In the 1990s, Indian Country (as we called it) was a very different place for Native Americans. Our rural communities were isolated, with communication limited to landlines and the mail. Cigarette and beer companies frequently sponsored our powwows, recycling was unheard of, and the entire Native scene portrayed itself as very straight. Not straight-laced, per se, but really hetero.
The term "Two Spirit" for LGBTQ+ Native Americans didn’t exist yet, at least not outside Ojibwe Territory. As for the concept—let’s just say that there were plenty of MCs making winkte (gay) jokes at the powwows I attended in the early '90s. Still, in spite of prejudice, it was common knowledge that in “the old days,” most of our Nations accepted and honored gender fluidity.
I recall one of my elders sharing about a man from home who was that way. “I don’t like it,” I remember her telling me as she braided me up for one of our dances, “but we love N. and so—not my way, mind you.” I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but I understood her comments to mean that winkte was not OK.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and wow.
Not only did the Native-American population skyrocket in North America, but we've gone through a major shift in how Two Spirits are recognized and treated. Today, dozens of Two Spirit organizations exist across the United States and Canada (North Valley Two Spirits, represent!). We have several of our own powwows, 501c3s and models that help sustain and preserve the Two Spirit way of life.
To get a sense of where we are today, let’s take a look back at some of the original Two-Spirit heroes who helped light the way.
Please know that gender and pronouns can be fluid in Native America, so this article uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they," plus male and female pronouns.
Osh-Tisch (Apsáalooke or Crow)
Osh-Tisch was a keeper of the Badé tradition—a male-bodied person in the Crow community who lived their daily life in a feminine role. Earning their name “Finds Them And Kills Them” in a fight against the Lakota, Osh-Tisch was a revered member of the tribe who had a lodge, a family and was considered a leader among the Badé. By the 1880s, missionaries began the process of attempting to “whitemanize” the Crow. Obsessed with “The Code of Religious Offenses,” a moral directive that forbade non-Christian spiritual practices, they began persecuting Natives over their dating and marriage traditions, which were often in opposition to the Christian European standard of lifelong heterosexual monogamy. Throughout the 1920s, tribal members who refused to abandon their traditions were penalized or imprisoned and their families’ treaty rations were cut or denied.
It wasn’t long before Osh-Tisch and other Two Spirits became a target of the code and were imprisoned. But the Crow chiefs and warriors spoke out in support of Two Spirit values. They pushed hard against U.S. federal agents, ultimately gaining the Badés’ release.
A Lhamana (Zuni Two Spirit) from the area that is now New Mexico, We’wha was born a male-bodied person who wore a mix of women’s and men’s clothing. They performed tasks that were typically divided by gender roles, distinguished as both a weaver and potter as well as a hunter and spiritual leader.
We’wha spoke English and struck up friendships with white outsiders, including the anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson. They even traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1886 and met President Grover Cleveland. Largely perceived as a cisgender woman, We’wha became the toast of the town on this trip and gained a degree of national celebrity.
Things didn't go as well for the Zuni tribe, however. Similar to the experiences of the Crow, Christian missionaries arrived at Zuni (modern-day New Mexico and Arizona) in 1877, intent on converting the community. The Lhamana were imprisoned and the Zuni fought for their eventual release.
After getting out of prison, We’wha walked 40 miles back to the reservation and returned to their former life: leading ceremonies, making pottery, weaving with the women and hunting with the men.
Hastiin Klah (Diné)
Hastiin Klah was a master sand painter, chanter, weaver and healer. There are four genders in Diné tradition and Klah was considered a Nádleehi (or "one who changes")—an individual who exhibits the characteristics ascribed to the opposite sex. According to historical sources, Klah is believed to have been intersex.
Born in 1867, Klah represented the Bear Mountain area (now Fort Wingate, New Mexico) and was considered exceptional in a multitude of areas. As a youth, Klah had a gift for traditional chants, which often take days to correctly recite. He learned weaving from his mother and sister, and traveled across the U.S. to showcase these skills at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Klah single-handedly saved the Navajo weaving tradition in the face of religious persecution. In 1921, he met heiress Mary Cabot Wheelwright and the two became close friends. Together, they formed the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. Klah was integral in the museum’s design, implementation and curation; he even blessed its grounds. He passed away before the museum opened in 1937.
Lozen and Dahteste (Chiricahua Apache)
For 30 years, the U.S. Army attempted to capture Goyaałé (more widely known as Geronimo), a prominent Apache leader and medicine man. Among his band of warriors, two stand out: Lozen and Dahteste.
Lozen was the sister of Geronimo’s right-hand man, Victorio. She was among the fiercest warriors, a medicine woman gifted with powerful visions. Her strength in military strategy became apparent from an early age.
After her brother was killed in battle, a distraught Lozen exacted her revenge on the U.S. Army in true warrior fashion: returning to the warpath quickly, purposefully and with deadly results. At least four other Apache women aided Lozen’s campaign against the U.S. Army, but none like Dahteste. Dahteste was a scout, messenger and mediator. She was married and fought alongside her husband, but her “battle buddy,” Lozen, was always nearby.
In the 1880s, the U.S. Army negotiated the surrender of Geronimo and his people. Many Apache were sent to Florida and lived out the rest of their days in confinement at Fort Marion. Dahteste spent eight years as a prisoner of war at Fort Marion and 19 years at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Upon her release, she relocated to Whitetail on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. She owned many sheep (a sign of wealth to many Southwestern tribes) and had a hired man to help keep them. She was often seen riding around the reservation in a pickup, dressed in full regalia. She outplayed everyone in baseball and lived in peace on Mescalero Reservation until her death in 1955.
Sadly, her friend and fellow warrior, Lozen, lived out the rest of her life in a very different way. She died of tuberculosis while imprisoned in Alabama, never returning to her homeland.
Samuel White Swan-Perkins is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, Native News Online, Powwows.com and other media organizations. He's a co-founder of the Indigenous Support Collaborative (ISCNC) and owner of White Swan-Perkins Cultural Consulting. Based in Butte County, California, Perkins continues indigenous traditions as a powwow singer and member of the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society.