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We’wha, the “Zuni Princess”

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 6/11/2022

 Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

On May 20, 1886, a headline in the National Tribune in Washington, D.C. read “A Zuni Princess.” The article recounted, among other stories, the princess buying herself an umbrella after hearing some local women discussing a sale. “She had gone alone to the store and selected her parasol and paid for it, just as if she had been accustomed to shopping in a large city all her life, though Washington is the first city she ever visited.”


This visiting princess, We’wha, was born in what would become New Mexico to a donashi:kwe clan (Badger People) mother and bichi:kwe clan (Dogwood People) father. This Zuni tribe of the Pueblo people had been mostly unchanged for hundreds of years, having survived the conflicts between Mexico and Spain. They endured, practicing their religion and rituals with freedom, though in profound poverty. But in 1849, the year We’wha was born, change would be forced upon the Zuni by invaders more powerful than the others they’d faced: white U.S. Americans colonizing the Southwest. We’wha grew up within this tension, as well as the continual threats from neighboring Navajo and Apache tribes.

We’wha’s parents died around 1853, likely during the smallpox epidemic spread by Europeans. We’wha and her brother were adopted by an aunt. During her childhood, “We’wha might have worn a much longer shirt than other boys and instead of tucking it into his trousers, left it hanging out like a short skirt,” wrote Will Roscoe in The Zuni Man-Woman. “[H]e might have initially donned a single article of women’s clothing at first, such as the bidonne, which was worn over the shoulders. And instead of playing with other boys, he likely preferred the company and pastimes of girls.”


We’wha was Ihamana. In Zuni culture, Ihamana are male-bodied individuals who live, socially and culturally, as women. Books and articles about We’wha use a variety of pronouns. This article will use she/her pronouns, except when quoting materials that chose differently, as that appears most common among those closest to We’wha. However, this should not be interpreted as a statement about how We’wha might have identified, or illustrative of gender among the Zuni as a whole. “While the traditional roles of men and women were well defined, the Zunis viewed gender as an acquired rather than an inborn trait,” Will explained. “Gender was, in many cases, situationally determined. If a medicine man were called to assist at childbirth, for example, he was temporarily referred to as ‘grandmother’—since men technically were not allowed to be present at births.” The English language does not easily allow for the nuance that is contained in indigenous identities such as Ihamana and Two Spirit. Much of that exclusion is likely deliberate.


“The gender binary was superimposed on Black people, indigenous people, and people of color by European colonists,” said non-binary author and activist Alok Vaid-Menon in an interview with the Man Enough podcast in 2021. “They’ve repressed their own femininity, they’ve repressed their own gender non-conformity, they’ve repressed their own ambivalence, they’ve repressed their own creativity, so when they see us have the audacity to live a life without compromise...instead of saying, ‘thank you for teaching me another way to live,’ they try to disappear us because they did that to themselves first.”

Public Domain; NARA-523798

Lhamana were often recognized as young as age three. We’wha was a late bloomer; she participated in boys’ rites of passage until her early teens. When the tribe recognized her lhamana traits, she began spending most of her time with women and learning more of the women’s duties. Of We’wha’s average day, Will wrote:

As girls got older, they looked after their smaller brothers and sisters, carrying them on their backs in blankets. They helped their mothers grind corn in work parties of female relatives, enlivened with gossip and song. … We’wha daily set out piles hewe’ and steaming bowls of button stew for an appreciative family. He learned to keep the house neat, according to fastidious Zuni standards, by spraying water on the dirt floor and sweeping it several times a day. In certain chores performed by women—fetching wood, carrying water from the well in jugs balanced on the head, plastering the walls of houses, threshing wheat, winnowing grain and beans, and tending the waffle gardens along the banks of the river—We’wha’s strength and endurance was especially advantageous.

We’wha also learned weaving on the loom to create blankets, clothing, and other fiber arts. After surviving an ailment, she trained with a shaman and joined the Zuni medicine society, called beshatsilo:kwe or Bedbug People. In this role she learned the tribe’s history and traditions. She learned their rituals and the foundations of their culture and beliefs.  


From We’wha’s youth, the Zuni were allied with the United States for security. In 1864 U.S. troops soundly defeated the Navajo, forcing them to relocate. With this enemy threat removed, the Zunis were able to expand and move more freely within their territory. Villages once built for defense were redesigned with beauty and convenience in mind. 


Zuni communities were still isolated, however, and their day-to-day life largely unbothered by encroaching colonizers. “No Zuni could speak English; only a few knew Spanish,” Will wrote. “The average Zuni had never met an American face to face. Only one or two had ever traveled as far as the nearest white settlement.” This changed in the 1870s as missionaries began to arrive.


The Zuni tribe was now officially under the purview of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. governmental office overseeing tribal nations and reservations. Unlike other indigenous tribes, the Zuni would not be immediately forced out of their land. Instead, Christian missionaries arrived with the aim of assimilating the Zuni into white European society on their home turf.


Protestant missionaries were the first to come and build churches. Presbyterians, who had claimed much of the Southwest, saw alarming paganism in the Zuni faith and belief in witchcraft, and they prioritized converting the tribe. Two Mormons came in 1876, performed over 100 baptisms, and founded a missionary colony. (“The Pueblo Indian agent [of the Bureau of Indian Affairs], a devout Presbyterian, suspected that the Mormons were as interested in Zuni lands as they were in Zuni souls,” Will said.) Essentially, the Zuni were under attack again, now with Bibles instead of bullets and blades.

Presbyterian doctor and minister Taylor F. Ealy and his group—a wife, two daughters, and a teacher—arrived on October 12, 1878. They took up operations of the schoolhouse that had been built the year before. Entries in wife Mary Ealy’s diary demonstrate activist Alok’s point. She wrote, “All the difficult labor, such as grinding the wheat and corn, carrying the water, etc., is done by the women while the men do the sewing and knitting. ... I wish to reverse their labors.”


By this time, We’wha’s adoptive mother had grown old, leaving more of the household duties to We’wha, who was in her early 30s. She immediately stood out to these foreign visitors, not only for her stature, but also for her significance among her people. “She was perhaps the tallest person in Zuni, certainly the strongest, both mentally and physically,” wrote Matilda Coxe Stevenson, one of the first female anthropologists in the nation, who joined the Ealys along with her husband in 1879. “She had a good memory, not only for the lore of her people, but for all that she heard of the outside world. ... She possessed an indomitable will and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.”


A friendship formed between Matilda and We’wha. Matilda wrote fondly of We’wha, and strong-willed We’wha’s continued participation with Matilda’s research indicates that that fondness was likely returned. Indeed, Matilda wrote, “She would risk anything to serve those she loved, but toward those who crossed her path she was vindictive.” Matilda visited the Zuni frequently over the next decade, often sharing lodgings with We’wha and her family. Throughout her writings, Matilda sometimes referred to We’wha as he or him, but after several years of friendship concluded, “As the writer could never think of her faithful and devoted friend in any other light, she will continue to use the feminine gender when referring to We’wha.”


The missionaries brought laundry soap with them. We’wha, other lhamana, and women of the village began earning a living by laundering the clothes of the mission members. We’wha expanded these services to Fort Wingate in Gallup, New Mexico, receiving pay in silver dollars from the stationed U.S. soldiers. The soap went over well with the Zunis. They were less responsive to the missionaries’ other goals. “The main problem [Ealy] encountered with the Zunis was a calm, steady resistance to his missionary efforts, rather than open violence,” wrote Ellen Marie Cain in Testing Courage in New Mexico: Taylor Ealy and the Lincoln County War, 1878. “Taylor Ealy’s missionary career ended in the summer of 1881. His idealism [was] dampened by the quiet resistance of the Zuni Pueblo.”


Matilda commissioned We’wha to make a few pieces of traditional Zuni pottery that are still on display at the Smithsonian, and in late 1885, she and husband James invited We’wha to travel with them to Washington, D.C. The press viewed her visit with great interest. Tribal delegations themselves were not uncommon, as multiple tribes were trying to negotiate with the U.S. government at the time, but We’wha was perceived by all of them as a cisgender woman and these delegations almost never included women.

“Her hair was in a short cue, as is the fashion with her people, both men and women, and was tied up with a scarf manufactured by the Moki Indians, her neighbors at home,” shared Washington D.C.’s National Tribune. “Her head was bare, but while in the street she carried over it a big red satin parasol, which she purchased in Washington when she went shopping by herself. Around her neck she had an immense necklace of silver beads and a silver crescent pendant, all made by native workman in Zuni.”


Some articles and personal accounts commented upon her appearance and gender. “Of course, doubts arose,” wrote Will. “That is not surprising. What is surprising is how easily they were set aside.” Even articles that indelicately raised the question happily concluded that We’wha was a Zuni “princess” or “maiden.” The National Tribune reported, “We’wha is very much larger in frame and more masculine in appearance than is usual with the Zuni women, who mostly are small and have quite dainty hands and feet, and it has made her quite indignant when she has overheard anyone asking if she was a man.”


We’wha stayed with the Stevenson family for the six months of her visit. Matilda likely hoped We’wha’s presence would boost her standing with the newly formed Women’s Anthropological Society (women had only recently permitted in the field); they hosted several salons at her home. We’wha, who now spoke some English, visited the Smithsonian Institute where she demonstrated weaving, posed for photos, and provided cultural context to some Zuni items already claimed by the museum. 


In the most newsworthy moment, We’wha shook hands and exchanged a very few words with President Grover Cleveland. The event itself featured “Indian dance” performances. Despite the involvement of the Women’s Anthropological Society, these were not terribly authentic to any Native American tradition. When asked by the Washington Post what she thought of the dancing, “[We’wha] said she had not seen anything just like it among her people, but it was very nice notwithstanding.” 


We’wha returned home with gifts of fine silverware from a former congressman (a man set on “Christianizing and civilizing the Zunis”) and lots of stories to share with her community, though not perhaps the ones Matilda or that congressman might have wanted. Visitors in the 1940s got to hear some of the tales that We’wha passed down about the white women in ladies rooms removing their false teeth, fake hair, and trying to make themselves young again. Matilda visited only months later to find the silverware had been distributed for use as ritual tools by the shamans. The forks had become toys for the children. 


We’wha knew who she was and was unswayed by white European society. In fact, her journey had been to protect Zuni culture, not seek ways it needed to be changed. At a time when the U.S. government was forging treaties they did not honorand actively exterminating tribes who dared to defend their homes and families, public opinion and personal meetings with government officials could mean safety, preservation. What the press covered with lightness and frivolity was, for We’wha and the Zunis, a matter of life and death.


“There is an old joke that the typical Zuni household consists of a mother, father, children, and an anthropologist,” wrote Will.The Zunis came to resent this white European scrutiny. “Are we still so primitive that you anthropologists come to study us every summer?” one researcher records a Zuni man saying. The white American and European researchers often justified their actions by believing themselves to be the last observers of a dying race. ““Such predictions enact what James Clifford has termed the redemptive allegory of anthropology—the assumption that ‘primitive’ cultures are doomed to disappear except for those artifacts ‘rescued’ by Western scientists. Such predictions are not only self-serving—since they inflate the importance of the fieldworker’s reports—they can also be self-fulfilling. ... Despite their admiration of the Pueblos, early anthropologists more often bolstered the image of the vanishing Indian than challenged it. As historian Curtis Hinsley, Jr. has pointed out, theirs was a legacy of both knowledge and annihilation.” 

“The Zuni community as a whole,” Will said, “was losing ground against the influx of American values, possession, and people.” Like so many tribes before them, “the Zunis were dismayed to find their cultural autonomy under attack by the same government they had once aided and served as allies.” As this pendulum shifted, so did We’wha’s response. She had once welcomed white visitors; now she stood in firm opposition to them, quite literally.


Alcohol and guns flowed into the Zuni community from white merchants. Drunkenness and violence began to disrupt their holy rituals. When an American soldier came to investigate a conflict, We’wha, according to the U.S. reports, “physically threw one official out and then closed the door. The door, however, closed on the man’s coattails and he had to use his saber to cut himself free.”


The United States determined the Zuni had become unruly, and on Dec. 20, 1892, the stationed officers in nearby Fort Wingate called for reinforcements. It was “a full-scale confrontation,” Will said. “The number of soldiers and guns involved, the presence of artillery, and the tense, volatile mood at Zuni created an extremely dangerous situation. Similar circumstances in 1890 had resulted in a massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, when hair-trigger soldiers killed some three hundred men, women, and children.”


For long, tense hours, the Zunis watched, waited, and cried as soldiers arrived and surrounded their homeland. They were drastically outnumbered and outgunned. “The Zuni officers wrote a letter and gave their letter to the chief of the soldiers. ‘Be kind to us. ... We will live quietly,’” recalled Lina Zuni, who was just 19 at the time. The conflict ended without violence, but a leading priest, the governor, and We’wha were all arrested. “From the available documents, it is not clear where they were taken—to Fort Wingate or to the county jail in Gallup—nor under what authority, jurisdiction, or charges,” Will noted. “Yet the Albuquerque Morning Democrat could smugly comment that the presence of the troops served ‘to impress the Indians with the majesty of law.’”


We’wha spent more than a month jailed at Fort Wingate. After she was released, she, now in her mid-40s, made the forty-mile journey home on foot through the chill New Mexico winter.

Public Domain

In 1896, just four years after this impressive physical feat, “with Sha’lako dancing in the next room, [We’wha] lay dying from heart disease,” wrote Will. Their leading priest came to care for her. “He quickly diagnosed the cause: bits of mutton had been ‘shot’ into We’wha’s heart by a witch.” Witchcraft was a very real and concrete concern among the Zuni. Native American Roots reported, “Since We’wha was only 49 years old when he died, his death was considered premature. The bow priests later arrested a woman accused of witchcraft and extracted a confession from her. In this way, the matter of We’wha’s death was laid to rest.”


A grieving Matilda wrote of We’wha’s funeral rites:

Blankets were spread upon the floor and the brothers gently laid the lifeless form upon them. After the body was bathed and rubbed with meal, a pair of white cotton trousers were drawn over the legs, the first male attire she had worn since she had adopted women’s dress years ago. The rest of her dress was female. The body was dressed in the finest clothing, six shawls of foreign manufacture, gifts from Washington friends, besides her native blanket wraps, and a white Hopi blanket bordered in red and blue, were wrapped around her. The hair was done up with the greatest care. Three silver necklaces, with turquoise earrings attached and numerous bangles, constituted the jewels. ... Upon the return to the house the foster mother had the rest of We’wha’s possessions brought together that they might be destroyed. All her cherished gifts from Washington friends, including many photographs, were brought out: all must be destroyed. This work was performed by the mother, who wept continually. All was sacrificed but pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Carlisle, Mr. Stevenson, and the writer. These were left in the frames on the wall. With another outburst of grief, the old woman declared they must remain, saying, “We’wha will have so much with her. I cannot part with these. I must keep the faces of those who loved We’wha and whom she loved best. I must keep them to look upon.”

Later anthropologists wondered at the male clothing We’wha was dressed in after her death. This is a puzzle only for those with a gender-binary mindset it seems, for the Zuni did not perceive this as anything unusual at all. According to Will, the Zuni Pueblo view the advance of life from a “raw” state to a “cooked” state. When We’wha was born, when she was raw, she was a boy, so into boy’s clothes they put her once again, closest to her skin. But in her cooked state, she was a woman, so her outer clothes were women’s styles.


Some lhamana changed their names to be more feminine, others did not. We’wha herself performed traditionally feminine tasks, such as cooking and caring for children, but it was also she who traveled to meet foreign presidents and physically threw soldiers out the door—certainly more traditionally masculine qualities to the white Western eye. But Zuni culture does not see a contradiction in a single person doing all these things. When asked by a researcher about the gender of lhamana individuals, a Zuni person is recorded answering quite simply, “She is a man.”


The active genocide of the Zuni way of life continued for several decades. Despite resistance from parents, many Zuni children were taken to be educated in white Christian residential schools, whose stated aim was to “take the Indian out of the child.” The Zuni culture’s easy embrace of lhamana was used in anti-indigenous propaganda to justify the violence of the white-led government. Will said, “In 1893, the Superintendent of Indian Schools reported that at Zuni ‘bastardy is a frequent occurrence, occasioning no comment. Boys and girls mingle freely, out on the sands, till late at night. Married life imposes no restrictions. Men are allowed to wear women’s costume, and work with the women in the house.”


It is a tragedy that the years following We’wha’s death saw the destruction of what she defended so staunchly during life, including the very definition of her identity—and yet, she is a significant part of why we know any of this violence happened at all. She was too known, too recorded; she was too celebrated in her visit to Washington, D.C., and her friendship with Matilda resulted in hundreds of pages of documentation of the Zuni Pueblo.


The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, “for the Zuni people and by the Zuni people,” opened in 1992. In early June 2022, the tribe held elections for their tribal council. They still live on the same land where We’wha lived, the land they’ve called home for nearly 1,300 years. Their population numbers over 10,000. The Zuni, and We’wha, endure.




Library of Congress: The National tribune (Washington, D.C.), May 20, 1886

Will Roscoe, The Zuni Man-Woman

Wikipedia: We’whaLhamana 

National Women’s History Museum: We’wha

Jstor: Testing Courage in New Mexico: Taylor Ealy and the Lincoln County War, 1878

Native American Roots: We’Wha, Zuni Berdache

Smithsonian: Terraced Bowl Zuni people

New Mexico True: Zuni Tourism

Pueblo of Zuni: 2022 Election

The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center