Chief Shonga-Sa-Pa (Black Dog) and Chief Paw-Ne-No-Pa-Zhe (Not Afraid of the Pawnees), 1874
Native Americans have a centuries old tradition of accepting people identified as two-spirit (meaning that they self identify with both male and female characteristics.) In the Zuni culture all children were called “cha’le”, meaning child; the distinction between boy or girl wasn't made until after the age of 5. Some communities had a two-spirit tradition where the pubescent child was allowed to choose between a basket and bow. A male-spirited child would choose a bow and a female-spirit child would choose a basket; this would determine how they would live out the rest of their adult lives.
The Native Americans were not as interested in a person’s physical presence as they were in their spiritual presence. Families with two-spirit members were considered blessed since that member could do the work of either sex. Male bodied two-spirits were considered deeply spiritual and often became respected healers. Female bodied two-spirits would become warriors or hunters such as Kuilix, pictured below.
Two Spirit warrior, Kuilix, “The Red One” or “Red Shirt."
Feminine men were partnered with masculine men; this maintained the spiritual and sexual balance as well as dividing the work load in the family. Butch women were partnered with feminine women for exactly the same reason. The partners of two-spirits were always tribe members who were not two-spirit, yet the partner was never considered homosexual. None of these married couples were considered homosexual, a concept that did not exist in the Native American's view of infinite spiritual and gender roles. Two-spirit couples would adopt the tribe's orphaned children and create their own families, families that were consider completely normal.
Not all two-spirit people cross-dressed, some dressed in the style of either sex or their own distinctive style.
Mask of Ko'lhamana, Zuni two-spirit kachina
Cheyenne hetaneman, or female two-spirit, ledger drawing from 1889.
When the Europeans arrived, they exerted all of their influence to turn the tribes against the two-spirits. They created the term “berdache” which meant prostitute, but with a homosexual connotation. as a way to denigrate the two-spirits. The European's point of view won out over time and the two-spirits were unfortunately forced to conform to the gender roles assigned them at birth. There were no more same sex marriages and a long tradition of acceptance was lost.
Quechan khwerhame, female two spirit
The Native Americans started to reclaim their cultural pride in the 1960s, coinciding with the rise of the Gay Pride movement, and respect for two-gendered people became a part of this movement.
Since the 1990s Native Americans have rejected the offensive term "berdache" and replaced it with the more appropriately descriptive term: "two-spirit".