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Encyclopedia of North American Indians


Gender is a culturally constructed category of social analysis whose meaning varies from one group of Native American peoples to the next. Within each cultural tradition meanings and values are given to sexual behaviors and perceptions. For example, the Cheyennes maintained strict codes for proper sexual behavior. Loss of power for males was attributed to loss of semen; continence was therefore associated with strength. Proscriptions and prescriptions of gender are therefore tied to beliefs that are based on group norms. All cultures define appropriate sex roles and formulate gendered meanings for the actions of males and females as they pass through the life cycle. Cultural constructions allow both for the perception of biological facts and for the interpretation of behaviors that are linked to those facts.

Cultural systems of meaning explicate gender categories and thereby interpret group behavior. For example, the term berdache first appeared in Jesuit writings about the aboriginal inhabitants of North America when the missionaries observed native men in Iroquois society who dressed and acted as women. The term stems from the Arabic bardaj and has entered into the social-science literature, where it has masked gender categories that exist in indigenous societies. Recently, native scholars have won acceptance for the term two spirit to denote bisexual or homosexual individuals, preferring it to berdache because it does not carry pejorative meanings from the past. In addition, the term allows students and scholars to press forward with their scholarship by eliminating culturally inappropriate usages.

Observers of Native American life have described gender identities in many settings, but these identities are not always accepted by Indian people. The group's role expectations may be accepted or rejected, and individual behaviors may inspire new categories. Thus, whereas every human society has designations to recognize phenotypic sex characteristics of male and female, a careful examination of the cultures of native North America reveals a wide variation in gender roles—for example, the nadle or nadleeh among the Navajos, the Mohave hwame, and the Tewa kwedo, all of which designate a person who has both male and female spirits within. Other groups did not have such social designations. Individual autonomy and personhood were also variable.

The origin stories and the underlying principles of proper behavior for both males and females and for gender-crossing males such as the Lakota winkte or Cheyenne hemanah were internalized in the socialization process of males and females. In many societies women followed well-defined norms for proper behavior that were supernaturally sanctioned and strictly enforced. Among the Lakotas, for example, virgins played a significant role in the Sun Dance ritual despite the fact that the traditional tribal culture maintained a gender-crossing role for males. Similarly, Lakota society limited male leadership to warriors or those with particular religious insights but did not stigmatize those men who followed women's roles.

Ethnographic studies of Native Americans, like studies produced by other branches of scholarship, reflect the prejudices and expectations of researchers and therefore have not always explored the range of gender categories that traditionally existed in indigenous societies. Over time, however, a more sophisticated view has become influential and gender studies have proliferated. At the same time, many groups argue that only a person who is a member of an indigenous nation can articulate the parameters of that unique culture. For this reason, the emphasis of this entry will be on the Lakota and Dakota manifestations of gender and on the meaning of the term winkte, a designation that has assumed an intertribal or Pan-Indian connotation.

The term winkte has traditionally been applied to a male "who wanted to be a woman." This term also has the connotation in traditional language usage of a man "who kills women." Many male researchers reject this second meaning, preferring the idea that winkte is simply the Lakota word for male homosexual. No analogous term that might be applied to lesbian behavior has yet to appear in any traditional linguistic texts or the contemporary vernacular. This assertion is made even though the literary scholar Paula Gunn Allen believes that the Lakota word koshkalaka can be interpreted in the English vernacular as "dyke." This term, however, simply refers to "male youth" (or postpubescent male), much as the female equivalent, wikoshkalaka, means "young woman" or postmenarche female. (The prefix wi carries the meaning of "female"; winyan means "woman.") These examples highlight the danger of observers who lack native-language skills using native terms to describe gender categories.

It has recently become evident that there is a great deal that scholars and researchers do not understand about the construction of gender categories in American Indian societies and the behavioral implications of those categories. Following Gunn Allen's designation of koshkalaka as the Lakota term for "lesbian," for example, one Lakota lesbian has used the designation as a label for herself and her orientation. The study of gender construction thus becomes a self-serving mechanism, and traditional native perspectives or materials gathered by indigenous people themselves are constructed to meet this need.

The Lakota example also suggests that some nations of American Indians recognized an alternative gender role for one sex but did not recognize a complementary role for the other. Nor were gender roles necessarily viewed as equivalent. It would seem, therefore, that gender orientation was not necessarily a reflection of fitting into one or another social category, but was rather a product of one's evolving sense of personhood and a reflection of a society's worldview. Traditionally the Lakota term bloka is often described as meaning "sexually potent" and carrying connotations of masculine superiority akin to those carried by the Spanish term macho. In the precontact era, however, bloka was used to indicate those potent masculine powers that were often symbolized by the buffalo bull: strength, bravery, and aggressiveness. Such traits were useful in a nomadic society that was frequently in conflict with its neighbors. This earlier meaning also carried with it the notion that a person exhibiting bloka would be a generous provider who could be relied upon by his family, extended family (tiospaye), band, and nation.

In the 1950s, an era of reservation poverty and social disruption, the term bloka came to be used in a new way to describe a particular gendered behavior: women who managed to be good providers to their families through employment and ranching were often referred to as exhibiting bloka. Most recently, a new term has appeared—bloka win. This term refers to women who have achieved success in society. Similarly, a modern Lakota elder who knew of a member of her reservation culture who had "come out" as a lesbian in San Francisco referred to her as a winkte win, as the Lakota lesbian previously mentioned now calls herself koshkalaka win. These constructions of terms for gender categories that had not previously existed attest to the vibrancy and adaptiveness of contemporary carriers of the culture. These innovations reflect newly recognized behaviors, individual feelings attached to those behaviors, and an evolving community point of view. They also suggest that social and cultural categories are constantly being revised and negotiated by members of a community.

The case of the Lakotas indicates that in examining the concept of gender in Native America, the entire range of categories and behavioral expectations should be studied within their cultural context. At the same time, one should recall that after centuries of contact with non-Indians and adaptations to repressive legal actions and genocidal intrusions by native communities, the relationship between human actions and gender categories has grown increasingly complex. At present there is considerable erosion in the extent to which native communities accept traditional gender and sex roles as a part of their cultural fabric. Once one sets aside the stereotypical notion that there is some monolithic conception of gender that is uniform across American Indian communities, it is easier to detect and sustain particular conceptions and individual tribal practices. For example, although frequently cited by other Native Americans as exemplifying "Indian" gender conceptions, the Lakota people derive many of their cultural ideas and practices from the gift of the sacred pipe to the nation by White Buffalo Calf Woman. Told many times in various publications, this story has not been undermined by the advent of Christianity. It still gives meaning to life for the many Lakotas who believe in the gift and who understand its relationship to the tribe's seven sacred rites. Moreover, the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman sets in motion the proper behavior of males toward females and the deeply held ethic of reciprocity, respect, and honor. It also inspires important aspects of the Lakotas' commitment to four cardinal virtues: generosity, bravery, fortitude, and wisdom. Conceptions of gender remain a fascinating and largely unexplored aspect of Native American life.

See also Berdache.

Beatrice Medicine, Native America in the Twentieth Century "Gender," ed. Mary B. Davis (New York: Garland, 1994); Beatrice Medicine, The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women "Warrior Women: Sex Role Alternatives for Plains Indian Women," ed. Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine (Landham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983); Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

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