Transgender Spotlight: We’wha

by Aaron, MTPC intern

Today’s transgender spotlight is about We’wha (pronounced WAY-wah), a Zuni Native American whose life was one of advocacy for her tribe and artistry in her craft. Some would refer to her as two spirit, a term that generally describes Native Americans who occupy non-normative or multiple gender roles. This is actually a very recent term, established by the Indigenous Lesbian and Gay International Gathering in 1990 in an effort to reclaim gender diversity and replace the derogatory term berdache, which was used by foreign intruders to shame gender variance. Not every tribe recognizes two spirit people, nor do communities all have the same traditions, terms, or roles for two spirit people. We’wha was a lhamana (LHA-mana), the term used by Zunis to refer to male-bodied people who are “like a woman.”

We'wha, a Zuni Lhamana (Two-Spirit), circa 1886

We’wha, a Zuni Lhamana (Two-Spirit), circa 1886. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We%27wha

Born in 1849 into New Mexico’s Zuni tribe, where lhamanas were highly respected, We’wha was trained in the traditionally female crafts of weaving and pottery. Her talent in the arts was well known and valued in her community and beyond, as was her gift for spiritual leadership. Learning English at an early age allowed We’wha to make connections with visitors to the region and educate them about Zuni traditions, and she eventually became a Zuni ambassador. As a representative of her tribe, We’wha was the first Zuni to travel to Washington, DC, in the 1880s, where she met with diplomats, congressmen, and … drum roll, please … President Grover Cleveland.

It is clear from newspaper articles at the time and stories of We’wha’s travels that folks in DC were instantly smitten with her but apparently unaware of her lhamana identity. During the several months she spent in the city, We’wha gave a weaving presentation at the Smithsonian, participated in a show at the National Theater, and befriended Speaker of the House John G. Carlisle. While she seemed to enjoy and take advantage of her new celebrity status, her intention was to educate leaders about her tribe and debunk myths about Zunis and other Native Americans in a culture that encouraged (and continues to encourage) cultural assimilation.

Her art was celebrated from New Mexico to DC and played a central role in helping Native American art gain recognition in the fine arts world. Despite an unjust arrest and month-long imprisonment for defending the Pueblo’s governor against authorities during a conflict in 1892, We’wha continued to educate anthropologists and represent her tribe with pride. Matilda Stevenson, an anthropologist who was befriended by We’wha, described her as intelligent and kind with an “indomitable will and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.”*

We’wha died in 1896, but the legacy of her extraordinary life remains one of community advocacy, cultural exchange, and artistry.

This entry was posted by Mel.