Eiteljorg Musuem Blog

TWO TAKES ON TWO SPIRITS | Recording the History of Multiple Genders in Native North America

by Guest Blogger Gregory Hinton, Out West Curator | Sep 11, 2013

Many explorers, missionaries, traders, soldiers and artists reported sightings of third or fourth gender (Berdache, Two Spirit) tribal members on their travels through the American West and of the perceived acceptance they observed in their clans.  That said, some were disdainful of the practice of assuming opposite gender characteristics, including artist, showman and entrepreneur George Catlin (1796 – 1872) best known for his international traveling Indian Gallery which included over 500 paintings, drawings and artifacts.

Traveling west five times in the 1830’s, Catlin was the first artist to record the Plains Indians in their original terrain, seeing them as the embodiment of “natural man” living in harmony with the environment.  

Feeling certain that westward expansion heralded their certain doom, Catlin viewed his Indian Gallery as a way "to rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs."  Catlin’s expressed bias against the Berdache practice may well have been informed by the prevailing Euro-American opinion of what constituted “natural” in his day. 

Catlin wrote in his papers:

“This is one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs, that I have ever met in the Indian country, and so far as I have been able to learn, belongs only to the Sioux and Sacs and Foxes— perhaps it is practiced by other tribes, but I did not meet with it; and for further account of it I am constrained to refer the reader to the country where it is practiced, and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.

Ironically, George Catlin best immortalized them in his painting Dance to the Berdache –Saukie ,now in the National Gallery of Art. 

George Catlin Dance of the Berdache
George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance of the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.

Conversely, in 1877, five years after the death of Catlin, Hugh Lennox Scott, (1853-1934) a young Seventh Calvary lieutenant first became aware of third gender males after arriving in the big camp of Mountain and River Crow country at the mouth of the Big Horn. 

The demands on Scott in his early avocation distracted him from his youthful cognition of third and fourth gender natives, but he later vowed to take “every opportunity to study the matter among Indians of various tribes.” 

Custer’s disastrous defeat notwithstanding, once self-sufficient tribes were now wards of the ultimately victorious U.S. government.  Officers like Scott were tasked with their care, including the distribution of rations and the enforcement of order and regulation of their social and religious life.

Scott needed to know how to communicate and took it upon himself to master the Plains Indian gesture (sign) language.  Scott’s intellectual curiosity and affinity for other cultures would stand him – and the Presidents he would eventually serve throughout his career - in good stead and he eventually became a Major General.
hugh lennox scott
Major General Hugh Lennox Scott with Buffalo Bill Cody

He wrote in his memoirs that his “contacts with many races and colors... have contributed much to the delightful memories of a soldier’s career.” 

Osh TischScott’s research on third gender Natives led him to investigate prominent texts of European anthropologists and sexologists.  In 1919, on occasion of an official inspection on behalf of the Board of Indian Commissioners, Hugh Scott secured an interview with a third-gender Crow woman named Osh-Tisch, or “Woman Jim” as he called him (pictured left)

He gained her trust by sharing memories about old Crow chiefs he had met in 1877 – Iron Bull, Blackfoot, Old Crow, Two Belly, etc.”  He knew that Osh-Tisch had built a much-admired lodge for Iron Bull, which until recently was displayed at Crow Fair in Montana.

 With utmost gentlemanly tact, Scott asked her why she wore women’s clothes.

“That is my road”, Osh-Tisch replied. 

 --Gregory Hinton

Bloggers Note: For a much more in-depth study of the story of Osh-Tisch and Hugh Lennox Scott, I strongly recommend Will Roscoe’s CHANGING ONE, Third and Fourth Genders in Native North American, which I gratefully acknowledge in the writing of this blog.

To meet Greg Hinton and learn more about the Two-Spirit experience, visit the Eiteljorg Museum, at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Sep. 28 for a screening of the powerful documentary, Two Spirits. The film focuses on the brief life and hate crime murder of Two-Spirit teen Fred Martinez. The film and panel discussion will also cover the history of Two-Spirit cultures. To help the Eiteljorg fund this project, please make a donation to Power2Give.

Here is a preview of Two Spirits:

Click for Video
From the website,
Two Spirits screening schedule for Sep. 28.
12:30 p.m. Welcome by Gregory Hinton, Out West founder
12:45 p.m. "Two Spirits" film screening
1:45 – 3:30 p.m. Panel discussion
3:30 p.m. DVD/book signing Eiteljorg Museum Store

 - Moderator: Jodi A. Byrd, Ph.D. (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma), associate professor of American Indian Studies and English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
 - Lydia Nibley, director, Two Spirits
- Brian Joseph Gilley, Ph.D. (Cherokee of Oklahoma), associate professor of anthropology and director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, Indiana University Bloomington; author of Becoming Two-Spirit
- Wesley K. Thomas, Ph.D. (Diné), chair/professor, School of Diné Studies, Education & Leadership, Navajo Technical College (Crownpoint, NM)


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