Hosteen Klah: Navajo Healer, Artist

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Many Indian cultures accepted – and in fact, celebrated – the fact the some people could fill both male and female roles in their society. One such individual was Hosteen Klah (also spelled Hastiin Klah) who became well-known as a Navajo weaver and as a Navajo singer (medicine man). Among the Navajo, weavers are usually female and hataalii (singers, chanters, or medicine men) are usually male. Hosteen Klah filled both of these roles.

Among the Navajo, Klah was known as a nádleeh which can be translated as “one who is changed” or “one who is transformed.” There are some who feel that Klah was born as a hermaphrodite while others report that he was emasculated in a childhood accident. There are still others who simply say that he sometimes identified himself as a man and at other times as a woman.  

In the 1880s, Klah began to learn weaving from his mother and from his sister. He first began to learn the Navajo medicine ways – chanting and sandpainting – from his uncle. In learning the Nightway ceremony, Klah worked under the guidance of Laughing Singer and Tall Chanter. While most Navajo singers can master only one or two complete chants, Klah mastered at least eight. Among the ceremonies which he mastered were the Hailway, the Mountainway, the Nightway, the Windway, and the Chiricahua.

Among the Navajo, the purpose of the chant is to cure the sick. For the chant to work, it must be repeated exactly by the singer. Learning a chant takes a considerable amount of intellectual work: each one is like memorizing hundreds of lines of song or poetry. When a singer contracts to perform a ceremony, he undertakes a great deal of responsibility for not only the patient, but also others who are present at the ceremony.  

In 1917, after 24 years of study, Hosteen Klah performed his first Nighway Ceremony (Yeibichai). The nine-day ceremony was perfect in chant, symbol, and ceremony and established him as a great singer.

As a part of the Navajo ceremonies, the singer produces a dry painting (known as a sand painting) which calls in the power of the Holy People. The sand paintings are made on the floor of the ceremonial hogan and blessed with pollen and corn meal. The sand painting serves as a temporary altar on which the patient sits while the ceremony is performed. Following the ceremony, the singer destroys the painting. If there is no ceremonial need for the painting, the power of the Holy People can be dangerous and even fatal. Therefore, Navajo culture does not allow for the images used in the sand paintings to be produced outside of their ceremonial context.

In 1911 Hosteen Klah wove a blanket of yeibichai dancers which portrayed sacred masks. Local singers felt that this was sacrilegious and demanded that Klah have a ceremony to expel the evil and that he destroy the weaving. Instead, Klah sent the weaving to Washington and experienced no negative effects.

In 1917 Klah took Franc Newcomb, a trader’s wife, to a Nightway ceremony. After the ceremony, she attempted to draw from memory the designs from the sandpaintings which were used in the ceremony. She was unsuccessful and Klah sketched them for her in pencil. Newcomb then made these into watercolor reproductions and hung them in her bedroom so that the other Navajo would not be offended. After seeing that no punishment occurred, Klah then did an additional 27 paintings for her.

In 1919 Klah began to weave sandpainting rugs which were based on the chants he was qualified to sing. His first sandpainting weaving was a whirling log design from the Nightway ceremony.

Klah’s last sandpainting weaving, The Skies from the Shootingway ceremony, was done in 1937 and was not complete at the time of his death. The work was finished by his nieces, Gladys and Irene Manuelito.

Over the years, Klah worked with a number of non-Indian scholars and allowed them to record his songs, ceremonies, stories, and sandpaintings. His only Navajo student – Beaal Begay – died suddenly in 1931 and so much of his knowledge was not passed on in the traditional Navajo way.  

One of the Anglos who worked with Klah was Mary Cabot Wheelwright who founded the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in 1937. She had been permitted to record many of Klah’s songs and erected the museum to preserve his medicine knowledge and his sacred objects. The museum is now known as the Wheelwright Museum. Until recently, the Museum displayed many of his drawings and paintings of sandpaintings as well as his sandpainting weavings. However, the Museum has restricted the display and reproduction of these items based on the recommendations of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department’s Traditional Cultural Program Committee.  

Gone-to-the-Spirits, a Kootenai Berdache

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The Columbia Plateau is the geographic region that lies between the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east. It covers parts of present-day Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and British Columbia. It is a country that includes large rivers, such as the Columbia, semiarid plains, and forested mountains. Indian people have lived in this area for many thousands of years.

With regard to language, there are several major language families represented in the area.  To the north there are many Salish-speaking tribes, such as the Pend d’Oreilles, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Spokane, and Flathead. To the south of these groups there are Sahaptian-speaking tribes, such as the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, and Umatilla. Linguistically, the Salish and Sahaptian tribes are related to tribes on the Pacific coasts which suggests that there was an ancient migration from the coast inland, probably following the rivers.

The Kootenai, whose aboriginal homeland included parts of British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and Alberta, are an unusual Plateau tribe. Linguistically, Kootenai is classified as a language isolate: it is not related to any other language. In addition, it appears that the Kootenai migrated into the Plateau area from the Great Plains to the east of the Rocky Mountains.  

While each of the tribes of the Plateau area is unique, they do share a number of cultural characteristics. One of these is a long tradition of prophets. Some people would undergo a great personal and spiritual transformation. One common theme is for a person to die and then return to life. It was not uncommon for people, both men and women, who had had such transformations to be able to predict the future. In other words, they became prophets.

Some prophets, such as Smohalla and Jake Hunt, became known to non-Indians, but most were known only to the Indian people.

Another feature of Plateau culture, and one that is shared with Indian cultures in other areas, is the view that the dividing line between men and women is not rigid. It was not uncommon for an individual to be born with male genitalia and a female spirit, or vice versa. In living with their internal harmony and balance, it was common for these people to change their gender identities. During the nineteenth century, the fur traders would refer to these individuals as berdache.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a child was born in a Kootenai band in western Montana and southeastern British Columbia. She was given the name One-Standing-Lodge-Pole-Woman and she grew into a large, heavy-boned woman. It is said that there were some who doubted the she would ever marry, but then she surprised them by marrying a Norwester (a fur trader with the North West Company) about 1807. Marriage between fur traders and Indian women was a common practice at this time and was encouraged by the trading companies as a way of establishing kinship ties with the Indians. Among the Europeans, this type of marriage was called an “in-country marriage” as it was done without a Christian ceremony and it was not expected to be of a long duration. While the Europeans viewed this as a special kind of marriage, and one that differed from the European norm, from an Indian perspective this was a marriage like any other. Among the Plateau people at this time, there was neither a religious ceremony for marriage nor an expectation that such a union was last forever.

Like other Indian wives, One-Standing-Lodge-Pole-Woman went with her husband, Augustin Boisverd, when he left Kootenai country.

Later she returned to the Kootenai without her fur trader husband. When she returned to her own people she told them that she had been transformed into a man and that her name was now Gone-to-the-Spirits (Kauxuma-nupika). As was traditional among people who had undergone a spiritual transformation, including receiving a strong vision, Gone-to-the-Spirits began to dance out the story of her sexual transformation. As evidence of this transformation, Gone-to-the-Spirits now wore a man’s shirt with leggings and breechclout, and like other Kootenai men, carried a gun as well as bow and arrow.

Just like those prophets who had died and returned to life, Gone-to-the-Spirits claimed to have gained a great deal of spiritual power through the transformation from woman to man. As with others who had gone through transformations, Gone-to-the-Spirits had gained the power of prophesy. Soon the prophesies of Kauxuma-nupika spread through the Columbia and Fraser River Plateaus and contributed to rise of other religious movements in these areas.

Since Gone-to-the-Spirits was now living as a man among the Kootenai, like a Kootenai man he/she sought out a wife. After a while, he/she found a woman who had been abandoned by her husband. The two moved in together and, in Kootenai custom, were considered to be married. While many Kootenai apparently tried to find out the intimate details of this relationship, neither Gone-to-the-Spirits or his/her wife would talk about them.

As with other relationships-both European and Indian, and heterosexual and homosexual-the relationship deteriorated after a while. Before long, Gone-to-the-Spirits was openly beating his/her wife, a behavior that was not viewed with favor.

About this time, Gone-to-the-Spirits also began having problems with gambling. After he lost his bow, quiver, and canoe because of gambling, his wife then left Gone-to-the-Spirits for good. While Gone-to-the-Spirits had gained great spiritual power in her transformation into a man, she apparently acquired a number of short-comings that were often associated with men.

As a woman who had become a man, Gone-to-the-Spirits went on horse raids. While crossing a river on one raid, her brother noticed that she still had female genitalia even though she had claimed to have become a man physically. After this incident, she again changed her name to Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly (Qánqon Kámek Klaúla).

Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly then married another woman, but this relationship also soured. Once again his wife left and demonstrated the human shortcomings of this prophet.  

By 1811 Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly had gained a reputation among the tribes of the Plateau area as a prophet who foretold of both disease and the coming of a time of plenty. According to oral tradition, the spiritual power of Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly was intensified when he died and then returned to life to tell of the things he had seen.

In 1811, Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly and his wife traveled down the Columbia River to Astoria, Oregon. On this journey, they acted as couriers for the North West Company, carrying letters from Kettle Falls to Astoria, Oregon.

Along the way down the Columbia River Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly would inform the tribes they encountered that he/she had the power to introduce smallpox. While this was probably intended to increase his power, both the Chinook and the Clatsop made plans to kill him or to capture him and sell him into slavery. In this way they hoped to remove the danger of smallpox.

While in Astoria, Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly made a number of maps of the interior for the fur traders.

On the way back up the Columbia River, Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly claimed that he had been sent by the Great White Chief with a message for the people: gifts of goods and implements would be sent to them. Furthermore, the traders had cheated them by selling them goods instead of giving them to them as directed by the Great White Chief. This tended to create some bad will for the traders.

In 1837, Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly went on a raiding party with a war party of young Kootenai warriors. The war party failed to locate any enemy and so were returning home when they were ambushed by the Blackfoot. One Kootenai warrior hid in the dense brush and later told the tale of the massacre.

According to oral tradition, Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly was wounded several times before the Blackfoot warriors could subdue him. They held Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly in a sitting position and slashed at his midsection with their knives. Each time, the wound would close and heal as soon as the knife blade was withdrawn. Finally, one Blackfoot warrior slashed open his chest and quickly reached inside to remove a piece of his heart. This was a coup de grace that was reserved for only the most respected of enemies. Following this, Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly was unable to heal the wound and died after being tortured for more than half a day.

Sometime later, when the Kootenai reached the bodies of their slain warriors, they found that the body of Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly was undisturbed by wild animals or birds.  

We’Wha, Zuni Berdache

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In 1882 a Washington, D.C. newspaper reported: “Society has had recently a notable addition in the shape of an Indian princess of the Zuni tribe.” While in Washington, We’Wha had an interview with President Grover Cleveland and led a charity ball organized by society women. What the newspaper and Washington social circles failed to notice was that the “princess” We’Wha was a man who wore women’s clothes and took on many of the traditional Zuni women’s roles. While this was something that would have seemed strange to the non-Indians of the time, the berdache (one term for describing this type of individual) was common not only to the Zuni, but to many other tribes.

We’Wha was born in 1849 and like all Zuni became a member of his mother’s clan (donashi:kwe,  the Badger People), and had ceremonial ties to his father’s clan (bichi:kwe, the Dogwood People). As a boy he was initiated into the South Kiva (chuba:kew kiwitsine), the kiva of the husband of the midwife who had assisted at his birth. Following this, his spiritual education included the memorization of numerous songs, prayers, myths, and lore of the kachinas. As a teenager, he joined the masked kachina dancers. Initially, he had to borrow a mask, but he later acquired his own.

While We’Wha was receiving male religious education, he was also acquiring women’s vocational skills under the guidance of his female relatives. This included grinding and preparing corn, cooking, housekeeping, gathering firewood, and carrying water (water was carried in large jugs which were balanced on the head). He also acquired skills in pottery and weaving.  

We’Wha’s skills as a potter and as a weaver reached non-Indians. He was commissioned to make pots that were destined for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. With regard to weaving, one American expert on Indian weaving at the time described We’Wha as an expert and her weaving as highly collectible. We’Wha was among the first Zuni to produce pottery and weaving for sale to non-Indians and in this way helped to start a process that would lead to traditional Indian arts being considered fine arts.  

In 1879, We’Wha went to work for the Presbyterian mission school at Zuni. The missionaries, assuming We’Wha was female paid him with goods, primarily dresses. Among the Zuni, some people may get jealous of another’s good fortune. If this person who is jealous is a witch, then the person with the good fortune may be attacked spiritually. This happened to We’Wha and as a result he became quite ill. He was treated and cured by a traditional healer and as a result made a vow to join the healer’s medicine society. As a result, We’Wha joined the Bedbug People (Beshatsilo:kwe), a society which treated burns, ulcers, cancers, and parasites. In their public rites, the Bedbug people performed with fire: dowsing themselves with coals and walking barefoot across fire beds.

In 1892, another important event in We’Wha’s life occurred. A few days before the Shalako ceremonies were to begin, Dick Tsanahe, the Pueblo’s governor, received some whiskey. In turn, he gave or sold the whiskey to some young men who had gathered at his house (or rather at his wife’s house as Zuni houses are owned by the women). One of the men, Nick Dumaka, became drunk, obnoxious, and argumentative. The other young men took him outside of the pueblo, beat him with stones and left him for dead. Dumaka, however, did not die and later defiantly taunted his attackers with words that branded him as a witch.

Among the Zuni, witchcraft – the use of spiritual powers to obtain goods, to get revenge, or to obtain sexual favors – was a serious offense. Witches were to be executed, but if they confessed, they were allowed to live in exile. The bow priests, responsible for the prosecution of witches, seized Dumaka and took him to their ceremonial chamber for trial. Dumaka’s father went to the American authorities and asked for help to save his son’s life.

The American authorities arrived and went to the house of Dick Tsanahe with the intention of arresting him for giving whiskey to Dumaka. The officials were met at the door by We’Wha  who would not let them come in. According to American accounts, We’Wha physically threw one official out and then closed the door. The door, however, closed on the man’s coattails and he had to use his saber to cut himself free.

The American authorities deployed their troops around the Pueblo, but they were met by angry Zuni who made it clear that they would fight. The Americans retreated and called for reinforcements. Outnumbered, the Zuni asked for peace and the Americans arrested the bow priest Nayuchi and We’Wha. The two were jailed without a trial and without any indication of the authority for their arrests. We’Wha spent more than a month in jail and then was released. It was the middle of winter and he walked more than 40 miles across the continental divide to return home.

When We’Wha lay dying of heart disease in 1896, Nayuchi was summoned to treat him. Nayuchi’s diagnosis was that a witch had shot bits of mutton into We’Wha’s heart. Three times Nayuchi attempted to draw out the foreign mutton, but he failed and We’Wha died.

We’Wha’s body was prepared for burial with bathing and being rubbed with corn meal. A pair of white cotton trousers was then drawn up over the legs. This was the first men’s clothing that he had worn in many years. The body was then dressed in the finest women’s clothing. The body was taken to the grave and then We’Wha’s personal possessions were destroyed.

Since We’Wha was only 49 years old when he died, his death was considered premature. The bow priests later arrested a woman accused of witchcraft and extracted a confession from her. In this way, the matter of We’Wha’s death was laid to rest.

Among the Zuni, We’Wha was ilhamana, what some anthropologists today call a berdache. We’Wha was a man who wore women’s clothing and who filled both male and female roles. As with many tribes, the berdache was recognized as a third gender.  

The Berdache

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In American society today there is some debate over gender and sexual identities. While there are some who are that there are only genders-male and female-and this should define the natural order of things, there are others who point out the wide variety of sexual orientation. To add to this discussion, I would like to add some information about Native American gender identities.  

Indian cultures in general did not view gender/sexuality as being restricted to just two categories. While some modern writers speak of the Indian berdache as a third gender, it’s not quite that simple. The berdache was not a third category, but a way of referring to a continuum of human behavior that doesn’t fit neatly into the European notions of male and female.

As usual, I would like to point out that there were more than 500 distinct Indian cultures in North American prior to the European invasion, so making broad generalizations about the role of the berdache in traditional Indian society is risky. In what follows below I will make some generalizations about the berdache among the Northern Plains tribes-groups such as the Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, Sioux, and others.

Like most cultures, the Indian nations of the Northern Plains defined specific roles for men and for women. In general, women gathered wild plant foods while the men were hunters and warriors. However, the roles were not rigid: there were many women who hunted and went on war parties and were still considered women. Just doing things normally done by the opposite gender did not make one into a berdache.

Among most of the Northern Plains cultures, there were some boys who preferred the company of girls and who eventually dressed as girls. The ethnographic literature about these individuals generally refers to them as berdaches.  Among the Crow, at about the age of 10-12 a young boy might take on the female clothing and female work. As a male berdache he was accepted in Crow society and might marry a man. In describing the male berdache, Edwin Thompson Denig, writing in 1856, says: “He is not to be distinguished in any way from the women.” However, in Crow society the berdache was neither male nor female, but an individual who had characteristics of both.

Since the berdache was neither male nor female, it many of the Northern Plains tribes the berdache had an important role in the ceremonial life of the tribe. In the Sun Dance, for example, there were certain rituals which could be performed only by a berdache.

Among many of the Plains tribes, the berdache was felt to have strong curing powers. Among the Cheyenne, for example, war parties often included a berdache whose job was to care for the wounded. In addition, the spiritual powers of the berdache were felt to bring good luck. The presence of a berdache in a war party was also desired because of their special spiritual powers. Large war parties were seldom without a berdache.

While much of the literature about the role of the berdache in Northern Plains cultures focuses on men, there were also many instances of women who wore men’s clothing and took men’s roles. Some of these women married other women, some were warriors, and some were chiefs. Among the Blackfoot, women who took on the aggressive roles of men were referred as “manly hearted women.” They would usually begin to take on these roles as teenagers when they would join war parties. They would wear male dress, marry women, and often obtain leadership positions as warriors and/or spiritual leaders.

What was/is the American Indian berdache? Too often there is an attempt to use European categories to understand the berdache and thus to assume that they were homosexual. Undoubtedly, some were, but the role of the berdache was not a sexual one. Sometimes the berdache has been described as a transvestite or as a transgender people. Again, this is not a totally true image of who they were. Gender and sexuality in Indian cultures allowed a wide range of variation and the concept of the berdache simply shows that cultures exist which allow a great deal of freedom with regard to gender identity.  

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