Whe’wha was born in 1849 to the Zuni people of New Mexico. This was the first year that the Zuni came into contact with Americans. They agreed to help the colonists fight the Navajo and Apaches, traditional enemies of the Zuni, in order to gain land. Sadly the people of Whe’wha’s village contracted smallpox from the Americans, and both their parents died from the disease. Whe’wha and their brother were then adopted by their paternal aunt’s family. Whe’wha remained a member of their mother’s clan, the Badger People, while also having ties to their father’s clan, the Dogwood People.
As a child Whe’wha played more often with girls than with boys, and may have spoken the feminine dialect of the Zuni language. Whe’wha probably also wore traditional girls’ clothing and adornments as a child. Although in Zuni culture Lhamana or Two-Spirit identities could be recognised from the age of three or four, Whe’wha was first introduced to the boys’ religious rites at age twelve. A few years later Whe’wha’s family acknowledged them as a Lhamana and female relatives then took over their religious education. Whe’wha learned the domestic skills of the Zuni women including cooking, preparing cornmeal, gathering firewood and carrying water. They also learnt pottery and weaving, which they became highly skilled at.
In 1864 the American troops and Zuni warriors claimed victory over the Navajo, who were sent to live in a reservation for four years. Some Zuni people, including Whe’wha’s family, then moved back into previously abandoned territory and began farming there. Whe’wha worked as a farmer while their family lived there, a traditionally male occupation. As Whe’wha’s adoptive mother grew older, Whe’wha also took on domestic duties along with their adopted sister.
In 1877 Protestant missionaries came to the Zuni people. Their intention was to convert and assimilate Native Americans into white Christian society, as opposed to moving them onto reservations. At this time Whe’wha was in their thirties, and these missionaries were probably the first white people that they encountered first-hand. The missionaries built a school for Whe’wha’s tribe and a minister named Taylor Ealy was appointed to run it. Reverend Ealy’s wife and two children also came to live there and Whe’wha helped Mrs. Ealy with housework, child-minding and various responsibilities at the school. Mrs. Ealy’s diary notes that Whe’wha helped her to make clothes for the family, and received dresses of their own as payment. It’s possible that Whe’wha also served as a matron in a dormitory at the missionary school where they would have had duties in the kitchen, laundry and teaching young girls domestic skills. The school had little impact on the Zuni people’s religious practices however and the missionary population began to dwindle in 1881.
While Whe’wha was working with Mrs. Ealy in the 1870s, they met an American woman named Matilda Coxe Stevenson, with whom they developed a close friendship. Stevenson says that Whe’wha was a friendly person who learnt English quickly and describes them thus: “…the most intelligent person in the pueblo. Strong character made his word law among both men and women with whom she associated. Though his wrath was dreaded by men as well as women, he was loved by all children, to whom he was ever kind.” Although Stevenson was a close friend of Whe’wha’s, she did not learn that Whe’wha was male-bodied for many years. After discovering this, Stevenson continued to refer to Whe’wha by feminine pronouns in her diary. In 1879 Stevenson introduced soap to Whe’wha’s village, and taught them how to launder clothes with it. Whe’wha began washing clothes for the white missionaries and was paid in silver dollars. Whe’wha later moved to Fort Wingate where they were employed to wash for the soldiers and the captain’s family. They were one of few Zuni persons to do paid work for the Americans.
Whe’wha was highly skilled at both pottery and weaving. They made ceremonial pots according to Zuni religious protocol, and some of their work is on display in the National Museum of Washington DC. Whe’wha weaved many practical and beautiful items, from baskets and blankets to dresses and sashes. It was said that they were gifted with a good eye for colour and pattern.
The Zuni people believed that if a person’s good fortune provoked envy in a witch, they might be cursed and become ill. Whe’wha believed that this happened to them at some point when they suffered a severe illness. They were cured by a traditional healer and following this made a vow to join the healer’s medicine society known as the Bedbug People. The Bedbug people specialised in treating, burns, ulcers, cancers and parasites and their publicly performed rituals involved walking barefoot across fire-beds.
Sadly Whe’wha only lived to 49, dying of what was thought to be heart disease. Whe’wha’s body was prepared for burial by their tribe and dressed in white cotton men’s trousers and a beautifully patterned woman’s dress. Among the Zuni people Whe’wha was recognized as a lhamana, a third gender which performed both male and female roles in society. Third genders existed in many Native American cultures. In English the lhamana and other third gender people are now known as Two-Spirits, as they are believed by some tribes to possess both a male and female spirit. For this reason they were and in many cases are still are highly regarded by their society.