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A life dedicated, from birth, to bridging divides…
That's We'wha's story.
Born in New Mexico in 1849, a member of the A:Shiwi (or “Zuñi”) tribe of North America, We’wha (WAY-wah) has gone down in history as one of the most famous Zuñi lhamana (LHA-mana), or “Two-Spirits,” – individuals who occupy a distinct, third gender whose role in their community went beyond understood white American social conventions of the time. Anthropologist Matilda Stevenson, who spent her professional life studying Native American women and families, used feminine pronouns to describe We’wha, claiming that she "could never think of her faithful and devoted friend in any other light."
And it's true: We’wha excelled at many conventionally feminine roles throughout her life. But alongside them, she also performed such traditionally masculine tasks as hunting and chopping firewood. Indeed, We'wha moved fluidly amongst all members of the Zuñi community. She was not merely accepted for her third-gender identity, she was highly respected because of it.
Her textiles and pottery were exquisite. Her gift for spiritual leadership earned her a special position of reverence within the tribe. And because she learned English at an early age, she became a bridge between her people and Whites. It was We'wha's job to educate these outsiders in Zuñi culture and traditions.
Little wonder then that We'wha became an official Zuñi ambassador. She was the first person in her tribe to travel to Washington D.C. where she gave weaving presentations at the Smithsonian and participated in exhibits and shows at the National Theater. There, she met many politicians, including President Grover Cleveland, whose hand she shook in 1886.
For the most part, We'wha established tender relationships with people outside of her tribe. Even after US government authorities unjustly arrested and imprisoned her on charges of witchcraft, along with five other Zuñi leaders, We'wha continued to work alongside anthropologists and politicians, educating them about Zuñi culture until her untimely death at the age of 47 in 1896.
We’wha is remembered for her generous soul, her community advocacy, artistry, “indomitable will and [...] insatiable thirst for knowledge.” Hers is a legacy of compassion and bridge-building across cultural boundaries. Her work to advance ethical engagement with Native American communities will not soon be forgotten.
We'wha used her unique strengths and personality to bring people and cultures together. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Justin Hubbell of Rochester, NY, for bringing her to our attention.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Tell us in the comments below and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on this blog.