Colonized Era

Perhaps the first account of condemnation against gender-variant Native Americans comes from Christopher Columbus’s personal physician during his second voyage to the Americas, Diego Álvarez Chanca. In 1494, Chanca documented his view that a link existed between cannibalism and sodomy among the peoples of the Caribbean. In 1495, Michele de Cuneo, a shipmate of Columbus, wrote: “Caribs passed sodomy on to the Arawak people like a virus. Once indulged in, it will prove too pleasurable to ever be resisted again, resulting in permanent and polluted emasculation.” With such strong revulsion toward native people and their acceptance of gender diversity, it didn’t take long for these visitors to begin physically assaulting them.

The Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera notes in his collection, De orbe novo decades (Decades of the New World), published in 1530, one of the earliest accounts of such colonizer violence. He documented the exploits of Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa into modern-day Panama, where, in 1513, he unleashed his dogs to kill 40 Cueva “Indians” for their apparent sodomy. Another contemporary of Balboa traveling through Mexico in the 1530s, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, burned alive a male-assigned person for the crime of presenting as a female.

Armed colonizers from across Europe spread fear throughout Indigenous communities, using violence to achieve their goal of shaming people into strict binary gender roles that they deemed righteous. The disruptions caused by conquest and disease, together with the efforts of missionaries, government agents, boarding schools and European settlers resulted in the loss of many traditions across Turtle Island. Diverse gender roles were singled out across Native America. As a result, these practices either went underground or disappeared in many tribes. It would take a new movement of brave people, both Indigenous and non, to revive them, nearly 500 years after the assaults began.

Balboa’s Massacre of the Cueva, 1594
Theodor de Bry
The artist engraved the scene from De orbe novo decades, in which Cueva leader, Quareca and forty others are torn apart by Balboa’s dogs.

Dance to the Berdasche, 1835
George Catlin
The artist sketched the scene at a Sac and Fox village and later condescendingly wrote about it: “…a feast is given to the ‘Berdashe’, as he is called in French…who is a man dressed in woman’s clothes, as he is known to be all his life, and for extraordinary privileges which he is known to possess, he is driven to the most servile and degrading duties, which he is not allowed to escape; and he being the only one of the tribe submitting to this disgraceful degradation, is looked upon as medicine and sacred.”