We'wha: Zuni Man/Woman

Laura Darlene Lansberry

I, with Joan at my side, arrived in Zuni, New Mexico before dawn. The peaceful little village had hardly begun to stir. Dogs roaming the streets were barking and howling and the smoky smell of morning fires from dozens of adobe ovens was filling the air. Aromatic hint of wheat bread baking, a slight chill in the air, ah yes, a beautiful morning was being issued in by the rising sun.

I was impatient to find the grave of We'wha, to walk the land where she had walked, to breathe the air that had filled her lungs, to savor the joy of her life as she might have known it. Would I be able to find her burial mound? What would I discover? How would I feel standing before the grave of this person whose life story had moved me so greatly? Here was the first person with whom I identified so strongly that I could visualize every aspect of her life. I had learned of We'wha from a book by Will Roscoe on her life, "We'wha: The Zuni Man-Woman." Much of what is written on this page is, directly or indirectly, drawn from this excellent resource. It's featured as one of four important books on the subject of gender diversity in our bibliography.

The one element in Mr Roscoe's book that I take minor exception to, is his decision to use male pronouns. The Zuni's may not have recognized gender as such, but they did refer to a berdache as a women. His reasoning, however, is explained in Prologue, footnote3, and he acknowledges that "she" or "her" within question marks might be a closer approximation. For that I am grateful.

In any event, We'wha was a most remarkable human being and, even removed in time, one can not help but fall in love with her. Mr. Roscoe must be credited for writing a sensitive and insightful account of her life and all minor annoyances of semantics should be kept in perspective, without him her story might never have been told.

As the town stirred Joan and I climbed back in our car and drove over to the high school. In the parking lot we flagged down a peace officer and I climbed out, my copy of Mr. Roscoe's book in my hand. The Zuni man before me had bright eyes and a shy smile. When I showed him the book and told him I wanted to find the burial mound of We'wha to show my respects he informed me, almost apologetically, that the Zuni rarely marked their graves. However, he gave me instructions on how to find the old grave yard. I was never to find the precise spot where We'wha rests, but it was enough that I was in her land, surrounded by her people. As we stood before the unmarked graves, knowing that some bodies were buried on top of other bodies, it no longer mattered that I find her remains. I had found her heart.

A little explanation is due here ... realizing that the Zuni do not seem as preoccupied with the bodies of the deceased increased my respect for them. The preoccupation in my culture with elaborate burial rituals and ceremonies had always seemed contrived ... and yet, unknown to me until that moment, I was more infected with that "psychosis" than I had suspected. Still, I had come to Zuni to find out a little more about We'wha and her people, and I had succeeded. It was my shortcoming that suggested to me the Zuni would have a similar view toward death and burial. Judging them by our standard not only does the Zuni a disservice, it is a disservice to ourselves. I assure anyone reading these words, that was not how I felt standing there in that land. It was an occasion of wonder and learning for which I was most appreciative and I learned the Zuni culture is different from ours and should never be taken for granted, even by a well-meaning tourist.

When We'wha was young she was a quick, strong, and bright young boy. Even so she preferred the company of women to the company of the other Indian boys. She liked helping with the chores, she liked the friendly chatting, and she had already discovered that she was destined to be a lhamana, a man who does women's work and wears women's clothes. Nor was she the first, there were three other lhamana in the tribe and another young boy who had proclaimed himself lhamana as well. The women of the tribe looked upon the lhamana with a great deal of favor since it was expected that such a person remain with the household and do almost double the work of a female. This was extremely important since there are times a female must cease her labors and other duties to bear children. A lhamana, of course, does not and further she can help look after the children while performing the hardest of female labor.

We'wha was born in 1849, twenty-eight years after the abandonment of the Catholic mission at Zuni. The Zunis were as free to practice their religion and continue their customs as they had been before the coming of the Spaniards. Isolated and alone the Zuni were a poor people soon to be invaded by the advent of the Americans into the southwest. It was against this backdrop that We'wha grew up and would become the most notable and remarkable character of her tribe. Fortunately for We'wha the Zuni were exceptional people, more advanced than other Indian tribes. They tended large herds of sheep and horses, tilled the soil and made extraordinary use of local plants and shrubs.

We'wha was four when smallpox, brought by the first passing of Americans through Zuni land, ravaged the tribe. Both of her parents died, she but an infant. We'wha and her elder brother were adopted by her father's sister, the Dogwood People, but she would always have ceremonial ties to her mother's clan, the Badger People. As she grew to maturity there was ever present the threat of raids by Navajo and Apache, enemies who would steal their crops and livestock, take their women, and murder their men. To counter these attacks Zunis built tall watchtowers in their fields and stationed guards day and night. Access to homes was made with ladders from the roof into the interior. There were no doors or windows in these structures. Hidden stakes, fire sharpened, were placed in strategic locations. We'wha grew up in an armed camp under siege conditions.

The Zuni quickly realized that the military prowess of the Americans was awesome and were the first to instigate an alliance. In exchange for warriors, provisions, and aid in surveying the land the Americans returned guns and ammunition to the Zuni. Additionally the Zuni benefited from the roads built by the Americans and increased commerce and trade.

All of these things imprinted deeply on the mind of the young lhamana, perhaps quickening the development which was to make her extraordinary even among other lhamanas. When her aunt adopted We'wha her nature was already showing itself. She used female expressions and kinship terms and sometimes wore her shirt out in imitation of the petticoats of the girls. In that We'wha ran faster, was stronger, and more intelligent than any other child in the tribe, it was no surprise that she was lhamana. For it was often the case that these unique people, blessed with their uncommon nature, were given unusual strengths and insights. Yes, We'wha, the lhamana would be a welcome addition to her clan.

At puberty, it already having been established that We'wha was to live the life of a lhamana, an elaborate ceremony took place wherein she was, for the first time, dressed entirely as a woman and brought into the inner circle of the women of the clan. That We'wha was held in high esteem by her people was evident, but even the ethnologist Matilda Stevenson fell under her spell. The following is a description, hardly the detached observations of an objective professional:

"She was perhaps the tallest person in Zuni, certainly the strongest, both mentally and physically ... she had a good memory, not only for the lore of her people, but for all that she heard of the outside world ... she possessed an indomitable will and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Her likes and dislikes were intense. She would risk anything to serve those she loved, but toward those who crossed her path she was vindictive. Though severe she was considered just ... Owing to her bright mind she was called upon by her clan and also by the clans of her foster mother and father when a long prayer had to be repeated or a grace was to be offered at a feast. In fact she was the chief personage on many occasions. On account of her physical strength all the household work requiring great strength was left for her, and while she most willing took the harder work from others of the family, she would not permit idleness; all had to labor or receive an upbraiding from We'wha and nothing was more dreaded than a scolding from her."

It was late in 1885 when We'wha lived with the Stevenson's for six months in Washington D.C. There she mingled with the avant-garde, the creme of American society. The Speaker of the House, John Carlisle and other dignitaries and socialites befriended the Zuni Princess in her role as ambassador of the Zuni people. Here We'wha became impressed with the immense power and numbers of the Americans who had come to live all too close to her own people. She would return to her people with intent to forge an alliance with the greatly superior forces of the new nation. Perhaps more than any other person in Zuni history, she was responsible for an ironclad treaty, so well constructed that it has never been broken by either side.

During her visit to Washington a newspaper wrote this account of We'wha:

"The princess is an eccentric child of nature. Although she is at present moving in the highest circles of Washington and is the pet guest of Mrs. Stevenson, she yet lapses from the conventionalities of life and goes back to the freer notion of life on the plains. During the late heavy snow fall the princess heard the Stevensons talking about the heavy load of snow on the roof. It was just beginning to thaw and they were fearful that the water would get through the roof. Some way or other through their signs she seemed to understand. A few moments afterward she disappeared and could not be found. A little later a heavy rush on the roof and then a fall of snow in front of the house indicated where the princess was. She was found on the ridge pole hard at work clearing off the roof. The work was full of peril but the princess would not come down until she had completed it."

Shortly before she was to return to her people she was presented to President Grover Cleveland and Mrs. Cleveland. There she extended the greetings of her people and offered a wedding gift of her own handiwork. The President was so impressed with the six foot tall princess that she was his honored guest at the White House for several days. On the lawn outside the White House We'wha set up a loom and for those several days, to the amazement of all who saw her, she weaved one of her incredible blankets.

When later, in 1908, it was discovered that We'wha had been a male, Clara True, wrote to Stevenson's lawyer asking permission to print the revelation. It was more a threat to embarrass Mrs. Stevenson than any desire to publish the story for its own sake.

"I can't think of anything so funny as the story of We'wha ... We'wha was a Zuni maiden of wonderful beauty of character who was taken to Washington on account of her extraordinary abilities. She was a brilliant social success, had an interview with President Cleveland, was entertained at Secretary Carlisle's, etc. Her crowning act in society was leading a "Kirmes" charity ball which wealth and fashion participated. She was given a beautiful bouquet and responded to an encore. She was "studied" by many scientific persons whose names are famous.

The joke of the story is that the beautiful "We'wha" was a "bold bad man," father of a family in Zuni. The fun he had after he got back home you can imagine. The possibilities of the tale are beyond description. I should of course leave out all objectionable features for instance "We'wha" being employed as a lady's maid for a time by an ethnologist and being around the dressing rooms where pompadours were being "done," which happened.

It really is one of the best things on Washington which ever occurred, especially scientific Washington."

What immediately grips your attention is the total lack of understanding of what We'wha was to herself and to her people. "Revealed" to have been a male living in the role of a woman Clara True could conceive of nothing save that it was a joke played on Washington by the "aborigines." The social engine of the national culture was so far removed from the reality of human behavior that they had no ability to conceive that We'wha was exactly what she presented herself to be, an ambassador of good will from the Zuni people who had been sent because she was the most respected and loved member of their tribe.

Not yet fifty, We'wha suffered from heart disease, and Matilda Coxe Stevenson, penned a moving portrayal of We'wha's last moments on earth:

"When a week or more had passed after the close of the great autumn ceremonial of the Sha'lako, and the many guests had departed, the writer dropped in at sunset to the spacious room in the house of We'wha's foster father, the late José Palle. We'wha was found crouching on the ledge by the fireplace. That a great change had come over her was at once apparent. Death evidently was rapidly approaching. She had done her last work. Only a few days before this strong-minded, generous-hearted creature had labored to make ready for the reception of her gods; now she was preparing to go to her beloved Ko'thluwala'wa [Sacred Lake]. When the writer asked, "Why do you not lie down?" We'wha replied: "I cannot breathe if I lie down; I think my heart break." The writer at once sent to her camp for a comfortable chair, and fixed it at a suitable angle for the invalid, who was most grateful for the attention. There was little to be done for the sufferer. She knew that she was soon to die and begged the writer not to leave her.

"From the moment her family realized that We'wha was in a serious condition they remained with her, ever ready to be of assistance. The family consisted of the aged foster mother, a foster brother, two foster sisters with their husbands and children, and an own brother with his wife and children. The writer never before observed such attention as every member of the family showed her. The little children ceased their play and stood in silence close to their mothers, occasionally toddling across the floor to beg We'wha to speak. She smiled upon them and whispered, "I cannot talk." The foster brother was as devoted as the one related by blood....

"The foster brother, with streaming eyes, prepared te'likinawe [prayer sticks] for the dying, the theurgist having said that her moments on earth were few. We'wha asked the writer to come close and in a feeble voice she said, in English: "Mother, I am going to the other world. I will tell the gods of you and Captain Stevenson. I will tell them of Captain Carlisle, the great seed priest, and his wife, whom I love. They are my friends. Tell them good-bye. Tell all my friends in Washington good-bye. Tell president Cleveland, my friend, good-by. Mother, love all my People; protect them; they are, your children; you are their mother." These sentences were spoken with many breaks. The family seemed somewhat grieved that We'wha's last words should be given to the writer, but she understood that the thoughts of the dying were with and for her own people. A good-by was said to the others and then she asked for more light.

"It is a custom of the family to hold the prayer plumes near the mouth of the dying and repeat the prayer, but this practice was not observed in We'wha's case. She requested the writer to raise the back of the chair, and when this was done she asked if her prayer plumes had been made. Her foster brother answered "Yes," whereupon she requested him to bring them. The family suppressed their sobs that the dying might not be made sad. The brother offered to hold the plumes and say the prayers, but We'wha feebly extended her hand for them, and clasping the prayer plumes between her hands made a great effort to speak. She said but a few words and then sank back in her chair. Again the brother offered to hold the plumes and pray, but once more she refused. Her face was radiant in the belief that she was going to her gods. She leaned forward with the plumes tightly clasped, and as the setting sun lighted up the western windows, darkness and desolation entered the hearts of the mourners, for We'wha was dead."

Among the Zunis, the death of a berdache like We'wha elicited regret and distress. From the perspective of many people today gender variants often evoke apprehension, repugnance, outrage, or at least, scorn. Gender variants are too often considered freaks of nature, devils, abnormal, depraved, evil, degenerate, and the death of one us elicits elation and delight in some circles. You be the judge. Are we abominations or are we extraordinary people with a purpose in human society who, if given the opportunity, would offer our energy and strength to make the world a better place? In our site you will discover we are exactly that and we haven't waited for an invitation to fulfill that role. The heroes and heroines you will discover here are only all too real and, quite frankly, everyone of them is noble, courageous, and have made the world a little better for their having lived.

(Source: _The Zuni Man-Woman_, by Will Roscoe

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