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Native North American Literature  
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It is a singular fact that we can speak of a Native lesbian and gay literary heritage at all, for the percentage of gays and lesbians in the larger population--modest by anyone's measure--would seem to reach the vanishing point when applied to those who can trace their ancestry to North America's original inhabitants. (The term Native is meant here to include those who identify as Native American, American Indian, Canadian Indian, and Alaskan Native [Eskimo, Inuit, and Aleut].)

This was not always the case, however. At the time of Columbus's arrival, a thousand or more societies flourished in every reach of the continent, speaking hundreds of distinct languages. And in most of these societies, one could find representatives of the third gender tradition of the "berdache" (an unfortunate European misnomer) or "two-spirit" (the preferred term of contemporary Indians) individuals who combined male and female activities, particularly in the areas of work roles and religion. In fact, Native North America was arguably one of the most gay-positive regions of the globe before European contact.

The Emergence of Native North American Literature

One legacy of conquest is that the production of works by Native people that meet Western criteria of "literary" remains a recent phenomenon. Arlene Hirschfelder's 1973 bibliography, American Indian and Eskimo Authors, identified only a dozen novels by Indians, the oldest dating to 1899. The first collection of Native poetry did not appear until 1918. It was not until N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, which received the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that creative writing by Native people emerged as a genre in its own right.

Given this history, it may seem ambitious to attempt to identify a specifically lesbian and gay Native tradition, and, in fact, many Native people would object to this kind of separate treatment as typically Western and alien to the Native spirit of inclusiveness. But as is the case with all matters of lesbian and gay history and culture, a closer look is warranted.

The reader who is willing to seek out works published outside the mainstream will find that lesbian and gay Indians have made unique contributions to Native literature, past and present. For the sake of convenience, I will describe these contributions in terms of three nonexclusive phases: traditional, transitional, and contemporary.

Traditional Literature

The "traditional" period, which should not be considered over as long as tribes continue to maintain and produce historical literary forms, includes what is usually termed "oral literature"--myths, folk tales, poems, songs, and ritual texts--although, I would argue (with Dennis Tedlock) that the distinction between written and oral, literate and nonliterate is of little value when we consider how Native use of literary formulas and mnemonic systems achieve the purpose of fixing texts no less effectively than writing.

Berdaches or two-spirits were certainly active contributors to these tribal literatures, although we have few examples of traditional literature that we can attribute to specific individuals. Similarly, none of the standard folklore indexes includes entries on "berdache" motifs or characters. (My "Bibliography of Berdache and Alternative Gender Roles among North American Indians" corrects this to an extent.)


One exception is the famous Zuni "man-woman," We'wha (d. 1896), who recited numerous myths and tales to the anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson. Stevenson's exhaustive monograph on the Zunis (1904) includes one tale specifically credited to We'wha, and it is clear that We'wha was also a key source for the versions of the Zuni origin myths Stevenson published.

This is evident in the greater amount of detail they offer concerning the supernatural two-spirit, Ko'lhamana (ko-, supernatural + lhamana, "berdache"). In other words, We'wha was able to use traditional tribal literature to construct and express his identity as a two-spirit.

Transitional Literature

The "transitional" period of Native lesbian and gay literature begins, roughly speaking, with the generation that followed We'wha. This period is characterized by extensive Indian-white cultural interaction and major changes in two-spirit roles. At government boarding schools and on closely supervised reservations, cross-dressing and homosexuality were ruthlessly suppressed, as were the use of Native languages and customs in general.

On the other hand, for better or worse, it was in government schools and from missionaries that many Native people learned how to read and write in English, and where they first encountered such forms as novels, poetry, and autobiography.

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The famous Zuni "man-woman" We'wha in 1885.
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