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Native North American Literature  
page: 1  2  3  4  

Hastíín Klah

The exemplary figure from this period is the Navajo two-spirit, Hastíín Klah (1867-1937). In the course of his training as a medicine man and nádleehé (two-spirit), Hastíín Klah mastered a vast store of mythology, folklore, prayers, and songs. Because he did not cross-dress, except for certain ceremonial occasions, the many non-Indians he befriended were unaware (or able to overlook) his special third-gender status.

These included Franc Newcomb, who ran a trading post with her husband and later wrote Hastíín Klah's biography; Mary Cabot Wheelwright, a wealthy, amateur scholar of Navajo religion; and anthropologist Gladys Reichard, all of whom helped record Hastíín Klah's ceremonial knowledge in the 1920s and 1930s.

An analysis of this literature reveals that Hastíín Klah not only elaborated but also rationalized and synthesized the role of the two-spirit figure known as Begochídíín. In other accounts, Begochídíín appears primarily as a trickster figure, but in myths told by Hastíín Klah, he emerges as a transcendental culture-bearer who unites the opposites of male and female, young and old, good and evil to become a savior figure for the Navajo people.

Bernard Second

Another individual representative of the transitional period was the Mescalero Apache singer and religious leader, Bernard Second (d. 1988), who worked closely with anthropologist Claire Farrer. Like Hastíín Klah, he did not cross-dress, but he still fulfilled traditional social and religious expectations for a "man-woman." (Elmer Gage, a Mohave interviewed in a 1965 issue of One Magazine, is yet another example.)

No doubt other individuals from this period will be identified in the future, including Indian writers before the 1960s whose lesbian or gay sexual identity has not been previously known and such gay writers as Langston Hughes, whose Indian heritage has been overlooked.

While still involved in producing and maintaining traditional literary forms, the process of working with anthropologists and others to document their repertoire exposed Klah and others to Western techniques of inscription.

In the case of religious material, this involved a significant break from tradition. At the same time, it laid the groundwork for the development of an independent artistic identity in a more Western sense and the use of writing for the inscription of original works as well as the preservation of more traditional forms.

Contemporary Literature: Maurice Kenny

The "contemporary" period of lesbian and gay Native writing begins in 1976 with the publication by Gay Sunshine of Maurice Kenny's (Mohawk) "Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality" and his poem "Winkte" (the Sioux term for two-spirits; both works are reprinted in Living the Spirit, ed. Will Roscoe).

Clearly influenced by 1960s Native revivalism, Kenny's essay cites a wide range of ethnographic and literary references to two-spirit roles and male homosexuality in traditional times and concludes with an optimistic prediction of their restoration. "We were special!," he boldly declares in "Winkte," "We had power with the people!"

Paula Gunn Allen

The next important moment in lesbian and gay Native writing came with the 1981 publication of Paula Gunn Allen's (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux) essay "Beloved Women: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures" (reprinted in her collection of essays, Sacred Hoop).

Although she had been publishing woman-identified poetry since the 1970s, Allen debated a year before placing her landmark essay on Native lesbians, aware of the extremely hostile reception that many Native feminists (let alone lesbian-feminists) had received in Indian communities.

"Under the reign of the patriarchy, the medicine-dyke has become anathema; her presence has been hidden under the power-destroying blanket of complete silence," she wrote. "We must not allow this silence to prevent us from discovering and reclaiming who we have been and who we are."

The decision to come out publicly in their writing was a consequential one for both Kenny and Allen. Born in 1929 and 1939 respectively, tribal , fostered by government and church-directed campaigns of assimilation, reached a peak in their generations.

Until the 1970s, lesbian and gay Indians found it necessary to migrate to urban areas to act on their desires, maintaining uneasy relationships with their families and reservation communities. As Kenny writes in his poem "Apache":

in the night of smoke
safe from reservation
eyes and rules
gentle fingers
turned back the sheets. . . .

But coming out has not appeared to have hindered the careers of either Allen or Kenny, and their stature continues to grow, as evidenced by their inclusion (along with Daniel David Moses) in such canonical collections as Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native Poetry, edited by Duane Niatum (1988).

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