A new effort to canonize queer saint Tibira is highlighted here for Indigenous Peoples’ Day along with many other LGBTQ and two-spirit Native Americans.
In the United States, Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors Native Americans as an alternative to the national holiday Columbus Day, which commemorates the arrival of European explorer Christopher Columbus in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492. The International Day of the World’s Indigenous People was established on Aug. 9 by the United Nations.
Almost all Native American tribes traditionally recognized “two-spirit” people of mixed gender. Sometimes they played a spiritual role. They appear as sacred figures in Native American rituals and myths.
Before Columbus arrived, most Native American societies valued people who mixed male and female roles or characteristics. Their languages had words for third and sometimes even fourth genders. “Two spirit” is one of the many and varied Native American terms for alternative genders because one body housed both feminine and masculine spirits. Sometimes they served as spiritual guides who mediated between the realms of body and spirit, male and female. From a Western cultural viewpoint, the two-spirited people have been seen as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or queer.
Seeking sainthood for Brazil’s indigenous queer martyr Tibira
LGBTQ activists in Brazil recently launched a campaign for the sainthood of Tibira do Maranhão, who is considered “the first indigenous gay martyr of Brazil.” French missionaries executed him for sodomy in 1614, turning him into a queer martyr. It was the first documented case of a person killed for homosexuality in Brazil.
Tibira was a Tupinambá Indian living in Brazil’s northeastern coastal region of Maranhão. The word “tibira” referred to homosexuals in the Tupi language.
The missionaries executed Tibira by strapping him in front of a cannon and blowing him to pieces. The gruesome public spectacle designed to “extinguish evil” and terrorize the native population into a “Christian” lifestyle that shunned same-sex attraction. The only record of the execution comes from French Capuchin friar Yves D’Evreux, who wrote about it in his travel diary.
The history was buried for four centuries until it was rediscovered and highlighted by Grupo Gay da Bahia and its founder, anthropologist and historian Luiz Mott. Starting a few years ago, they made headlines across Brazil by asking the Roman Catholic Church to recognize Tibira. A detailed report in English was published by Vice.com in September 2017.
Official canonization is unlikely, but in December 2016 activists succeeded in getting the government to erect a life-size statue of Tibira at the place of his execution in São Luis, the largest city in Maranhão. It is being hailed as the first gay monument in Brazil
A new artwork about Tibira’s story is on display through Oct. 16, 2017, at the Schwules Museum in Berlin, Germany. It is part of the “Odarodle” exhibition that rereads LGBTQ history from a post-colonial perspective. Brazilian Japanese artist Lucas Odahara created “Their Sounds Echoing Between You” with fragmented images on panels of blue and white tile based on the only known visual representation of Tibira and other images of his era.
Executions for homosexuality were common in Europe for centuries, and Europeans soon imported homophobic violence to the Americas. Two decades before Tibira was killed in Brazil, the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa found homosexuality among the Native American chiefs in 1594 at Quarqua in Panama. He ordered 40 of these two-spirited people thrown to his war dogs to be torn apart and eaten alive to stop the “stinking abomination.”
Queer indigenous people in historical art
The earliest known European depictions of Native Americans include two-spirit people. “Employments of the Hermaphrodites” is based on a watercolor made by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues while exploring Florida in the 1560s. It illustrates his report that two-spirit people’s duties included caring for the sick and carrying the dead on stretchers.
Two-spirit people were not only accepted in many Native American societies, but also appear as sacred figures in Native American sacred rituals and mythology. For example the Zuni have a two-spirit god called Ko’lhamana, and Hopi and Acoma-Laguna myths tell about a whole tribe of two-spirit people called the Storoka.
George Catlin, famous artist who specialized in portraits of Native Americans in the Old West, sketched the “Dance to the Berdache” in the 19th century while on the Great Plains with the Sac and Fox Nation. He depicted a ceremonial dance to celebrate the Berdache, a European term for two-spirit people. But Catlin refused to give two-spirit people a place in his paintings of “traditional” Indian life.
Indigenous same-sex love in contemporary art
Contemporary artists have tried to re-envision the freedom of two-spirit people before the Europeans arrived. In the image above, Wisconsin artist Ryan Grant Long includes an unknown Mayan couple enjoying a playful moment together in his series “Fairy Tales” series of same-sex love throughout history. For more info, see my article Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long.
Artist Brandon Buehring included several two-spirit groupings in his “Legendary Love: A Queer History Project.” In one sketch he portrays Warharmi, a “half-man, half-woman” and twins named Madkwahomai from the creaton myth of the Tipai tribe of the Kumeyaay people in California’s Imperial Valley.
Buehring uses pencil sketches and essays “to remind queer people and our allies of our sacred birthright as healers, educators, truth-tellers, spiritual leaders, warriors and artists.” The project features 20 sketches of queer historical and mythological figures from many cultures around the world. He has a M.Ed. degree in counseling with an LGBT emphasis from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He works in higher education administration as well as being a freelance illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
While Europeans were mostly hostile to two-spirit people among the Native Americans whom they converted to Christianity, a contemporary icon offers hope of reconciliation by showing holy same-sex love with both Christian and Native American imagery. John Giuliani’s “Jesus and the Beloved Disciple” shows Jesus and his male beloved in the native dress of the Aymara Indians, descendants of the Incas who still live in the Andean regions of Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Giuliani is an Italian-American artist and Catholic priest who is known for making Christian icons with Native American symbols. He studied icon painting under a master in the Russian Orthodox style, but chose to expand the concept of holiness to include Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the Americas.
Despite the violence, some two-spirit individuals are still remembered in history and contemporary art. They include We’wha of Zuni and the Woman Chief known as Pine Leaf.
We’wha of Zuni: Two-spirit ambassador met U.S. president
We’wha was a two-spirit Native American Zuni who served as a cultural ambassador for her people, including a visit with a U.S. president in 1886. We’wha (pronounced WAY-wah) was the most famous “lhamana,” the Zuni term for a male-bodied person who lived in part as a woman. Lhamanas chose to specialize in crafts instead of becoming warriors or hunters.
We’wha (1849-1896) was a skilled weaver and potter who helped Anglo-American scholars studying Zuni society. In 1886 We’wha traveled from her home in New Mexico to Washington DC, where she met president Grover Cleveland. She was welcomed as a celebrity during her six months in Washington. Everyone assumed that the 6-foot-tall “Indian princess” was female.
The spiritual side of We’wha is emphasized in the above icon by Brother Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. She is dressed for a religious ceremony as she prepares to put on the sacred mask of the man-woman spirit Kolhamana.
We’wha is the subject of the book “The Zuni Man-Woman” by gay anthropologist Will Roscoe. He also wrote “Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America” and “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love.” Roscoe’s website willsworld.org offers resources in the Native American two-spirit tradition, third genders in the ancient world, and studies in early Christianity.
Jim Ru painted We’Wha with a dramatic blue background His icon was included in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee Arizona in the 1990s.
Ru discusses We’Wha in a video.
Pine Leaf rose to become Woman Chief
“Woman Chief” is one of the names for the two-spirit tomboy born around 1800 to the Gros Ventre tribe. She was captured by the Crow nation when she was 10 and was so adept at hunting and warfare that she rose to become their chief.
Historical accounts say that she wore women’s clothes but had “all the style of a man and chief,” with “her guns, bows, lances, war horses, and even two or three young women as wives.”
She was killed in 1854 by the Gros Ventre tribe, but her story lived on in the popular memoirs of a freed slave and fur trader named James Beckwourth. He called her Pine Leaf because he refused his multiple marriage proposals by saying she would wed him “when the pine leaves turn yellow.” Later he figured out that pine leaves never turn yellow.
She is portrayed in the “Butch Heroes” series by genderqueer Boston artist Ria Brodell. For more on Brodell’s work, see my article “Artist paints history’s butch heroes.”
Links related to Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Two Spirit People at the Legacy Walk
Kent Monkman (Canadian artist of Cree ancestry whose work has strong queer or gay male imagery dealing with sexuality and Christianity)
Top image credit:
Historical image of Tibira do Maranhão
This post is part of the LGBTQ Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, events in LGBTQ history, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people of faith and our allies.
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Icons of We’wha and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores
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