McMurtrie's "Legend of Lesbian Love," 1914

"A Legend of Lesbian Love among the North American Indians"

In a medical journal article, Dr. D. C. McMurtrie, an American physician who wrote extensively on homosexuality, discusses Robert H. Lowie's and William Jones's earlier reports of legends of Native American lesbianism (both previously quoted). Here only the introduction and conclusions of McMurtrie's essay are excerpted.

Lesbian love, the sexually inverted phenomenon of love relations between women, is found to exist among all peoples regarding whom complete and accurate data concerning the vita sexualis is available. It is noteworthy, however, that, in comparison with information regarding the homosexual relation between men, the material on the analogous manifestation between women is extremely scanty.

There are several reasons why this should be the case. In the first place homosexuality among men is of far greater extent than homosexuality among women, the former category comprising not only the subjects of true sexual inversion but also a large group of pederasts. Among homosexual women-speaking in general terms only and not going into the scientific minutiae-there is no class corresponding to the pederasts, and the superficial total is thus reduced.

Further, male homosexuality has been a subject of popular information, through the widespread knowledge regarding "Greek love." That such a relation as Lesbian love exists is unknown to the majority of even the most intelligent people.

One other factor is of moment. The women among all peoples generally live together in fairly close proximity, and intimacy between a pair would not be a subject of as extensive observation or comment as a similar liaison between two men.

For these reasons, among others, I do not consider it safe to conclude that paucity of data necessarily indicates extreme rarity of the incidence of the phenomenon. Any material bearing on the subject is, however, of particular interest.

The Indian legends cited in Lowie's 1909 report and in Jones's study, based on information gathered in 1901-02, both reflect negative attitudes toward lesbianism. In reference to these legends McMurtrie concludes:

The tales cited are, of course, legends only, units in the tribal mythology. Legends among primitive people, however, usually have their genesis in some actual occurrence, exaggerated and distorted though it may be in the course of its hereditary transmission. It is also true that legendary tales reflect the attitude which public opinion takes, or would take, regarding the occurrences related. We thus see indicated the opprobrium attaching to inverted love relationships between women. The eventuation of the tales is probably due to the primitive conception that all sexual relations yield offspring. From this was deduced the idea that unnatural intercourse should yield unnatural offspring.

Without attempting any further interpretation or evaluation of these fragments of primitive lore, they are here presented by reason of their psychological and anthropological interest.[1]


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 321-322.

  1. Douglas C. McMurtrie, "A Legend of Lesbian Love among the North American Indians," Urologic and Cutaneous Review (April 1914), p. 192-93. Also see Elsie Clews Parsons's major study of "The Zuni la'mana" (or "men-women") in American Anthropologist, new ser., vol. 18 (1916), p. 521-28; A. L. Kroeber's Handbook of the Indians of California (preface dated 1923), U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, no. 78 [Washington, D.C.: Govt. Ptg. Ofc., 1925], p. 46, 190, 497, 500-01, 647, 728-29, 748-49, 803; R. H, Lowie's "Notes on Shoshonean Ethnography," Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 20, part 3 (1924), p, 282-83; R. H. Lowle, Primitive Religion (N.Y.: Boni and Liveright, 1924), p. 181, 243-46; E. W. Gifford's "Clear Lake Porno Society," University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol 28, (1926), p. 333.