September 19, 2014

GIAGO: Native Americans and homosexuality

Notes from Indian Country
© 2012 Unity South Dakota

Can the government refuse marriage and federal benefits to gays and lesbians? Those are the questions before SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States). They should make a ruling in June, 2013.

In the New York case the survivor of a same-sex marriage is challenging the justices to decide whether the federal government can deny legally married same-sex couples the benefits that go with marriage. For most married couples the benefits of filing joint tax returns and receiving survivors benefits from Social Security are a given; but for same-sex couples they are prohibited under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

There are currently 41 states where same-sex marriage is against the law. In California the voters placed Proposition 8 on the ballot and brought a halt to same-sex marriage. Attorneys Ted Olson and David Bois are challenging this law. They argue that marriage is a fundamental right and that by excluding gay couples from marriage the law denies them the equal protection of the law.

Human nature does not curse of favor any one race of people. There have been homosexuals in every nation that has ever existed on this earth, that is with the possible exception of Iran where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood at a podium not so very long ago and proclaimed that there are no homosexuals in Iran. He was greeted with raucous laughter for this understatement.

Among the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes, homosexuals were called winkte (wink-tay). If you look the word up in the Lakota Dictionary, even in the “New Comprehensive Edition” the one compiled and edited by Eugene Buechel and Paul Manhart, both Catholic priests serving on the Indian boarding school missions in South Dakota, you will see that they were not able to separate their Catholic religion from the reality of the word.

Their dictionary translates winkte to mean; a hermaphrodite, a plant or animal having both male and female reproductive organs. These Jesuit priests and many who followed them to the Indian missions were too detached from the real world to face the facts about homosexuals and it maybe it’s because there were so many among their own ranks. If the subject was ever broached with their Indian students I’m sure it was beaten to death as a mortal sin of the first order.

To speak of winkte’s today in Indian country draws mixed emotions. There are those who accept it as a genuine occurrence among the Indian people and those who deny it. When I wrote about it several years ago the reactions were mixed. One very old friend of mine, now deceased, named Dr. Beatrice Medicine, a Standing Rock Hunkpapa, fiercely challenged my interpretation of the word. Medicine was one of those rare birds; an Indian anthropologist. She knew her history and she knew her facts.

That’s what happens when a culture has been all but destroyed by religion and modernity. All of the religious orders that came west to convert the Indians, religions from Catholics to Mormons, all had a variation of beliefs that saw nothing good about homosexuality. I have only the words of modern medicine or holy men and women to describe to me how gay and lesbians played a role in the ancient cultures of Native Americans. Even using the words Native American in this context is exasperating because there was no “America” in the early cultures and traditions of the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, hence no Native American.

To attempt to define gay and lesbian in today’s Indian country is like trying to describe the colors in a shirt that has been left hanging on the clothes line in the hot sun for too many days. The color is all but gone and every effort to bring back that color creates a false image.

And so I will take the word of the modern medicine men and women who claim that homosexuality was a known and respected segment of the traditional Indian culture.

And like everything else in this society, the laws about to be enacted by SCOTUS will also have an impact upon the people of Indian country. I know many gays and lesbians that are Lakota, Navajo, Hopi, Choctaw, Ojibwe, or of many other tribes in America, Canada and Alaska. They also have fought fiercely for the right to be accepted and for the right of equal protection under the law.

The winkte, according to those medicine men and women who purport to know, were a respected segment of the Lakota culture and in fact were highly revered. They base their opinions upon the oral traditions of a people without a written language, but with an oral history proven to be factual time and again by modern historians.

It would be highly improbable for the SCOTUS to accommodate the oral history of Native Americans in their arguments, but then again, why not? After all, our culture is much older than that of all the newcomers to our shores and one to be respected and not feared.



Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and he was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007.

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