The Impact of Colonization on the Role of the Nontraditional Native American Woman

by Caitlin Howell, Fall 1996 (caitlin at cs dot wisc dot edu)

The following 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, I would like 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.

What emerged as I examined sources for this paper was that, first, pre-colonial Native American society was a society which gave relatively equal status to males and females. Because of the equal distribution of power, it did not upset the power structure for women to identify with what Western European society defined as men's sexual or social roles, nor was it a threat for men to identify with women's social or sexual roles. After being conquered by patriarchal Western European-America, Native American culture exhibited somewhat predictable results. In a male dominated power structure, a woman who adopts a man's social or sexual role may be perceived as demanding the power normally given to a man. On the other hand, a man who adopts a woman's social or sexual role is perceived as voluntarily and foolishly giving up the power associated with the man's role. Any of these four lifestyle choices, which are incongruous with Western European social roles at the time of colonization, were perceived as threatening to the patriarchal power structure of Western European society. In the period following colonization, cross-culture and homosexual Native Americans became less valuable within their own cultures, and nearly disappeared. Today, in the post-civil rights era, Native American societies struggle with centuries of sexism inherited from European America, and homosexual Native Americans attempt to reclaim their traditionally accepted status.

At one time, both the cross-gender role of women and homosexual sexual activity were widely accepted in Native American culture. The cross-gender role and homosexuality were not mutually inclusive. Paula Gunn Allen compares the cross-gender role to the conception of the modern American "dyke" and the role of women who engaged in sexual activity with other women to the conception of the modern American lesbian. (Conditions 81) Anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood explains, "Individuals possessed a gender identity, but not a corresponding sexual identity, and thus were allowed several options. Sexuality itself was not embedded in Native American gender ideology."(36)

The role of the cross-gender female was simply that she performed the duties usually performed by males. One ethnologist described the example of the Native Americans living near the Bering Strait:

Girls of the region also undertook the homosexual crossover. Carpenter wrote that among the Eskimo people and other populations, especially in the Yukon, girls sometimes declined marriage and childbearing. "Changing their sex, so to speak, they live as boys, adopting masculine manners and customs, they hung the stag, and in the chase shrink from no danger; in fishing from no fatigue. They are dykes, in other words, not alienated modern dykes, but dykes with a well-defined and well respected social function"(Grahn 49)

Another example illustrates the status of the cross-gender female in Native American society:

That the Indians themselves had extremely high opinions of their homosexual population is best illustrated by the offices homosexuals held within tribal life and the openness with which they lived, even marrying members of their own sex in some tribes. A Kutenai woman of Montana, for instance, who dressed as a man accompanied in her travels by another woman that the white writer described as the former's "wife," held the occupations of courier, guide, prophet, warrior, and peace mediator.(Grahn, 46)

The role of the cross-gender female was recognized and validated by Native American society. Sometimes, if a young girl preferred activities usually done by males, or they had a large number of daughters, her parents raised her as a son.(Allen Conditions 30) When the daughter reached puberty, she would participate in the rituals that marked her as a man rather than a woman.(Ibid. 31) A young woman could also choose the cross-gender role: "Put very simply, when (often in adolescence) through dreams, visions, or public rites, these spirits tell a person to put on the clothing, language, habits, and occupation of the opposite sex, the person does so. Not to follow the guidance given would bean a serious breach of the cultural value and a danger to one's self."(Grahn 47)

It should be noted that cross-gender roles for men were also widely accepted within tribal society; some men chose to dress like and work alongside women, while other cross-gender men became important religious figures within their tribes. (Grahn 44-46, Katz 282)

A young woman's choice to take a cross-gender role was fully supported by Native American spiritual beliefs. Spiritual guidance is a fundamental part of Native American culture and personal identity. Paula Gunn Allen explains:

Among American Indians, spirit-related persons are more closely related than blood-related persons. Understanding this primary difference between American Indian values and modern Euro-American values is critical to understanding Indian familial structures and the context in which lesbians functioned. For American Indian people, the primary value was relationship to the spirit world. All else was determined by the essential nature of this understanding. Spirits, gods, and goddesses, metaphysical/occult forces, and the right means of relating to them, determined the tribes every institution, custom, endeavor, and pastime. This was not peculiar to inhabitants of the Western hemisphere, it was at one time the primary value of all tribal people on earth.(Allen Conditions 70)

The existence of the role of the cross-gender female allowed women who preferred the lifestyles of men to be integrated into Native American society. By identifying these women as social males, they could marry females, establish households, and share the usual male-female division of household labor.(Blackwood 36)

Before European Americans colonized the Americas, homosexuals had a normal, perhaps even respected, social position in Native American culture. In 1951, Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach collected information in 76 Native American societies, and found that male homosexual activities were regarded favorably in 49(64 percent) of the societies, and female homosexual activities were regarded favorably in 53 societies.(Katz 326) One of the most important reasons that cross-gender and homosexual individuals could exist in Native American culture is the equal status of women before colonization. The status of men and women was equal; therefore, for women to adopt men's roles was not a threat to male power.(Blackwood 33) Blackwood comments, "Homosexual culture goes hand in hand with a strong woman-based society, and such a society was at the very heart of Indian culture that has been most under attack by white philosophy and practice."(55)

Additionally, male and female roles and activities were not as clearly defined as they are in modern European American culture. One article explains:

Although in most tribes there were distinct areas of female and male production, this diversion was not entirely rigid, and women's roles and tasks were often extremely variable. In some tribes, women enjoyed significant flexibility and latitude in their gender roles and lifestyle preferences. In these societies, free expression of sexuality and nonconformist gender roles were permitted, with nontraditional males and females, gays, and lesbians accepted to varying degrees within the group.(LaFramboise et al. 458)

Most Native American tribes were matrilineal societies; that is, the status of a person's mother determined their status within the tribe, as well as their relationships to other tribe members.(Allen 74) Also, women were not as restricted by marriage as they are in European American society; divorce and remarriage were easy and acceptable.(Ibid. 73) Permissibility of premarital and extramarital relations contributed to the permissibility of lesbian relations.(Blackwood 35)

Women tended to control what went on within the home, while men were in charge of public positions of authority and contact with outsiders.(LaFramboise et al. 461) This sometimes befuddled European American contacts, who interpreted the public positions of authority as the true centers of power. For example:

Before the tribe's concession to Catholicism, the Montagnais-Naskapi social system was striking in its woman-centeredness and flexibility. Women exercised a great deal of control over family decisions (such as planning when to move) and other household affairs; in fact, missionaries reported, with dismay, that men followed their wives advice and would not act against their wishes.(LaFramboise et al. 460-461)

The Americas were colonized during a socially and morally restrictive time for Western Europe. Colonization transfigured the equal gender power structure of Native American society and all but wiped out cross-gender and homosexual Native Americans. It is difficult to put together a detailed and completely accurate picture of the causes of the disappearance of homosexual and cross-gender Native Americans because the accounts we have of them are sporadic and often full of obvious cultural and religious bias.

As colonization progressed, Native American homosexuals seemed to disappear as their societies were touched by European American influence. Judy Grahn recounts:

Sue Ellen Jacobs studied written records from the last few centuries for references to homosexual in American Indian tribes. Her figures reveal how prevalent Gay traditions were for the people who occupied this continent when the European colonial population arrived. Out of 99 tribes who kept written records, 88 made reference to homosexuality, with 20 specific references to lesbianism. The latter references are more remarkable considering how little information has been recorded about anything concerning women, let alone information about lesbianism. The other 11 tribes denied any homosexuality to the anthropologists and other writers. All the denials of the presence of homosexuality came from East Coast tribes located in the areas of heaviest and longest contact with those segments of white Christian culture that severely punish people who admit to homosexuality.(Grahn 43)

It is likely that white disapproval of homosexuality caused Native American homosexuals to disguise that part of their identity, and tribes gave white anthropologists and ethnographers the possibly mistaken impression that they shared their disapproval.(Blackwood 28)

Accounts of homosexual and cross-gender individuals spanning 400 years from the mid-1500's through the mid-twentieth century at first describe homosexual and cross-gender individuals as religious figures, warriors, and average members of society. However, as decades pass, the accounts increasingly describe incidents where cross-gender and homosexual individuals are subjects of mockery and ostracization.(Katz 281-334) Numbers of homosexual and cross-gender individual also appear to dwindle, as early accounts often describe contact with several cross-gender and homosexual individuals in a single tribe, and later accounts sometimes describe second hand stories of single legendary cross-gender and homosexual individuals.

Many of the accounts are written by missionaries who unrestrainedly express their disgust with homosexual and cross-gender individuals. One Jesuit priest wrote, " were seen to wear the dress of women without a blush, and to debase themselves so as to perform those occupations which are most peculiar to the sex, from whence followed a corruption of morals past all expression... these effeminate persons never marry, and abandon themselves to the most infamous passions, for which cause they are held in the most sovereign contempt." (Katz 290)

Another difficulty in interpreting the accounts is the blurring between cross-gender and homosexual individuals. To be sure, some cross-gender individuals were also homosexuals, but the two roles were by no means mutually inclusive. Perhaps the two were considered morally equivalent by Western European society, and distinguishing between them was unimportant, since no "moral" person would challenge either their sexual or social role. Many accounts describe cross dressing and sodomy in the same sentence, giving no evidence for the latter. It may have been the case that adequate terminology did not exist to describe homosexual and cross-gender behavior, because they were not widely examined in Western European society in the time. For example, in the account of the tribes of the Bering Strait mentioned earlier, a woman who has taken on the male gender role is not described as cross-gender, but as having made a "homosexual crossover".

As North America was colonized, Native American women lost a considerable amount of power, in the world at large as well as within their own society. The high status of women and homosexuals within Native American culture has made them more difficult to integrate into European American culture, and may have contributed to the "wish they would disappear" attitude that has been prevalent since colonization. It may also have provoked additional hostility from European Americans, as Judy Grahn points out in her analysis of the available information regarding the disappearance of homosexual Native Americans:

The European soldiers, trappers, explorers, and settlers were contemptuous of homosexual traditions in their own cultures, and several centuries of persecution under the inquisition had taught them to deny all homosexuality. The heavies persecution of homosexuals in Europe happened concurrently with the heaviest period of colonization of the Indians in North America, according to Paula Gunn Allen. Small wonder, perhaps, that homosexuals were often the first Indians killed, and that even when tribes were tolerated by the white people, their homosexuals were mocked and persecuted to the point that the homosexuals changed their behavior for the sake of their people's safety.(45)

Grahn also wonders whether that European American motivations during the colonial period had less to do with land conquest than is generally admitted:

Arthur Evans went so far as to suggest that the repulsion for homosexual behavior felt by the whites caused them to use harsh and genocidal methods against the tribes, annihilating many of them. Most contemporary scholars believe the purpose of such brutal attacks was to acquire the land and resources of the Indians, and of course this did happened. But that is only the physical side of the story. I believe that the suppression of the often woman-centered and pagan tribal life was a powerful underlying motive.(54)

As exposure to European Americans continued, Native American culture absorbed some of their beliefs. The patriarchal value system replaced gender equality: "The overwhelming result of acculturation has been a breakdown of the complimentary nature of male-female relations and a general increase in Indian male dominance over Indian women."(LaFramboise et al. 461) For example, some Native American deities, like those of the Zuni and Hopi, actually underwent female to male sex changes as power shifted in the male direction. Anti-homosexual sentiment took hold as Native Americans attempted "to secure a 'safer' position among the dominant whites."(Grahn 55)

In the post-colonial period of the late 19th century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs attempted to assimilate Native American girls into white society by removing them to boarding schools, where they were forced to learn domestic skills that were "not appropriate to the technology or culture of the reservation" and when they tried to go home, "they were mocked or shunned for their 'white ways.'"(LaFramboise et al. 462-463) Several generations of culturally confused Native Americans were lured to the cities and lived in the ghettos as Native American culture was systematically destroyed.

In the social rights movements of the 1960's and 70's, as Native Americans rediscovered their culture, so did homosexual Native Americans. In 1975, Barbara Cameron and Randy Burns helped start Gay American Indians (G.A.I.) in San Francisco. Burns recollects, "I was like a lot of Indian people who came to the city. During the 40's and 50's the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated many Indians to the cities. A lot of them were gay Indians who had 'lost' the respect of their tribes."(Katz 332) Visible Native American lesbians were well outnumbered by Native American male gay activists, but they could gain some visibility by joining forces with the men.(Ibid.) Cameron commented, "I thought, you know, that I was the only lesbian Indian in the world... I felt trapped between my Indian culture and society. That's the position of most gay Indians because its the position of Indians as a whole. I really align myself with Indians first and gay people second."(Katz 333)

Three major social movements that occurred during this century affected Native American homosexuals and cross-gender individuals: the feminist movement, the Native American rights movement, and the gay rights movement. By demanding gender equality, the feminist movement seeks to recreate the same atmosphere that allowed the existence of non-traditional roles in pre-colonial Native American society. The Native American rights movement expressed outrage at the poverty and mistreatment of modern Native Americans, and called for retribution for the wrongs that European American had perpetrated against Native Americans and their culture. The gay rights movement demanded that nontraditional sexual roles were validated by society, and drew attention to the difference between transvestitism and homosexuality.

In the years that have elapsed between the post colonization period and today, the role of the cross-gender female has become less of an issue. For example, it is acceptable in mainstream society for women to wear pants and possible for women to enter traditionally male occupations including law, medicine, politics, and engineering. These women are not considered masculine, or labeled "cross-gender females" or transvestites. The freedom that has been granted to women in the last century has largely defused the need for a specific, socially-sanctioned non-traditional female role.

The disappearance of the need for a cross-gender role can be attributed mostly to the feminist movement, which broadened the roles available to modern women. Feminism also advances the validity of homosexual roles, and has historically (though not necessarily consistently) stood behind the lesbian movement in support of these roles: "The feminist perspective is one that considers the emancipation of both social and sexual roles for women and men as necessary for human liberation."(Browning 23)

Today, Native American lesbians and feminists are redefining a place for themselves in society. The question is whether that place will be on the reservation or in the modern white "mainstream" lesbian or feminist movement. The multiple identity of the Native American feminist or lesbian presents a question of loyalty: is one's deepest loyalty to Native Americans or women or lesbians? Politically, Native American women tend to put their ethnicity ahead of their gender, as illustrated in a study of female tribal leaders.(McCoy 59) Native American lesbians tend to put their ethnicity and their gender ahead of their orientation.

The conflict between Native American feminists and white feminists revolves around the difference between Native American and white cultural values. There seems to be a wide gulf of understanding between the two groups, because the spirit-based value system, as described earlier by Paula Gunn Allen, is fundamentally different from the basis of modern Western value systems.

It is important to recognize that retraditionalization efforts on the part of Indian women are often inconsistent with some goals of the current majority-culture women's movement. Non-Indian feminists emphasize middle class themes of independence and androgyny whereas Indian women often see their work in the context of their families, their nations, and Sacred Mother Earth. Presentation and restoration of their culture is at least as important to Indian women as are their individual goals for professional achievement and success although many Indian women clearly have made important professional commitments and value the role of work in their lives.(LaFramboise et al. 471)

Because of their multiple identity, and the overwhelmingly small number of Native American lesbians, Native American lesbians find it difficult to relate to white lesbian separatist (separate from men) politics. Many Native American lesbians feel that lesbian politics do not begin to encompass all of the issues that concern them as a Native American. One Native American lesbian writes:

Most separatists are white (I know one Creole separatist). It's not an accusation to say that we'll never understand one another on fundamental levels-it is simply a fact of our lives-as is the fact that almost all stores are owned by white men. To be angry about what IS (when it seems so trivial compared to death and hunger), is very wasteful of one's life. ...I have plenty of anger of my own, some of it for reasons they seem oblivious to. I'm angry about the situation of reservations, racism, the system of poverty, nuclear proliferation, Reagan's budget cuts, the state of my life, and the health of my two closest friends. To my knowledge, they offer no solution or comfort for these problems."(Crystos 24-25)

Caught between the reservation and the white lesbian and feminist movements, but recognized by neither, Native American lesbians and feminists feel invisible, and very angry. As one of the smallest minorities in America, Native Americans are the one of the last groups to receive public sympathy for their problems:

And why has racism become a proving ground for white feminists to contest with each other over who is more antiracist, who is more self-righteous? Why, my sisters and I repeatedly ask, are Indians not reckoned with? A well known white feminist, giving a speech, talked about Blacks, Latinas, Asians. Where was I? Where were my sisters? Do we not count when the talk turns to racism? Is it okay to be racist towards us, but not the others? What else can I infer from our constant negation, our being written off in regards to the women's movement? Our being discounted and made invisible at every turning? I think I may look over my should to see if my shadow follow. Or else, I my not exist, except in my own imaginings.(Brant 102)

The small number and multiple identity of Native American lesbians and feminists leads me to believe that it is nearly impossible for either group to put together a group of their own with any significant power base. I suspect that they pursue and will continue to pursue their interests in many larger groups, in mainstream gay and lesbian groups as well as Native American gay and lesbian groups such as American Indian Gays and Lesbians (AIGL) and through feminist organizations, groups for feminist and lesbian women of color, pan-Native American organizations, and individual tribal governments. On the other hand, I don't mean to discount the value of organization for Native American lesbians and feminists. Even if such a group is too small to have significant political power, the emotional and social importance it could have for its members would be immense.

I am not sure whether or not it will ever be possible for Native American women to regain their former status on the reservation, but I am certain that it will not happen unless Native Americans no longer have to depend on an intolerant United States for aid and employment. Either the Native Americans must become self sufficient enough to be able to redevelop their own culture with no unreasonable economic stress or criticism, or European American culture must loosen its tight restrictions on gender role norms. In my opinion, the US government s hould consider, at least for the largest remaining tribes, executing the plan outlined by Vine DeLoria in The Trail of Broken Treaties so that each tribal nation would be independent enough to nurture its own culture. Additionally, the mainstream political trends of the last century have given increasingly equal status to women, and if they continue, Native American women may regain their equal status as all American women gain equal status.

I found it very interesting, while researching this paper, to discover that America had once contained so many egalitarian societies. I found it depressing that these societies were obliterated in less than a century, and are slowly being rebuilt from what cultural ruins that remain. In the future, perhaps Native American feminists and lesbians will be strong enough in number and mutual support, that they will be able to recreate a comfortable place for themselves on the American continents.


Allen, Paula Gunn. "Lesbians in American Indian Cultures." Conditions. Vol. 7. 1981: 67-87.

Allen, Paula Gunn. "Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism." Sinister Wisdom. Vol. 25. 1984: 34-46.

Blackwood, Evelyn. "Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females." Signs. Autumn 1984:27-42.

Brant, Beth. "Reclamation, an Indian Story." Women-Identified Women. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Group, 1984:97-104.

Browning, Christine. "Changing Theories of Lesbianism: Challenging the Stereotypes." Women-Identified Women. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Group, 1984: 11-30

Crystos. "Nidishenok (sisters)." MAENAD. Winter 1982: 23-32.

DeLoria, Vine. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Grahn, Judy. "Strange Country This: Lesbianism and North American Indian Tribes." Journal of Homosexuality. May 1986: 43-57.

Griffen, Joyce. "Culture Contact, Women and Work: The Navajo Example." The Social Science Journal. October 1984: 29-39.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History. Toronto: Harper Colopon Books, Harper and Row Publishers, 1985 (reprint).

LaFramboise, Teresa D., Anneliese M. Heyle, and Emily J. Ozer. "Changing and Diverse Roles of Women in American Indian Cultures." Sex Roles. April 1990: 455-476.

McCoy, Melanie. "Gender or Ethnicity: What Makes a Difference? A Study of Women Tribal Leaders." Women & Politics . Vol. 12(3). 1992: 57-68.

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