Pride Special: Nonbinary and Gender-Nonconforming People in First Nations in the American Continent

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Happy Pride Month to all our LGBTQIA+ readers! Aquamarine is formed by a group that proudly includes several gender-diverse people. We want to honor our identities –and yours!– by introducing you to cultures that have historically considered gender as a spectrum. 

There are many cultures that have always existed outside what we now call the gender binary. In many ancient societies, people who didn’t fit into the categories of “men” or “women” were considered sacred and played a key role in their communities. These have become known as “third gender” individuals. They are common among several human groups that exist on different continents.

It is important to notice that the gender binary that we know today is not a “natural” division. Gender is a social construct. The binary conception of gender as a polarity between “man” and “woman” was imposed on First Nations through colonization. In this article, we will talk about several ancient communities in the American continent that recognized more than two genders. 

First Nations (ancient native communities) have always recognized and integrated diverse genders. People have always existed out of the gender binary that is present in Western societies. Gender-diverse people can be traced throughout history and across almost every human civilization. We have always lived and thrived!

North American Cultures

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The number of First Nations that inhabited North America ascends to over 600 distinct nations in the United States alone. These communities were very different from each other. Under no circumstance are we suggesting they were the same. They should all be recognized in their own right. However, studies about gender diversity in all First Nations are scarce. So, we have decided to include all the information we have been able to gather under this subheading.

Many First Nations had a third gender that existed outside what we consider the gender binary. These identities were respected. In fact, in many North American cultures, shamans and important religious leaders were outside the gender binary. 

In the 1990s, the term “Two Spirit” was created to refer to people who fulfilled a gender-nonconforming social role. “Two Spirit” is an umbrella term that encompasses many ways in which people were gender-nonconforming. This term has achieved mainstream recognition, but there are people who criticize it. It is better than the slurs that the colonizers used to refer to the wide variety of gender expressions and sexual behavior. However, some people claim that the term “Two Spirit” is limiting. In fact, First Nations didn’t use this word before colonization.

In the Lakota nation, there were people called winkte who were AMAB (assigned male at birth) and assumed traditional women’s roles, such as cooking and caregiving. They also played an important part in rituals and served as the keepers of the community’s oral tales. In the Navajo nation, the nadleehi were AMAB (assigned male at birth) people who embodied the masculine and feminine spirit. The dilbaa, on the other hand, were AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals who also were considered to encompass both genders.

In the Blackfoot nation, the ninauposkitzipxpe were honored as a third gender. Roughly translated, it means “manly-hearted woman”. These individuals were AFAB and did not necessarily wear masculine clothes. However, they were unrestricted by the social constraints placed on women in their society. 

Another example is the Zuni nation, where lhamana people existed. These individuals lived as both genders at the same time. In that sense, they performed traditional women’s work, as well as traditional men’s work. They played a key role in society as mediators, priests, and artists. 

Finally, we can mention the Mohave nation. Their creation myth talks about a moment in time when humans were not sexually or gender-differentiated. The Mohave recognized four genders: men, women, hwame and alyha. Hwame were AFAB individuals who identified as male, while alyha were AMAB people who identified as female.

The Incan Culture

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The Incas were a people who inhabited the South-West area of South America. Their Empire extended from the country that we call Ecuador to the one that we know as Chile. In their mythology, one of the biggest creative forces for the universe did not have a gender. They worshiped a deity they called chuqui chinchay, who was the ruler of water – including rain and storms. This deity was gender-neutral or dual-gendered, and was depicted as a jaguar.

In order to honor this deity, the Incas performed sacred rituals. These rituals were led by the quariwarmi, shamans who were AMAB but took on a more neutral role. The name quariwarmi means “man-woman”. They wore androgynous clothing. Sometimes, they performed erotic activities with men. 

They were a visible sign of a “third space” that negotiated between the masculine and the feminine. In the Western world, some people that belong to the Queer community feel drawn to liminal spaces. This was also the case of quariwarmi in the ancient Incan culture. These religious leaders mediated between the present and the past, and the living and the dead. Some sources say that the quariwarmi behaved like women. However, we still don’t know how the quariwarmi identified themselves. Anything is possible, but evidence suggests that they identified as women or as a gender outside of the Western gender binary man-woman.

The Zapotec Culture

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The Zapotec community is native to Mexico, especially to the southern state of Oaxaca. In this community, three genders are recognized: men, women, and muxe. This term refers to an AMAB person who takes on traditionally feminine roles. There’s a wide variety of identities among muxes. Some identify as gay men, while some of them identify as transgender women.

Since ancient times, muxes have been recognized as a third gender that is equal but different from men and women. Some muxes got married to men, some muxes got married to women and had children with them, and other muxes lived in groups. Muxes are well-respected within the community, and they have several social responsibilities. 

Zapotec society in pre-Columbian times was organized in a matriarchal society. Men hunted, plowed the land, and made political decisions. Women, on the other hand, controlled trade and economic decisions. Muxes could make decisions that were specific to women, and young men frequently visited muxes to start their sexual life. This was done in order to “protect” young women’s virginity before marriage.

In addition, muxes fulfilled the role of caretakers for children and the elderly. They were also an important part of traditional families. Men normally left their parents’ house to get married, start a family, and become economic providers for that family. Muxes, however, didn’t have that responsibility, so they could stay with their parents or return whenever they were needed. 

Muxes still exist today, and they still carry out some of their traditional functions. In other cultures of this region, there have been other groups that also consider the existence of gender as a spectrum. Such is the case of the biza’ah in Teotitlán, Mexico.

What this brief summary shows is that gender-nonconforming people have always existed. In fact, our existence was and still is respected and highly regarded by many First Nations. The gender binary was imposed by colonial powers during the 16th and 17th centuries. After that, it became prevalent in society. In this article, we have discussed gender diversity in American First Nations, and we’ll soon be talking about other First Nations, so stay tuned!

During Pride Month we honor all the beautiful people who exist outside of the gender binary. We deserve to be accepted in a society that has trouble accepting our mere existence. Let’s not forget that Pride Month is also a symbol of our fight. There’s still a long way to go but we’ll get there sooner if we go together.

Did you enjoy today’s post? Do you have any questions for us? Tell us in the comments!



Verene Snopek
Verene Snopek

is a Content Writer at Aquamarine Content. She is a Cancer Sun, Gemini Moon, and Libra Rising. A Jane of all trades, she is a certified clinical psychologist specializing in CBT and DBT. This cat lover also works as a professor of History, Literature, and Ethics in a Teacher Training College. She is interested in past lives and energy healing and has been learning about Astrology and Tarot reading for over a year. Her favorite crystal is Amethyst and her favorite Tarot card is The Lovers

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