Palouse History

In the present, the Palouse is most often thought of in terms of the two state universities that bring massive numbers of people and investments to the region. But there is much more to the region than the two universities, and this page is devoted to telling the broader LGBTQ history of the Palouse as distinct from what arose in connection with Washington State University and the University of Idaho.

Queer people have existed in the Palouse since long before these land-grant universities came to the minds of American educational reformers. This is especially true for the people upon whose land sits two state universities.  The Nez Perce people (Niimiipuu) are one of the several bands of Plateau people who lived and thrived in the Pacific Northwest long before any the continent was “discovered” in the minds of Europeans. It is upon their ancestral homelands, including ceded treaty land, that the federal government authorized the construction of the two state universities in the late nineteenth century. Unfortunately, when it comes to the queer history of the Nez Perce, historians have so far had relatively little to say about Nez Perce culture before or during the influx of white, Christian, migrants and missionaries that brought about substantial upheavals to indigenous society, economy, and culture. Still, there are broad trends of Native American queer history which illuminate some aspects of queer indigenous life true to most, if not all, plateau peoples; although the particulars for Nez Perce history need of further study.

One essential component of understanding queer indigenous history in the Palouse is understanding Two-Spirit people. Many indigenous cultures in what would centuries-later become the United States practiced a gendered system more complicated than the simple “man-woman” binary practiced by Europeans. In those cultures, Two-Spirit people were individuals who did not exist as men or as women, but as a distinct third gender. This did not necessarily imply what is now considered a transgender identity, and it did not require any kind of homosexuality. For many years historians themselves misrepresented the history of Two-Spirit people by adopting the language of Europeans who labeled Two-Spirit people as berdache, a term that implied a submissive sexual role and conflated the gender system of indigenous people with Western ideas about sexuality. While that term has now fallen out of usage in favor of the more accurate, and self-assigned, label of Two-Spirit, the language issue itself embodied the difficulties of a Western historical enterprise attempting to write about the gender and sexuality of people whose societies and cultures were far different from their own. The existence of Two-Spirit people in Native American communities also demonstrates the existence of a system for organizing sex and gender that eventually came into conflict with European notions of manhood, womanhood, and normative sexuality. Two-Spirit people were not always widely welcomed into all indigenous societies, and so one would be cautioned against reading the existence of Two-Spirit people as indicating indigenous people’s wholesale acceptance of individuals who lived outside familiar gender or sex binaries. However, the wide inclusion of Two-Spirit people within many indigenous communities, and their continued appearance in a broad range of Native American societies—from the Coasts to the Plateau to the Plains—reveals that queerness was not always derided in the Palouse.

According to May Mandelbaum’s 1938 study of the Sinkaietk, and repeated by several historians of queer indigenous people, the Nez Perce were one of the tribes which allowed for non-binary conceptions of gender. Mandelbaum relates the story of “woman-man” who attempted to work as a prostitute among the Sinkaietk at a communal gathering. Mandelbaum’s consultant referred to this individual as “sexless” and unable to engage in sexual intercourse, although one questions that interpretation as this nameless individual was also, supposedly, attempting to engage in sex work. Unfortunately, the story of this individual is brief, and the complexities of the individual’s gender and sex identity—including how exactly they might have fit within the modern notion of Two Spirit—were not recorded and have thus far escaped historical writings. Nevertheless, what Mandelbaum’s report reveals is that queer Nez Perce people have a long history in the Palouse that far pre-dates contact with European ideas of gender and sexuality, let alone the formation of two state universities on indigenous land.

By the late nineteenth century, following a series of conflicts with the federal government and the breaking and re-negotiating of multiple treaties, Nez Perce people were left to live on a reservation that filled just a small percentage of their ancestral homelands. Onto their old homelands moved a variety of Americans—miners, farmers, businessmen, housewives and mothers, laundry-workers and many more—all of whom brought to the region a new understanding for how gender and sexuality should be organized, criminalized, and policed. This fundamentally altered the gender and sexual system in the region, including the laws that criminalized various sexual acts or gender identities. Substituted in place of the gender and sexual system which had existed since Coyote and Salmon brought the Nez Perce into existence was a gender and sexual system based on a Western, Christian, moral tradition. In this new system, one was forced to live within a gender binary that expected conformity with either male or female social roles. Importantly, whites did not completely erase the indigenous gender traditions that allowed for the existence of Two Spirit individuals. Yet the continued influx of Christian missionaries and other American citizens increasingly marginalized alternative possibilities for thinking about sex and gender. Unfortunately, for the Nez Perce and many other tribes in the American West, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought rapid changes to the population, land, lives, politics, and culture of the Palouse and elsewhere.

For much of the nineteenth century, Washington had been a part of the Oregon Country and was contested by both Britain and the United States for its economic potential. Eventually, decisions setting the U.S.-Canada border at the 49th parallel and dividing the Oregon Country along the Columbia River, designated what is today Washington State, Idaho, and a part of Montana as “Washington Territory.” By 1864, the now-familiar state borders for those states were in place, with Washington and Idaho designated as their own territories. This political history was important because these new territories brought about a set of laws and policing practices that criminalized same-sex sexual intimacies and non-traditional gender identities.

One of the important ways that these new territories changed the gender and sexual norms of the region, and enforced inequalities for LGBTQ people, involved regulations on cross-dressing. As the historian Peter Boag has shown, the American frontier was awash with individuals who either lived or worked as a gender different than the one expected of them at birth. Some of these were women who dressed as men in order to work or get by in a patriarchal world. Others were men who dressed as women for work for performance, like Eva Lind/Phil Poland did in Colfax, Washington in the 1880s. However, there were also many individuals who “cross-dressed,” who we might in the modern day consider to be transgender. Several individuals in the American West and Pacific Northwest lived as a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth during the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. Many people, whether likely transgender as is the case of Joe Monahan in Silver City, Idaho, or dressing for work, as in the case of Eva/Phil, were also accepted in the communities where they lived. The ubiquity of individuals in the American West during this frontier era who lived according to a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth, as well as examples of communities accepting these individuals, helps challenge the conventional notion that rural areas like the Palouse have long been, or are essentially, hostile to queer life. This is true for both when the land was mostly occupied by niimiipuu and when it was occupied by American settlers. Still, cross-dressing was a crime in many places in the American West by the early twentieth century as cities re-wrote local ordinances to criminalize illicit urban conduct and battle the social impacts of saloon culture. As much as the early Palouse offered opportunities for individuals who wanted to live a life outside conventional gender norms, it also meted out punishments to some of those who transgressed such norms.

In 1889 and 1890, Washington State and Idaho, respectively, received statehood, and in doing so brought with them sodomy laws harshly penalizing those who engaged in same-sex sex and various other kinds of non-procreative sex. Both states sent the men who violated this law—and it was almost always men who were subject to incarceration under the sodomy statute—to their respective state penitentiaries. Sodomy laws were not removed from the books from these states until a reform of the Washington State criminal code repealed the state’s law in 1975, and a United States Supreme Court decision that ruled all sodomy laws unconstitutional invalidated Idaho’s sodomy prohibition in 2003. In the meantime, both states were active with policing men who engaged in same-sex sex. Even those who could not be brought up on sodomy charges might still be charged with the crime of vagrancy for other kinds of acts. While sodomy laws were most often used to bring charges against men who had raped or paid for sex, the existence of these laws, and the harsh penitentiary times attached to violating them, made it difficult for queer people to live out and openly. The Palouse, being a rural area, did not have the same kinds of police activity, surveillance, and harassment, that accompanied queer life in the states’ more populous centers like Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Seattle, and Spokane. Because larger numbers of queer people could congregate at homes or bars in these cities—Pullman and Moscow did not have gay bars, although there were some locations accepting of gay people during the twentieth-century—urban police were more often involved in policing and raiding queer life than were rural police. In the 1970s, one gay Washington State University student noted that this was a benefit for gays in Pullman compared to other centers where there might be a more active gay nightlife.

The Palouse’s ruralness did not separate it from the broader developments in LGBTQ history. As Americans came to challenge traditional notions of gender, sex, sexuality, and relationships, residents of the Palouse dealt with similar questions and changing norms. Like many other cities and counties around the United States—from Dade County, Florida to Eugene, Oregon—Pullman and Moscow both saw the proposal of non-discrimination ordinances in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, Pullman was the only one of the two cities to pass a fair housing ordinance in the twentieth century. In the 1970s residents of both cities formed their own organizations to combat LGBTQ discrimination, joining an ever-growing chorus of queer voices calling for equality. Although Idaho’s first gay rights organization was incorporated in the state capital of Boise, it was founded and active in Moscow, Idaho on the Palouse. In the present, the Palouse continues to be a place friendly to queer people. Moscow hosts the annual Palouse Pride parade and festival. Both universities have devoted resources to ensuring the success of queer students. Organizations in the region’s cities help families and the communities become more welcoming for LGBTQ people. Lastly, there are still many LGBTQ Nez Perce living in the Palouse who make it known that the erasure of indigenous land did not result in the erasure of indigenous queer culture.