Stevenson's "Death caused universal regret," 1896-97

Matilda Coxe Stevenson A death which caused universal regret

Anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson, in a report on "The Zuni Indians..." based on fieldwork dating to 1896-97, discusses examples of male transvestites, their adoption of the roles and work customary for women, and the tribal reactions to this. In two lost brief, tantalizing sentences, Stevenson hints that homosexual relations comprise "a side to the lives of these men which must remain untold."

The custom of youths donning female attire at puberty, which exists to some extent among the pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona, has given rise to conflicting statements. An assertion made, not only by the writer after her first visit to Zuni, but also by others, was that these persons were hermaphrodites. One is led into this error by the Indians, who, when referring to men dressed as women, say "She is a man," which is certainly misleading to one not familiar with Indian thought. ... After more intimate acquaintance with the pueblos the writer is able to give the facts as they are. Men who adopt female attire do so of their own volition, having from childhood hung about the house and usually preferring to do the work of women. On reaching puberty their decision is final. If they are to continue woman's work they must adopt woman's dress; and though the women of the family joke the fellow, they are inclined to look upon him with favor, since it means that he will remain a member of the household and do almost double the work of a woman, who necessarily ceases at times from her labors at the mill and other duties to bear children and to look after the little ones; but the ko'thlama [a man who has permanently adopted female attire] is ever ready for service, and is expected to perform the hardest labors of the female department. The men of the family, however, not only discourage men from unsexing themselves in this way, but ridicule them. There have been but five such persons in Zufii since the writer's acquaintance with these people; and until about ten years ago there had been but two, these being the finest potters and weavers in the tribe.

One was the most intelligent person in the pueblo, especially versed in their ancient. lore. He was conspicuous in ceremonials, always taking the part of the captive Kor'kokshi in the dramatization of the Kia'nakwe. His strong character made his word law among both the men and the women with whom he associated. Though his wrath was dreaded by men as well as by women, he was beloved by all the children, to whom he was ever kind. Losing his parents in infancy, he was adopted by an aunt on his father's side, and the loving gratitude he exhibited for his aunt and her grief at his death afforded a lesson that might well be learned by the more enlightened. Such was his better side. He was said to be the father. of several children, but the writer knew of but one child of whom he was regarded as certainly being the father. The other ko'thlama, who was one of the richest men of the village, allied himself to a man during one of the visits of the writer to Zuni, and to the time of her departure from Zuni in 1897 this couple were living together, and they were two of the hardest workers in the pueblo and among the most prosperous. The third and fourth assumed woman's attire during the absence of the writer. The fifth, a grandson on the maternal side of Nai'uchi, elder brother Bow priest, donned the dress during the visit of the writer to Zuni in T896. The mother and grandmother were quite willing that the boy should continue in the work in which he seemed interested, but the grandfather, who was much disgusted, endeavored to shame him out of his determination to follow woman's work. He did not, however, attempt any authority in the matter, and on the boy's reaching manhood the trousers were replaced by woman's attire. There is a side to the lives of these men which must remain untold. They never marry women, and it is understood that they seldom have any relations with them.[1]

Later, Matilda Coxe Stevenson movingly describes, in a classic statement, the death of her friend We'wha, a Zuni male transvestite, whose true gender had been unknown to her, and apparently unknown to President Cleveland and other politicians whom We'wha had visited during a six-month stay in Washington.

A death which caused universal regret and distress in Zuni was that of We'wha, undoubtedly the most remarkable member of the tribe. This person was a man wearing woman's dress, and so carefully was his sex concealed that for years the writer believed him to be a woman. Some declared him to be an hermaphrodite, but the writer gave no credence to the story, and continued to regard We'wha as a woman; and as he was always referred to by the tribe as "she"-it being their custom to speak of men who don woman's dress as if they were women-and as the writer could never think of her faithful and devoted friend in any other light, she will continue to use the feminine gender when referring to We'wha. She was perhaps the tallest person in Zuni: certainly the strongest, both mentally and physically. Her skin was much like that of the Chinese in color, many of the Zufiis having this complexion. During six months' stay in Washington she became several shades lighter. She had a good memory, not only for the lore of her people, but for all that she heard of the outside world. She spoke only a few words of English before coming to Washington, but acquired the language with remarkable rapidity, and was soon able to join in conversation. She possessed an indomitable will and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Her likes and dislikes were intense. She would risk anything to serve those she loved, but toward those who crossed her path she was vindictive. Though severe she was considered just. At an early age she lost her parents and was adopted by a sister of her father. She belonged to the Badger Clan, her foster mother belonging to the Dogwood clan. Owing to her bright mind and excellent memory, she was called upon by her own clan and also by the clans of her foster mother and father when a long prayer had to be repeated or a grace was to be offered over a feast. In fact she was the chief personage on many occasions. On account of her physical strength all the household work requiring great exertion was left for her, and while she most willingly took the harder work from others of the family, she would not permit idleness; all had to labor or receive an upbraiding from We'wha, and nothing was more dreaded than a scolding from her.

In the fall of 1896 a Sha'lako god was entertained at her home. Although at this time We'wha was suffering from valvular heart disease, she did most of the work, including the laying of a stone floor in the large room where the ceremonial was to occur. She labored early and late so hard that when the time came for holding the ceremony she was unable to be present. From this time she was listless and remained alone as much as possible, though she made no complaint of illness. When a week or more had passed after the close of the great autumn ceremonial of the She'lako, and the many guests had departed, the writer dropped in at sunset to the spacious room in the house of We'wha's foster father, the late Jose Palle. We'wha was found crouching on the ledge by the fireplace. That a great change had come over her was at once apparent. Death evidently was rapidly approaching. She had done her last work. Only a few days before this strong-minded, generous-hearted creature had labored to make ready for the reception of her gods; now she was preparing to go to her beloved Ko'thluwala'wa. When the writer asked, "Why do you not lie down?" We'wha replied: "I can not breathe if I lie down: I think my heart break."

The writer at once sent to her camp for a comfortable chair, and fixed it at a suitable angle for the invalid, who was most grateful for the attention. There was little to be done for the sufferer. She knew that she was soon to die and begged the writer not to leave her. From the moment her family realized that We'wha was in a serious condition they remained with her, ever ready to be of assistance. The family consisted of the aged foster mother, a foster brother, two foster sisters with their husbands and children, and an own brother with his wife and children. The writer never before observed such attention as every member of the family showed her. The little children ceased their play and stood in silence close to their mothers, occasionally toddling across the floor to beg We'wha to speak. She smiled upon them and whispered. "I can not talk." The foster brother was as devoted as the one related by blood.

During two days the family hoped against hope. Naiuchi, the great theurgist, came three times and pretended to draw from the region of the heart bits of mutton, declared to have been "shot" there by a witch who was angry with We'wha for not giving her a quarter of mutton when she asked for it. We'wha appeared relieved when the theurgist left. She knew that she was dying and appeared to desire quiet. After Nai'uchi's last visit, the foster brother, with streaming eyes, prepared te'likinawe (prayer plumes) for the dying, the theurgist having said that her moments on earth were few. We'wha asked the writer to come close and in a feeble voice she said, in English: "Mother, I am going to the other world. I will tell the gods of you and Captain Stevenson. I will tell them of Captain Carlisle, the great seed priest, and his wife, whom I love. They are my friends.*

Tell them good-by. Tell all my friends in Washington good-by. Tell President Cleveland, my friend, good-by. Mother, love all my people; protect them; they are your children; you are their mother." These sentences were spoken with many breaks. The family seemed somewhat grieved that We'wha's last words should be given to the writer, but she understood that the thoughts of the dying were with and for her own people. A good-by was said to the others, and she asked for more light. It is the custom for a member of the family to hold the prayer plumes near the mouth of the dying and repeat the prayer, but this practice was not observed in We'wha's case. She requested the writer to raise the back of the chair, and when this was done she asked if her prayer plumes had been made. Her foster brother answered "Yes," whereupon she requested him to bring them. The family suppressed their sobs that the dying might not be made sad. The brother offered to hold the plumes and say the prayers, but We'wha feebly extended her hand for them, and clasping the prayer plumes between her hands made a great effort to speak. She said but a few words and then sank back in her chair. Again the brother offered to hold the plumes and pray, but once more she refused. Her face was radiant in the belief that she was going to her gods. She leaned forward with the plumes tightly clasped, and as the setting sun lighted up the western windows, darkness and desolation entered the hearts of the mourners, for We'wha was dead.

At the time of We'wha's visit to Washington, Hon. John G. Carlisle was Speaker of the House of Representatives. The speaker and Mrs. Carlisle were very kind to We'wha, and upon her return to Zuiii she found a great sack of seed which had been sent by the Speaker.

Blankets were spread upon the floor and the brothers gently laid the lifeless form upon them. After the body was bathed and rubbed with meal, a pair of white cotton trousers were drawn over the legs, the first male attire she had worn since she had adopted woman's dress years ago. The rest of her dress was female. The body was dressed in the finest clothing; six shawls of foreign manufacture, gifts from Washington friends, besides her native blanket wraps, and a white Hopi blanket bordered in red and blue, were wrapped around her, The hair was done up with the greatest care. Three silver necklaces, with turquoise earrings attached and numerous bangles, constituted the jewels, We'wha's death was regarded as a calamity, and the remains lay in state for an hour or more, during which time not only members of the clans to which she was allied, but the rain priests' and theurgists and many others, including children, viewed them, When the blanket was finally closed, a fresh outburst of grief was heard, and then all endeavored to suppress their sobs, for the aged foster mother had fallen unconscious to the floor. The two brothers carried the remains unattended to the grave. The sisters made food offerings to the fire, The foster brother on his return prepared prayer plumes for each member of the immediate family, and also the writer. The little procession, including the foster mother, who had recovered sufficiently to accompany the others, then made its way to the west of the village and on the river bank deposited the clothing, mask, and prayer plumes in the manner heretofore described, Upon the return to the house the foster mother had the rest of We'wha's possessions brought together that they might be destroyed, All her cherished gifts from Washington friends, including many photographs, were brought out; all must be destroyed, This work was performed by the mother, who wept continually. All was sacrificed but pictures of Mr and Mrs Carlisle, Mr Stevenson, and the writer. These were left in their frames on the wall. With another outburst of grief the old woman declared they must remain, saying: "We'wha will have so much with her, I can not part with these, I must keep the faces of those who loved We'wha and whom she loved best, I must keep them to look upon.[2]


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 313-318.

  1. Matilda Coxe Stevenson, "The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Societies, and Ceremonies," Twenty-third Annual Report of the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology ... 1901-1902 (Washington, D.C.: Govl. Ptg. Ofc., 1904), p. 37-38.
  2. Stevenson, p- 310-13. It would be interesting to study any news reports of We'wha's trip to Washington, D.C. In a report on "The Omaha Tribe," based in part on research dating to 1898, Alice C. Fletcher and Frances La Flesche write of dreams as harbingers of sex-role reversal (Twenty-seventh Annual Report ... 1905-1906, U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution [Washington, D.C.: Govt. Ptg. Ofc., 1911], p. 132-33).