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Native North American Literature  
page: 1  2  3  4  

Non-Indian Writers and the Male Two-Spirit Tradition

Long before the emergence of lesbian and gay Native writing, the two-spirit tradition captured the imagination of non-Indian writers. Two of the most frequently cited passages from the genre of "contact literature" include George Catlin's account of the "Dance to the Berdashe" (in Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians [1841]) and John Tanner's description of the two-spirit Ozaw-wen-dib's attempt to seduce him in his A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (1830).

The influence of accounts like these is apparent in the portrayal of Little Horse, a Cheyenne hemaneh, in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) and in its subsequent screenplay (1970). (By contrast, over 20 years later, Kevin Costner's film epic, Dances with Wolves, although acclaimed for its authenticity, made no mention of the Lakota winkte tradition.)

In a somewhat different genre is Richard Amory's Song of the Loon series. These highly romanticized erotic Westerns are fondly remembered by gay men who discovered them in the 1960s. More recently, male two-spirit characters appear in Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991) and William Henderson's Native (1993).

At least two nongay Native writers have also included two-spirit or gay characters in their work, Gerald Vizenor (Heirs of Columbus [1991]) and Leslie Marmon Silko (Almanac of the Dead [1991]).

Non-Indian Writers and the Female Two-Spirit Tradition

Whereas male two-spirits evoked dismay and disgust on the part of most white frontiersmen, the desire of females to enter the roles and occupations of men struck them as both romantic and tragic. Portrayals of female two-spirits appear in American literature as early as the 1840s with the novels of Emerson Bennett (The Prairie Flower; or, Adventures in the Far West [ca 1850] and Leni Leoti; or, Adventures in the Far West [1851]).

Other treatments include James Beckwourth's account of "Pine Leaf" (1931), probably based on the true story of Woman Chief; James Willard Schultz's Running Eagle (1919), based on an actual Blackfeet female warrior; and Frederick Manfred's torrid The Manly-Hearted Woman (1975).


The future of Native North American lesbian and gay writing is a bright one. The writers mentioned here appear in anthologies and collections with growing frequency. The first full-length autobiography, by Canadian Kevin White, was published in 1993, and the first novel by a lesbian or gay Native author with gay characters is likely to appear soon. Already a second anthology by and about lesbian and gay Native people, The Basket and the Bow, edited by Sheila Wahsquonaikezhik and Gilbert Deschamps, is scheduled for publication.

Unlike so many contemporary lesbian and gay writers, white and nonwhite, Native gay writers are not haunted by the sense of having no past and no social contribution to make. By connecting to the heritage of the two-spirit tradition, an important part of the development of most of the writers discussed here, lesbian and gay Native writers are forging a unique vision of what it means to be gay.

In contrast to Euro-American gay literature where the themes of alienation and marginalization are so common, gay and lesbian Native writers promise a literature of affirmation, grounded in a visionary tradition with deep historical roots.

Will Roscoe

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arts >> Overview:  Native American Art

In North American Indian cultures, mixed-gender individuals were depicted in a variety of art forms and, in many tribes, were themselves among the most accomplished artists of their communities.

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 >> Allen, Paula Gunn

Of mixed Native American, Scottish, and Lebanese heritage, American poet and literary scholar Paula Gunn Allen reinterprets the historic and mythic beliefs of Native Americans from a twentieth-century lesbian-feminist perspective.

literature >> Anzaldúa, Gloria

American Latina lesbian editor and writer Gloria Anzaldúa connected racism and homophobia to posit a political queerness that interconnects with all struggles against oppression.

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.

literature >> Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

literature >> Kenny, Maurice

Maurice Kenny combines a gay and Native American consciousness to create poetry that is located in multiple cultures.

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Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Brant, Beth, ed. A Gathering of Spirit: Writing and Art by North American Indian Women. 2nd ed. Montpelier, Vt.: Sinister Wisdom, 1984; Vancouver, BC and Ithaca, N.Y.: Press Gang/Firebrand Books, 1991.

_____. Mohawk Trail. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand, 1985.

_____. Food and Spirits. Ithaca, N.Y. and Vancouver, BC: Firebrand Books and Press Gang, 1991.

Brown, Lester B., ed. Two-Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men. New York: Haworth, 1997.

Chrystos. Dream On. Vancouver, BC: Press Gang, 1991.

_____. Not Vanishing. Vancouver, BC: Press Gang, 1988. CN

Corinne, Tee A., ed. Riding Desire: An Anthology of Erotic Writing. Austin, Tex.: Banned Books, 1991.

Farrer, Claire R. Kaledioscopic Vision and the Rope of Experience, forthcoming.

Fife, Connie, ed. The Colour of Resistance: A Native Women's AnthologyWR. Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993.

Gould, Janice. Beneath My Heart. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1990.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Kenny, Maurice. Only as Far as Brooklyn. New York: Good Gay Poets, 1979, 1981.

[Klah, Hastíín]. The Story of the Navajo Hail Chant. Trans. Gladys A. Reichard. New York: Gladys A. Reichard, 1944.

Klah, Hasteen. Navajo Creation Myth: The Story of the Emergence. Navajo Religion Series, vol. 1. Santa Fe: Museum of Navaho Ceremonial Art, 1942.

Lesley, Craig and Katheryn Stavrakis. Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories. New York: Laurel, 1991.

Morse, Carl, and Joan Larkin, eds. Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time: An Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Moses, Daniel D., and Terry Goldie, eds. An Anthology of Native Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Roscoe, Will. "Bibliography of Berdache and Alternative Gender Roles among North American Indians." Journal of Homosexuality 14.3-4 (1987): 81-171.

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

_____, ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

_____."Living the Tradition: Gay American Indians." Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, Mark Thompson, ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987. 69-77.

_____. "We'wha and Klah: The American Indian Berdache as Artist and Priest." American Indian Quarterly 12.2 (1988): 127-150.

_____. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Sears, Vickie L. Simple Songs. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1990.

Tafoya, Terry. Change!: Northwest Native American Legends. Acoma, N.Mex.: Pueblo of Acoma Press, 1984.

_____. "Why Ant Has A Small Waist" and "Dancing with Dash-Kayah." I Become Part of It: Sacred Dimensions in Native American Life. D. M. Dooling and Paul Jordan-Smith, eds. New York: Parabola Books, 1989. 89-91, 92-100.

Tedlock, Dennis. "The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation in American Indian Religion." Traditional American Indian Literatures: Texts and Interpretations. Karl Kroeber, ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. 45-64.

White, Kevin. Where Eagles Dare to Soar: Indians, Politics and AIDS. Kahnawake, Quebec: Owera Books, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Roscoe, Will  
    Entry Title: Native North American Literature  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 8, 2007  
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    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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