These documents about LGBTQ+ Native Americans present years of testimony from a wide variety of observers: military men, missionaries, explorers, trappers, traders, settlers, and later, medical doctors, anthropologists, and homosexual emancipationists. In a few rare instances the voices of LGBTQ American Indians are heard.
The sources quoted tell as much, and often more, about the commentator's sentiments about Native homosexuality than they do about its actual historical forms. The commentator is briefly characterized in the introduction to each document, to suggest what particular group interest may lie behind each observation.
Documents are presented here chronologically, according to the date of the event referred to, or, alternatively, if such date is unknown, according to the time during which the writer traveled or lived among the people observed, or according to the document's date of composition or publication. The intention of this arrangement is to suggest a sense of the change in types of commentators and commentary, and to begin to set both in historical perspective.
This arrangement separates material referring to the same tribe and geographic location in favor of a general historical overview of the topic.
This chronological presentation has the effect of focusing as much on the observer as on the subject of observation, a historical perspective which, for example, locates anthropologists as simply one among the groups in the sequence of outside observers of Native American LGBTQ+ life. In this perspective, the particular value judgments of anthropologists emerge almost as clearly as the more overt judgments of those early observers who made no pretense to objectivity.
Documents not originally in English are translated, but, when possible, the foreign word referring, to same-sex sexuality is included.
The materials gathered here are limited arbitrarily to those referring to tribes living in the area that become the mainland United States.
A variety of American Indian LGBTQ+ lives are documented. That most commonly described involves a reversal of the customary sex roles, including cross-dressing, cross-working, cross-speaking, as well as sexual activity. This Native American individual is the often-mentioned "berdache," originally the French name for these Indians. The Native words for LGBTQ+ people varied with different tribal languages, suggesting the possibility of very different tribal responses to such people.
The Focus on the Berdache
The focus of many of the following documents exclusively upon the berdache may well have less to do with those persons' incidence than with the fascination of White, Christian, male observers, and their lack of knowledge of less immediately obvious types of Native LGBTQ+ people. If, for example, uninformed anthropologists today made field trips to New York's Greenwich Village, among the native gay population they would surely first notice the most obvious "queens." The outsiders who observed Native American LGBTQ+ customs may well have been guilty of exactly this error of perception. Suspicions as to this skewing of accounts are aroused by the failure, of virtually every report of a berdache to discuss the berdache's gender-conforming sexual partners. Tribal, attitudes toward, and the character of this non-berdache partner are passed over in silence.
Although many of the earliest accounts refer only to cross-dressing, later, more detailed observations suggest that same-sex sexual relations were often another aspect of the relationships in question. A few of these early reports suggest that a male berdache was available sexually to women as well as men, although details are not pursued. Some references may describe what in the twentieth-century was called a homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual transvestite. Some berdaches may have participated exclusively in same-sex sexual acts. Other documents associate the berdache with a lack of potency in different-sex relations.
Some reports connect sex-role reversal with alleged physical anomalies, although these reports may be misleading: early observers repeatedly use the term "hermaphrodite" to refer to an individual who cross-dressed and participated in same-sex sexual activity. Some later documents indicate that non-normative physicality did not characterize those earlier called hermaphrodites. Some gender-nonconforming individuals may well have been what is now characterized as intersexed.
In some accounts, the physical characteristics, occupations, and activities of the "effeminate" male Native participants in same-sex sexual relations do not correspond with the stereotype of the "effeminate" male in White, Christian society. The Native male berdache is often described as big, husky, strong, a fast runner, and a fighter. These documents concerning the Native berdache do raise questions about the relation between sex-role reversal (especially cross-dressing and cross-working) and same-sex sexuality.
Some documents here hint at the existence of same-sex sexual relations between two apparently gender-normative males. These reports refer to "special friendships" and a "blood brotherhood" -- especially intimate relations between two males, often of a lifelong character and often described so as to emphasize their sensual, deeply emotional aspect. Other documents suggest the existence of same-sex sexual relations between adults and youths.
A number of reports suggest that sexual- and gender-nonconforming persons often performed religious and ceremonial functions among their people; the exact character and meaning of these roles is often not detailed.
Tribal attitudes toward various types of sexual- and gender-nonconforming persons varied, although these documents suggest that, before the inroads of Christianity, such persons sometimes occupied an institutionalized, important, and often respected position within numbers of Native groups. In other cases, they seem to have been stigmatized.
Sex Between Women
The fact that relatively few documents refer to Native American sexual activity between women seems no true indication of the prevalence of such activity in Indian society but is more likely on an index of what outside observers were ready or willing to hear about, investigate, and discuss. New interest and research in Native American sexual and affectional relations between women will probably uncover additional sources. That such sources may exist is suggested by early references to same-sex sexual activity among women in South America.
Loreo Hoyle's survey of a large collection of the erotic Peruvian pottery (dating to A.D. 100-200) that survived the systematic destruction by missionaries shows that one percent depicts sexual acts between women. Francisco Guerre's research into the sexual life of South and Centre! American natives uncovered other early references to sexual activity between women. Guerra quotes Bishop Las Casas (1542) on the punishment for such acts among the Aztecs:
If one woman committed sin with another they died strangled in the some way [as those brothers who committed incest with their sisters].
A Mexican confessionary written in 1565 by a Franciscan friar refers to sexual acts between women, as well as sodomy between men. Another confessionary, written in 1599, also refers to sex between women. Gregorio Garcia, writing in 1604, says
it was the law that those who committed the nefarious sin should die. The Indians of New Spain kept this law, without missing one point, and they executed it with great severity; they had the some penalty with the woman who laid down with another, because it was also against nature.
A confessionary of 1634, and one of 1697, ask about sex between women. A work on Mexican native history says that the laws of pre-Conquest Mexicans declared in 1698 that "the man who dressed like a woman, or the woman who dressed like a man were hanged...."
Documents mentioning the existence of sex between women among Native Americans appear to increase in more recent years as sexual relations between women become mentionable in heterosexual society. Most of the documents here suggest that Native societies were highly polarized according to sex and gender; a strict sexual division of labor seems to have been common, although not universal.
Women in Native American Societies
Some documents also suggest the subordinate position of women in Native cultures. Knowledge of the relative status and condition of women and men and the tribal division of labor and roles is essential for understanding the character of LGBTQ+ people among Native Americans. In studying these documents, the extent of white, Christian influence on Native cultures is also on an important question to keep in mind, as are questions concerning the structure and character of Native families and the nature of mores, especially those relating to sexuality and gender. Those wishing to understand any particular form of Native homosexuality in depth will find it necessary to study the original sources and social-historical contexts of the documents excerpted.
The History of Native American LGBTQ+ History
Since the end of the nineteenth century, pioneering researchers have attempted to bring together information and documentary accounts and to sum up what is known about LGBTQ+ people in Native American tribes.
Hubert Howe Bancroft's five volumes on The Native Races of tile Pacific States of North America (1875) is an amazing early collection of footnoted documentary sources which does not shy away from the explicit discussion of sodomy.
Edward Westermarck's two-volume historical analysis of The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1908) contains a chapter on "Homosexual Love" with numerous primary references to Native Americans.
One product of the early German homosexual emancipation movement was Ferdinand KerschHaack's research and writing an homosexuality among native peoples, collected in 1911 in Das gleichgeschlechtliche Leben der Naturvölker (The Same-sex Life of Primitive pPeoples), still a major collection of source materials on the subject.
Also in 1911, pioneering English homosexual emancipationist Edward Carpenter began to write on "intermedia types" among native peoples, later collecting these articles in his Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk: A Study in Social Evolution (1914).
In 1935, W. W. Hill published "The Status of the Hermaphrodite and Transvestite in Navaho Culture," an early American anthropological journal article attempting to sum up information about homosexuality within one tribe.
In 1940, well-known anthropologist A. l. Kroeber, in a psychology journal essay, declared in a footnote that the time was ready for a "synthetic work" on homosexuality and transvestism in Native American culture. Writing in 1976, Jonathann Ned Katz said: No major comprehensive work has yet appeared.
In 1950, Don W. Dragoo, a graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University prepared a paper on "Transvestites in North American Tribes."
In 1951, Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach published their often-quoted, influential book, Patterns of Sexual Behavior, with on important chapter summarizing the information on and attitudes toward "Homosexual Behavior" in seventy-six societies, including a number of American Indian tribes.
In 1965, anthropologist Marvin K. Oplar summarized and discussed earlier work on "Anthropological and Cross-Cultural Aspects of Homosexuality."
The following year, anthropologist David Sonenschein wrote on "Homosexuality as a Subject of Anthropological Inquiry," an important "plea for research," and a discussion of methodologies.
In 1968, anthropologist Sue-Ellen Jacobs published "Berdache: A Brief Review of the literature."
In 1971, a few references to homosexuality among Natives of what is now the United States were included in Dr. Francisco Guerra's documentary anthology, The Pre-Columbian Mind: A Study into the Aberrant Nature of Sexual Drives, Drugs Affecting Behavior, and the Attitudes 'Towards life and Death . . . .
In 1975, Donald A. Forgey discussed “The Institution of the Berdache Among the North American Plains Indians." Forgey commented in passing that "a thorough, comprehensive investigation" of the berdache among Native Americans was still lacking. The present historical survey attempts to show that documentary materials for a large-scale study do exist.
The intention here is simply to present in one place and in historical order some of the major and varied types of historical source materials referring to Native American homosexuality. Years of additional research, study, and analysis will be required to come to a clear, reliable understanding of these documents, to realize their hidden meanings and implications, to more fully understand the place of LGBTQ+ people in Native American life and history.
The existence of same-sex sexual activity and gender-nonconforming people among those who originally inhabited the United States will no doubt hold a certain special fascination for those LGBTQ+ people who are today beginning to repossess the national and world history of their people, part of their struggle for social change and to win control over their lives.
One fact that emerges clearly here is that the Christianization of Native Americans and the colonial appropriation of the continent by white, Western "civilizers" included the attempt by the conquerors to eliminate various traditional forms of Indian sexuality and gender -- part of their attempt to destroy that Native culture which might fuel resistance -- a form of cultural genocide involving both Native Americans and LGBTQ+ people. Today, the recovery of Native American LGBTQ+ history is a task in which all progressive people have a common interest.
- Francisco Guerra, The Pre-Columbian Mind: A Study into the Aberrant Nature of Sexual Drives, Drugs Affecting Behaviour and the Attitude Towards Life and Death, with a Survey of Psychotherapy in Pre-Columbian America.(London: Seminar, 1971), p. 23,162,206,237,238,239,256.