I’ve already written about the European reaction upon learning that the First Peoples of North America did not share their neurotic prejudice against homosexuality and gender variance.
The Jesuits and the French explorers brought back stories of Two-Spirit men “given to sodomy” and “Hunting Women” with wives. Later, British explorers brought back similar accounts. George Catlin said that the Two-Spirit tradition must “be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.” Sadly, that’s exactly what happened in many places.
In the early days of British rule, British traders and explorers were still dependent on the First Nations for trade and survival, and generally did not interfere directly in their traditions. But they wrote with amused horror at what they called the “berdache,” for their British and colonial audience, describing the religious ceremonies, traditions, and identities around the gender-variant/homosexual/bisexual people among the peoples who were here first.
Alexander Henry gives this account of a man named Ozawwendib, or Yellow Head. He was the son of an Ojibwe chief at what’s now Leech Lake in Minnesota, but was then British territory as part of the Hudson Bay Company:
Berdash, a son of Sucrie [Sucre, Sweet, or Wiscoup] arrived from the Assiniboine, where he had been with a young man to carry tobacco concerning the war. This person is a curious compound of man and woman. He is a man both as to his members and his courage, but pretends to be womanish, and dresses as such. His walk and mode of sitting, his manners, occupations, and language are those of a woman.
Henry goes on to praise the “Sodomite’s” courage and speed, but also portrays him as wild and drunk.
Another explorer – the Northwest Company’s David Thompson – described a Two-Spirit person he encountered in what’s now Washington State, but whom he had met previously in British Columbia. He described this person, Kaúxuma Núpika, as:
…apparently a young man, well dressed in leather, carrying a Bow and Arrows, with his Wife, a young woman in good clothing, [who] came to my door and requested me to give them my protection; somewhat at a loss what answer to give, on looking at them, in the Man I recognised the Woman who three years ago was the wife of Boiverd, a Canadian and my servant; her conduct then was so loose that I had requested her to send him away to her friends, but the Kootenaes were also displeased with her; she left them, and found her way from Tribe to Tribe to the Sea. She became a prophetess, declared her sex changed, that she was now a Man, dressed and armed herself as such, and also took a young woman to Wife, of whom she pretended to be very jealous: when with the Chinooks, as a prophetess, she predicted diseases to them, which made some of them threaten her life, and she found it necessary to endeavour to return to her own country at the head of this river.
In the early 1800s, these kind of descriptions were common from Europeans who lived among First Nations people in western Canada. Another Northwest Company official — Charles Mackenzie — wrote that the men of the Crow Nation were “much addicted to an abominable crime, the crime of sodomy.” James Mackenzie said that that the Naskapi Innu people of what’s now northern Quebec and Labrador “are libidinous and accused of sodomy.”
Dictionary-makers dutifully recorded translations for “Berdash” and “Sodomy,” along with other mundane words in common use. For example, Edward F. Wilson’s dictionary of “Ojebway” for missionaries helpfully tells us that the word for “Sodomy” is poodjedeyáwin, should the ministers need to use this word in any sermon.
These descriptions began to fade in the second half of the 1800s, at least in Canada. By the end of the 1800s, the Two-Spirit tradition had disappeared completely from white view, to the point where the missionary Adrien Morice claimed that he thought it was strange that the Dakelh people of what’s now central British Columbia had a myth about sodomy, as “They know the crime in neither name nor deed.” Such a claim would not have been any First Nations a hundred years before.
Morice was very excited about this story, in which a man mutilates and then murders another man (actually a woodpecker in a man’s shape) who tries to have sex with him. When he returns with his victim’s head, his country and home burn until the head is returned to his cousin. Although it is the murderer and not the victim who is punished with fire, Morice sees the story as a slightly-mangled version of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. With a little too much enthusiasm, he tells us,
Can sodomy be more graphically described or its punishment better assimilated to that of the ungodly inhabitants of the plain cities?
The husband here, no less than the God-fearing Lot of the Bible, escapes free ; while the cause of the conflagration, the voluptuous young man, in common with the majority of the population, pays with his life for his unnatural crime.
The Dakelh with their supposed Sodom story were an exception, however – by the 1890s, there was no mention of “sodomy” in any missionary journals or ethnographies that I’ve found in Canada, even as a denial.
This was quite a change. Missionary and explorer accounts in the early 19th-century and before had described homosexuality and gender-variance in peoples as diverse as the Naskapi in the east and the Ktunaxa in the west – and especially the Ojibwe in the middle. Homosexuality and gender-conformity had once been part of the popular narrative that treated First Nations as dangerously “uncivilized,” and white culture as superior.
The Disappearance of the Ceremonies
There’s no dispute that these Two-Spirit identities and traditions existed. The “dance of the Berdache” among the Sauk peoples, the view of Two-Spirits as sacred among the Ojibwe, the various third- and fourth-gender practices on the plains and elsewhere – these things are well-documented in both oral histories and the written histories of explorers. There’s also no disputing that at some point these practices disappeared – destroyed, all agree, by the colonizing culture.
But the precise path that destruction took is very hard to track. In the months this blog has been on hiatus, I’ve been poring over penitentiary records and the reports of the North-West Mounted Police to parliament, and debates in parliament, as well as books written by and about Two-Spirit people in the modern day.
A description of the destruction of the Two-Spirit traditions might exist in oral histories of some nations, but I have no access to these. But no such stories have been mentioned in the books and pamphlets put out by Two-Spirit organizations, which makes me suspect that these histories, too, must’ve wiped out.
Still, we can build up a working theory from the evidence we do have.
First of all, the 19th-century Canadian justice system meticulously recorded the races of its prisoners, and there are very few “red indians” charged with sodomy, buggery, or gross indecency. The police had no qualms about arresting First Nations folk for other crimes, even minor ones, as the records the North-West Mounted Police were sending back to the government after 1873 show.
Furthermore, the colonial government had begun plans to assimilate the First Nations population as early as 1857. Throughout the late 1800s – and especially after the 1876 Indian Act – numerous laws were passed to control different aspects of the cultures of the First Nations. But the ceremonies surrounding Two-Spirits are never mentioned. Surely they would’ve been a target, if they were still around.
Lastly, the reports of traders, explorers, and missionaries before 1850 commonly mention Two-Spirit traditions and individuals, while later reports don’t mention it at all. By the late nineteenth century, Two-Spirits have completely vanished from the Canadian record – although not from the American one, which continues to record Two-Spirit people among the A:shiwi (Zuni), Diné Bikéyah (Navajo), and Absaroka (Crow) nations into the 1890s.
These three things make me suspect that the ceremonies and identities around Two-Spirits were destroyed in Canada early in the nineteenth century. And because of the time frame – before the government had the means or legal apparatus to prosecute First Nations people for any crimes in their own territory – I suspect it was conversion, and not the law courts, that did the damage. While it’s only a guess at this point given the lack of evidence, it seems probable that missionaries rather than the police who forced the shift.
This would fit with the growing body of essays and other works by Two-Spirit writers, who point out that the missionaries’ attempts to introduce homophobia along with Christianity worked all too well, and they now face serious discrimination in communities whose ancestors once honoured them.
Judging by the disappearance of Two-Spirit people from the missionary and explorer records by halfway through the 1800s, I’m guessing that the ceremonies honouring Two-Spirit folk were already gone in Canada by the second half of the 19th century.
It’s possible some of it continued in disguised form in different ceremonies after that, but as the government clamped down on these ceremonies as well starting in the late 19th century, any vestige of the older ways would’ve been broken.
Lately, the First Nations in Canada have been experiencing a resurgence of their numbers, and a renaissance of their culture and traditions. In the early 1990s, this renaissance sparked a renewed interest in the Two-Spirit traditions. The term “Two-Spirit” was coined in English at a conference at Winnipeg in 1990, an exact translation of the traditional Ojibwe term niizh manidoowag. The phrase has since been adopted by Two-Spirits in the US as well.
But these new developments will have to wait for later entry. For now, though, we turn toward the emerging voice in the late 19th and early 20th century, of the earliest lesbian and gay writers and poets.
Sources: The Catlin quote comes from his book Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians from 1844. Alexander Henry gives his account of Ozawwendib in his published journals with David Thompson from 1799-1814. He never uses the name Ozawwendib, which is supplied by another trader, John Tanner. The description of female-bodied Two-Spirit can be found in David Thompson’s narrative of his explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 the Charles Mackenzie quote comes from Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, which was published by the North-West trading company. The James Mackenzie quote comes from the same book. Edward F. Wilson’s 1874 dictionary is titled The Ojebway Language. Missionary Adrien Morice’s bizarre reading of the Dakelh story comes from his book Three Carrier Myths, published in 1895. For information on crime and punishment by the North-West Mounted Police, I looked over the reports they sent to parliament in the Sessional Papers for the late 19th century. Those are a gold mine of information, and have probably supplied about half of my information for the 19th century on any topic — I still haven’t finished examining the penal records, though, so there may be more in there. For the other point of view, I went to some of the recently-published works and studies, including Becoming two-spirit : gay identity and social acceptance in Indian country by Brian Joseph Gilley, and Two-spirit people : Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality by various authors, edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, and Two spirit people : American Indian, lesbian women and gay men by Lester B. Brown. All of them had little on Two-Spirit history, most of that American, and most of it from the same explorers’ and missionaries’ stories I’ve been using. There was nothing whatsoever on the disappearance of the traditions, except to say that they indeed disappeared. I’ve rounded this out with information from Two-Spirit websites and pamphlets, and Wikipedia’s article. None of the e-mails I’d sent in enquiry to Two-Spirit organizations when I did my original article on this ever received a reply – understandable, but still disappointing.