“And bold and adventurous amazons they were”: Colonial encounters with queer Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest fur-trade

A revised version of this article has been published on Activehistory.ca

by Eric Wright

In many Indigenous societies throughout the world, there were (and still are) social categories that refer to people of a gender other than “male” or “female.”  In many South Asian societies, these people are referred to as “hijras.[1]  Indigenous Samoans have a similar term for describing people who cannot easily be interpreted as male or female — fa’afafine.[2] Typically, terms in Indigenous societies that refer to a gender other than male or female are described as “third gender” social categories.[3]

In most Indigenous societies in North America, there existed similar social categories to describe people that did not easily fit into the boxes “man” or “woman.”  Briefly defined, these people were anatomical men and women whose gendered work roles, styles of dress and behaviours, did not accord, in some degree, with their biological sex.  Or, they might be what we would today call “intersexed,” meaning that their bodies could not easily be interpreted as “male” or “female.”  In terms of sexual orientation, people of a “third gender” could be attracted to members of the same sex, but not necessarily.  Of course, the very idea of “same-sex” attraction is dependent upon the ability to discretely categorize humans into two gender camps: “male” and “female.”  Therefore, in the case of North American Indigenous societies, it does not make much sense to speak literally about “same-sex attraction.”

Pictured in this photograph is Osh-Tisch (left), a Crow "Bote" or transgendered person.  Osh-Tisch was an artist, medicine person and warrior.

Pictured in this photograph is Osh-Tisch (left), a Crow “Boté”, which can be loosely translated as a “transgendered” person in our contemporary understanding. Osh-Tisch was an artist, medicine person and warrior amongst his people. This photograph was taken by John H. Fouch at Fort Keough, Montana Territory in 1877. From Roscoe, Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), 33.

Getting our terms straight

Today, historical Indigenous people of a “third gender” might choose to identify as some combination of “transgendered”, “transsexual”, “gay/lesbian”, “bi”, “straight”, “queer” or “two-spirited.”  Simply referring to historical native people in this fashion would however be anachronistic because these social categories were not in existence in Indigenous societies in historic times.  Rather Indigenous societies had their own unique and diverse set of social categories through which they understood human gender and sexuality.

Yet, it is important to keep in mind that beyond each society’s unique social categories for explaining human gender and sexuality, there is great continuity in non-normative gender and sexual behaviour across the entire span of human history.  It is therefore acceptable to speak about, for example, “queer” historical native people, if it is understood that the use of the contemporary term is meant to emphasize continuity in non-gender and non-sexual normative behaviour throughout history, rather than a false projection of a present day understanding of sexuality and gender on to historical individuals who would never have understood their own experience through the concept of “queerness.”

Here, I have used Indigenous terminology to describe “non-normative” gender and sexuality behaviour when possible.  When Indigenous terms are unavailable, or when speaking in general about several groups of native people, I employ the contemporary term “queer” in a loose sense as a catch all term for Indigenous people of a “third gender.”  Finally, I sometimes refer to historical Indigenous people as “gay”, “lesbian”, “transgendered person” or some other contemporary sexuality or gender category.  My usage of these terms is deliberately anachronistic as a way to playfully emphasize the continuity of non-normative gender and sexuality behaviours throughout all of history.

Queer North America

There are many fascinating questions concerning queer Indigenous people in North America.  For example, were Indigenous societies “tolerant” of queer people, as is often believed?  Were queer Indigenous people understood as possessing distinct subjectivities, as in contemporary western discourse, or were they understood as just everyday people who behaved differently in some respects?  Most importantly, can we even speak in generalizations about Indigenous gender and sexuality practices, given the incredible diversity and variance of North American Indigenous societies?  These are all enticing questions, which have been addressed at length in works that I note at the end of this article for further reference.

Here, I adopt a narrow focus, shedding light on a few encounters between queer Indigenous people and male fur-traders in the Pacific Northwest during the 18th and 19th century fur-trade period.  Some of these encounters followed the standard script of colonialism that we might expect – male fur-traders heaped disdain and sometimes violence upon queer Indigenous people. Yet there were notable exceptions to this maltreatment.  In these cases, European male fur-traders not only tolerated queer Indigenous people, they showed them a degree of respect in their writings and interactions.

European Encounters

Europeans had encountered queer Indigenous people since the early days of colonial conquest in North America.  From the 15th to the 17th century, Europeans employed a plethora of terms, many carrying pejorative connotations, to describe queer native people.  They were called sodomites, hermaphrodites, berdaches, amazons or garcons effeminés (effeminate boys) in European texts.[4] Most European observers eschewed any interest in understanding the subtleties of indigenous concepts of sexuality and gender.  Some simply dismissed native gender and sexuality practices as obvious examples of native savagery.[5]  In these cases of dismissal, queer native people were doubly stigmatized – once for the mere fact of being “Indigenous” and again for being “queer.”  Double stigmatization led to an environment where homophobic violence was permissible.  When the Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa encountered forty queer Indigenous people in Panama in the early 16th century, he had them killed by a pack of dogs, in what was one of the first gay bashings committed by a European in North America.[6]

An etching by the dutch artist Theodorus De Bry depicts the killing of Panamanian “sodomites” at the hands of Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

Homophobic violence was equally a part of interactions between fur-traders and queer native peoples in the Pacific Northwest fur-trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.  In one known instance, sailors working for the Hudson’s Bay Company castrated a native man at Fort Vancouver who wore women’s clothes and worked in the sex-trade.  John McLoughlin, chief factor of the Columbia Department (approximately today’s Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) reported this incident to his superiors in London.  In the postscript of a letter from 1837 detailing the otherwise mundane business of the trade, he wrote:

 “P.S. It is true that an Indian was emasculated by Dr. Gairdner but without my knowledge or consent, the fact is the fellow used to dress himself up as a female and go on board the Vessels and offer himself to the Sailors, the latter mentioned this and flogged the fellow several times to prevent his repeating his offences, but this did not put a stop to his proceedings, at last the sailors got hold of him and Dr. Gairdner emasculated him and I only heard of it half an hours after the operation had been performed.”[7]

The willingness of the sailors to commit such a gruesome act is explained by the logic of dual stigmatization.  Fur-traders in the Pacific Northwest were prone to viewing Indigenous people as savages.  McLoughlin himself, who understood the importance of maintaining respectful relationships with Indigenous people upon whom the trade in furs depended, described Indigenous people as  “savage treacherous and numerous” in his private correspondence to company governors in London.[8]  Already understood as somehow “lesser” for being Indigenous, queer native people were in the minds of some fur-traders, even further savage for their “abhorrent” sexual and gender practices.  These discourses of savagery and homophobia/transphobia enabled otherwise ordinary men, including an educated medical doctor, to forcibly cut off a man’s genitals for the “crime” of wearing women’s clothing.

Yet despite this incident at Fort Vancouver in 1837, interactions between male fur-traders and queer native people in the Pacific Northwest during this period were not always violent.  Sometimes male fur-traders showed respect and admiration towards queer native people.

An interesting account of such an interaction is found in the journals of Ross Cox, an Irish employee of the Northwest Company.  In 1814, Cox visited a community of Indigenous people near “Spokan House” (present day Spokane, Washington) whom he only identified as the people of “Les Chaudières.”  While visiting this indigenous community Cox encountered a “chief” whom he described in his journal under the heading of “A Curious Account of a Hermaphroditic Chief.”  Cox described him as:

“A remarkable being.  The Indians allege he belongs to the epicene gender.  He wears a woman’s dress, overloaded with a profusion of beads, thimbles and shall shells; add to which, the upper part of the face and the manner of wearing the hair are quite feminine; but these appearances are more than counterbalanced by a rough beard, and a masculine tone of voice…he never gambles or associates with either sex, and he is regarded with a certain portion of fear and awe by both men and women, who look upon him as something more than human.”[9]

 He expressed his admiration for the “chief”:

“He seldom visited our fort; but whenever we called on him we were received with a degree of courteous hospitality which I never experienced elsewhere.  He was communicative and inquisitive, and ridiculed the follies of the Indians in the most philosophical manner.”

Interestingly, some measure of Cox’s admiration for the “chief” stemmed from the latter’s supposed willingness to ridicule his own society in conversations with Cox.  Either Cox misinterpreted the “chief” as expressing disdain for his own society in their conversations, or the “chief” was trying to curry favour with Cox, by strategically putting down his own countrymen as a way to convince Cox that he was an “enlightened Indian.”  In any case, Cox clearly admired the chief, and not only for his apparent willingness to ridicule his own peoples’ beliefs and customs.

The life of Qánqon, Kutenai warrior, prophetess, courier and guide, provides yet another example of a relationship between a queer native person and several male fur-traders that was based on a degree of respect in the Pacific Northwest.  In the early 19th century, Qánqon secured a reputation amongst native people and Europeans alike for her prowess in warfare, her taking of many wives and her spiritual powers.  The British explorer Sir John Franklin narrated her life story in his published works:

 “While living at the N.W. Company’s post, on the Columbia River, as the wife of one of the Canadian [i.e. French Canadian man] servants, she formed a sudden resolution of becoming a warrior; and throwing aside her female dress, she clothed herself in a suitable manner.  Having procured a gun, a bow and arrows, and a horse she sallied forth to join a party of her countrymen then going to war; and in her first essay, displayed so much courage as to attract general regard.”[10]

According to this description, Qánqon would have been known as a “titqattek” (meaning “pretending to be a man”) amongst the Kutenai.[11]  Men working for the Northwest Company showed a significant degree of trust in Qánqon by employing her as a guide and messenger.  Alexander Ross, a fur-trader from Scotland, expressed shock but certainly not outrage, upon learning that his guides for a routine voyage were to be Qánqon and her wife:

 “Instead of being man and wife, as they at first gave us to understand, they were in fact both women – and bold adventurous amazons they were.  In accompanying us, they sometimes shot ahead, and at other times loitered behind, as suited their plans.  The stories they gave out among the nonsuspecting and credulous natives as they passed were well calculated to astonish as well as to attract attention.[12]

As in the case of the “hermaphrodite chief” that Cox described, a male fur-trader expressed admiration for some queer native people by calling Qánqon and her wife “bold” and “adventurous.”

Ross’ account of Qánqon and her wife, and the further attention she received in many traders’ journals, can be accounted for by understanding that fur-traders often negatively stereotyped female indigenous people as living in a “slave like” state in relation to their male husbands and relatives.  To them, an Indigenous woman who escaped an alleged life of slavery through living like a man might garner admiration and paternalistic sympathy.[13]  Ross and others’ glowing accounts of Qánqon might reflect their admiration for her supposed “escape” from a life of servitude and drudgery.

Importantly, the respect shown for the “hermaphrodite chief” and Qánqon by Cox and Ross, whatever their motives or reasoning, should not be taken to mean that these fur-traders considered queer native peoples as their complete equals.  These moments of admiration always took place against the larger backdrop of imperialist ideology, in which white people were civilized and native people were savages.  A truly sympathetic and egalitarian stance on behalf of Europeans towards Indigenous peoples (regardless of sexual or gender status) is exceedingly rare in this period of history.

 Conclusion

It is difficult to generalize from these limited examples about the overall nature of interactions between male fur-traders and queer native people in the Pacific Northwest.  Certainly, many interactions have been omitted from the record and have thus been lost to history.  The small number of encounters discussed here were of a highly varied nature: some were horrifically violent and some were respectful.  Violent interactions resulted in part from a situation of dual stigma – not only were people “queer” and thus subject to European homophobia/transphobia, they were also “indigenous” and by extension, “savage.”  This negative context enabled ordinary people to commit violent acts against queer native people.

It is less easy to explain why some interactions played out in a respectful fashion.  In the case of Qánqon, a misperception amongst male fur-traders that Indigenous women lived like slaves in relation to their male counterparts may have contributed to a sense of admiration and respect for her attempt to “escape” this servility by living like a man.  Perhaps Ross Cox’s respectful interaction with the “hermaphroditic chief” resulted from the fact that he was simply a more respectful person.  Individual idiosyncrasies always play a role in history.

Further Reading:

Claude E. Schaeffer, “The Kutenai Female Berdache: Courier, Guide, Prophetess, and Warrior,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1965), pp. 193-236.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.

Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen; Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Eds.). Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Roscoe, Will; & Gay American Indians.  Living the spirit: A gay American Indian anthology. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Trexler, Richard C. Sex and conquest: Gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.


[1] Agrawal, Anuja. “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender’ in India”. In Contributions to Indian Sociology, new series, 31 (1997): 273–97

[2] Johanna Schmidt, Migrating Genders Westernisation, Migration, and Samoan Fa’afafine. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

[3] Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000, 7.

[4] Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, (New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), 178-180.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] “Letter from John McLoughlin to The Govr. Deputy Govr. & Committee, Honble. Hudsons Bay Company London, July 14,1837 at Ft. Vancouver,” in McLoughlin’s Fort Vancouver Letters, First Series, 1825-1838.  (Published by Champlain Society for The Hudson Bay Society, London, 1943), p. 186.

[8] Letter to The Govr. Deputy Govr. & Committee, Honble. Hudsons Bay Company London, Nov. 14 1827 at Ft. Vancouver: (HBC correspondence, Vol. 1, p. 53).

[9] Ross Cox, ‪Adventures on the Columbia River: including the narrative of a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown: together with a journey across the American continent (London: ‪Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831), 361-362.

[10] Sir John Franklin, Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1825, 1826, and 1827, (London, 1828), 305-306.

[11] Roscoe, 222.

[12] Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River (London, 1849), 144-145.

[13] Roscoe, 81.

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