Gender and sexual diversity among Indigenous people of the Rio Grande Valley

For LGBTQ History Month, we wanted to highlight some of the Rio Grande Valley’s own history.

There has been a growing interest in gender identity and the experiences of trans people in mainstream American media and pop culture. Many times, however, people tend to think of gender non-conforming people and non-binary individuals as a relatively new phenomenon. Queerness of any kind is often thought of as a new construct- a product of newer generations and the Internet- something that some dismiss as a trend or a fad.

Part of this has to do with the fact that narratives of LGTBQ+ people and of the developments of queer communities tend to focus on a European or European-American perspective- excluding traditional and historical views on gender and sexual diversity from other cultures and ethnicities.

Like several cultures around the world, before European colonization, many indigenous American ethnicities embraced a wide range of sexualities, gender identities, and gender expressions. In some cultures, this meant a belief in third or fourth gender categories and in others there was simply an acceptance of different forms of sexuality and gender identity. Unfortunately, many historians and anthropologists, as well as many contemporary LGBT+ people, tend to make generalizations about these traditions. Other times, they might interpret them through a Western understanding of sexuality and gender. Several articles- for example- make assertions stating that Native Americans “worshiped” or “revered” queer people or generalize and state that Native Americans as a monolithic whole believed in four or five genders while ignoring the individual traditions within cultures and the different ways in which gender might be understood among them.

It is important to be clear and avoid these oversimplifications of Native identity and traditions. While many groups did value gender diverse people or people we might today call non-binary, it is incorrect to say that Native people as a whole “worshiped” sexual and gender diversity. And while some groups did have a third or fourth gender categories, each culture has their own nuanced views on gender. In some, people could live as the gender opposite to the one they were assigned at birth while still adhering to more rigid gender roles. In others, there was a greater degree of fluidity when it came to expressions of gender and sexuality. In many of these cultures, two-spirit people were regarded as important parts of their community and fulfilled or were charged with certain ceremonial roles.

The important thing to take away from this is that many Native people had an acceptance of people who we might today consider lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender non-conforming, transgender, asexual, or intersex and that many also understood gender as non-binary and not necessarily dependent on anatomy or gender assigned at birth.

Some anthropologists used to use the term berdache to refer to individuals we might today consider LGBTQIA+ plus from Native communities.- although this is considered offensive or outdated. Some contemporary LGTBQIA+ native people have used the term Two-Spirit to refer to these traditions and to their identities- although there is some debate as to the appropriateness of this term for all tribes and whether or not it should be used by non-native people.

From what we know of many of the groups that were indigenous to the Rio Grande Valley, gender and sexual diversity was a part of the region long before Spanish or Mexican colonizers began migrating into the area.

Unfortunately, we have very limited information about many of the groups that were native to the Rio Grande Valley. Most of the Spanish colonizers- with the exception of a few historians like Juan Chapa and Alonso de Leon- were not necessarily interested in cataloging details about the cultures of indigenous people that they encountered and displaced.

What we do know is that the area now known as the Valley and the surrounding region was home to a number of different ethnic groups that spoke different languages and practiced different cultures. Information on tribes such as the Pajaritos, Tareguanos, Tortugas, Panoramas, Nazas, and Pintos is often limited to their names and occasionally some information on where and how they lived. For other groups like the Malaguitas, Tejones, Garzas, and Cotonames there is slightly more information- for example, details about culture and language. Because of diseases brought by the Spaniards as well as other factors such as slavery and displacement, many of these groups lost many of their members and joined into larger groups- often losing their ethnic identity and intermarrying into the larger mestizo population.

Some modern-day tribal organizations like the Carrizo-Comecrudo Tribe of Texas and the Miakan Garza Tribe (based in San Marcos) represent descendants of some of these indigenous people. Anyone interested in learning more about the different groups native to the Rio Grande region should read Martin Salinas Indians of the Rio Grande Delta- an excellent collection of what is known of these groups. Because of the number of different ethnicities and the lack of recorded information on many, anthropologists and historians often use the broad term Coahuiltecan to refer to many of the diverse groups indigenous to South Texas and Northeastern Mexico.

When the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked off of the coast of what is now Galveston in the 1500s, he spent several years living among the indigenous people of the Gulf Coast, South Texas, and Northeastern Mexico- including among tribes that would eventually be known as Coahuiltecan. Cabeza de Vaca reported seeing among these people “men” who had relationships with men and “men” who wore “women’s” clothing and lived as women. Cabeza de Vaca described these people in negative terms that reflected his European Christian perspective. He noted that these “men” filled the social roles of women but were able to do work associated with both men and women and- interestingly- said that they were stronger and more muscular than the men. De Vaca’s observations are recorded in his narrative of his travels through South Texas.

Another early Spanish explorer, Alonso de Leon wrote in his observations of Northeastern Mexico and South Texas that it was common to find “effeminate” “young boys” and “men” who “acted” and dressed as women. Interestingly, de Leon did not seem as disapproving as Cabeza de Vaca and looked at this as a more natural phenomenon- one that was widespread in the region.

As Will Roscoe points out in his groundbreaking work “Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America,” the Spanish tended to use negative words to describe these people including “impotentes” (impotent), “amarionados” (effeminate), and hemafroditas (a word considered derogatory that was at one point used to describe intersex people but that in these contexts was used to refer to gender variant individuals). These reflect European feelings about gender and sexuality and not necessarily how these groups themselves felt.

Another group native to the South Texas region were the Karankawa- whose historical territory ranged along the South Texas coast from Corpus Christi to Padre Island. Displacement caused by the Spaniards forced some of them into missions and others to move further south or inland. Historian Martin Salinas documents that in the mid-1800s, a group called the Tampaikawa- most likely connected to the Karankawa- were cited as raiding Anglo settlements in Hidalgo County. The last known community of Karankawa is thought to have been massacred in the 1890s outside of Rio Grande City.

Many people learn about the Karankawa in their Texas history classes but never learn about the monaguias or monaquias. Will Roscoe as well as Russel Spencer in his book The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas 1821-1859 document that the Karankawa divided people into three genders- male, female, and monaguias (sometimes spelled to as monaquia). Monaguias were viewed as an alternative gender- they were assigned male at birth but dressed as female. Like their Coahuiltecan counterparts, they performed roles associated with both males and females and often accompanied and assisted men on hunting parties.

During the process of Spanish colonization, Europeans often reacted without violence towards these individuals.

Around the 1700s, The Lipan Apache begin to play an enormous role in the history of South Texas. The Apache are linguistically related to the Athabaskan groups of Alaska and Northern Canada and are believed to have entered Texas sometime in the 1600s. Beginning in the 1700s, the Apache engaged in a prolonged conflict first the Spanish and then later the Mexican and American governments in order to preserve their independence and way of life. These battles and Apache “raids” on Mexican and American communities shaped settlement patterns in the Valley and throughout South Texas. In the late 1800s, many Lipan were killed or forced onto reservations by the United States and Mexican armies. Many began to live in and blend into the Mexican and tejano communities around them. In her book I Fought A Good Fight, Shirley Robinson documents oral histories of Lipan families and communities in the areas of McAllen, Raymondville, Falfurrias, and Starr County. The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas is currently based out of McAllen and has members all over the state.

The Lipan- like many other Apache and Athabaskan groups- believed in third and fourth gender people. While in some tribes it seems that only people who were assigned male at birth occupied two-spirit roles, the Apache also recognized gender-variant people who were assigned female at birth. Shirley Robinson in the book Apache Voices documents two gender-variant Apache “women”- Lozen and Dahetese- who were in a relationship with each other and fought along with Apache chief Geronimo and his men until they surrendered. According to stories told by elders, they were viewed as having special abilities such as tracking and prophetic dreams. Sources including the book Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender, Identity, and Sexuality and Roscoe’s Changing Ones document the presence of “two-spirit” people among the Lipan in Texas.

Another group not indigenous to South Texas but that played a huge role in the history of the region are the Kickapoo. The Kickapoo is an Algonquin group originally from the Greats Lakes region of the Midwestern United States and are related to groups such as the Pottawattomi, Shawnee, and Sauk and Fox. Many Algonquin groups had third gender terms and traditions. The Sauk and Fox- a group closely related to the Kickapoo- had a term called i-coo-coo-a for people who were assigned male at birth and lived as female. Roscoe also noted that in the related Illinois tribe, the French described people who lived and were treated as the gender opposite to the one that they were assigned at birth and people who had relationships with both men and women.

The Kickapoo were notable for how far they traveled in order to preserve their traditional way of life and community. After being forcefully relocated to Kansas and then Oklahoma, several groups of Kickapoo traveled into South Texas and then Northeastern Mexico- where they were given land by the Mexican government in exchange for agreeing to defend Mexican border communities against Apache and Comanche raids. The Kickapoo also participated in raids on Anglo settlers throughout South Texas. In the book “I Fought A Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches” by Sherry Robinson, the author documents that there was a Kickapoo community outside of McAllen.

Because of their commitment to preserving their traditional way of life, many Kickapoo were not very open to European-American researchers about their traditions. In the 1970s, a husband and wife team of anthropologists- Felipe and Dolores Latorre- researched and lived among the traditional Kickapoo community of Nacimiento, Coahuila, Mexico. In their 1976 book The Mexican Kickapoo Indians, they observed several “little boys” who were “dressed as girls.” They observed at several points seeing people that they had perceived as “little girls” who wore traditionally female clothing that they would later discover were assigned male-at-birth. Felipe and Dolores noted that this seemed to be based on the child’s preferences- which were tolerated by the parents and not viewed as particularly noteworthy.

Like many ethnic groups across the country, the Kickapoo may have lost this tradition due to exposure to Western forms of Christianity. One Kickapoo woman who grew up living between traditional communities in Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma stated that she had never heard of this tradition nor did she think it would be viewed as acceptable by families she knew now. It is possible that the children documented by the Latorres were some of the last to grow up before social attitudes shifted.

While specific accounts vary, what they have in common is that they show that these gender diverse individuals were both common and accepted- and often valued- in their communities.

Hopefully, there will be more scholarship in the future done by and for Native communities about native views on gender and sexuality. The information available about Native traditions complicates the assertion made by some contemporary people that there have only “ever been two genders” or that queer people were always viewed as abnormal until recently

What we know of some of the groups who were indigenous to the area now known as the Valley and tribes that moved into and shaped the region in more recent times, gender and sexual diversity and people we might today consider queer have always been a part of the rich history of the Valley.

Anyone interested in learning more about the tribes indigenous to the Valley and the Rio Grande delta region should read the excellent book “The Indians of the Rio Grande Delta: Their Role in the History of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico” by Martin Salinas. Salinas documents through first-hand archival research much of the information available about the many groups that lived here. For further descriptions of these groups, also check out the historical document “Texas & Northeastern Mexico 1630-1690” by Juan Bautista Chapa (edited by William C. Foster). If you are interested in learning more about the Karankawa, “The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas 1821-1859” by Russel Spencer is a great place to start. For more information on the Lipan Apache two great books are “I Fought A Good Fight” by Shirley Robinson and “Turning Adversity to Advantage: A History of the Lipan Apaches of Texas and Northern Mexico, 1700 to 1900” (these two books rely on oral histories from different groups of descendants- giving each one a unique perspective). For more info on the Kickapoo check out “The Mexican Kickapoo Indians” by Felipe and Dolores Latorre and “The Kickapoos: Lords of the Middle Border” by Arrel M. Gibson. For more information on Native American gender diversity look for “Changing Ones” by Will Roscoe and the anthology “Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender, Identity, and Sexuality.”

Special thanks to Marina Saenz and Kalina Rodriguez for providing info and assistance with this article. // Featured image by Stan Shebs licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.