The "Middle" Gender in Zuni Religion

Updated on April 11, 2018
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Lili is a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of Michigan. She spent her undergraduate years studying sociology and literature.

No one in Washington D.C. doubted that the visitor from Zuni was a woman, but, in fact, We’wha was born a man.
No one in Washington D.C. doubted that the visitor from Zuni was a woman, but, in fact, We’wha was born a man. | Source

The Zuni people have a rich culture built on a fascinating sacred history. Zunis are perhaps most famous in American popular culture for their fetishes, small ceremonial carvings, and kachinas, "masked representations of gods who are the deceased ancestors of the Zunis" (Roscoe 1989, 50). Though significantly reduced by the U.S. government, modern Zuni live in their ancestral lands in Western New Mexico (Dutton 6, Bonvillain 3). The Zuni language is interestingly unique, indicating that Zunis have lived on their land (with "linguistic isolation") for over 800 years (Dutton 7). The Zuni are a matrilineal society, meaning the household is composed of a group of women and their descendants related through the mother and her daughters, "to which are added husbands and miscellaneous male relatives" (Roscoe 1991, 13; Dutton 17). They also have matrilocal residence, meaning that husbands live with their wives' families, and in the event of a divorce, men return to their mother's home (Roscoe 1991, 19). Men and women have distinct roles in Zuni society, with men responsible for hunting, war, and religion via priesthood and mandatory membership in the kachina society, and women responsible for the family and tribe via agriculture, home ownership and care, and membership in medicine societies (Roscoe 1991, 18-19). Though gender roles are clearly defined, in Zuni culture gender is not tightly bound to biological sex. Zuni sacred history promotes a cultural role for people of a third 'middle' gender.

Zuni Fetishes

Source

The Zuni Origin Myth

The most sacred of Zuni stories, the origin myth, contains cultural values that create an important role for people of a gender not simply male or female. A brief version of the story of Zuni creation, emergence, and settlement is as follows, paraphrased from Bonvillain 2009 (1-3) and Cushing 1896 (379-384):

In the beginning, Awonawilona, a deity both male and female, was the only being in a great space of desolation and foggy blackness. Through thought and innate knowledge, Awonawilona created the clouds and waters from its breath, initiating the creation of the rest of the universe and deities. The universe is composed of nine layers, each home to different animals and plants. In the middle is the earth, a circular island surrounded by oceans that feed smaller bodies of water like lakes and rivers through underground links. The first people were parented by Sky Father and Earth Mother, and lived in the dark fourth layer of the universe, deep inside the body of Earth Mother. They were covered in slime, had tails, webbed hands and feet, and could not see well. Then, because the Sun Father was lonely with no one to give him offerings and prayers, he instructed his twin sons, the War Gods, to lead the people out from inside the earth. As the Zunis climbed up a ladder to the earth's surface, their bodies became normal and the slime disappeared. Priests and deities taught the people how to make offerings, recite prayers, and conduct ceremonies to honor Sun Father and other spirits. After a time living near their place of emergence, the deities told the Zunis to go forth and find their itiwana, the middle place of the world, where they should build their villages. The Rain Priests led the people, but every time they chose a place to settle, signs from the spirits, manifested as misfortunes, showed they had not yet reached the itiwana. Finally, after many years of traveling, the Zunis met an especially powerful and old Rain Priest. When they prayed with him, heavy rain fell. A water spider appeared with legs outspread, and told the people that the itiwana was directly under its heart. The Zunis built one village at the spider's heart and six others at locations marked by the six legs of the water spider. At the exact site of the spider's heart, the itiwana of the world, the Zunis built an altar as a reminder of their journey and their duty to honor the powerful deities who led them there. The altar still stands at the center of the Zuni village.

The "Middle" Gender

The origin myth contains cultural values such as the importance of "middle" and the sacred role of a third gender. In the origin myth, the Zunis are represented as searching for and settling their people in the "middle," both the middle of the circular island that is earth and the earth's middle place in the layers of the universe. The concept of "middle" is thus represented as desirable, stable, and pre-ordained. More obviously, Awonawilona, the creator of the Zuni universe and thus its most sacred spirit, is described as "a deity both male and female" (Bonvillain 1). This suggests a culture that values a natural or original state that is ungendered, or alternatively that encompassing both genders is a sacred role. In a detail not provided by Bonvillain 2008, Cushing 1896 describes Awonawilona fashioning itself into the form of the sun, and taking on the male gender (becoming Sun-Father from then on) (379). This suggests a process of choosing a gender aligned with an occupational role after a sacred period of inhabiting both genders simultaneously.

Zuni Kachinas

In recent times, the Zuni are very private, so I can only find descriptions (no pictures) of the Kolhamana Kachina. This is a Paiyatemu Kachina.
In recent times, the Zuni are very private, so I can only find descriptions (no pictures) of the Kolhamana Kachina. This is a Paiyatemu Kachina. | Source

Kolhamana – The Both-Gendered Kachina

Additionally, the Zunis have a kachina named Kolhamana that represents this third gender embodied by Awonawilona. Kachinas, or kokko, are "masked representations of gods who are the deceased ancestors of the Zunis" (Roscoe 1989, 50). They are a subset of Zuni gods particularly associated with rain. Because the kokko love dancing "as much as their human supplicants," they transform "into rain clouds and travel to Zuni whenever Kachina dances are held." These kachina dances are performed seasonally by the "six kiva groups of the Kachina society, the religious organization to which all Zuni men belong" (Roscoe 1989, 52). The name 'Kolhamana' is derived from the prefix 'ko-,' from the kokko, and lhamana, the Zuni word for a genderless/dual-gendered person (Roscoe 1991, 147). Kolhamana wears the blue-green half mask and dance kilt of a male rain dancer, wears a black dress and has the white arms stereotypical of a female Kachina, and furthermore wears hair characteristically "half up in the women's style, half down in the men's style" (Roscoe 1989, 57-58). In Zuni culture, Kolhmana mediates the potentially dangerous division between genders, reconciling social differences and maintaining balance in the Zuni community (Roscoe 1991, 147). Kolhamana's origin is told in the Zuni's creation myth (paraphrased from Cushing 1896, pages 398-402 and Bunzel 1932, pages 521-522):

In seeking the itiwana, the Zuni sent a beautiful brother and sister to scout the landscape. The sister was violated by her brother in her sleep. Her anger and guilt and his shame and fear crazed them, making their appearances strange and ugly. After this transformation, they fell in love and bore twelve children. The first was Kolhamana, "a woman in fulness of contour, but a man of statue and brawn" (Cushing 401). Kolhamana was born of love and thus double-sexed, not half-man and half-woman. The remaining eleven brothers had no sex and "display the stain of their birth in their grotesque appearance and uncouth behavior…these kachinas are the most feared and beloved of them all" (Bunzel 521).

Kolhamana is also a key player in "one of the most important and elaborate of all Zuni dances," depicting a mythological war between kachinas (Roscoe 1991, 147). When captured by the Kan'a:kwe and required to participate with the rest of the prisoner gods to dance celebrating their capture, Kolhamana becomes "angry and unmanageable…antithetical to the proper spirit for a ceremonial occasion" (Roscoe 1991, 164). The Kan'a:kwe clothe Kolhamana in female attire (a dress), "domesticating [Kolhamana's] temper by bringing him into alignment with his true self."

Biologically male lhamana don a dress at puberty, reflecting a formal desire to perform women's work

All biological sexes of lhamana can move smoothly between the responsibilities and rights of males and females, acting as a bridge and balance to Zuni society.

The Cultural Role of the Third Gender

The both-gendered creator Awonawilona and kachina Kolhamana and the origin myth's emphasis on 'middle,' outwardly manifest as a role for people of a third middle gender in Zuni society. This can be seen most clearly in the Zuni word lhamana, of which there is not a good Western equivalent. 'Lhamana' are people not necessarily homosexual, transgendered, or hermaphroditic, but instead represents a third, middle space with a well-defined role in society (Roscoe 1991, 25-26). This role is Kolhamana's role, of creating balance between genders in Zuni society. Like Awonawilona's original dual-gendered state and choice to become male, the Zunis view gender as an "acquired rather an inborn trait" (Roscoe 1991, 22). Young Zuni are referred to simply as cha'le', meaning "child," without reference to gender (Roscoe 1991, 32). Children wear their hair in the "same short style" but begin to distinguish themselves through hair styling and clothing choices as they approach puberty (Roscoe 1991, 33). This culminates around adolescence. Boys are elaborately initiated into the (male-only) kachina society, and biologically female lhamana are as well (Roscoe 1991, 133). Girls have less formal ceremonies, grinding corn and producing a bowl of stew on the day of their first menstruation (their rites of passage are completed after bearing a first child) (Roscoe 1991, 136-7). Biologically male lhamana don a dress at puberty, reflecting a formal desire to stay in their mother's household and perform women's work (Roscoe 1991, 23). Thus, Kolhamana's adoption of the dress is played out literally for young Zuni. All biological sexes of lhamana can move smoothly between the responsibilities and rights of males and females, acting as a bridge and balance to Zuni society.

One of the most famous and respected Zuni of the 1800s, We'wha, an ambassador to anthropologists and Washington, D.C. politicians, was of the "third" gender.

The Zuni Conception of a Third Gender is Ancient

The lhamana, or third gender, is not a modern invention. Due to Spanish and American religious and political intervention, the Zuni are now a very private people, and thus it is hard to tell if their traditional understanding of gender has survived the repressive interventions of Christian missionaries and Western gender roles. However, the presence of Zuni lhamana have been recorded by missionaries and anthropologists for hundreds of years, ancient burial sites have revealed bodies buried with the clothing and tools characteristic of the opposite gender, and Kolhamana, the lhamana kachina, appears in prehistoric rock art and kiva murals (Roscoe 1991, 24-25). Additionally, one of the most famous and respected Zuni of the 1800s, We'wha, an ambassador to anthropologists and Washington, D.C. politicians, was a lhamana (Roscoe 1991, 53-55).

In Conclusion

Zuni sacred history creates a cultural space for an honored, middle third gender, which the Zunis call lhamana. Roscoe 1991 summarizes this cultural space, writing that lhamana enjoy "a certain place in the community, the support of their families, appropriate education and training, adult role models, mythological precedents, and the possibility of achieving prestige and respect" (32). These mythological precedents are the highly-respected and dual-gendered kachina Kolhamana and creator Awonawilona and its transformation into male Sun Father. Additionally, the Zuni respect for 'middle' as embodied by the search for itiwana in the origin myth provides a functional role for lhamana of bridging and balancing the social differences between men and women.

References

Bonvillain, Nancy. The Zuni. Philadelphia: Chelsea, 2008. Print.

Bunzel, Ruth L. Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1932. Print.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Outlines of Zuni Creation Myths. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896. Print.

Dutton, Bertha P. Friendly People: The Zuni Indians. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 1963. Print.

Roscoe, Will. "The Semiotics of Gender on Zuni Kachinas." Kiva 55.1 (1989): 49-70. Web.

Roscoe, Will. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1991. Print.

Don't have access to a library from a research institute?

Leave a comment--and I'll send you the papers I've referenced and any supplemental reading material you are interested in! Alternatively, check out Amazon for some of the books I cited here.

A Primary Source on Gender in the Zuni

© 2018 Lili Adams

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    • Resarch Writer profile imageAUTHOR

      Lili Adams 

      8 months ago from Ann Arbor, Michigan

      Thank you so much! I'm a PhD student in ecology, so this really encourages me to keep up on my hobbies.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Research really is hard here. I think Cook did most the work for a written language around the mid sixties. Their language is totally isolated and not related to even Navajo or Hopi or Pima or Piute. So you really did great here.

    • Resarch Writer profile imageAUTHOR

      Lili Adams 

      8 months ago from Ann Arbor, Michigan

      Thanks for your insight Eric! My assertion of a "third" gender comes from the idea that the lhamana seem to be serving a third cultural role of translating between genders that Western societies (for example) don't have. But you are totally right the distinction between both genders versus different gender is muddled, and I didn't really consider that aspect while I was writing. Also, it's true that I wrote this only from research sources, and old ones at that since there isn't a lot of modern scholarship on the Zuni. As you are mentioning I would love to hear if the Zuni consider the lhamana a both-gendered or a third-gendered person, or if a distinction like that is meaningful at all.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting but I have trouble with the leap from both genders to a different gender. It just not seem to follow. Because one can be both does not mean one can be a different gender than birth anatomical.

      In my experience in Hopi from Hohokam What we would call gay would just be different from most of us. No judgment. But I have never heard of it justified by way of myth.

      A very well written and educational piece you have written.

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