Many American Native tribes had transgender, transsexuall, or third-gender roles prior to western contact.
When French explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette first came into contact with the Illini Indians in 1673, they were astonished to discover a subset of Native American Illini men who dressed and acted out the social roles of women. The Illini termed these men “Ikoneta.” They also discovered genetic females who took on a masculine role termed "passing women."
Another historically well known Native American tribe to have transgender, transsexuall, or third-gender people was the Zuni. The Zuni termed these people as "menlhamana." "Lhamana" were men who lived in part as women, wearing a mixture of women's and men's clothing and doing a great deal of women's work as well as serving as mediators.
The proper general term for these Native American individuals were “Two-Spirited” or "Mixed-Gender," Though the Europeans called them "Berdaches” upon discovery of them. “Berdaches was a derogatory term for genetic males who assumed a feminine role, and the Europeans definition covering a range of third-gender people in different tribes.
We'wha (1849–1896) was a Zuni Native American from New Mexico. Born male but living her life as a woman, she was the most famous lhamana or “Two-Spirit” native American. An accomplished Zuni Weaver and potter, We’wha was also a cultural ambassador for her people, and performed the role of Kolhamana, the lhamana kachina of the Zuni.
The anthropologist, Matilda Coxe Stevenson, wrote a great deal about We'wha, and even hosted her on her visit to Washington D.C. in 1886. During her 6-month visit to Washington DC, We’wha met President Grover Cleveland, who was never aware that the six-foot Zuni maiden was born male.
We'wha is also the subject of the book “The Zuni Man-Woman” by Will Roscoe. Roscoe described We’wha as “…the strongest character and the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe” (Roscoe, 1991, p. 29).
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