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  • Traci Holmer

Indigenous Perspectives on Gender: How the Gender Binary is Rooted in Colonialism

In the US, there has been a massive conservative backlash and moral panic in response to transgender visibility. In 2023 alone, 576 anti-transgender bills have been proposed across the US, and 83 have passed. Some of this prejudice stems from a common misconception that the gender binary is rigid and has been universal throughout history. In Western societies, there is a long-held belief that sex and gender are the same, but medical research says otherwise. While there have been gender differences based on sex in many regimes throughout human history, this has not been the case for every society.


Two Spirit Society of Denver marched with PrideFest in 2011.


Hunter-Gatherer Myth


In most history classes, students are taught that prior to the agricultural revolution, hunter-gatherer societies divided labor strictly by gender, with men being the “hunters” and women being the “gatherers.” However, a recent archeological study found of 63 clearly defined hunter-gatherer societies, 79% had female hunters. In addition, there are hunter-gatherer societies today that do not divide labor strictly based on gender. For example, the Aka, a nomadic group in Central Africa, have entirely different gender roles than Western societies. Aka, women hunt alongside men, and men gather alongside women. Fathers tend to bear more childcare responsibilities than mothers. While men occupy most leadership positions, women frequently challenge their authority and play an important role in decision-making for the community. The hunter-gatherer myth is often used to justify gender discrimination between men and women despite a significant proportion of hunter-gatherer societies not having had patriarchy. In fact, some indigenous societies have categories of gender that fall outside of the binary.

Two Spirit


Two Spirit describes individuals in Native American tribes who embody a third gender outside of men and women. Many Two-Spirit individuals have a similar experience to transgender people. We’wha of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, for example, was born male but adopted the gender roles and traits of a woman. Two Spirit also describes individuals who embody the traits of both women and men or are gender fluid. In most tribes, they have a distinct status and are highly respected among the community. While Two-Spirit people play a variety of roles, many fill religious and spiritual positions since they are believed to be supernatural due to their ability to embody multiple genders.


Machi


The Mapuche people, who make up the largest indigenous group in Chile, commonly have a role in society known as Machi, an individual who travels to the spiritual realm. Machis are co-gendered individuals who embody both male and female spirits. Their gender fluidity is what allows them to navigate the spiritual realm and act as spiritual leaders in their communities. For example, manipulating gender categories of power is a key part of how they facilitate healing rituals and ceremonies.


Photo of indigenous leader Machi Francisca Linconoa who was imprisoned for five years because of her political activism.

Yoruba


The Yoruba is an ethnic group indigenous to Southwestern parts of Nigeria. Prior to colonization, hierarchies in Yoruba society were largely based on class and age. Their language was genderless, and they did not use terms like “man” or “woman” until colonization. A person’s pronouns were not associated with gender but rather a marker for social status and age. For example, the pronouns of a child and an elder were different. Domestic labor was also divided equally between men and women in precolonial Yorubaland.


Why are indigenous perspectives of gender forgotten?


These are just some examples of societies throughout human history that have had gender categories outside of the strict gender binary in Western cultures. Indigenous perspectives on gender are largely ignored in mainstream discussions about history and gender because of colonization. Biological determinism defines social categories solely by biology, including gender. It became popular throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and as a result, Europeans viewed gender and sex as one in the same and believed that patriarchy was a natural and universal order. This gender idoelogy was used to justify colonization of indigenous groups who did not subscribe to the same gender hierarchy.


During colonization, colonists systematically targeted indigenous people who fell outside of the gender binary with campaigns of genocide right from the start. In addition to using violence to subjugate indigenous people, some colonial powers forcibly assimilated their children. The US and Canada for example, mandated that indigenous children attend Christian boarding schools that stripped them of their culture and separated them from their families. Part of the curriculum of these boarding schools included teaching the gender binary.


As indigenous groups faced genocide and forced assimilation during colonization, colonial regimes outlawed their cultures, including identities and practices that were gender nonconforming or fluid. In India, the British believed the eunuch, a third gender category, brought about “filth, disease, contagion, and contamination.” Britain attempted to eliminate the eunuch by criminalizing their identity and increasing police surveillance, who considered “an eunuch as a…sexually deviant person.” Similar rhetoric is used against transgender, nonbinary, and other people who fall outside of the gender binary by conservatives in the US today.


Photo of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, transgender, and eunuch activist.


Conclusion


Overall, the belief that gender is rigid and universal is rooted in colonization and the erasure of indigenous cultures. Rigid gender ideology was used to justify atrocities against indigenous people who continue to fight today to preserve their cultures and histories under the rule of colonial regimes. The narrative that only two genders exist invalidates the identities of those who do not meet rigid definitions of “man” and “woman,” including Two Spirit, trangender, non-binary, gender-nonconforming, and gender fluid people. The gender binary is also frequently used to justify discrimination against women. Americans and other citizens in the West would benefit from examining the roots of gender and their own biases so that Western societies become more accepting of people who fall outside of the gender binary.


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