I will never understand or be able to discuss this topic outside of the view of the colonizer. This is an unfortunate knowledge barrier that is better addressed than breached. Native people are in need of support on many fronts from non-native people, and I hope to write every word of this article to support, not rewrite, native history. If you are unfamiliar with the level of erasure that has taken place since European colonization, please understand that it greatly exceeds anything I will be able to portray.
Whenever you see the term ‘colonized as,’ I am referring to the fact that the common names of the land and peoples we were taught to use in public school are all European constructs. Therefore, I am trying to use only the names used originally or retroactively by native people.
Three things are apparent in the available sources of information about homosexuality* in the pre-colonial Americas; one is that while the modern LGBTQ+ community was largely established in the mid-twentieth century, queerness* existed hundreds of years ago. Two, homosexuality* is intrinsically linked with the diverse gender structure of native tribes. Three, the most accurate information on this topic is from native people. With that being said, this article will attempt to establish a partial picture of the queer* cultures that flourished hundreds of years ago.
Indigenous Tribes of Turtle Island (colonized as North America)
The Diné (colonized as the Navajo) is an active indigenous tribe on Turtle Island.
Prior to European intervention, the Diné had a non-binary social structure incorporating four gender identities: women*, men*, feminine Nádleehi, and masculine Nádleehi. Nádleehi gender identities were determined as a person grew up and were typically not a birth assignment. A child in these cultures discovered how they wanted to express themselves based on their interests or “gifts” and partook in society in ways that suited them individually. Nádleehi tribe members were highly regarded and often held high social positions.
Other tribes had similar identities, like the Lhamana of the Zuni tribe and the Asegi of the Cherokee. A modern blanket term introduced to describe these identities is “two-spirit,” and while it is commonly used, it is not universally accepted by native peoples or equivalent to a queer identity. It is estimated that 155 tribes across Turtle Island embraced a multi-gendered culture. The expanded conceptions of identity in these societies seem to have overshadowed sexuality. While homosexual* relationships were common, they were not inherent.
The Culhua-Mexica (colonized as the Aztecs)
In particular, the stories of the civilizations in modern-day Mexico are almost exclusively accessed through a colonized perspective. The Spanish colonizers burned the libraries and destroyed much of the resources that would have provided access to objective truth.
The Mexica held a vast empire that incorporated many different ethnicities and cultures. They had a complicated relationship with homosexuality*, particularly with the practice of sodomy. The levels of acceptance varied by region and ruler.
It has been suggested that the laws banning homosexual* behavior in the empire were a tactic by the Mexica to separate conquered peoples in the region from their previous cultures and religions, which often had feminine two-spirit shamans. This implies that the Culhua-Mexica empire was not homophobic but trying to strip others of their rich, queer* past.
We know that homosexuals* and two-spirit people were prevalent because of encounters between Hernan Cortés and the native people of the regions he explored. Cortés remarked in a letter to his King, “We know and have been informed without room for doubt that all practice the abominable sin of sodomy.” Bernal Diaz del Castillo, another conquistador, also quoted Cortés as saying, “...young men must cease to go about in female garments...” While these remarks are indicative of male-homosexuality*, there is no mention of female-homosexuality*. However, we can (reasonably) infer that these relationships took place given that the Mexica region also embraced an expanded gender foundation like the tribes to the north, which encompassed marriages and relationships between women*.
Abya Yala (colonized as South America)
The Runa (colonized as the Inca) and the Moche
The Runa were the people that lived in the region of modern-day Peru. The language they spoke was Quechua. The name Inca, or Incan, actually comes from their emperor Sapa Inca, not the name for the people. The Runa empire reportedly held similar views on homosexuality* as the Mexica, yet both societies realistically failed to enforce these laws on a widespread basis.
The term “Moche” is not used to describe a group of people by nationality or origin, but rather the creators of a distinctive form of art (mostly ceramic pots depicting artwork) found in and near the Runa empire. While sexually explicit artwork was destroyed en masse by the Spanish invaders, some artwork does survive today. Of what does exist of this art, there is a major collection that displays in full detail, gay-male* sex as well as other sexual positions that focused on female* pleasure rather than simple procreation. This is an interesting discovery and gives us just a small amount of insight into what homosexuality* was present in this region as well as all of Abya Yala. We can also infer that given the conditions on Turtle Island, Abya Yala societies carried similar notions and customs of homosexuality*. The queer* history of the rest of the continent exists somewhere, and likely among its indigenous people.
These societies had unique gender identities and sexualities that developed independently of the established gender binary in the Euro-colonized world. Much like in the crusades of the Middle Ages, the European invaders eradicated "opposing" cultures and demonized their practices.
Dine Equality is a group working to undo hundreds of years of queer erasure and uplift LGBTQ+ natives to heal the damage in their community. You can find more information on their website: www.equalitynavajo.org.
*The use of gendered language, the word queer, and the word homosexual is for clarity purposes. Still, it is important to consider that these concepts do not adequately describe indigenous cultures as they are euro-centric ideas.
Brundage, J. (1991). The Construction of Homosexuality. By David F. Greenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. x 635 p. $29.95. Church History, 60(1), 148-149. doi:10.2307/3168572
Cortés Hernán, & Morris, J. B. (1991). Hernando Cortés, Five Letters, 1519-1526 (p. 25). W.W. Norton.
del Castillo, B. D. (1844). The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz Del Castillo. (J. I. Lockhart, Trans.) (Vol. 1) (p. 119). J. Hatchard and Son.
Epple, C. (1998). Coming to Terms with Navajo Nádleehí: A Critique of Berdache, "Gay," "Alternate Gender," and "Two-spirit". American Ethnologist, 25(2), 267–290. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.19184.108.40.2067
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. (n.d.). Who Were "Moche?". Peabody Museum. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/2505
Smithers, G. D. (2014). Cherokee “Two Spirits”: Gender, Ritual, and Spirituality in the Native South. Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 12(3), 626–651. https://doi.org/10.1353/eam.2014.0023
Vecchio, R. (2004, March 7th). Erotic Ceramics Reveal Dirty Little Secret. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-mar-07-adfg-pottery7-story.html
Wilson, T. (2011). CHANGED EMBRACES, CHANGES EMBRACED? RENOUNCING THE HETEROSEXIST MAJORITY IN FAVOR OF A RETURN TO TRADITIONAL TWO-SPIRIT CULTURE. American Indian Law Review,36(1), 161-188. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41495705