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World View -- Sex and Spirit: Native American Lesbian Identity

Native American and First Nations lesbians have to deal with unique issues as a result of their history, cultural status, and perceptions as Natives. They come out of a history of genocide; their people have been persecuted, killed, kidnapped, and assimilated for hundreds of years and still face lingering aspects of genocide. They face homophobia and sexism from their own people; racism from lesbians; and racism, homophobia, and sexism from the dominant society, not to mention the classism many Native Americans have to deal with.

It is important to remember that Native lesbians today are not the same as the Natives that lived before the arrival of the white man. Interaction with whites and the cultural genocide perpetrated on Natives has changed Native Americans’ perception of gender and sexuality. Though it is interesting to speculate about how two-spirits were treated in traditional Native American cultures, a focus on such speculation can hide the lives of Native American lesbians today. Unfortunately, despite the encouraging things written about the acceptance and honor of the "berdache" of the past, Native lesbians today face homophobia in their own communities. This is not a traditional Native American value, but a result of the forcing of European culture and religion on Natives. The attempts of whites to destroy any tolerance and respect for female two-spirits is well reported. Writings exist from missionaries about how Native women were told not to have sexual relations with other women (Katz 298). Also, one can find how Native stories about lesbians change from positive to very negative, depending on where and when the story came from. Allen and Cavin cite creator stories in which women have the most important roles. Cavin argues that these are lesbian stories, or at the very least non-heterosexual stories (45). According to Cavin’s sources, lesbians were described in origin myths positively as being in control of the wealth and were in charge of the household and property. They were considered an asset to her family and community. Later, after Native Americans where pushed onto reservations, stories are found where relations between lesbians end in tragedy. Katz has a few stories in which lesbians give birth to babies with no bones (320) or that are shaped like turtles (317-18). In one, a man kills his wife after she seduces his sister and runs off with her. Katz and a man he cites, McMurtrie (322), believe that the negative twist in these stories are due to European influence, especially since both were recorded after 1900. Katz also has several stories about female "berdaches" in which the women (who dress like men and marry women) are ridiculed. These women lived after the influence of whites had plenty of time to seep into Native American culture. Unfortunately, I can find no records of female two-spirits that exist from before the whites came or when they still had little influence on Native Americans.

Today, Native women and homosexuals generally do not have any of the respect that was paid to them traditionally. Beverly Little Thunder (Lakota Sioux) remembers in her autobiography how women were treated as second class citizens in the American Indian Movement (185). She was castigated by others whenever she spoke up. She feared coming out to her people because she thought her ex-husband would take away her children or she would be banned from religious ceremonies. Women in Native American communities are pushed into marriages with men. Thunder saw that a woman could only have a voice when she was attached to a man. Within AIM, women were encouraged to have as many children as possible in order to help their people survive. Under the pressure to allow men to be strong and support them while teaching children to grow up with Native values, lesbian Natives have a difficult time discovering their identity and coming out. Native women are not generally encouraged to express themselves, either. Thunder’s ideas where belittled until she was married. Native women have not been allowed access to certain religious roles, such as being the drummers in the Sun Dance, which is an extremely important religious ceremony. Interestingly, Allen cites two men of AIM who had good things to say about homosexuals, Russell Means and John (Fire) Lame Deer (200). One may note, however, that Lame Deer refers only to male homosexuals and it is difficult to know if Means was referring to lesbians and gay men from the short quote provided.

As harsh as it sounds to whites and as hard as it is for us to believe, we have attempted to completely wipe out Native Americans and still perpetuate aspects of cultural genocide today. The forcing of European beliefs and culture upon Natives is not simply a problem of the past. In my personal experience, when talking with others about my research into Native American culture and history, I often hear people say "Why can’t they just become like everybody else (meaning whites)? They should get jobs and own houses and become a part of our culture." Urbanization, in the opinion of many Natives and myself, is strictly an aspect of genocide that has attempted to assimilate Natives into white culture. Once, Natives choosing to live in the city were required to sign a contract saying they would not go back to their reservations. Sent to the city with no resources and no help, many could find no jobs, but could not go back home either. They were forced to give up their Native identity in order to survive. Ironically, urbanization opened a door for Native lesbians who often felt like the only ones on their reservations. The only answer to that isolation has been, so far, to leave the reservation. Opportunities to meet and organize with other Native lesbians opened up in cities. In 1975, the first Native American gay and lesbian organization was created by a Native lesbian, Barbara Cameron (Lakota), and a gay man. This is GAI, Gay American Indian in San Francisco, which still exists today. Native lesbians now are stressing the importance of teaching tolerance on the reservations. Medicine’s paper seems to be a call for Native Americans to work on making homosexuals comfortable on reservations, instead of sending them into the city. Despite the homophobia that often chases lesbians and gay men off their reservations, some Native lesbians have found that their people are starting to accept them more. Brant, for example, has made a home for herself and her partner on her parents reservation and has been accepted by her people.

Probably the most subversive aspect of genocide in existence today is the romanticizing and appropriation of Native American culture. It is popular now to be involved in Native American spirituality. Symbols from Native American culture are appropriated, used as mascots for sports teams or icons for companies. Cameron notes that if a baseball team was called the "Niggers" it would cause quite an uproar, but no one supports the few people who work to get the "Redskins" name changed (235). Unfortunately, lesbians today have participated in that appropriation. Two-spirits are considered a part of (white) lesbian and gay history. The Native Americans of the past are praised for their acceptance of homosexuals and romanticized by whites. However, Lesbians need to remember that two-spirits exist today, and they are no longer respected or even tolerated in some of their communities. Concentrating on the female two-spirits of the past only causes us to ignore the Native lesbians today. Cameron has noted that the mainstream lesbian movement has been strongly racist; she believes that there are deliberate attempts made by the lesbian community to undermine people of color (234). She calls the appropriation of Native culture "cannibalizing," saying that now anyone can claim to be Native American and make a profit or garner rights from sporting a false Native identity (234).

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As late as 1914 gender passing obviously provided more opportunities for a minority female than she would have had living as a woman. Ralph Kerwinieo (nee Cora Anderson, an American Indian woman who found employment for years as a man and claimed that she "legally" married another woman in order to "protect" her from the sexist world, also expressed feminist awareness for her decision to pass as a man.

Kerwinieo was exposed as a female in Milwaukee in 1914 by his second wife, Dorothy Kelnowski, six months after their marriage. Kerwinieo had lived successfully as a man for thirteen years, including the period of his first marriage to Marie White. Subjected to a legal hearing, Kerwinieo was ordered to revert to wearing women's clothing. Lurid newspaper reports followed.

Anderson published a defense of her actions, taking a decidedly feminist tack. Anderson had been a nurse and had found that "two-third of the physicians…made a nurse's virtue the price of their influence in getting her steady work." "Is it any wonder," she asked, "that I determined to become a member of this privileged sex, if possible?" She further justified her action by arguing that women's rights and economic opportunities were so severely curtailed that her choice was logical in the face of such discrimination:

In the future centuries it is possible that woman will be the owner of her own body and the custodian of her own soul…[Now] the well cared for woman is a parasite, and the woman who must work is a slave…it is still a man-made world - made by men for men…Do you blame me for wanting to be a man - free to live as a man in a man-made world? Do you blame me for hating to again resume a woman's clothes and just belong?

(Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, p. 44; Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History, pp. 254-257)

Despite white influence lesbian Native Americans perceive their identity differently than whites. Tafoya describes Native American sexuality as being fluid (8). Western perception of sexuality usually requires one to be either heterosexual or homosexual. Sexuality can be visualized as a stick, with gay on one side and straight on the other, and perhaps different degrees of bisexuality in between. Native American perception is better visualized as a circle, with gay on one point, straight on the opposite side and an infinite number of places on the circle upon which a person could be placed (Tafoya 8). Also, sexuality is perceived as fluid, so that one isn’t stuck in her position on the circle; she can move about to different positions on the circle throughout her life. This fluidity makes it so a heterosexual Native and homosexual Native are not so different from each other. Their identities are not limited by Western categories.

Kinship is an important part of Native American identity and affects lesbians just as much as any other Native. Medicine (Standing Rock Lakota) stresses its importance at the beginning of her paper where she greets "all my kinspersons" with the idea that her kinspersons include humans and all other creatures (145). Where white lesbians may feel separate from their culture, perhaps as outsiders working against white men’s society, Native lesbians are connected to their people. Cameron says that Native lesbians would never disrespect their people by calling heterosexual Natives "breeders" (236). Brant also discusses this difference between white lesbians and Native lesbians. Native lesbians, she believes, are connected to their men and need to fight for Native American rights as a whole, not just women or lesbian rights. Also, lesbian identity is inherently connected to all aspects of Native life, spirit, sex, prayer, flesh, religion, self, etc., as stressed by Brant (60) and Wilson. The term two-spirit itself is drawn from the traditional belief that sexuality is inseparable from other aspects of life. Brant especially stresses this point in a story she tells about how Blue Heron entered her body as she was having sex with her partner. She became Blue Heron through the connection between her spirituality and sex (61). Western writers, when defining lesbianism, seem to try to separate it from other aspects of life. Academics are commonly trying to separate sexuality and gender, though Native Americans consider these to be connected. Two-spirits are seen as genders other than man and woman, as described in Thomas’ essay in Two-Spirit People. While some lesbians may wonder which is more important, their identity as lesbians or as women or perhaps as a member of a racial or ethnic minority, Native Americans see all these things as parts of a whole. Generally, Native American lesbians have similar views of their sexuality even though they come from many different tribes. All the writers I came across have very similar stories to tell about their experiences within their tribes as lesbians and how they perceive their identity. Mixed bloods who are closely connected to their Native relatives are also very similar to full bloods. It may simply be that Native lesbians who are willing to write about their identity are similar in character. It would help if a study were done on many Native lesbians to understand their different experiences and perceptions, but no such study exists. Therefore, I found now differences between lesbians of different tribes.

As a result of their inherent differences, Native American lesbians face different issues than white lesbians. They must reclaim and heal their cultural identity which they are doing through activism, art, writing, and environmentalism. Writing is considered medicine by Brant. Healing through writing began a long time ago with the first novel written by a female Native, Hum-Ishu-Ma (Okanagan Nation), in1910 (Brant 10). In 1984, Brant edited the first anthology by Native women called A Gathering of Spirit. She has also contributed to the healing process with several of her own books. In 1978 the first lesbian and gay Native anthology Living the Sprit was published. Native American lesbians have not quit there, they continue to create poetry, books, and plays. Environmentalism plays a big part in the healing process as well because Native Americans are connected to their land. Brant, Thunder, Cameron and others talk about the importance of taking care of the earth and teaching others how to take care of it. It is important to them to maintain natural resources, heal land that has been raped by whites, and recover more of the land they once lived on. Native American communities have to deal with issues like fighting the placement of waste incinerators on their reservations. Cameron offers guidelines of how white lesbians can be allies to Native American lesbians (236). First and foremost, she stresses the importance of honoring their treaties. She also reminds us that Native lesbians’ needs and issues are connected to the concerns of all Native Americans. She says that there is a need for programs specifically designed to meet the needs of Native lesbians. She wants white lesbians to realize how they have silenced Native lesbians by choosing to ignore the ways they are very different from whites and by appropriating Native American culture. Part of this is allowing Native lesbians to separate themselves from white lesbians in some ways. The tendency to view Native lesbians as just like white lesbians is just another way of making them invisible, another aspect of genocide. They need to be able to create spaces for themselves as is exemplified in Chrystos’ poem.

Those wishing to study Native American lesbians need to remember that these people live and struggle for their rights today and not think about them as elements of a dead culture. They have changed but survived through genocide which includes urbanization and the appropriation of their culture. They still hold on to their own identities as separate from white lesbians and connected to their people and spirituality. It must be remembered that the issues Native lesbians face and their concerns are not the same as mainstream lesbians and if white lesbians want to understand Native lesbians, they must see how Native Americans have faced and still face different obstacles to their rights than we have. We can not continue to make Native American lesbians invisible but must understand their issues and work with them. 


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: The Recovering of the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Brant, Beth. Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1994.

Cameron, Barbara. "No Apologies: A Lakota Lesbian Perspective." The New Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book. Ed, Ginny Vida. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 234-36.

Cavin, Susan. Lesbian Origins. San Francisco: ism press, 1948.

Gould, Janice. "Disobedience (in language) in Texts by Lesbian Native Americans." ARIEL. 25.1 (1994): 32.

Grahn, Judy. "Strange Country This: Lesbianism and North American Indian Tribes." Journal of Homosexuality. 12.3-4 (1986): 43-45.

Herman, Heidi. "CHRYSTOS." Queer Resources Directory. 16 Feb. 1998.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-Spirit People. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997. (includes Wesley Thomas' essay "Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality" 156-173 and Beatrice Medicine's "Changing Native American Roles in an Urban Context and Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context" 145-155).

Joe, Jennie R., and Dorothy Lonewolf Miller. "Cultural Survival and Contemporary American Indian Women in the City." Women of Color in U.S. Society. Eds. Maxine Baca Zinn, and Bonnie Thornton. Philidelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. 185-202

Katz, Jonathan Ned, ed. Gay American History, Lesbians & Gay Men In The USA rev. ed. New York: Meridan, 1992.

Ramos, Juanita, and Mariana Romo-Carmona. "Chronology of US Lesbians of Color, 1950-1995." Lesbians of Color Site. 16 Feb. 1998.

Tafoya, Terry. "Native Gay and Lesbian Issues: The Two-Spirited." Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Among Lesbians and Gay Men. Ed. Beverly Greene. Vol. 3. SAGE Publications, Inc: Thousand Oaks, 1997. 1-9.

Thunder, Beverly Little. "Native American Spirituality." The New Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book. Ed, Ginny Vida. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 185-87.

Wilson, Alex. "How we find ourselves: Identity development and two-spirit people." Harvard Educational Review. 66.2 (1996): 303-317.



In spite of domestic drudgery, which was taken for granted, some Indian women found opportunities to become social leaders. The female berdache took on men's work and engaged in same-sex marriage. Women hunters and warriors brought food for their families and defended their communities, like the famous Kutenai titqattek (berdache), Madame Boisverd, a warrior woman who became an inter-tribal courier and a prophet  of "smallpox and other fearful happenings" in the early 1800s, and Woman Chief, a berdache and chief of the Crow nation, who achieved the third highest rank in her tribe. Among the Mojave, the hwami (berdache) who became powerful shamans and medicine women. There is documentation that the Klamath and Shasta twilinna'ek (berdache) were women who manifest cross-gender or strong-hearted behavior


Quick Links
Ralph Kerwinieo
Madame Boisverd


Chrystos describes herself as a Native American Lesbian poet and activist. Her writing is thoughtful and provocative, taking no quarter and making no compromises. Her poems range from funny to loving to angry (often all at the same time).




Beth Brant

Brant, who uses the name Degonwadonti, garnered acclaim in the 1980s for the distinctive voice presented in her fiction and poetry. Brant is of Mohawk ancestry and openly lesbian, two elements that play an important thematic role in her body of work. She was born in suburban Detroit and raised both there and in Canada; she continues to live part-time in each country. After a marriage to an abusive, alcoholic husband ended in divorce, Brant came to terms with her own sexuality at the age of thirty three...

Brant and her lover, Denise Dorsz, co-founded a library and archive on Native American women.


Honored by the Moon. In this upbeat and empowering videotape, Native American lesbians and gay men speak of their unique historical and spiritual role. Within the Native American community, homosexuality was traditionally associated with the power to bridge worlds. Interviews with leading activists and personal testimony attest to the positive and painful experiences of being Native and gay. Produced by Smith (Dakota) for the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force to raise issues of homophobia within the Indian community, this ground-breaking documentary is also an important contribution to culturally sensitive discussions of homosexuality. From Women Make Movies

A videotape by Mona Smith
15 minutes
Color, VHS
Rental VHS $50.00
VHS Sale $150.00
Order # W99070


The Impact of Colonization on the Role of the Nontraditional Native American Woman
by Caitlin Howell, Fall 1996

This paper is an analysis of the impact of Western European culture on Native American culture as it relates to social and sexual roles of Native American women. Specifically, to examine the impact of the introduction of Western European society, which is characterized by a patriarchal power structure, on the status of female homosexuals and females who existed in male gender roles (cross-gender roles) in Native American tribes.


"Johnny Greyeyes" is a powerful story of a Native American woman struggling to maintain strength, love and spirit. Since the shooting death of her father, Johnny has spent most of her life in prison. There, she forms a new family and falls in love with her cellmate Lana. But her responsibilities to the outside world weigh heavily as she attempts to pull together her fractured natural family. With a release date near, she valiantly strives to keep her two worlds together.

Directed by Jorge Manzano. Starring Gail Maurice, Columpa Bobb, Jonathan Fisher, Gloria May Eshkibok. 75 minutes. Not rated. Available on VHS and DVD.



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