Native American Studies

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Native American Studies is a new academic field that has grown out of research in several disciplines, mainly anthropology, history, and literary criticism. Until the 1960s most historians ignored Native Americans, except as they could be used as foils for European American expansion, and left Indian history to anthropologists. For their part, some anthropologists turned to early accounts written by European explorers and missionaries on the frontier as their major sources. Anthropologists who utilized historical sources became known as ethnohistorians. Since the 1960s, as ethnic studies programs were founded in various colleges and universities, scholars devoting attention to the indigenous peoples of North America took on the mantle of American Indian Studies or Native American Studies.

Initially, homosexual and transgender behavior was a topic that most scholars ignored, except for a few anthropologists who wrote brief articles about the acceptance of same-sex sexual and transgender behavior in many Native American societies. However, after the pioneering generation of early twentieth-century ethnographers, which included Matilda Coxe Stevenson, Waldemar Bogoras, George Devereux, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Underhill, most anthropologists who wrote about sexual and gender variance were content to simply quote the early historical primary sources and not undertake original analysis. That approach worked well in terms of the early history. The independent historian Jonathan Ned Katz (with the help of gay studies pioneers like Harry Hay, Jim Kepner, W. Dorr Legg, James Steakley, and Sue-Ellen Jacobs) gathered together many of these documents on early Native Americans in his pathbreaking book Gay American History. The first scholarly book that devoted significant attention to Native Americans was by historian Vern Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History.

Dependence upon these early primary sources, however, was problematic for anthropologists who tried to write about homosexuality and transgenderism among recent American Indians. Many claimed, inaccurately, that traditions of acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships and transgender phenomena had disappeared. However, Native American literary scholar Paula Gunn Allen suggested in a 1981 essay, "Lesbians in American Indian Cultures," that same-sex sexual and gender variant traditions continued into the present. When she published her book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, she included a call for more research on a vibrant lesbian and gay native heritage.

Meanwhile, ethnohistorian Walter L. Williams grew distrustful of claims by anthropologists that homosexuality had "disappeared" among modern Indian people. After several years of archival research, he spent 1982 and 1983 living on various reservations in the Great Plains and the Southwest, as well as visiting the Maya Indians in Yucatan, Mexico, to interview native people who were homosexually identified. His research was published as The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, which was the first book on this topic that utilized both historical sources and ethnographic fieldwork.

At the same time, the Native activist group Gay American Indians, which was founded by Randy Burns (Northern Paiute) and Barbara Cameron (Lakota Sioux) in San Francisco, published a valuable collection of personal narratives of gay and lesbian Native Americans, Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Independent scholar Will Roscoe, who worked on this project, later wrote The Zuni Man-Woman as well as a number of journal articles and other books relating to homosexual and transgender Native Americans.

By the 1990s Native American sexual and gender diversity had become a "hot topic" attracting a number of anthropologists to write on the subject. German anthropologist Sabine Lang, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Hamburg, published it in German as Männer als Frauen–Frauen als Männer: Geschlechtsrollenwechsel bei den Indianern Nordamerikas and later revised in English under the title Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Lang joined University of Washington anthropologist Sue-Ellen Jacobs and her Navajo graduate student Wesley Thomas to co-edit Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality.

The main methodological change in recent Native American Studies has involved increased focus on the perspectives and words of Native people themselves. More Native interviews and autobiographies have been written, rather than just depending upon the perspectives of anthropologists and historians. Another methodological advance in recent years has been the entry of archaeologists who have begun to do research on gender and sexual variance. By analyzing differences in dress and burial goods in pre-Columbian burials, they have found evidence that suggests the ancientness of gender diversity. The main theoretical differences among scholars revolve around whether such variance is best conceived as "gender mixing" or "alternative genders." Most scholars accept that these choices are not either/or opposites.

With this outpouring of scholarship by openly LGBT researchers, commentary on homosexuality and transgenderism among native people began to find its way into general textbooks on Native American Studies. While the tendency among some older scholars working in the field was to ignore or dismiss the subject, a new generation of Native American Studies scholars seems comfortable incorporating sexual and gender diversity into its research and teaching. Especially due to the influence of feminist and gender studies scholars, who have highly emphasized gender variance and transgenderism cross-culturally, the topic has been further publicized.


Allen, Paula Gunn. "Lesbians in American Indian Cultures." Conditions 7 (1981): 67–87.

——. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986, 1992.

Bullough, Vern L. Sexual Variance in Society and History. New York: Wiley, 1976.

Gay American Indians. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Will Roscoe, coordinating editor. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Sabine Lang, and Wesley Thomas, eds. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Lang, Sabine. Männer als Frauen, Frauen als Männer: Geschlechtsrollenwechsel bei den Indianern Nordamerikas (Hamburg): Wayasabah, 1990.

——. Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures. Trans. by John L. Vantine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Rosco, Will. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Walter Williams

see alsoallen, paula gunn; burns, randy; cameron, barbara; native americans; native american lgbtq organizations and periodicals; native american religion and spirituality; two-spirit females; two-spirit males.

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Native American Studies

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Native American Studies