Many of you might not be familiar with the name John Tanner (and I’m not talking about the famous Mormon here). Around the 18th century his family were pioneers in vast wildlands of Kentucky, when he was abducted by two Chippewa Indians. He was sold into slavery, battered about and abused in other ways for about two years before being sold again to an Ottawa tribeswoman who inducted him into the ways of the culture. He stayed with them for several decades, taking on a wife of the tribe, until civilization came a calling.
The fur trade started to run into full swing in the Canadian area, which meant a shortage of game and other necessities for the tribe. The War of 1812 added more men into the territory and Tanner worked as an interpreter. During that time he wrote a very popular book about his life, A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, from which he have gleaned today’s excerpt.
As we all know, many Native American tribes had a different perspective on cross-dressing and homosexuality than other cultures. In a sense, once they donned the woman’s clothes those men were treated as women and forced to do womanly chores- cooking, cleaning, making clothes, marrying older men, etc. John Tanner describes an encounter with one such person.
“Some time in the course of this winter, there came to our lodge one of the sons of the celebrated Ojibbeway chielf, called Wesh-ko-bug (the sweet), who lived at Leech Lake. This man was one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians. There are several of this sort among most, if not all Indian tribes. They are commonly called A-go-kwa. This creature called Ozaw-wen-dib (the yellow head) was now fifty years old and had lived with many husbands. I do not know whether she had seen me or only heard of me, and with the hope of living with me, she offered herself to me. But not being discouraged with one refusal, she repeated her disgusting advances until I was almost driven from the lodge.
“Old Net-no-kwa was perfectly acquainted with her character and only laughed at the embarrassment and shame which I evinced whenever she addressed me. She seemed rather to countenance and encourage the Yellow Head in remaining at our lodge. The latter was very expert in the various employments of the women, to which all her time was given.
“At length, despairing of success in her addresses to me, or being too much pinched by hunger, which was commonly felt in our lodge, she disappeared and was absent three or four days. When she came back loaded with dry meat, she stated sge had found the band of Wa-ge-to-tah-gun and that the chief had sent by her an invitation for us to join him. He had heard of the niggardly condition of Waw-zhe-kwaw-maisk-koon towards us and had sent the A-go-kwa to say to me,
“ ‘My nephew, I do not wish you to stay there to look at the meat another kills but is to mean to give you. Come to me and neither you nor my sister shall want anything that it is in my power to give to you.’
“I was glad enough of this invitation and started immediately. At first encampment, as I was doing something by the fire, I heard the A-go-kwa at no great distance in the woods, whistling to call me. Approaching the place, I found she had her eyes on game of some kind, and presently I discovered a moose. I shot him twice in succession and twice he fell at the report of the gun but it is probable I shot too high, for at last he escaped. The old woman reproved me severely for this, telling me she feared I should never become a good hunter. But before night the next day, we arrived at Wa-ge-to-te’s lodge where we are as much as we wished.
“Here also I found myself relieved from the persecutions of the A-go-kwa, which had become intolerable. Wa-ge-to-te, who had two wives, married her. This introduction of a new intimate into the family of Wa-ge-to-te’s occasioned some laughter and produced some ludicrous incidents, but was attended with less uneasiness and quarreling than would have been the bringing in of a new wife of the female sex.”