To look through the hundreds of buttons in the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ extensive collection is to be overwhelmed by the range of lesbian and queer activism over the past 50 years. From a candidate’s name to slogans like “We Are Everywhere” or “STONEWALL MEANS FIGHT BACK! Smash Lesbian & Gay Oppression!” almost all of the buttons commemorate something important to the wearer.
Late in February 2019, I went to the Archives in search of a particularly rare button. It belonged to an organization I had only recently learned about while researching queer activists of color for the installation Say It Loud, Out And Proud (part of the Stonewall 50 at New-York Historical Society exhibition). The organization, WeWah & BarCheeAmpe Native Two Spirits in NYC, was founded in 1989 and remained active into the mid-1990s. The group’s name honored two Native figures whose lives spanned the 19th century, while the term Two-Spirit was adopted by activists in the late 20th century as a universal identifier for indigenous people whose gender presentation and sexuality transcend conventional Western binaries. This one button touched upon 200 years of Native history, and we were delighted when the Archives agreed to loan it for the exhibition.
This three-part post will sketch the histories of Bar Chee Ampe (ca. 1800-1854) and We’wha (1849-1896), as well as the organization that bore their names. It is also intended to serve as an exploration of the ways in which Two-Spirit people have been written about over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the many ways in which this writing has changed. For much of this time, non-Native authors predominated, but especially from the 1960s onward, Native writers have built an ever-growing body of work. This new literature, from academic conference papers to poetry anthologies, amplifies the voices of Two-Spirit people themselves, and approaches Two-Spirit identity from a culturally specific standpoint.
As currently understood, the term Two-Spirit is relatively recent. In 1990, the third International Gathering of American Indian and First Nation Gays and Lesbians, held in Winnipeg, broadened the use of the term Two-Spirit and gave its modern definition: “the presence of both a masculine and a feminine spirit in one person.” (Canadian scholar Scott Lauria Morgenstern calls it “a calque of a term,” translated and adapted from niizh manitoag, which means Two-Spirit in the Anishinaabemowin language.) After the Winnipeg gathering, Two-Spirit quickly supplanted the term berdache, a problematic word with Orientalist roots connoting sexual slavery and applied by European colonizers to Native American men who assumed feminine social roles and attire. The term was used well into the 20th century by anthropologists and other (mostly) non-Native scholars despite its troubling origins and its exclusion of women. Furthermore, the use of berdache disregarded culturally specific terms that identify and contextualize gender diverse indigenous people, such as Winkte (Lakota), Botė or Badė (Crow), Asegi (Cherokee) and Nádleehí (Navajo). Two-Spirit is also universalizing, but it affirms diversity in gender and sexuality on Native terms, and is rooted in Native culture, traditions, and history. (The editors of the 1997 anthology Two-Spirit People state that the term Two-Spirit “has come to refer to a number of Native American roles and identities past and present,” so it may be found in discussions of earlier periods when appropriate.)
Prior to the 19th century, non-binary gender presentation among indigenous Americans was harshly condemned by European chroniclers as sinful, unnatural, and immoral, and practitioners were often inaccurately referred to as “sodomites” or “hermaphrodites.” As many scholars have demonstrated, these judgments were used as evidence of the “inferiority” of Native civilizations, and thus to legitimize conquest and violence. Among the earliest and most gruesome examples was an account published in 1516, detailing Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s expedition across Panama. The author described how Balboa discovered dozens of high-ranking men dressed in women’s attire and had them torn to pieces by dogs, then claimed that the indigenous people rejoiced at being rid of the noblemens’ “contagion.”
The colonizers’ desire to stamp out Two-Spirit identities and practices persisted, as can be seen in a 1775 memoir written by a Spanish soldier in California. “We place our trust in God and expect that these accursed people will disappear with the growth of the missions,” he wrote, and indeed, missionaries recounted stripping women’s attire off those they called joyas and forcing them to assume the dress and work of men, causing individual and community-wide distress.
Later, in the 1830s, non-Native artist George Catlin traveled through western North America, where he witnessed and painted a “Dance to the Berdash.” In his travelogue, Catlin called the central figure “a man dressed in women’s clothes” although the Native term, i-coo-coo-a, loosely translates to “man-woman.” In Catlin’s opinion, the “berdash” performed “the most servile and degrading duties,” although he conceded that the i-coo-coo-a was considered sacred by the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) communities. “This is one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs, that I have ever met in the Indian country,” Catlin fulminated, “where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.” Later, anthropologist Mary Owen estimated that the dance—and the traditional role fulfilled by the i-coo-coo-a—did indeed vanish around 1900.
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History
Top Image, from left to right: Published in T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, 1856; Collection of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NY; We’wha, 1886, Smithsonian Institution