The Heritage Toronto Awards celebrate outstanding contributions in the promotion and conservation of Toronto’s history and heritage by professionals and volunteers.

The deadline for nominations is 4:30pm, May 16, 2014.

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By Eric Wright

An earlier version of post originally appeared on the author’s blog Actually History

In 1814, an Irish fur-trader in the employ of the Northwest Company by the name of Ross Cox was conducting business with Indigenous people near present day Spokane, Washington when he encountered, in his eyes, a remarkable individual.  In his journal under the titillating heading of  “A Curious Account of a Hermaphroditic Chief”, Cox described this person as,

A remarkable being.  The Indians allege he belongs to the epicene gender.  He wears a woman’s dress, overloaded with a profusion of beads, thimbles and small shells; add to which, the upper part of the face and the manner of wearing the hair are quite feminine; but these appearances are more than counterbalanced by a rough beard, and a masculine tone of voice.

Cox’s encounter with this “hermaphrodite chief” is just one of several known interactions between male fur-traders and people who are often referred to today as “third gendered” in the 18th and 19th century fur-trade in the Pacific Northwest.  People of a “third gender” in North American Indigenous societies were men and women whose gendered work roles, styles of dress, and behaviours did not accord in some degree to what was expected of someone of their biological sex.  Today, they might identify as a “transgendered person” or perhaps “intersexed.”  In terms of sexual orientation, third gendered people could be attracted to members of the same sex, but not necessarily.  Of course, it does not really make sense to speak literally of “same-sex” attraction within a non-dualistic gender/sex system.

In this short article, I shed light on a few of these moments of encounter that have not been lost to history.  As we might expect, some interactions followed the standard script of colonialism – male fur-traders heaped disdain and sometimes violence upon third gender Indigenous people.  These interactions resulted from an ideological context of imperialism in which Indigenous people were doubly stigmatized – once for being Indigenous and once for being third gendered.  Yet there were notable exceptions to a pattern of violence, like that of Ross Cox narrated above.  In these cases, European male fur-traders not only tolerated third gendered Indigenous people; they showed them a degree of respect in their writings and interactions.  Accounting for the respectful nature of some interactions in this period proves a much more difficult task.

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