Most Indigenous tribes were models of gender equality. This was not just for women rights, but also for the acceptance of gender fluidity. Many tribes had specific names for someone who did not fit the European idea of binary male/female. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers and missionaries used the word “Beradache” to describe Native Americans who did not fit into European gender norms. It was common for whites, especially Christian missionaries, to persecute and imprison Indigenous people who did not conform to their narrowly defined model of marriage and dating. Because of the word’s strong connection with abuse against Indigenous people, “beradache” is now considered offensive. In 1990, the third annual American Indian gay and lesbian conference in Winnepeg, Canada created the term “two-spirit”, an English translation of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) words “niizh manidoowag”. As a completely created modern term, it is not without criticism, and is not meant to replace historic native terms which vary from tribe to tribe.
Lozan (1840-1889) was a warrior, medicine person, mediator, and the sister of Bi-duyé (Chief Victorio) of the Chiricahua (Apache) tribe. She was respected for her fighting skills as well as her intelligence and cunning and even fought alongside Goyaałé (Geronimo). She is documented as having a long term relationship with a female partner, Dahteste (1860-1955), as both a friend and a lover. Dahteste was a skilled Apache warrior and translator. After Lozan died of tuberculosis, Dahteste did marry a man and have children but mourned the loss of Lozan for the rest of her life.
Hastiin Klah (also spelled Hosteen Klah, 1867-1937) is believed to have been born intersex. The Diné (Navajo) recognized four genders. Klah was considered a Nádleehi, "one who changes". He was a master sand painter, chanter, weaver, and healer. He developed a long term friendship with Mary Cabot Wheelwright, a wealthy anthropologist who valued Indigenous arts. He is considered to have saved traditional Navajo weaving arts and was instrumental in documenting the Diné religion and traditional ceremonies. Wheelwright and Klah founded the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He died shortly before the museum opened in 1937.
Osh-Tisch (1854-1929) was of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe which used the term “Badé” to describe a man who chooses to live as a woman. According to a rare interview with U.S. Army General Hugh Scott, Osh-Tisch said she was always inclined to be a woman for as long as she could remember. Her hide-tanning, lodge building, and healing skills were legendary. Despite being denounced by a Baptist minister, Osh-Tisch continued to cross-dress because she felt it was her path. Records indicate Osh-Tisch married a woman and adopted a child. When she eventually moved to a reservation, she became a skilled poker player and took up sewing in place of hide-tanning. She won several local sewing contests.
We’wha (1849-1896) was born into the Zuni tribe of New Mexico. The Zuni valued people like We’wha and called them “Lhamana”. They were believed to be linked to the duality of the spiritual world often described in traditional mythology. By all accounts We’wha was known for generosity and congeniality. She befriended Matilda Coxe Stevenson, an influential anthropologist, who invited We’wha to Washington, D.C. in 1886. Being fluent in English, and thought to be a cis gender woman, We’wha became a celebrity among Washingtonian society including meeting President Grover Cleveland. She returned to her people and remained on the reservation until her death in 1896.