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Native American Art  
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Before the European conquest, many North American Indian tribes recognized more than two genders. In fact, mixed genders were one of the most widespread and distinctive features of Native American societies. Those individuals who combined the behavior, dress, and social roles of males and females were considered distinct from either sex.

Mixed-gender individuals who were biologically male have been documented in over 155 of the estimated 400 tribes in North America at the time of European contact. In approximately fifty of these groups, a formal status also existed for females who undertook a male lifestyle.

Since Native American worldviews emphasize and appreciate transformation and change, gender alteration was considered natural. Individuals were encouraged to live their lives in the gender role(s) that best suited them.

Sometimes, particularly among the American Indians of the Great Plains, visions or dreams were considered powerful and life defining and were responsible for gender change. Some individuals altered their genders several times during the course of their lives.


The most visible marker of mixed-gender status among North American Indians was some form of cross-dressing. In some tribes, biological males of mixed-gender dressed distinctly from both men and women. In other cases, they only partially cross-dressed, or not at all.

Cross-dressing varied even more for biological females. They often only wore men's clothing when hunting or in battle. (Warrior women were not necessarily mixed-gender individuals. Most Plains tribes had women warriors who accompanied war parties on certain occasions, for example, if they were avenging the death of a family member.)

It should be noted that the term "cross-dressing" does not adequately describe the pre-contact Native American practice whereby men and women donned the clothing of the opposite sex. Since it was possible for men and women in many of these societies to become social females and males, respectively, those who dressed in the clothing of the opposite sex were not actually cross-dressing.

Sexual and Emotional Relations

Mixed-gender Native Americans typically formed sexual and emotional relations with members of their own biological sex. Since it was possible for them to change their gender, their relationships were not homosexual as defined in contemporary Western terms.

In addition, Native Americans typically believed that individuals possessed a gender identity, but not a corresponding sexual identity.

Some mixed-gender individuals who were biological males had relationships with women, although in most cases these were men who were already warriors and husbands and who altered their gender because of a vision or dream. Interestingly, mixed-gender individuals never had relationships with one another.

The mixed-gender role in certain Native American tribes provided an opportunity for women to assume the male role permanently and to marry women. Among the Mohave of Colorado, a girl who exhibited interest in male activities could choose at puberty to dress her hair in the male style and have her nose pierced like the men, instead of receiving a chin tattoo like other women.

In turn, the Mohave publicly acknowledged the status of the mixed-gender girl. They performed an initiation ceremony that recognized her identity as a social male, after which she assumed a male name and was granted the marriage rites of a male. These public rites validated her mixed-gender identity and signified to the community that she was to be treated as a man.

Artistic Depictions of Mixed-Gender Individuals

Mixed-gender individuals were depicted in a variety of North American Indian art forms. Artists of the Great Plains documented them on clothing and ledger drawings. In one particular drawing (1889), a Cheyenne artist presents a female in battle wearing a man's breechcloth and holding a gun in her hand.

In a tempera on bristol work titled Berdache (1987), Cherokee artist Joe Lawrence Lembo depicts an individual who simultaneously possesses male and female traits. Lembo divides the figure in half; male garments (a loincloth) clothe the proper left side while female attire (a dress) covers the proper right side. Similarly, the hairstyle is divided by gender, and the figure wears an earring only in the proper right ear.

Berdache reveals the social and economic impact that mixed-gender individuals had on the community. Since women tended the crops, the figure's proper right hand holds ears of corn. The proper left hand grasps a bow and arrow because men killed game for food.

Mixed-gender individuals either fulfilled the duties of the opposite sex or blended the responsibilities of both sexes. He or she, then, embodied the interdependent nature of male and female roles and, by extension, the positive, cohesive aspects of the entire community.

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