Idealised image of the Indian Heroine from The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, edited by Thomas D. Bonner, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1856. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Johanna Strong

Bíawacheeitchish, whose name means Woman Chief, was born around 1806 to the Gros Ventres (White Clay) People, in what is now the state of Montana in the United States. Bíawacheeitchish was Two Spirit, meaning that they were understood by the Indigenous community to have been born with both the male and female spirit. This is not interchangeable with being gay, instead Two Spirit is about the embodiment of two genders residing within one person. For many Indigenous communities, gender was thought of very differently than in European understandings, and Two Spirit people have both male and female spirits within them.

There is little known about Bíawacheeitchish’s early life until the age of 10, when Bíawacheeitchish was captured by the Apsáalooke (named the Crow People by European colonisers) in a raid. Bíawacheeitchish was adopted into the nation to replace a recently deceased son, a practice common in the Indigenous community.

Growing up, Bíawacheeitchish loved to ride horses, hunt, and had quite an accurate shot, all typically masculine activities, though Bíawacheeitchish also wore typically feminine clothing in daily life, a demonstration of Bíawacheeitchish’s Two Spirit identity. After Bíawacheeitchish’s adopted father’s death, Bíawacheeitchish became a leader in the lodge and gained a reputation as a warrior after a Blackfoot raid on the Crow People. In this new position as Chief, Bíawacheeitchish performed male roles, including marrying 4 wives, and continued to wear female clothing. At the height of their power as Chief, Bíawacheeitchish was third in command of the 160-member Council of Chiefs.

Bíawacheeitchish died at the hands of the Gros Ventres, though sources differ on the year of death, arguing it was either in 1854 or 1858. Bíawacheeitchish is still regarded as an inspiring Two Spirit chief of the Apsáalooke and of the Indigenous community throughout the US.

Recommended Reading

Eris Young, They/Them/Their: A Guide to Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019)

Laura K. Ferguson, Resilience: Stories of Montana Indian Women, from Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Lives (Montana Historical Society Press, 2016)

Non-Binary, Gender Non-Conforming and Allies Student Association of the Seattle University School of Law, “What Does it Mean to be Two-Spirit?”, https://seattleu.campuslabs.com/engage/organization/non-binarystudentassociation/documents/view/1860236.

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