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Weiwha

Weiwha

(1849 – 1896)

Native American ‘Berdache’

Weiwha was born in the Zuni pueblo, perched atop a Mesa plateau, in one of the oldest continually inhabited villages in the United States, certainly in New Mexico. Weiwha lived a remarkable life and was recognized both for her many contributions to the life of her village as well as for her generosity in sharing the Zuni culture. Encountered by many anthropologists and explorers, Weiwha was perhaps best known through the influence of Matilda Coxe Stevenson. Stevenson was one of the earliest women anthropologists and she wrote extensively about her interactions with Weiwha, eventually inviting her to Washington in 1866. After making quite an impression on Washington, Weiwha returned to Zuni, where she eventually died.

Weiwha was the subject of Will Roscoe’s The Zuni Man-Woman, in which Roscoe explored the historical and cultural tradition of the Zuni Ihamana, or what anthropologists and ethnographers have termed the berdache. Berdachism, unlike contemporary gay or queer identity, has been found within a variety of indigenous cultures in both North and South America and dates as far back as the Spanish conquests. As a model, berdachism—generally associated with male-to-male sexual practices—is an important site from which to look at the cultural construction of gender. Berdachism can best be understood as an umbrella term for an entire set of cultural practices, and it must be noted that each native culture will have its own specific term for the berdache figure. In general, the majority of native terms refer to a combination of spiritual qualities most often translated as ihe-shei or ‘halfman-halfwoman’. Currently referred to as transgendered, or even as a third or fourth gender, the berdache figure must primarily be recognized for its particular emphasis on community contributions over sexual behavior. This is particularly significant at Zuni, where the berdache figure was generally understood to have a special link with the spirit world. Weiwha’s social status as a berdache was frequently ranked closely with that of the medicine man, and as a result berdachism must be seen as part of a rich and complex cultural system which incorporated sexual preferences into a multi-dimensional framework involving economic, social and spiritual dimensions—all of which contributed to its overall acceptance and integration within the community. Among the Zuni, the Ihamana‘s link to the spiritual world was particularly significant to anthropologists because it is reflected in numerous mythological stories usually emphasizing the berdaches’ primary characteristics. They are frequently represented as mediators between the sexes, as craftspeople, and as links with agricultural production. Each characteristic extends the berdache tradition beyond sexuality.

(“The Gay 100”, p203).

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