1886: We'wha, a Zuni "berdache" (man living as a woman), visits Washington, DC
and is received by President Grover Cleveland as a "Zuni princess."
Many Native American cultures made a place for men who dressed and lived as women or women who dressed and lived as men. Early European explorers named such people "berdache," though Native cultures had a variety of terms for the practice. "Berdache" or "two spirit" individuals occupied a special category outside of male and female in as many as 130 different Native American tribes. Male berdaches often wore women's clothing and worked at tasks usually reserved for women. They served as mediators between men and women and were accepted and revered for their special nature, often taking a sacred role in tribal rituals. In many cases, they also had husbands.
A Zuni berdache named We'wha came to Washington, DC in 1886 as ambassador from his tribe. The anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson said that We'wha was "the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe," with an "indomitable will and an insatiable thirst for knowledge." We'wha demonstrated Zuni weaving at the Smithsonian, appeared at the National Theater in a theatrical event, and met with President Grover Cleveland. Washington society was utterly charmed by We'wha and believed him to be a woman. We'wha never indicated otherwise.
As efforts by the US government to assimilate Native Americans intensified in the late 19th century, the berdache tradition came under attack, as representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Christian missionaries pressured Native groups to give up the practice. By the 1920s and '30s, the tradition had nearly disappeared.
Image: Smithsonian Institution