Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte became the latest to sign several new anti-transgender laws, including one that will prevent gender-affirming medical care for minors.
One thing these new laws do not take into account is that the 12 federally recognized tribes in Montana have historically recognized multiple gender identities, including transgender identities. Most Indigenous peoples recognize multiple gender identities that are believed to be the result of supernatural intervention.
In this regard, Montana state Rep. Donavon Hawk, a Democrat from Butte who is Crow and Lakota, said, “It surprises me that this country is only a couple hundred years old, and we are not able to function with LGBTQ people in our communities.” Indigenous communities have incorporated LGBTQ+ peoples within their societies for centuries.
As an Indigenous scholar who studies the history and religion of Indigenous peoples, I am troubled by how these new anti-transgender laws might affect religious expression and the rights of Indigenous communities, not just in Montana but across the nation.
Indigenous peoples have been in North America for at least 30,000 years. As their societies developed over time, hundreds of different ethnicities, languages, religious practices, gender expressions and identities emerged.
Transgender individuals, an umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity is not linked to the sex they were assigned at birth, have existed throughout history, including within Indigenous communities.
I learned from my maternal grandparents about Blackfeet religion and history. The Blackfeet acknowledged and accepted individual gender expression and identity because it was granted by the divine. Personal gender identity was rarely questioned, because it was tantamount to questioning the divine.
I first learned about Blackfeet ideas about transgender individuals as a young person from hearing oral history stories about famous Blackfeet religious leaders, warriors and adventurers who were transgender. They were viewed as having a direct connection to the divine. People often sought out these individuals for blessings, prayer or spiritual guidance.
Indeed, anthropologists and historians have studied Blackfeet gender expression and learned that the Blackfeet recognized multiple gender identities, including what is defined today in Western societies as transgender.
The modern-day term that many Indigenous peoples in North America have begun to use as an umbrella term to describe the multiple gender identities within Indigenous communities is Two-Spirit. That includes transgender people.