Devereux's "Case of Sahaykwisa," 1850-1895

Dr. Devereux, a Freudian-oriented psychiatrist who has written on homosexuality for many years, in 1937 first published his long study, "Institutionalized Homosexuality of the Mohave Indians." One of the best-known articles on Native American homosexuality, Devereux's essay includes the history of a remarkable woman named Sahaykwisa. Devereux's revised version of Sahaykwisa story, published in 1961, is excerpted here.

The Case of Sahaykwisa

This case was reported by Hivsu Tupoma, additional data having been obtained from Teate:

Sahaykwisa (that is, Masahay Matkwisa-s-girl's shadow or soul), a fullblood Mohave woman of the Nyoltc gens, was born around the middle of the nineteenth century and was killed toward the end of that century, at the approximate age of forty-five. She was a Lesbian transvestite, formally referred to as a hwame, which suggests that she may actually have undergone the initiation rite for female transvestites.

Even her personal name appears to have been of the masculine type, since Mohave men often select names referring to women-usually in a derogatory manner-just as some women select names which are a slur on men.

Sahaykwisa was apparently not a hermaphrodite, since all informants agreed that she was feminine in appearance and had large breasts. On the other hand she allegedly never menstruated in her life. How credible this last statement may be is hard to decide in retrospect. Since Sahaykwisa professed to be a man, she would certainly not have discussed her menses with anyone. On the other hand, given the fact that the Mohave had no menstrual pads at that time, had she menstruated people could have noticed traces of her menses on her skirts and thighs, although they may have chosen to ignore these telltale stains which were incompatible with her socially accepted "masculinity."

Her dress, too, was described in somewhat puzzling terms. She is said to have worn short skirts "like a man." Taken literally, this statement is self-contradictory, since Mohave men originally wore breechcloths. Perhaps the informant simply meant to suggest that, unlike most of her female contemporaries, Sahaykwisa did not wear a Mother Hubbard. Moreover, since she occasionally prostituted herself to whites, it seems necessary to assume that her attire-though unconventional in terms of Mohave standards prevailing at that time-was a predominantly feminine one. Finally, all informants stressed that she was "rich enough to wear real shoes," and not just Mohave sandals, because she occasionally prostituted herself to whites, though part of her relative prosperity was due to her being an industrious farmer and hunter, as well as a practicing shaman specializing in the treatment of venereal diseases. Since such specialists are, by definition, lucky in love, it is likely that her striking ability to find wives was only- partly due to her well-observed reputation of being a good provider. The principal reason for her marked success in obtaining wives was probably the belief that, being a specialist in venereal diseases, she was necessarily lucky in love.

In addition to functioning as a healer, Sahaykwisa also began to practice witchcraft in her middle twenties, but was not accused of being a witch until some five years later. The first of Sahaykwisa's wives to be mentioned by the chief informant was a very -pretty girl, whom many men tried to lure away from her "husband" by ridiculing the Lesbian. Thus, one suitor said: "Why do you' want a hwame for a husband? A hwame has no penis; she only pokes you with- her finger." Sahaykwisa's wife was, however, not impressed by this argument, and replied: "That is all right for me, if I wish to remain with her," whereupon her suitor gave up and left her alone. However, shortly thereafter another suitor appeared on the scene and also tried to persuade her to leave her "husband," saying: "She has no penis; she is just like you are. If you remain with her, no 'other' man will want you afterwards." Finally, even though Sahaykwisa was an excellent provider, who cultivated her fields well and did all the work a husband is supposed to do, her wife liked the second suitor well enough to elope with him. After her wife left her, Sahaykwisa began to attend dances and flirted with girls who were present, which caused a man, who noticed this, to say sneeringly: "Why don't you leave those women alone? You can't do anything with them anyway!" Behind her back people even called her Hithpan Kudhape, which means split vulvae, and refers to one of the postures female homosexuals assume during coitus. However, since this is a bad insult, no one dared to call her Hithpan Kudhiipe to her face. Before Sahaykwisa could induce another girl to marry her, her former wife, who had eloped with a man, decided to return to her. "Despite his boasts, she found him less satisfying than Sahaykwisa had been." The male husband let her go and did nothing further about it.

After regaining her wife, Sahaykwisa often took her to dances. At such gatherings the hwame sat with the men and, boasting in a typically masculine manner, described to them the pudenda of "his" wife. However, while Sahaykwisii was busy boasting, people teased her wife, saying: "Your husband has neither a penis nor testes." One man even exclaimed: "I'll be damned if I don't criticize both you and your 'husband!' He too is a woman and has just what you have! But don't tell your husband I said so, because your husband will be angry with me." However, the girl was getting so tired of being teased that she ended up by complaining of all these sneers to Sahaykwisa, who became so angry that she told her wife to leave. The girl replied: "If you tell me to go, I shall go," and left Sahaykwisa forthwith.

After a while Sahaykwisa found herself another wife, who also had to endure a great deal of teasing and ridicule. In addition, people also jeered both at Sahaykwisa's former wife and at her new husband, who, be it noted, was not the man she had married after first running away from Sahaykwisa. People would tell this man: "Just poke her with your finger, that is what she likes; use your finger, that is what she is accustomed to. Don't waste your penis on her!" To make matters worse, Sahaykwisa's former wife took it upon herself to tease the hwame's current wife: "Well do I know what you are getting. She pokes her finger into your vagina. Mine still hurts because her fingernails scratched me." Sahaykwisa's current wife resented all this teasing and complained to her "husband" who, this time, instead of getting angry, haughtily replied: "Never mind what my former wife tells you! She wants to come back to me-that is all!" Sahaykwisa's wife insisted that this was not true, but the hwame retorted: "I know better," and let it go at that.

Eventually Sahaykwisa and her current wife met the former wife and the latter's husband at a. dance. When the former wife once more heaped ridicule on Sahaykwisa's current wife, the latter felt that she had stood more than enough and decided to have it out with the former wife. At first the two women only hurled insults at each other, but when the men who were present began to egg them on, they actually began to light. As for Sahaykwisa and the former wife's current husband, they remained seated, and maintained the dignified bearing befitting men when women are fighting over them. The rest of the crowd behaved, however, in a quite undignified manner and began to jeer at the transvestite: "The hwame is proud now! She thinks that maybe she has a penis!" Finally a practical joker pushed the fighting women on top of Sahaykwisa, so that all three rolled around in the dust. Soon after this incident Sahaykwisa's current wife also decided that she could not bear the insults any longer and deserted the hwame,

The desertion of her second wife disappointed Sahaykwisa a great deal and made her so resentful that she painted her face black, the way a warrior on the warpath, or a man going to fight his wife's seducer does, picked up her bow and arrows and went away (apparently giving people the impression that she was going to fight her eloping Wife's paramour). We think, however, that she must already have had some other girl in mind, since, instead of going to the home of the eloped wife, she went to another camp, where she was very badly received. The married woman she wished to visit jeered at her and insultingly spoke to her the way one woman speaks to another woman: "She thinks maybe that the bow and arrows suit her. She thinks she is a man." These remarks did not appear to ruffle Sahaykwisa. She calmly replied, "Yes, I can shoot game for you," and then left. We think she must have felt encouraged, because we say that if a girl or woman insults her suitor, he can be pretty certain of winning her in the end. A few days later Sahaykwisa visited this woman once more and asked her to grind corn for her, which is precisely what a bride is supposed to do the moment she reaches her new husband's camp. Surprisingly enough, the woman complied and ground corn for the hwame, The news of this spread like wildfire all over the reservation, and people said, "I bet she will get herself another wife. What can be the matter with all these women who fall for a hwame?" The third time Sabaykwisa visited this camp, the woman left her husband and eloped with the hwame. The husband, a thirty-five-year-old man named Hag'au, did nothing about it at that time: "He could not very well fight with a transvestite."

Actually, Sahaykwlsa's ability to obtain one wife after another surprised no one; she was a venereal-disease specialist and was therefore automatically expected to be lucky in love. Moreover, she was a good provider, who earned a living not only by practicing shamanism but also by farming and hunting and, according to some, also by prostituting herself occasionally to whites. In brief, she earned enough to give her successive wives quantities of beads and pretty clothes.

Yet, in the end, Sahaykwisa's third wife also deserted her and returned to Haq'au, who took her back, though not without some hesitation, "since she had lowered herself by becoming the wife of a hwame," and perhaps also because people warned him that Sahaykwisa who, by this time, was a recognized healer and a practitioner of witchcraft-might bewitch him. "She will get even with you," people said, but Haq'au took back his former wife all the same.

When Sahaykwisa heard that her wife had gone back to Haq'au she once more picked up her bow and arrows and went from her house, which was on the southern outskirts of Needles, California, to Haq'au's camp, which was on the northern edge of that town. She did not actually go to Haq'au's house, but stood at a certain distance from it, looking at the camp. She did this several times, "thinking of how she could bewitch this woman," People who noticed what she was doing warned Haq'au, but he was not afraid, and jestingly replied: "Let her come!

The next time she comes, 1 will show her what a real penis can do." The next time Sehaykwisa approached his camp, he waylaid her in the bushes which surrounded his camp, tore off her clothes, and assaulted her. Then he left her in the bushes and returned to his camp. As for Sahaykwisa, she picked herself up and left the scene without saying a word to anyone.

After this occurrence Sahaykwisa ceased to court women. Of course, by that time she had already bewitched quite a few women, put their captive souls in a place of her own, and cohabited with these souls in dream. Moreover, after being raped she became a regular drunkard and developed a craving for men. Not seldom, when she was blind drunk, some men would drag her to some hidden spot and farm her out to various men-some of them whites-at so much per intercourse. Of course, by this time she was on the downgrade and, like any wanton kamaloy, was considered fair game.

It was at this time that Sahaykwisa fell in love with an elderly man named Tcuhum, who, like herself, was of the Nyoltc gens. Tcuhum refused to cohabit with her, however, telling her, "You are a man." The spited and angry Sahaykwisa thereupon bewitched him, in order to have intercourse at least with his ghost in dream. Yet, despite his refusal to cohabit with her, Tcuhum died without revealing to anyone that she had bewitched him, which led people to believe that he must have wanted to become her victim-that is, because, in a way, he loved her.

After Tcuhum's death Sahaykwisa started an affair with Tcuhum's son Suhuraye, of the Hyoltc gens, who was at that time about forty or forty-five years of age. At the same time she also had an affair with Suhuraye's friend Ilykutcernidho, of the Ootc gens, who was about fifty years old. These three traveled together to a certain place, some thirty miles north of Needles, where all three intended to work for a living. However, by this time, Sahaykwisa longed so much for the company of those whom she had bewitched that she began to look for a chance to be killed, so as to be able to join her retinue of ghosts forever. Hence, during that trip-that is, either while traveling north, or else after reaching her destination-she became drunk once more and openly told her lovers that she had bewitched Tcuhum and boasted of it until the two baited men picked her up and threw her into the Colorado River, where she drowned.

I (Hivsu Tupoma) was living at that time in Needles and, some two weeks after Sahaykwisa's murder, I heard that people had noticed some buzzards circling over a sandbank. When they investigated, they found Sahaykwisa's partly decomposed body, which had run aground there. I and some others then picked up the corpse and carried it back to the Mohave settlement, where it was cremated in the usual manner. At first people thought that she had jumped into the river while drunk, ... but later learned that she had been murdered. They did nothing about it, because witches should be killed and wish to be killed. It is said that, except for Tcuhum, who, though of her own gens, was not really related to her, Sahaykwisa had not bewitched anyone of her relatives.

"What happened to Sahaykwisa's former wives?" Devereux asks his informant. The answer is "One of them, a woman named Nyoltc, of Sahaykwisa's own gens, is still alive." "Could I see her?" Devereux asks.

You should not even try to talk to her about her life with Sahaykwisa-she is still quite touchy about that episode and does not like to be reminded of it.[1]


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 304-307.

  1. George Devereux, "Mohave Ethnopsychiatry and Suicide ..." Smithsonian lnstitution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 175 (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Ptg. Ofc., 1961). Notes omitted. The above includes a revised version of the history of Sahaykwisa which originally appeared in Devereux's "Institutionalized Homosexuality of the Mohave Indians," Human Biology, vol. 9 (1937), p. 498-527. One of the earliest and most often quoted medical reports on sex-role reversal and homosexuality among Native Americans is an article, "The Disease of the Scythians ..." published in 1882 by Dr. William A. Hammond. Here Hammond mentions two mujerados (physically effeminized males) he had observed "over thirty years" earlier (c. 1851) among the Pueblos of New Mexico. Reading Hammond's report of the mujerado phenomenon, allegedly involving physical, as well as behavioral changes, it is now difficult to separate-fact from fancy, to estimate the extent to which moral judgment and outmoded medical theory have influenced observation. Hammond does refer to traditional Native "pederastic ceremonies which form so important a part of their religious performances," and which are usually hidden from whites-a subject for further research. Hammond's own observations are more valuable than his historical analogies between Native American customs and those of the ancient Scythians (American Journal of Neurology and Psychiatry, vol. I, no. 3 [Aug. 1882] p. 339-55).