At Large  June 8, 2022  Megan D Robinson

The Late We:wa, Two-Spirit Artist & Indigenous Advocate

National Archives at College Park.

The late We:wa photographed weaving by John K. Hillers (1843-1925).

Perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century Indigenous Łamana or Two-Spirit historical figure, the late We:wa (various spellings exist) was a Zuni artisan, diplomat, spiritual leader, and humanitarian. They also played an integral role in the eventual recognition of Indigenous arts and crafts as fine art and were an incredible advocate of Indigenous rights in America. To honor Zuni traditions, which discourage referring to the departed in present tense, this article will refer to the artist as “the late We:wa.”

National Archives at College Park. Photo by John K. Hillers (1843-1925).

Full-length portrait of the late We:wa.

While Two-Spirit was popularized in the 1990s as a term to describe nonbinary individuals, the Zuni tribe has long-used Łamana to refer to a third gender. Revered as reflections of harmony and balance, Łamana are important spiritual leaders in Zuni culture.

According to historical documentation, the late We:wa used both male and female pronouns. However, following the guidance of Zuni advisors and the typical preferences of contemporary Indigenous Two-Spirit people, many publications opt to use “they/them” when referring to the late We:wa. This example will also be followed throughout this article.

Born in approximately 1849, in Zuni Pueblo (now known as New Mexico), the late We:wa began training at a young age in traditionally male and female tasks. Typically, Zuni men were warriors, weavers, hunters, farmers, priests, and political leaders while women ran the households, cooked, ground the cornmeal, and made ceremonial pottery.

Over the years, in addition to their performance of roles traditionally assigned to each gender, the late We:wa also led community mediation and became well-known as a revered community leader and an accomplished artist renowned for their skill with color and patterns.

As an adult, they learned English in order to facilitate communication with European colonists and to advocate for the protection of Zuni rights and culture. Their friendship with anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson was integral to the establishment of a cultural exchange that facilitated the late We:wa’s political activism and eventually led to the aforementioned recognition of Indigenous art as fine art. The late We:wa’s artwork played a key role in this process as they were one of the first Zuni artisans to sell their work to non-Indigenous buyers.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 009, Image No. MAH-3648.

The late We:wa demonstrated blanket loom weaving on the grounds of the United States National Museum while in D.C.

In the 1880s, the late We:wa traveled to Washington D.C. with Stevenson and her husband to aid in the Stevensons’ documentation of Indigenous culture and to advocate for their people. They shared information about Zuni culture; did weaving demonstrations, including one outside the Whitehouse; posed for photographs; engaged American socialites; and even met President Grover Cleveland. During this trip and beyond, the late We:wa worked to educate colonial Americans, combatting stereotypes and advocating for Indigenous rights.

In 2021, to honor National Indigenous Heritage Month, Google chose to celebrate the late We:wa with an interactive Doodle, illustrated by Zuni Pueblo guest artist Mallery Quetawki.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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