Gender and Sexuality in Native America: Many People, Many Meanings

view overlooking Acoma Pueblo
Overview, Pueblo of Acoma, Cibola County, New Mexico, 1934.

Photo by M. James Slack, Historic American Buildings Survey. Collections of the Library of Congress (HABS NM,31-ACOMP,1-8)

Research indicates well over 100 instances of diverse gender expression in Native American tribes at the time of early European contact. The cultural legacy of these people was nearly erased by religious indoctrination and the imposition of laws criminalizing varied sexuality and gender expression. This erasure makes discovering and discussing such a diverse heritage difficult; in many cases, the only remaining record is that of the colonizer, making occasional reference to "abominable acts" and assigning European names to behavior based on their particular moral views. The term berdache has often been applied as a catchall term for non-binary gender identities; it has also been criticized for its non-indigenous origin and its inference of similarity across tribes. In recent research and discussion, the terms "two spirit" and "third gender" have been used widely. However, some find these terms inauthentic, and too broad to accurately reflect various tribal understandings of gender and sexuality.

Last updated: February 20, 2018