Gender fluid Gender-role assumptions aside, some archaeologists have gone even further to explore whether male and female were always the only legitimate available roles. The Chumash Indians of southern California, like many Native American peoples, believed that gender was a personal choice, based on temperament, attitude, and preference for certain types of work. Colonial Western accounts from the time of European contact also describe third-gender individuals. They explain how the Chumash were spit into guilds, and that the guild of undertakers (aqi) was open to people who identified themselves as neither men nor women. Most aqi were said to be men who wore women’s clothing, although postmenopausal women were also involved. All were given a special spiritual status and, if they were sexually active, they engaged in non-procreative sex. On investigating the skeletons of two young male Chumash people dated to before AD 1150, archaeologist Sandra Hollimon found that both displayed a form of spinal arthritis that was different from that of other men. Their stressed spines looked identical to those of women who habitually used digging sticks and damaged their backs. Both men were buried with items found in men’s graves, but also with baskets usually interred with women. Holliman concluded that she had found physical evidence for the third-gender individuals mentioned in the historical accounts. Third-gender persons also appear among the 19th century Chukchi in Siberia, within a special category of biologically male shamans
“...gender was a personal choice, based on temperament, attitude, and preference for certain types of work.”
A third-gender person from Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, seen weaving in the late 1800s.
Image National Archives and Records Administration
The Past | April/May 2021