We-wha of Zuni (1849-1896)

Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist's Narrative:
When Europeans arrived in North America they were shocked that native peoples often interpreted gender differently from them. Not only were many cultures matriarchal, a great many tribes accepted three genders instead of only two.

Zuni Pueblo, in western New Mexico, honored three genders before the coming of protestant missionaries. Men who chose not to become hunters and warriors became lhamanas, members of the alternative gender that bridged the other two. While they were initiated into male religious societies, they became crafts specialists and wore female garb. They were nonwarriors who moved freely in the male and female worlds.

We-wha was a Zuni lhamana who helped bridge his culture and that of Anglo-Americans. He was one of the first Zunis to experiment with new economic activities, something essential in the changing world of his day. He was a cultural ambassador for Zuni, traveling to Washington, D.C., where no one guessed he was not a woman in the many months he mixed with "high society" there. He assisted Anglo scholars who came to record the ways of his people, but he also resisted Anglo incursions when they seemed improper -- once even ending up in jail.

He was a deeply spiritual person. In this icon he is shown garbed as the man-woman kachina, Kolhamana, a role he filled during his life. His hands and face are painted ceremonially and he is ready to place the sacred mask upon his face. He was well loved throughout his life and his death brought grief to Zuni. The rainbow spirit above his head in the icon emphasizes that he is now one of the holy ones who return to his people with blessings. His photograph hangs in the tribal museum today, and gay Native Americans throughout North America remember him as a spiritual hero and guide.


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