Ancient Gender: North America

North America

Gender and Sexuality in Aboriginal America

Will Roscoe, a San Francisco-based activist and author, states in his book Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America that gender liminality is no obscure concept in the history of the Americas.

“[Two-spirits] have been documented in every region of the continent, among speakers of every major language group, and in every kind of culture, from the hunters of the Arctic to the foragers of native California, to the Pueblo farmers of the Southwest and the nomadic warrior-hunters of the Great Plains.”¹

The pan-Indian term two-spirit was chosen as a way to refer to indigenous people espousing both a masculine and feminine spirit (and to replace the derogatory term berdache) during an inter-tribal First Nations/LGBTQ conference. However, there remains some debate today about whether the term two-spirit should be reserved for the sacred, ceremonial role confirmed by Elders or if it can be used to describe LGBTQ Native Americans.¹⁰

Here are just a few examples of terms for third-gender groups in various Native American and First Nations terms, as compiled by Sabine Lang ¹:

  • in Cree, aayahkwew means “neither man nor woman and has both sexes”,
  • in Mohawk, onón:wat means “I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body”
  • the Pueblo of Isleta use lhunide or “man-woman”; (the Pueblo of Zuni use katsotse)
  • the Navajo use nádleehé, “someone who is in a constant process of change”
  • the Cheyenne use heemaneh meaning “half man, half woman”
  • and the Shoshoni refer to men in women’s roles and vice versa as tainna wa-ippe, meaning “man-woman”

According to Inuit customs, children would be named after a deceased community member, with the commemoration of the person “taking precedence of the gender of the namesake. People also believed—and some still do—that a male child’s sexual parts could be open a few moments after birth, his penis shrinking inside with the boy thus becoming a girl. This phenomenon was called sipiniq (‘the splitting’).” ⁵


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Utah, 2016

Many tribes of Alaska also had male shamans who adopted the lifestyle of women who were revered for their congress with supernatural spirits such as the Kaniagmiut and the Aleut tribes.⁶ Two-spirit people were often called upon to be spiritual healers or mediators because of their presumed ability to change gender roles and because they espoused both male and female powers in one body.³

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The Native Americans of Canada, known today as First Nation, describe the fluidity of gender roles in their native communities as a natural result of sharing daily responsibilities within a community.

“Back in the old days,” Cat Criger, a Cayuga elder, [said] “our indigenous responsibilities were charted out for us like ‘water carrier’ or ‘fire keeper,’ but we wouldn’t wait for a woman if we were thirsty or for a man to throw wood in the fire if we were cold.” ³

Cree-speaking Canadian blogger Chelsea Vowel, has attempted to translated Two Spirit terms from her culture as a way of decolonizing the language around gender fluidity.⁷ The Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) has also looked into more inclusive words from indigenous languages that accommodate gender states not found in English. For Fallon Andy, an Anishinaabe and media arts justice facilitator at NYSHN, adapting the language is vital.

“Today my grandma just calls me ‘noozhis,’ which means ‘grandkid,’ or by my nation name, which is ‘Waasegiizhigook,’ meaning ‘the light that shines through the clouds.’ She really takes out all the gendered stuff for me, which I really like. There’s so much potential in revitalizing Indigenous languages that have the power to shift how you think about the language you are using in English.”³

From a legal standpoint, state law has practically no bearing on tribal law, so the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the states didn’t legalize it on tribal lands. As such, unless Congress passes a same-sex marriage law specifically for Indian tribes, the laws of the Native American tribes will continue to set their own limitations on it.⁸

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Hogback in Utah, 2016

In California, residents are now able to identify as male, female, or nonbinary on documents like birth certificates and driver’s licenses. Last year, the state of Oregon legally recognized “nonbinary” as a gender, and DC began offering nonbinary driver’s licenses as well.⁹

Muxe in Mexico

On the isthmus of Tehuantepec, a region of Mexico far from the sunburnt and stuffed tourists of Cancun, the state of Oaxaca manages to retain a strong connection to its indigenous roots.

©Caroline Yung –

Anthropologists have even found records detailing indigenous acceptance of third gender individuals through cross-dressing Aztec priests and hermaphroditic Mayan gods in pre-Columbian Mexico; a stark contrast to the rigid Roman Catholicism later imported by the conquistadors.¹²

Being far from Mexico City, the Spanish struggled to exert control over the rebellious civilization of Zapotec, whose history goes back 2,500 years. They preserved so much of their culture that many people in Oaxaca today speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish. Incidentally, their language doesn’t differentiate between man or woman, thereby creating space for a third gender category. They use la-ave for people, la-ame for animals, and la-ani for inanimate objects. The gender-specific pronouns “el” (him) and “ella” (her) were later imported by the Spanish conquistadores. ¹⁸

Residing in that third gender space are the muxes (pronounced MOO-shez), Zapotec men raised as women who take on traditionally female roles. Though the origin of the word still remains unclear, the term means “feminized fear” in Zapotec. A documentary by director Ivan Olita focuses on the muxes of Juchitan, where the practice is widely accepted as normal and it is even said to be lucky to have one living in your house. As another muxe in the short film states,

“We assume female roles without wanting to be women.” ¹⁸

When the matrifocal community was hit with the most powerful earthquake in 100 years this past September, many muxe leaped into action. “’I carried my mother out as I left the house, and then my brother and I went to rescue my aunt who was trapped,’ Peregrina Vera, a tall, 26-year-old muxe, said in a sing-song voice, her long hair tied in a bun.” Many muxes are respected in traditional families for their unwavering support of their mothers, by taking on household chores such as cooking and cleaning.¹⁷

Another documentary, this time from director Shaul Schwarz, is one of the best I’ve seen so far on third gender groups. I highly recommend watching.

The city of Juchitan even hosts the Vela de las Intrepidas or Vigil of the Intrepid (f.). The three-day festival has been celebrating muxes since the 1970s, featuring a fashion show by the muxes, cases of beer with admission, and local delicacies.¹³

From a legal standpoint, same-sex domestic partnerships are legally recognized in Mexico City. In 2015, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to ban same-sex marriages. President Peña Nieto stated he’d submit a proposal to overturn the ruling, which would also ease the process for transgender people to change their gender on passports, into law.¹³

However, not all support the muxes of Juchitan. Last year, Local muxe Naomy Méndez was asked to stop using the women’s restroom at the Technological Institute of the Isthmus and instead would simply “hold it” all day until she got home.¹¹ Earlier this year, Naomy, along with a group of 20 other muxes from the isthmus traveled to Mexico City to have their names and gender changed free of charge; the government, however, reneged on its promise.¹⁹ This July, Méndez was finally able to successfully have her gender legally changed on her birth certificate. Afterwards, she said the change was important because she didn’t want Naomy to be a face in the crowd.²⁰

“I want her to stand out, to be someone in life, and to support the Muxe community of the Isthmus.”

Further Reading


  4. Lang, S. (2016). Native American men-women, lesbians, two-spirits: Contemporary and historical perspectives. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 20(3-4), 299-323. doi:10.1080/10894160.2016.1148966
  5. Billson, Janet Mancini, and Kyra Mancini. “Ch. 4.” Inuit Women: Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007, p. 86.
  10. Mallon, Gerald P. “Two-Spirit/Two Spirit (or Twospirit).” Social Work Practice with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People, 3rd ed., Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

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