The niqab debate: hitting the colonialist nerve in Canada’s identity

by Eric Wright

One of the central issues in Election 42 has been what should be a non-issue: the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony by a small segment of the population. The Conservative Party has made a significant portion of public discourse in this election about a small piece of fabric some women wear during an important ceremony, which is a matter of personal individual choice that the state has no right to interfere in. Of course for many women, the niqab is much more than this: it might have deep religious or familial meaning which is knowable only to the wearer, it might be about identity, it might be about the pretty floral pattern, it might just be a practical garment in a cold climate. It might be a personally re-contextualized symbol of feminism that comes out of a legacy of patriarchy. It might have no particular meaning at all to the wearer. It might be some combination of these. But who am I to say? I have no right to say as someone who is not party to that inside knowledge that is personal to the self.

What becomes clear out of all the furor, all of the incessant social media firestorm (including my own motivation for this blog post!) is that a collective nerve has been touched. As Andrew Coyne hinted in a recent National Post column, the niqab issue in this election is more complex than a simple exploitation of xenophobic sentiments. Rather, xenophobia is couched in the language of “liberation” and “anti-patriarchy” in such a way that the essential xenophobic content and always-the-same consequences of this xenophobia are entirely obscured by apparently noble principles. If we look back in Canadian history, we realize that this is an old pattern and one that clearly still bedevils the country today.

In the late 19th century, legislators and many progressive social reformers of the day agreed that in order for Aboriginal people to survive, they had to be relieved of their ‘oppressive’ and ‘backward’ customs. In 1885, ceremonial and spiritual customs, including the potlatch and its regalia and religious symbols, were made illegal by the government. Lawmakers and missionaries fixated particularly on the visible elements of material culture as those in need of stamping out: drums were evidence of barbarism and therefore banned. Canada’s potlatch ban made specific reference to the need to outlaw “Tamanawis,” a Chinook Jargon word that translates roughly as Spirit Power, which is/was Indigenous medical knowledge and cultural practice in the Pacific Northwest. A few native people who were out and proud about their culture and hosted a potlatch were sent to jail. Many found alternate symbols and channels, such as the Indian Shaker Church in British Columbia and Washington State, as ways to practice their spiritual beliefs within the acceptable discourse of the colonizer, which was a remarkable creative act of cultural resilience. At the same time, colonial officials wrongly interpreted these re-contextualized Indigenous spiritualities as evidence that assimilation was working.

In conjunction with legal prohibitions on cultural practice, the Residential School system was set up by church and state to further “help” Indigenous people relieve themselves of their culture. The schools, which have now been recognized as an institution of cultural genocide, were framed as a noble endeavour: saving people from their supposed inevitable extinction. It is a continually humbling pattern in history that the most noble goals often obscure the most oppressive of actions. The Residential School is a clear example of this phenomenon in Canadian History.


This 1922 photograph shows masks seized from dancers and other participants after a raid on a potlatch ceremony in British Columbia. (Royal British Columbia Museum)

A paternalistic concern for the other that presents itself as “liberating” or “saving” people, which has the consequence (stripped of all ideology) of imposing the majority’s will upon the minority is a part of Canadian History. This same pattern is emerging once again in Election 42 with the Conservative Party’s insistence on the removal of the Niqab during Citizenship Ceremonies, dressed up in the language of anti-patriarchy and a women’s right to choose.

These ideas harm people by creating additional minority stress, one contributing factor to higher rates of mental illness amongst non-majority social groups (the subject of another blog post!). Yet, political strategists exploit their continual existence for electoral gain. It goes like this: the majority (with not a lot of understanding or interest in the minority) simplistically interprets a superficial element of someone else’s culture as evidence of “oppression,” and “backwardness.” Certain of their monolithic one size fits all interpretation, the majority then proceeds to make laws and/or create institutions that prohibit the minority from expressing some element of their culture, all in the aim of “saving them from their own traditions.” The result is the majority imposing its will upon the minority and abrogating their right to free expression. At the same time, the end goal of xenophobia (and there is only ever one end goal to xenophobia) is achieved — to make the other more like us. Effectively, (or literally), to remove the other.

The goal of reconciliation in Canada is not just about righting years of injustice between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. It is also about getting at the root of the colonialist perspectives that are current in this country, of which a paternalistic concern for the other rooted in the highest principles of liberalism, is an ongoing pattern. These ideas continue to harm our civic life and hold Canada back from its potential to be a truly globalist and cosmopolitan country. In this election, these ideas have allowed for the stigmatization of minority identities under the guise of the most lofty of human ideals. The easy hanging together of this hypocrisy, from a historical perspective, is a troubling situation yet at the same time an opportunity to have a discussion that can move the debate forward in the country.


What Conrad Black really wanted to say in his June 6 National Post editorial

I was getting a haircut the other day and as the stylist was off getting a new towel I checked Twitter and began reading a column by Conrad Black about the Chief Justice’s recent use of the term cultural genocide. I was immediately taken aback by the tone of this editorial– defensive, angry, insecure, racist, confused, emotionally charged, wrong in every way. Poor Mr. Black, I thought.

Arriving home, I knew I had to help out in whatever way I could. I began a re-write, a clarification of what I felt Mr. Black had wanted to say but had perhaps fallen short. In some places, I got so involved in the mind-frame of the man, in his spirit, that I actually imagined myself to be Mr. Black! But that is neither here nor there.

In so many places in the column his prose seemed restrained or, well, confused in one way or another. A working theory I have is that this was due to political correctness. You might find it unbelievable reader, but it is possible that political correctness sapped the virility of Mr. Black in this piece, not allowing him to tell it like it really is. Luckily, I am a free-thinker, so this sort of thing doesn’t apply to me.

So, as you’ll see below, I’ve done my best to get at what I think Mr. Black wanted to say, but just sadly could not. The result of my work is, I hope, a more honest and truthful version of an editorial by a great patriot.

Conrad Black: Canada’s treatment of aboriginals was shameful, but it was not genocide – June 6, National Post (clarifications below each paragraph)

I yield to no one in my fervour to make amends to the native people for violations of treaty rights and other mistreatment, but the phrase “cultural genocide,” as I wrote here last week in reference to the Chief Justice of Canada’s use of it in a speech given in honour of the Aga Khan, is deliberately provocative and sensational. We might as well accuse Canada and the United States and all countries built on immigration (ultimately almost all countries) of cultural genocide, of the natives or the arrivals, though of course immigration is voluntary. All words bearing the suffix “cide” refer to physical extermination: suicide, homicide, genocide, regicide, etc.

I am really angry about everything, but particularly, the stuff that happened to Aboriginal people for the violation of treaty rights and other things I don’t know much about, but I am even more angry about the Chief Justice calling this and all the other things I know about “cultural genocide.” Look, every country has been built by immigrants, so why are we picking on Canada so hard – and I also know that immigration is voluntary, meaning it is by choice. By the way, I learned Latin in grade school so I’m going to razzle-dazzle you with a bit of it here to prove myself a man of culture and intellect.

The native people, or First Nations, were here first, but there were not more than a few hundred thousand of them in what is now Canada in the 17th century. They had a Stone Age culture that had not invented the wheel, and which graduated, however brusquely, to more sophisticated levels of civilization, but the culture was not exterminated. Apart from a few mid-western farming tribes and Pacific and Great Lakes inhabitants of log dwellings, the First Nations did not have permanent buildings or agriculture, metal tools, or knitted fabrics. They were nomads, clothed in hides and skins, living in tents, surviving on fish and game, and usually at war, which included the torture to gruesome death of prisoners from other tribes and nations, including women and children.

Because I am a white man, I will now in a few short paragraphs tell the reader all he/she needs to know about First Nations peoples and cultures ever in Canada. Them were around a few hundred thousand in the 17th century. As I learned in grade school and from watching The Flintstones, cultures move through stages and native people were in the Stone Age a long time ago. I heard someone use Stone Age as an insult once, but here I mean it sincerely and honestly and objectively. Anyways, they didn’t have wheels, which as my textbook in grade five explained, was a sure sign of stone-ageness. God, I can’t believe I remember that from Grade five! So, then what happened is that the white man came and ‘graduated’ (no pun intended) native people up the civilizational scale thus saving them from extermination by the white people… er, themselves, wait, I’m not really sure (Note to self: clarify sentence later). Before this, native people roamed in the woods and didn’t have much of a culture. I know this because I’ve seen a few movies where they’re wearing hides and skins and living in tents. Here I thought about invoking Thomas Hobbes and how everything was nasty, brutish and short at some point, but I want to bring the reader along so I’ll avoid sophisticated allusions like this. But, to prove my point, did you know, native people tortured other people, including, (concerned gasp) women and children. Just how nice were native people really? Do you see where I’m going with this?

They were genius woodsmen and hunters and craftsmen, and had artistic abilities, and I am not suggesting and do not accept that they were anything but the complete natural equal of the arriving Europeans. Some European notables, such as Champlain, were interested in and generally respectful of the native people; some made expedient alliances with them, but generally, traders bought their animal furs for consideration the natives sought, including alcoholic beverages and firearms, and settlers encroached on their land, moving inland from the ocean shores and river banks. There were certainly unjust provocations by the Europeans. The British promised the natives occupancy of the land between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, even as they signed the same territory over to the successful American Revolutionists (somewhat as, 135 years later, the British promised Palestine, then occupied by the Turks, simultaneously to the Jews and the Arabs. Selling the same real estate to two different buyers at the same time is complicated on every continent).

Despite the fact that native people lived in the stone age, didn’t really have much of a culture and tortured women and children (as I outlined above), they did have artistic abilities and they were the natural equals (note to self: clarify later what is meant by ‘natural’) of the white people. I’m going to let that contradiction sit there – it’s very sophisticated. French explorers were nice to Native people during a period, but really the whole thing can be boiled down to native people wanted guns and liquor and eventually settlers took the land from them. I’m a reasonable guy – I’ll admit it, white people weren’t always the nicest to native people. The English promised land to natives and also to the Americans, but this has happened so many times in history, so why is everyone so damn upset?

Even that eminent humanitarian Thomas Jefferson, one of history’s prototype limousine liberals, described the native people in the Declaration of Independence as ”merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” The Shawnee chief Tecumseh greatly helped General Isaac Brock and the Canadians and the British in the War of 1812; Colonel Richard Johnson took credit for killing him, being elected vice-president of the United States in 1836 on the slogan “Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Who Killed Tecumseh?” When President Andrew Jackson transported 250,000 native people westwards to open up more land for the importation of slaves, and was found liable by the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, of treaty violations against the native people, Jackson, in control of the Congress as well as the administration, replied “The chief justice has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

Let’s cut straight to the chase: Thomas Jefferson, who everyone has heard of and who drove a limousine, knew that Native people were really cold-blooded savages who killed people indiscriminately in times of war. And like obviously, we can trust one white guy’s observation from another century to form an accurate perception of native societies everywhere. And did you know, the Americans are cold-blooded killers too! (note to self: stoking congratulatory Canadian nationalism should get this article trending on The Twitter) And, to throw in one more unrelated example to show I know about History, American colonists were really mean to native peoples in the south. (Note to self: I may have sufficiently played the American card now to distract from what happened in Canada, but we shall see).

As the settlement of the United States by Europeans proceeded much more quickly and on a much larger scale over a more temperate country than the corresponding development of Canada, and the British and Canadian officials dealing with the natives were generally less corrupt than their American analogues, our relations with the native people stayed largely clear of the violence so fabled in American history, including the death of General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Nope, let’s bash America some more, always a good play. Americans greedily grabbed all the land in sight because it was warmer there, and Canadians were less corrupt and made peace with native peoples. General Custer died for your sins!

Once the white men were indisputably preeminent in this continent, administration of native affairs was largely unsatisfactory, frequently corrupt, and sometimes brutal. The Canadians and Americans did not simply massacre them all, as the Argentinians did (that was genocide), and there were many sincere and entirely benevolent contacts among the natives, including from most of the Christian churches. It was widely assumed that assimilating the native people was the ultimate compliment and service. Lord Durham assumed the same about the French Canadians and the United Province of Canada, Ontario and Quebec today, was set up for that purpose. Of course, it was all nonsense and an outrage, and the French Canadians easily resisted this clumsy and arrogant effort to relieve them of their culture. Their numbers and importance within Canada as a whole were such that they had the political muscle to be a co-equal race when Canada was swiftly launched in 1867 in the tenuous hope that it could retain its independence from the post-Civil War United States and its Grand Army of the Republic.

Once the white men had kicked everyone’s ass everywhere (I mean this as an objective scientific observation, not as a veiled racist self-congratulation) some white people, mostly the bureaucrats, probably driving in limousines, poorly administered the whole thing – really that’s the issue, this is all about mismanagement. Them were not all killed off in Canada, like in Argentina (note to self: keep pointing finger further south of border, this distraction thing is working great!) and the Churches were sincere and benevolent, so can you really blame them for what happened? Isn’t it just about intention? Certainly I have the right motives and always have! Look, everyone was all about assimilation back in the day, in a way it was a compliment, we’ve got to lighten up people! Lord Durham tried to assimilate the French but they were a hardy race (note to self: possibly add part about ‘northern’ origins later) that stood up for themselves, and, Americans! Americans!

The native people were less fortunate, fewer and less politically powerful than the French Canadians, and there is no doubt that they were short-changed, condescended to, and in a heartbreaking number of individual instances, mistreated: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s belief that five to seven per cent of native students in residential schools died in those schools is a horrifying accusation. But none of it justifies the invocation of the word genocide, which is a contemptible device to tar esteemed people like John A. Macdonald with the brush of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others who set out to murder millions of totally innocent people.

It’s really sad, I know, it’s unfortunate what happened to Native peoples; perhaps they were even just on the wrong side of history (maybe edit this part out, not PC). Look, things happened, people made mistakes, people even died as a result of the policies. But it was not genocide, which is obviously just a plot by people who probably drive limousines to bring down the great heroes of Canadian History because they are spiteful. Hitler!

The policy, which was one of assimilation, acculturation, or even deracination, was misconceived, frequently unjustly administered, and the horror stories of what happened in the residential schools are the very worst of it. But the fact that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission employs the term “cultural genocide” is neither true nor conciliatory, though I wholeheartedly support the official purposes of the commission, and am mortified by the summary of its findings I have seen. We must know the proportions of wrongs committed, and do whatever we can to make amends.

Instead of calling it genocide we should call a spade a spade – it was assimilation, it was acculturation, even deracination and really the real problem was that it was so unjustly administered (as opposed to a just administration of these policies). Again, I will let the sophisticated contradiction sit there for the high level reader. Look, I’m a fan of the TRC, and I’m really sad about the findings, and white people should do whatever they can to make up for it. I’m trying to do my part here.

But we are dealing with a policy of using high office for unctuous national moral self-flagellation; the country didn’t murder native schoolchildren and at every stage would have been just as shocked as we are now to learn of it. In the same address the chief justice lamented that West Coast Japanese Canadians were rounded up without trial, their property seized, and bustled into “concentration camps.” It was a shameful policy, made more odious by it being a heel-clicking imitation of the United States policy devised by some of its  greatest modern liberals, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, John McCloy, Felix Frankfurter and William O. Douglas (and was chiefly opposed in that country by J. Edgar Hoover, a fact the left has almost air-brushed from history).

But, the people driving limousines are ruining all sincere attempts to make up for all the stuff that happened. They’re using their limousine privilege to unjustly guilt trip us all – (why they are so determined to do this, I just don’t know – come back to this point later). They just simply don’t understand – if anyone knew about the problems at residential schools, they would have done something about it, and, they did know about the problems…(note to self: this part might need some fine finessing). The Chief Justice, speaking from a limousine, also called the concentration camps Japanese people were sent to concentration camps, which I am upset about. Look, it wasn’t nice, I get that, but the Americans were the real reason behind it and here is a long list of Americans who drove limousines who supported the policy, except J. Edgar, who obviously was a chief defender of the rights of non-white people (double check facts on Edgar later).

But the victims were not in “concentration camps” as the chief justice perfectly well knows; they were in boredom camps, with their families, where they had nothing to concentrate on. It was shameful and was recognized as such in the Mulroney government’s commendable restitution and apology of 1993, but the efforts in high and authoritative places to invoke the Nazi and Communist vocabulary of oppression in respect of the morally insalubrious official episodes in this country’s history, compound, and do not ameliorate, the shame.

The victims of deportation were not in concentration camps because they were bored and travelling with their families, unlike in Hitler’s real concentration camps where no one was bored and no one travelled with their family. I’m not saying I favour what happened back in the day, but the people in limousines just want us to feel shame about this incident. I’m already sad enough about what happened to native peoples thank you very much!

There appear to be terrible strains in the native community between the emotional attachment to traditional life and the notorious temptations and diversions of modern Western life. It is not the case that the Europeans have no right to be here, and we have made vastly more of this continent than its original inhabitants could have done; it was only the mighty continent of North America that prevented the triumph of real genocidal regimes in Europe and the Far East in the great wars of the last century. It ill behoves the chief justice to rail against the proximity to the Supreme Court of a monument to the victims of communism, while imputing to the society whose senior jurist she is the practice of any form of genocide. Nor should the federal government be building superfluous prisons and deliberately worsening the conditions of the incarcerated, especially when it can be certain that an inordinate number of the occupants of these prisons will be native people, a policy that is a triple declaration of bankruptcy: in criminal justice, rehabilitation, and native peoples policy.

Okay, back to the natives. Maybe my few paragraphs explaining everything you need to know about Native peoples in North America needs a few more facts. Here’s some more: native people are eternally stuck between clinging to their antiquated and doomed culture and embracing modern life, which they are not really suited to. These are just the facts! I learned this binary (that means two) understanding of culture from my Grade 5 textbook. White people have a right to be in North America dammit! (A bit out of left field, but oh well), and native people were just letting this whole damn Garden of Eden go to waste! (Note to self: might not be PC but I’ll verify that this is a fact later) This is just common sense! Okay, now I’m going to write a bizarre and undeveloped justification for colonization, not at all because I’m feeling a bit on shaky ground: If we hadn’t colonized North America, we couldn’t have stopped genocides in the “Far East” and Europe in some wars that took place a century ago (add examples later). That should stop those limousines in their tracks! Ha! The communists, as J. Edgar knew are the real threat and the chief Justice, well, I won’t say she is one, but she has opposed the monument that Harper and his boys want to build. Now I will weigh in on prisons: we should build less of them. Case closed.

In fairness to the Harper government, it did its best in agreeing a $2 billion education catch-up program for the native people; their leaders rejected it and forced out the First Nations’ national chief, Shawn Atleo, who negotiated it. The relationship between official Canada and the First Nations is full of sadness, mistakes and dishonour, but both sides share it, and respect for native government often results in grievous corruption and despotism by the native leaders.

Harper and his boys (appear neutral by suggesting you are a critic of the Harper government) tried their best to bring the natives up to speed in the 21st century and preventing their inevitable dying out, but them rejected it! I’m not an emotional man, but really, it’s just so darn sad, and so many mistakes have been made by everyone, and (not sure where to tack this next bit on but here will work, why not) native governments are despotic and corrupt!

Despite everything, even the First Nations should be grateful that the Europeans came here. There has been quite enough shameful conduct to go round, including by some of the natives. Let us all repent past wrongdoing without demeaning histrionics and hyperbole, and be proud of whatever we are ethnically: all cultures and nationalities have their distinctions. The whole country must do what it can to atone for the past, but a continuing orgy of recriminations will be unjust in itself, produce a nasty backlash, and will aggravate grievances.

Look, I gotta wrap this up because it is all just really too sad and I’m emotionally a bit tired from dealing with all this, but let me say one more thing to clarify everything and avoid any misconceptions. Native people should be more grateful rather than crying over spilt milk. Things have happened, which I have clearly outlined above, and stuff will continue to happen, but let’s just get on with things – let’s quit histrionics (look up in dictionary later) and hyperbole (this is a reference to cultural genocide that the astute reader will pick up on). We should all be proud of our ethnicities, if we have been assigned one, and all cultures and nations are different (such an incredible fact!). The people in limousines want us all just to have orgies that will only make things worse and cost us (white people) dollars. It’s all just so sad. Sigh.


“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

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.


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.