Transgressing Gender and Native Culture

This weekend I attended a conference outside of Philadelphia put on by the Friends Council on Education. Saturday night’s keynote speaker, Ines Talamantez, an Apache/Chicano anthropology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, came to the conference on a special grant to support mutual learnings between Native Americans and Quakers.

She spoke about how Native American children were removed from their homes and forced to attend white boarding schools. There the Native American children were forbidden to speak their language and practice their religion. They had to cut their hair and dress like the mainstream white children.

As she spoke about her pain of going through such an ordeal, of being forced to adopt a dominant culture and identity unlike her own, of being taught that her own way and identity was wrong and inferior, I began to weep.

Today I read about Wesley Thomas, a former Indiana University gender studies and anthropology graduate student and Navajo Two-Spirit person who chose to leave the university and return to the Navajo reservation because he felt that the white heteronormative culture did not make room for gender diversity.

“Colonialism has forced a lot of American Indians away from their traditions,” Thomas said. “In Native communities 100 years ago it was a multi-gendered society,” Thomas said while parked at a gas station somewhere on the road between Bloomington and the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. “In Western culture you are either stuck with one or the other — you’re either a man or a woman, nothing else. In Native American society there were even five genders that you could find. Wherever your comfort zone is, that is the gender identity that you have. It is a foreign concept for Western people who are from the Western culture — it has nothing to do with homosexuality, which makes it worse form to even think outside that box.”

hat tip to Jennifer Burke, who daily posts insightful pieces about transgender themes.

This post has 1 Comment

  1. Diana_CT on June 28, 2006 at 9:38 am Reply

    Society likes thing in a box, neatly labeled and stacked on a shelf in order. When one does not fix in a box or the box doesn’t stack with the other boxes it get put in the back of the closet or bus or on the other side of the tracks.

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