Thursday, September 10, 2009

Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Mastiffs

"Balboa Throws the Indians Who Have Committed the Abominable Crime of Sodomy to be Torn to Bits by Dogs." Theodore de Bry, Engraving for America, 1590.10

Spanish colonizers—from royalty to soldier to padre—believed that American Indians were intellectually, physiologically, and spiritually immature, if not actual animals. In the area eventually known as California, the genocidal policies of the Spanish Crown would eventually lead to a severe population crash: numbering one million at first contact, California Indians plummeted to about ten thousand survivors in just over one hundred years. Part of this massive loss were third-gender people, who were lost not by "passive" colonizing collateral damage such as disease or starvation, but through active, conscious, violent extermination. Speaking of the Chumash people living along the southern coast (my grandmother’s tribal roots), Pedro Fages, a Spanish soldier, makes clear that the soldiers and priests colonizing Mexico and what would become California arrived with a deep abhorrence of what they viewed as homosexual relationships. In his soldier’s memoir, written in 1775, Fages reports:

I have substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women—there being two or three such in each village—pass as sodomites by profession (it being confirmed that all these Indians are much addicted to this abominable vice) and permit the heathen to practice the execrable, unnatural abuse of their bodies. They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem. Let this mention suffice for a matter which could not be omitted,—on account of the bearing it may have on the discussion of the reduction of these natives,—with a promise to revert in another place to an excess so criminal that it seems even forbidden to speak its name. . . . But we place our trust in God and expect that these accursed people will disappear with the growth of the missions. The abominable vice will be eliminated to the extent that the Catholic faith and all the other virtues are firmly implanted there, for the glory of God and the benefit of those poor ignorants.

California third-gender people performed crucial acts of mediation between life and death in a role that has been termed "undertaker" but was much more than grave digger, and whose sexual partners historically were normative men, not other third-genders. Much of what little we know about third gender joyas (Spanish for "jewels,") is limited to observations like that of Fages, choked by Eurocentric values and mores. The majority of Spanish soldiers and priests were not interested in learning about California Indian culture and recorded only as much as was needed to dictate spiritual and corporeal discipline and/or punishment; there are no known recorded interviews with a joya by either priest or Spaniard, let alone the salvage ethnologists who arrived one hundred years later.

While the Spanish priests’ disciplinary methods might be strict and intolerant, they were at least attempting to deal with joyas and joya relationships in ways that allowed these Indians to live, albeit marginalized and shamed.

Spanish soldiers had a different, less patient method. They threw the joyas to their dogs. Shouting the command "Tómalos!" (take them, or sic ’em), the Spanish soldiers ordered execution of joyas by specially bred mastiffs and greyhounds. The dogs of the conquest, who had already acquired a taste for human flesh (and were frequently fed live Indians when other food was unavailable), were the colonizer’s weapon of mass destruction. In his history of the relationship between dogs and men, Stanley Coren explains just how efficient these weapons were: "The mastiffs of that era . . . could weigh 250 pounds and stand nearly three feet at the shoulder. Their massive jaws could crush bones even through leather armor. The greyhounds of that period, meanwhile, could be over one hundred pounds in thirty inches at the shoulder. These lighter dogs could outrun any man, and their slashing attack could easily disembowel a person in a matter of seconds."

Columbus brought dogs along with him on his second journey and claimed that one dog was worth fifty soldiers in subduing the Natives. On September 23, 1513, the explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa came on about forty indigenous men, all dressed as women, engaged in what he called "preposterous Venus." He commanded his men to give the men as "a prey to his dogges," and the men were torn apart alive. Coren states matter-of-factly that "these dogs were considered to be mere weapons and sometimes instruments of torture." By the time the Spaniards had expanded their territory to California, the use of dogs as weapons to kill or eat Indians, particularly joyas, was well established.

Was this violence against joyas classic homophobia (fear of people with same-sex orientation) or gendercide? I argue that gendercide is the correct term. As Maureen S. Heibert comments:

Gendercide would then be . . . an attack on a group of victims based on the victims’ gender/sex. Such an attack would only really occur if men or women are victimized because of their primary identity as men or women. In the case of male gendercide, male victims must be victims first and foremost because they are men, not male Bosnians, Jews, or Tutsis. Moreover, it must be the perpetrators themselves, not outside observers making ex-poste analyses, who identify a specific gender/sex as a threat and therefore a target for extermination. As such, we must be able to explicitly show that the perpetrators target a gender victim group based on the victims’ primary identity as either men or women.

Or, I must add, as a third gender?

Consider the immediate effect of Balboa’s punishment of the "sodomites": when local Indians found out about the executions "upon that filthy kind of men," the Indians turned to the Spaniards "as if it had been to Hercules for refuge" and quickly rounded up all the other third-gender people in the area, "spitting in their faces and crying out to our men to take revenge of them and rid them out of the world from among men as contagious beasts." This is not homophobia (widely defined as irrational fear of or aversion to homosexuals, with subsequent discrimination against homosexuals); obviously, the Indians were not suddenly surprised to find joyas in their midst, and dragging people to certain death went far beyond discrimination or culturally condoned chastisement. This was fear of death; more specifically, of being murdered.

What the local indigenous peoples had been taught was gendercide, the killing of a particular gender because of their gender. As Heibert says in her description of gendercide above, "It must be the perpetrators themselves, not outside observers making ex-poste analyses, who identify a specific gender/sex as a threat and therefore a target for extermination." Now that the Spaniards had made it clear that to tolerate, harbor, or associate with the third gender meant death, and that nothing could stand against their dogs of war, the indigenous community knew that demonstrations of acquiescence to this force were essential for the survival of the remaining community—and both the community and the Spaniards knew exactly which people were marked for execution.

Thus the killing of the joyas by Spaniards was, indeed, "part of a coordinated plan of destruction" - gendercide, yet another strategy of genocide.

This tragic pattern in which one segment of indigenous population was sacrificed in hopes that others would survive continues to fester in many contemporary Native communities where people with same-sex orientation are no longer part of cultural legacy but feared, discriminated against, and locked out of tribal and familial homes. We have mistakenly called this behavior "homophobia" in Indian Country; to call it gendercide would certainly require rethinking the assimilation of Euro-American cultural values and the meaning of indigenous community.

[this is an excerpt from my article "Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California," forthcoming in The Gay and Lesbian Quarterly.]


  1. Very impressive work! I'm doing a cross-gender history chapter proposal and this is the first reference i've found to "joyas",but now I see
    R.Trexler "Sex and Conquest..." pg 244 has a footnote a translation of Fages,from 1937.

    The extraordinary diversity in Native American/1st Nations people's before the invasion,and the destruction of their histories and cultures,makes it much tougher (at least for me) to categorize the the trans* folks to be anything like any old world culture or history.
    And then with the 40 different local words.
    Well,its a long list, and now joyas,too.
    I'll have to see if I can find an online copy
    of fages.

    Thank you for your info!
    Stephanie Vomact
    steph_diane_tx at yahoo dot com.
    p.s. cool,yet sad neologism: gendercide.

  2. Stephanie, Thank you for your message. It's good to know that the information is becoming more wide-spread. the fullarticle has now been been published. See " Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California," in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2010 16(1-2):253-284. If you have access via a university library proxy, it's online through PROJECT MUSE.


Blog Archive