This is the second of a three-part post that sketches the histories of Bar Chee Ampe (ca. 1800-1854) and We’wha (1849-1896), as well as the organization that bore their names. Please see parts one and three here!
There are no authenticated images of Bar Chee Ampe (Crow), also called Pine Leaf; this imaginative engraving was published in 1856 in the memoir of a non-Native adventurer named James Beckwourth, who lived among the Crow in the 1820s. He claimed that Bar Chee Ampe became a warrior to avenge the death of her brother, and vowed never to marry until she had killed one hundred enemies. Beckwourth described her as an agile, fleet, and ambitious fighter from the age of twelve onward, skilled on horseback and dressed for battle. “She seemed incapable of fear,” wrote Beckwourth, “and when she arrived at womanhood, could fire a gun without flinching, and use the Indian weapons with as great dexterity as the most accomplished warrior.” Beckwourth frequently referred to Bar Chee Ampe as “the heroine” and boasted that she was a member of his war party, fighting constantly at his side. As Beatrice Medicine noted in 1977, other nineteenth-century accounts described similar warrior women among many Native nations (including the Kutenai, Navajo, Tlingit, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Ottawa) and argued that such “manly-hearted” women could indeed achieve “self-actualization, excellence, and social recognition in areas [hunting and warfare] outside their customary sex role assignments.”
However, Beckwourth’s book was also larded with unsubstantiated and self-flattering anecdotes. Perhaps most egregiously, Beckwourth claimed that Bar Chee Ampe fell in love with him and gave up the life of a warrior in order to marry him. “Now, my friend, I am yours after you have so long been seeking me… Our lodge shall be a happy one; and when you depart to the happy hunting-ground, I will be already there to welcome you. This day I become your wife — Bar-chee-am-pe is a warrior no more,” Beckwourth wrote, adding, “She had so long worn the war costume that female apparel seemed hardly to become her… the beholder could scarcely recognize her for the same person.” Beckwourth continued, “Pine Leaf, the pride and admiration of her people, the avenger of the fall of her brother, retired from the field of her glory and became [my] affectionate wife.” However, five weeks after this union, Beckwourth grew “tired of the savage life under any aspect” and abandoned the Crow, including Bar Chee Ampe and another woman, whom he referred to as his “little wife.” (When coordinating editor Will Roscoe included Bar Chee Ampe/Pine Leaf’s story in the 1988 book Living The Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology, this marriage and its aftermath were omitted.)
Meanwhile, also in the mid-1850s, a fur trader named Edwin Denig wrote a manuscript which recounted the life of Woman Chief (Crow), who also lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Beckwourth’s stories about Bar Chee Ampe/Pine Leaf are so similar to Denig’s account of Woman Chief that many assume that Bar Chee Ampe and Woman Chief were one and the same. In both narratives, the authors described women who were celebrated as skilled hunters, led war parties, and ranked high in the council of chiefs. According to Denig, Woman Chief did not wear men’s attire — but she did take four wives, concluding, “Strange country, this… where women turn men and mate with their own sex!” (Medicine pointed out that the work of preparing buffalo hides for the fur trade, performed by these wives, would also have helped Woman Chief accrue “considerable wealth.”)
Non-Native contemporaries considered Denig relatively knowledgeable and sympathetic, especially towards the Assiniboine among whom he had lived, worked, and traveled for decades. However, here and there throughout his biography are disturbing episodes (which included “keeping” two Native women as wives and plundering the gravesite of a chief in order to steal his skull) that reveal the extent to which Denig was deeply embedded in systems of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Nevertheless, well into the twentieth century, non-Native scholars generally considered Denig’s writings objective and well-informed, although he was by no means a trained ethnologist. Both the Office of Indian Affairs (founded in 1824, renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947) and the Smithsonian Institution (founded in 1846) freely sought and incorporated Denig’s information into the growing body of reports and publications generated by the bureaucracies tasked with studying — and governing — Native Americans. One such institution was the Bureau of Ethnology (BE), created in 1879, which put into practice the widespread nineteenth century theory of cultural evolution. It was widely assumed (both within and beyond the federal government) that all Native cultures would rapidly and inevitably vanish as a consequence of “civilized” Anglo-Americans’ growing migration into the West.
Indeed, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Native people, practices, and institutions came under increasing pressure — largely as a result of government policies which were intended to erode Native community ties and promote the goals of “assimilation” and “civilization.” These policies included the 1887 Dawes Act, which divided up tribal lands into individual parcels, most of which were sold to non-Native owners (Native Americans lost two-thirds of their lands under this policy of compulsory allotment — nearly 100 million acres). The government also encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo herds upon which many nations depended, banned Native religious rites, and supplanted tribal leadership with federal administrators, physicians, teachers, police forces, missionaries, and courts. During this time, Two-Spirit identities and practices were increasingly jeopardized. To give just one example, agents from the Office of Indian Affairs singled out male-bodied Crow badé, including the prominent and respected Osh-Tisch (also known as Finds Them and Kills Them, 1854-1929), and forced them to cut their hair and dress in male attire. Recounting this incident, historian Joseph Medicine Crow (Crow, 1913-2016) said, “It was a tragedy, trying to change them.” Thomas Yellowtail (Crow, 1903-1993) pointed out that well into the 1900s, Baptist ministers also condemned and ostracized the badé, and said “That may be the reason why no others took up the badé role after Osh-Tisch died.”
The government practice of removing Native children from their communities and sending them to residential schools was not only traumatic but also further imperiled Two-Spirit identities. It disrupted the passage of Two-Spirit traditions from one generation to the next while greatly diminishing the respect that had historically been afforded Two-Spirit people. This forced institutionalization and assimilation began in the late nineteenth century and lasted well into the twentieth. While “Indian schools” forbade all Native children to speak their native languages, practice their religion, or express their culture through dance, clothing, and hairstyle under threat of physical punishment, children whose gender presentation did not conform to Western binaries faced additional coercion, or worse. In his 1992 book The Spirit and the Flesh, anthropologist Walter L. Williams quoted a Navajo woman who was taken to a residential school in Pennsylvania along with her cousin, whom she referred to as a nadle (roughly, “one who changes” in Diné). Dressed in girls’ clothing and housed in the girl’s dormitory, administrators only discovered the nadle was male-bodied when the pupils were stripped during a lice infestation, whereupon, the woman recalled, her cousin was taken away and never seen again.
It was within this context that the Bureau of Ethnography began sending expeditions to the Southwest; anthropologists, archaeologists, photographers, and linguists came to collect art and artifacts, gather data, and publish research on Zuni and other Pueblo cultures “before it was too late.” Two members of the first expedition, Matilda Coxe Stevenson and Frank Hamilton Cushing, arrived in 1879 and returned many times, eventually publishing extensively (and competitively) on the Zuni community. Their fieldwork documented gendered roles in Zuni food production, the arts, and religious rites and initiations. Stevenson also wrote extensively about We’wha (1849-1896) although it seems that for much of their twenty-year acquaintance, Stevenson did not know that We’wha was male-bodied, and thus did not fully comprehend the complexity and cultural specificity of the lha’mana role.
Lha’mana loosely translates to “behaves like a woman,” but represents a third gender status, beyond a male/female binary. We’wha was male-bodied, yet from childhood showed an aptitude for women’s economic, artistic, and social roles. As anthropologist Will Roscoe wrote in his 1991 book on We’wha, “Zuni men and women were not born… one became a man or a woman by learning female or male social forms and acquiring symbols of gender during rites of passage.” As an adult, We’wha farmed corn and made prayer sticks, as Zuni men did; We’wha also wore women’s attire, managed household affairs as a daughter or sister would, and mastered the arts of weaving and pottery. In short, Roscoe concludes, We’wha’s gender identity was neither binary, nor fixed to biological sex.
In 1886, Stevenson facilitated We’wha’s extended visit to Washington D.C. During the trip, We’wha spoke with a number of officials, including President Grover Cleveland, and was photographed while demonstrating spinning and weaving. The BAE also commissioned a series of portraits of We’wha (one of which was later adapted for a T-shirt by WeWah & BarCheeAmpe Native Two Spirits in New York City).
As Roscoe demonstrates, Stevenson had her own reasons for encouraging, and capitalizing on, We’wha’s visit. The press continually and inaccurately referred to We’Wha as a “Zuni Princess” or “Priestess,” and the excitement generated by all the publicity allowed Stevenson to make important contacts among the Washington elite. This, in turn, helped raise the profile of the Women’s Anthropological Society, an organization Stevenson founded in 1885 — the first professional association for women scientists in the U.S.
Roscoe points out that We’wha’s goals were quite different: to project a favorable impression of the Zuni people, and thus help defend their lands and society from outside encroachment. However, by the time We’wha died in 1896, the famous lha’mana had spent time in jail for physically resisting an incursion by troops from nearby Fort Wingate. Sadly, We’wha’s death led to further military intervention in the life of the pueblo. We’wha’s sudden heart failure was blamed on witchcraft, and the old woman accused was beaten. The acting agent from the Office of Indian Affairs seized on this incident in order to deply troops to the pueblo and arrest four prominent religious leaders, who were imprisoned for a year and a half. As a condition of their release, the Zuni were forced to send twenty-five children away to residential school.
By the time of We’wha’s death, it was widely assumed that Native American nations had indeed been swept into the past by the march of “civilization.” Certainly the last decade of the nineteenth century is widely considered “a cruel, low, painful point… maybe even the lowest point since Europeans arrived in the New World,” as David Treuer (Ojibwe) recently wrote. The widely publicized massacre of Lakota men, women, and children by U.S. soldiers at Wounded Knee in 1890, closely followed by Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential argument that the American frontier had been “closed,” reinforced this notion in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, Treuer added, it was a low point “from which much of modern Indian and American life has emerged.”
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