figure, and the sun is over the male side.

Mixed-gender individuals were often thought to have special powers. They sometimes held sacred positions, including shaman, healer, seer, and prophet. In addition, Native Americans often assigned the origins of gender diversity to the spirit world, which overruled biological sex.

As only one example, the Bella Coola, who reside in western Canada, have a god named Skheents who is biologically male and possesses an alternate gender. In pre-conquest times, individuals who exhibited a proclivity for shifting their gender were said to have been influenced by Skheents.

In mythology, Skheents is the first berry-picker, an honorable position since berries are an important seasonal food for the Bella Coola. Skheents guards a bevy of heavenly young maidens and is one of the village ancestors.

The Bella Coola make masks that represent Skheents and portray him in dances celebrating the berry harvest. During these performances, Skheents' face and voice are those of a woman, but he also possesses masculine characteristics.

Man-Woman Kachinas

Among the people who resided in the pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona, man-woman kachinas, or gods, were portrayed in masked dances and ceremonies. Among the Hopi, one such kachina, called Hé-é-é, is known as the Warrior Maiden Kachina. Hé-é-é represents a warrior spirit and is described as either a man dressed in women's clothes or a woman using men's equipment, depending on the mesa where one hears the story.

At Second Mesa, the Hopi say that Hé-é-é represents a young man who was changing clothes with his bride in a cornfield. He was only half-dressed with his pants on under the dress, and with only one side of his hair in the style of a maiden (a whorl on each side of the head), when he saw enemies approaching. Grabbing his weapons, he fought them off until assistance arrived.

At Third Mesa, the Hopi describe Hé-é-é as a young maiden who has fixed only one side of her hair when enemies drew near. She grabbed her father's weapons and fought until help came.

Despite the variation of stories, Hé-é-é is consistently known as a powerful warrior. During one ceremony, the masked dancer who represents Hé-é-é leads a band of fearsome warrior kachinas that protect the ritual procession.

Mixed-Gendered Artists

American Indians with mixed genders were not only depicted in art; they themselves produced artwork. Biological males often specialized in crafts, such as pottery, beadwork, and textile making, which typically were the pursuits of women. In many tribes, mixed-gender individuals were among the most productive and accomplished artists of their communities.

Some of them were so talented that their names were recorded and their works cataloged. The Navajo Hastíín Klah, for example, is well known for his tapestries. As only one other example of many, the Laguna Arroh-ah-och produced beautiful pottery in the late nineteenth century.

The European Impact

Europeans impacted the lives of mixed-gender individuals when they arrived in North America. European attempts to suppress alternate-gender traditions ranged from the regulation of mixed-gender individuals in missions and boarding schools to their actual murder.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Native American attitudes toward sex and gender had been influenced by European values. No longer accepted and embraced, mixed-gender individuals frequently were disparaged.

Although alternate-gender traditions disappeared among some tribes, the institution went underground among others. In a few tribes it has continued to the present, and in others the tradition is being revived.

Joyce M. Youmans

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social sciences >> Overview:  Native Americans

A social role for individuals who crossed or mixed male and female characteristics was one of the most widely distributed institutions of native North America.

literature >> Overview:  Native North American Literature

From the two-spirits of traditional culture to contemporary writers, Native North Americans have produced a considerable body of gay and lesbian literature.

arts >> Overview:  Pacific Art

The art of the Pacific cultures that practiced male homosexuality in a ritual context included flutes, bullroarers, and woven textiles used in male initiations and other ceremonies.

social sciences >> Berdache

Both male and female berdaches (or two-spirit persons), common among Native American tribal cultures, were characterized by gender variation sanctioned by supernatural dreams and visions.

arts >> Sekula, Sonja

Swiss-born artist Sonja Sekula created small-scale abstract images with profound emotional power.


Blackwood, Evelyn. "Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females." Ethnographic Studies of Homosexuality. Wayne R. Dynes, ed. New York and London: Garland, 1992. 23-38.

Kenny, Maurice. "Tinseled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality." Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Will Roscoe, ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. 15-31.

Lang, Sabine. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

_____. "Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits: Homosexuality and Gender in Native American Cultures." Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 91-116.

McIlwraith, T. F. The Bella Coola Indians. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Schaafsma, Polly. Kachinas in the Pueblo World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Sun, Midnight. "Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America." Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Will Roscoe, ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 32-47.

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

Wright, Barton. Kachinas: A Hopi Artist's Documentary. Flagstaff, Arizona.: Northland Press, 1973.


    Citation Information
    Author: Youmans, Joyce M.  
    Entry Title: Native American Art  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 14, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
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    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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