Native Americans and Homosexuality

Can the government refuse marriage and federal benefits to gays and lesbians? Those are the questions before the U.S. Supreme Court, which 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, Prop 8 denies them the equal protection of the law.

Human nature does not curse or favor any one race or people. There have been gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in every nation that has ever existed on this Earth -- that is, with the possible exception of Iran, whose 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 statement.

Among the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes, gays and lesbians were called "winkte" (pronounced "wink-tay"). But if you look up the word in the New Comprehensive Edition of the Lakota dictionary, which is the edition compiled and edited by Eugene Buechel and Paul Manhart, both Catholic priests serving on Indian boarding school missions in South Dakota, you will find that these editors 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 gays and lesbians. (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 the winkte today in Indian country draws mixed emotions. There are those who accept it as a genuine occurrence among the Indian people, and there are those who deny it. When I wrote about it several years ago, the reactions were mixed. One very old friend of mine, Dr. Beatrice Medicine, a Standing Rock Hunkpapa who is now deceased, 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 the religious orders that came west to convert the Indians, from Catholics to Mormons, had nothing good to say about homosexuality. I have only the words of modern medicine or holy men and women to describe to me how gays and lesbians played a role in ancient Native American cultures. Even using the term "Native American" in this context is exasperating, because there was no "America" in the early cultures and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

To attempt to define "gay" or "lesbian" in today's Indian country is like trying to describe the colors in a shirt that has been left hanging on the clothesline 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. Therefore I will take the modern medicine men and women at their word when they claim that gays and lesbians represented a known and respected segment of traditional Indian culture.

And like everything else in this society, the decisions that we can expect from the Supreme Court in June will also have an impact upon the people of Indian country. I know many gays and lesbians who are Lakota, Navajo, Hopi, Choctaw, Ojibwe or of many other tribes in the U.S., Canada and Alaska. They also have fought fiercely for the right to be accepted, and for the right to equal protection under the law.

According to those medicine men and women who purport to know, the winkte 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 Supreme Court 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, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1991. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at