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June 20, 2022

Two-Spirit People in Native American Cultures

In the summer of 1990, at the third annual Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the term Two Spirit was established. An English translation of the Northern Algonquin term niizh manitoag, Two Spirit describes masculine and feminine qualities within a single person. As a pan tribal term, Two Spirit both connected organizers across different Native nations and also helped them re-discover the traditional terminology used in their own cultural history.

Joining me to help us understand more about the Two-Spirit people is Dr. Gregory Smithers, a American history at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of the new book, Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image Credit: “We-Wa, a Zuni berdache, full length portrait,” photographed between circa 1871 and circa 1907 by John K. Hillers, National Archives at College Park, Public domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing Two Spirit people. The late 1960s and the 1970s were a time of rapid change and organizing, both for LGBTQ folks and for Native Americans. In June of 1969, the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, sparked what would become the modern LGBTQ movement in America, followed up by the nation's first Pride Parade in New York City, on the first anniversary of the riots. Shortly before that, in July, 1968, the American Indian Movement or AIM was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, organized initially by Native American men who had served together in prison. The Indian Relocation Act of 1956, Public Law 959, had encouraged Native Americans to leave the reservations and move to cities, while at the same time the federal government worked to end relations with the tribes. As a result of these policies, nearly 70% of Native Americans had moved into urban areas in search of economic opportunity. In the urban settings, Native Americans felt displaced and they faced systemic issues of discrimination, poverty, and police brutality. AIM sought to address these issues, leading protests, including playing a key role in the 19 month long occupation of Alcatraz Island, which invoked the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the US and the Lakota, which said that all retired, abandoned or out of use federal land should be returned to the Native Americans who had occupied it. On July 23, 1975, these different movements came together at the Twin Peaks Bar in the Castro district of San Francisco, when the Gay American Indians GAI Group was founded. Co-founders Barbara Cameron, and Randy Burns, along with three others started the organization that grew to 150 members by the end of the year. Queer organizing among Native Americans continued, and in the summer of 1990, a group of Native Americans gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the third annual Native American First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference. Their planned topics for discussion included chemical dependency, AIDS, coming out, and relationships. The conference would change history. It was at that gathering that the term Two Spirit was established. An English translation of the Northern Algonquin term Niizh Manidoowag, Two Spirit describes masculine and feminine qualities within a single person. As a pan tribal term, Two Spirit connected organizers across different native nations, and it also helps them rediscover the traditional terminology used in their own cultural history. Before colonization, many Native nations recognized more than two genders, sometimes many more.

As an example, Dine' or Navajo culture, recognized five genders: women, men, masculine female, feminine male, and Nadleehi. As today's guest, Gregory Smithers writes, "The Nadleehi had prominent roles in Dine' origin narratives, as the first children possessing both male and female spirits. With their industriousness, they protected Dine' drinking water, built dwellings and prepared food for the community." The Nadleehi, just like the Winkte among that Lakota (Sioux,) or the Lhamana among the Zuni are not just gender queer. The tribal members of these genders often also hold important ceremonial roles in the tribes. For instance, We'wha, the most famous of the Zuni Lhamana was an important cultural ambassador for the Zuni, helping to educate anthropologists, settlers, soldiers and teachers, about the Zuni culture and about Native Americans more broadly. During We'wha's 1886 visit to Washington, DC, they even met with President Grover Cleveland. We'wha may have been celebrated, but for hundreds of years, the European colonizers of the Americans, had dismissed, ignored misgendered and actively harmed and killed the Two Spirit Natives they found. Europeans, used to a strictly defined binary system of gender, employed the term "berdache" by the 18th century, to describe the gender fluid Natives they met. "Berdache," used by anthropologists to designate a Native American who assumes the dress, social status, and role of the opposite sex, originated from the Arabic word "bardaj," meaning "slave or kept boy" and was used judgmentally by the Europeans to signify deviance. When the Native American First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference chose the term Two Spirit in 1990, it was a rejection of the harmful and offensive berdache and a reclaiming of the important role of Two Spirit people in their cultures. It's important to note that Two Spirit is a pan indigenous term, not one that is meant to be used by non-Natives. As Tony Enos wrote in "Indian Country Today," in 2018,"Two Spirit is a role that existed in a Native American First Nations Indigenous tribe, for gender queer, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming tribal members. If you don't have a tribe, you can't claim that role." To help us learn more about Two Spirit people is Dr. Gregory Smithers, Professor of American History at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of the new book, "Reclaiming Two Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal and Sovereignty in Native America." Hi, Greg, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Dr. Gregory Smithers  8:39  
Hey, thank you for having me. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  8:41  
Yeah, this was just fascinating book to read. And I'm excited to get into it and to ask you a bunch of questions. So I want to start just by asking, you've written a lot of books. What made you want to write this one? You know, how did this come to be your focus?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  8:56  
So this book came about back when I was in graduate school, actually. So back in the early aughts, I was researching other stuff, obviously, at the time, but this this was in the background because I was meeting people in San Francisco. I was doing graduate school and went to graduate school in California and began to meet people in San Francisco who were part of the Cherokee Nation. They were Cherokee Nation citizens, but they were also Two Spirit people. And in the course of those conversations, what came out was this, not necessarily disenchantment, but sort of a disquiet about the state of historical knowledge about Two Spirit people, sort of at a pan Indian level, but also in a sort of specific tribal level as well. There had been older anthropological work done in the 70s, 80s, into the early 90s. And literary scholarship at the time, the early 2000s was just beginning to sort of grapple with this, and it's sort of exploded and become really the leading force in Two Spirit scholarship since then, that historians tended to shy away from this topic. And I remember thinking at the time, I mean, that made me really uncomfortable that historians would shy away from something so important to living traditions and cultures in North America. And so I sort of started to do some digging and talking to other historians, who would say to me, "Well, part of the problem is, is there's no evidence. There are no sources there, to talk about this history, to narrate this history. And rather than taking that at face value, I saw that as a challenge to find the evidence. And so that's what I did, I sort of embarked on this journey, researching other projects; but at the same time, I was always researching this book as well in the background. And I said to someone recently, that I couldn't have written the book that I did with all of the different types of sources that helped to inform the narrative, if I had written it in, say, 2010, because I was still working through the archives in different languages and in different nation states, talking to different groups within Native American communities. So it took that time to build that familiarity with the archives, and to build those relationships with people in Two Spirit communities throughout North America. So that's kind of how it came about.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:32  
So the fact that it seems like it's got decade's worth of research is accurate.

Dr. Gregory Smithers  11:37  
It is. Yeah, it's it's, I mean, it was the key thread, I would say that runs through a lot of my work is to address histories that other historians have either historically shied away from because of the concern about a dearth of evidence, and/ or topics that are really important in Indigenous histories, in Central America, and work also engages with Southwest Pacific histories as well, to engage with histories that help communities reconnect with with culture, and to give them sort of a base to help to provide a base for renewing and reclaiming cultures in the 21st century. And a lot of that has to do with issues of gender or sexuality, of spirituality and religion, and issues related to climate change, which runs through Native histories from time of contact with European invaders in the Americas and the Southwest Pacific.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:42  
So let's talk some about sources then. And this is, you know, as you mentioned, other historians had said, there's a dearth of sources. It's tricky, right, because the the sources, the written sources are largely written by the oppressors, by the colonizers, and are often written from a sense of either they don't understand what they're seeing, they're putting their own sort of culture onto what they're seeing, or they're actively trying to wipe out the things that they're seeing are happening. So how do you do that then? How do you read the written sources, look at the archives and try to tease out what what may actually be there?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  13:22  
Yeah, you're absolutely right, and I should say a quick word about that erasure process, because it is a sort of, it is an insidious form of of elimination, because it's so subtle, and in some ways that makes it so much more powerful and enduring because it informs the way archivists have catalogued material over the centuries, and also how historians approach that material in their writing. I think it's changed over the past, probably two generations now. And I think one of the big things was the injection of, of feminist critiques into the historical profession in the late 20th century really moved the historical profession, I think into into the 20th century. And that's continued. And, and I have to say, I mean, you do see it in so many people who I I talk about in the book, George Catlin, the artist in the early 19th century, has a famous painting called "The Dance to the Berdache," in which he subsequently writes about his desire to see this tradition, not talked about any longer so that there'd be no knowledge of it developed and handed down from generation to generation. Similarly, people like Jedediah Morris, the famous American cartographer, was of the opinion that it would be in the best interest of Native people if they could learn English and forget their Native languages. Right really critical kind of cultural touchstones for the perpetuation and renewal through each generation. of storytelling of indigenous epistemologies. So that makes it really tricky in the archive, because you're dealing with that, you're dealing with a sort of cultural genocide or an ethnicide, as scholars sometimes referred to it. But what you're also dealing with, oftentimes, is euphemism. And that takes time to not take euphemism at face value, which I think is one of the issues that historians have fallen down on, in addressing topics like gender and sexuality in Native American history. Too often, particularly when we're thinking about Two Spirit histories, historians, in particular have taken, the euphemisms and the epithets that have been ascribed to people with gender and sexual fluidity and fluid identities at face value. So we're talking here about sodomites, hermaphrodites, and of course, Berdache, which is probably the most common term that's used throughout the 19th and 20th century. And in fact, I was at a conference. I've mentioned this a few times, in the early 2000s, where a historian continued to use that term, almost 15 years after Two Spirit people had said in 1990, "This is what you should call us now, scholars. Please listen to us." So so it takes time. And that's why I thought it was really important when I first thought one day I want to write this book, to take the time to deconstruct and sort of disassemble what the colonizers were saying. I thought that was important. And it's important, I think, for a couple of reasons. One is to get past their prejudices and critique them for what they were within their context. It's also important as Raven Heavy Runner pointed out to me in our conversations, as I was writing the book, and Raven, of course, wrote a foreword for the book. He said to me that while many of those sources are really offensive, they do provide a window into our existence, he said in the 18th century, or the 16th century. And so it can constitute something of a starting point for for reconstructing the history and roles of Two Spirit people throughout North America.

Kelly Therese Pollock  17:24  
So I guess we should tackle the question of what is Two Spirit? You say, at one point in the book, that it's not a static noun, you know, so what is this? And I realized the answer is a lot of things. It's a lot of things to different people. But you know, what, what is sort of the, the way that you're using Two Spirit in this book?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  17:46  
Well, so the way that I'm using it is very much in the way that Two Spirit people themselves are using it. So broadly speaking, Two Spirit is an English translation of an Ojibwe term. And I should point out to people that the Ojibwe are an Algonquin speaking people. And that term that the Ojibwe use is Niizh Manidoowag. And what Niizh Manidoowag basically translates as into English is two spirit. Now, this comes out of activism that was beginning to coalesce in the 1980s and early 1990s, right. You've got HIV AIDS, which people are trying to deal with and grapple with. You've got issues of racism and prejudice within the LGBT community at the time. And gay and lesbian Indians as they then refer to themselves not feeling seen within that, that LGBT context and also not being seen within their tribal communities. Indeed, they faced an awful lot of homophobia within tribal communities in the 1980s and 90s. And so, this term debating the issue of language and terminology was really important. It was a way of getting past the stigmas that had been attached to gay and lesbian and bisexual people in indigenous communities. It was a way of raising awareness about the importance of both Western medical treatment but also culturally specific care for people suffering from HIV AIDS in the 80s and 1990s. And then more broadly, as an umbrella term two spirit provides a space for people to feel connected at a sort of pan-indigenous level. And through those interactions at pan indigenous powwows and other gatherings, to then reconnect to begin the process of reconnecting and reclaiming tribally specific cultures and histories associated with Two Spirit identities and roles. And that means reconnecting with you know, language terms if they survive related to to spirit roles and identities. It means reconnecting with the roles that people have historically played in religion, in child care, in knowledge keeping, as historians have a whole raft of as caregivers for waterways and the environment more generally. So that's what the term is. And so it's very broad term, it doesn't necessarily relate to sexuality. It can, but it doesn't have to. So for instance, you can have gay Indian men who have told me that will they don't identify as Two Spirit because that's not part of their role, or identity within their community, they're gay men, but they're their tribal members of a specific Indigenous nation. And alternatively, I think it's very important for people to understand that the notion of Two Spirit and this idea of of a person having male and female Spirits within their body, within their sort of spirit, it is not sort of a 50/50 formula. It's not reinforcing a binary. It actually is much more dynamic and fluid than that. And so people can over the course of their life, and depending on the historical and social context, in which they find themselves in, lean towards roles that we might associate and ascribe with masculine identities and roles in one context and more feminine in another context. So in that way, this is sort of this is why I say emphasize its two spirit is an active verb. It's something that is constantly being nurtured and new meaning is being poured into it by Native people themselves.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:44  
I want to ask some about the the organization of your books. So you're talking about 500 years of history here. So this is a lot of history to cover. And so you break it into three, three parts of the book, and you have judgments, stories and reclaiming. So how did you come up with that that structure? Why is this the way you wanted to present this history?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  22:06  
So I struggled with the structure. And often I tackle histories that cover large swaths of time and space. So this is always this is not a new issue for me. That keeps me up at night thinking about how the heck am I going to do this one? So this was this was in large part, through the conversations I was having with Two Spirit elders and community members was thinking through the process of how my book that doesn't just appeal to, you know, 12 experts in the field that can be read more broadly than that, how best to structure a book like that, that can that can appeal to both scholars and a wider readership as well. So it involves consultation with rather than simply writing about and imposing a narrative on Two Spirit people. So that's how it came about. And the reason that I picked that structure was, particularly elders who I spoke to thought it was very important that the historical traumas that were directed towards Two Spirit ancestors, particularly in the 15 and 1600s, were not forgotten, that they are parts of the what some is sometimes referred to as The Blood Memory that runs through Native American communities. Because I was worried about that, I must confess, I was worried that that would simply reify the perception that if I emphasize too much the violence and the psychological traumas that were imposed on Native communities that it would reify an image of Native America as this site of victimization, and they were like, "No, no, this stuff has to be included in there, because it's part of our history. And it helps, it helps to understand why we're continuing the type of work that we're doing today." So it structures then the work of reclaiming. It also structures, the historical consciousness that not only Two Spirit people have, but that Native people more generally have of the United States and Canada and settler colonialism in general. So yeah, so that's a long way of saying that it was in consultation with Two Spirit people that I decided to structure the book in sort of a roughly chronological and thematic way so that you sort of walk people through the building blocks of how we get to where we're at today. And hopefully it works and can lead to future scholarship and writing of a variety of genres.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:45  
Yeah, so let's talk some about this collaboration with Two Spirit people. Because the it ends up being maybe not just a history, a sort of traditional history, but you know, has methodology that feels more like sociology or anthropology at times. So, you know, is this is this something that you've done in other work? You know, what, what does that process look like for you?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  25:11  
It is. Yeah, I mean, I've I've never felt entirely comfortable writing linear narratives. I've always been interested in, "Okay, how do people understand a certain event or an idea or, you know, their relationships at a specific moment in time, right?" There's one layer to the things that I'm interested in, how do they understand things at that time, in their own words, and then I'm also interested in layering on top of that well how to how to people subsequent to that event, or the coining of that idea, or whatever it is, how do they make sense of it? And so I'm really interested in how, how tradition and how notions of community evolve and change over time, so that they continue to be robust and meet the challenges of particular communities at any given moment. So I see, I like I prefer to see history as something that is absolutely vital to our ever changing present. So it's not something that's in the past, and it happened, get over it, everyone. No, this is something that's woven into to the fabric of our on politics of culture, how we see the world. And you really see that in Native cultures throughout North America and in Australia, New Zealand as well, this sort of notion that history is not associated necessarily with linear time, that past, present and future sort of exist coexist and cycle in and out of each other to inform people's decisions, relationships, epistemologies, and so on. So yeah, I, I take that approach. And I recognize that sometimes that doesn't sit well with the economic in so old fashioned social historians of our profession. But given given I'm interested in Indigenous communities and history and working with those communities and their histories, I see it as as ethically my responsibility to do history that way. And also a way of, of contributing to conversations that center Indigenous people in our histories more more broadly.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:34  
Yeah. Yeah, I had been reflecting with my husband. We both grew up in the 80s in the US, and you know, I think in the 80s, the whatever Native American history we were learning, it was like, this is just history, like, these people aren't around anymore. So it's so it's so welcome to have those present voices. I think it it's really meaningful.

Dr. Gregory Smithers  27:56  
Well, I actually should say that I mean, I grew up in Australia in the 1980s. Right? So that's when I was coming of age. And that was the moment in Australian history when Indigenous land rights were front and center in the cultural and political narrative of the nation, the sort of reconciling with a very dark colonial history, and how do we incorporate Indigenous knowledge and evidence into our legal and political system. And a lot of that led by the mid 1990s, to a quite racist backlash against Indigenous knowledge and epistemologies, particularly as it related to land rights. But for people like me, sort of, I was I was of that generation where I saw this as kind of a colonial form of bullying in the late 20th century, and how can we more productively and adequately integrate knowledge that is so vital to the being of Aboriginal Australians? And so that, that context has sort of propelled me to, you know, on the journey that I began, and where I continued to go on today?

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:06  
Yeah. So we should talk about some of the sort of individual examples that you bring up in the book. And of course, you say, rightly, Native Americans are not a monolith. This is not just like one group of people. But could you maybe talk through some of the ways that that historically in some of the Indigenous nations that these people who were whatever we want to say now we would say two spirit, but you know, gender fluid gender queer the kind of roles that they had in their communities, you know, what what that sort of looked like?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  29:45  
Yeah, it's so it's. That's right. Native America is not a monolith in any respect whatsoever. And it is the case that gender fluid roles and and sexualities is similarly very diverse throughout Native America. That was the case since the 16th century, and it's still the case today. There are a number of examples of, of, for example, the Dine' people  in the Navajo Nation. There are five gender identities and roles that the Dine' anthropologist Wesley Thomas has identified. And one of those is Nahleeh and the Nahleeh are those who transform took on many roles traditionally, in in Navajo communities: caregivers, people who, who took care of the elderly, and/or children and had specialized knowledge that ensured the well being of the most vulnerable in their in their society. These are roles that again, weren't necessarily tied to their sexuality in the way that we might associate with, with LGBT politics more broadly, since the 1960s, and 70s. This is very much about being an integral part of kinship communities and playing a role that helps to knit communities together. There are other examples, for example, the Zuni Lhamana, We'wha was probably the most famous example that people often point to. We'wha was an extraordinary diplomat, who who brought people together, had a, you know, a, for the time, roughly six foot tall, quite a quite a large person, so much taller than the average American, Native or otherwise at the time. And so sort of stood out in that respect, but also stood out because of their ability to sort of quietly bring people together and convince them of the wisdom of, of what they were lobbying for, on behalf of the Zuni. And as an example, I have in the book of when We'wha goes to Washington, should be should be a name of a movie, "When We'wha Goes to Washington," and convinces the president of the importance of removing a particular Indian agent, because they're so abusive. There are other examples too, of change over time. So we see, for example, that there's a store stories from the Pacific Northwest of people's identities who have historically been gender fluid, that because of decades, and by the 18th centuries, centuries of contact with Russian, French, English and later American colonizers, that their position, that gender fluid position and roles within those communities have become tenuous, right. And so those communities for for, for moments in time, have internalized the dominant Christian ethos and homophobia of settler colonial culture. And there are numerous examples of that, that I talked about in the book. So so it's, so it varies, as you rightly say, depending on tribal community, and and the time in which we're at, in particular history, and exposure to settler colonialism, Christian missionaries, fur traders, a whole range of external forces.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:27  
Yeah. So I think we've sort of started to talk through this a little bit in your collaboration with with the Two Spirit people. But I wonder if you could reflect as I'm sure you have done a lot as writing as a cis, white, Australian man, you know, what, what that means? And what what that has meant in your relationships with the Two Spirit people in their willingness to talk to you. Like, what how you approach that as a historian.

Dr. Gregory Smithers  34:00  
It's so funny, you know, because I still write about Australia, and Australian history and the history of racism in Australia. And I often get emails from Australians saying, "Well, you left. Don't you dare talk about us." And then I get, you know, you get messages from from people over white people over here who are very upset that you're writing something negative about their community in their minds, and they're like, "Well, we want to deport you back to Australia." So yes, there's no winning in this thing. Look, I'm very open. To answer your question, I'm very open and honest about where I've come from, what my influences have been and what my intent is, in doing the type of history that I do. And I was very clear about that when I approached people to talk to me for the book. I gave them a brief bio and said, "You know, if you want more, I'm happy to provide it," and some people did. I think being open and honest in that way, and not pretending to be something that you're not is is vitally important to building trusting relationships where you can be, you know, in the language of our time a good ally, but do something practical about it. You know, I'm a historian, I'm a writer, that's the contribution that I can make to raising visibility and awareness about issues that I know are important to Two Spirit people in Native communities generally, but which I also think as a professional historian should be important to the historical profession. So that's, that's a way of saying that I do think it's important to be open and you can only work with communities other than where you've come from, if you are, if you do have that openness about you, so that you can build that trust. The other thing I would say about this is that I found that because of my outsider status, you know, coming from Australia, all of that stuff, although I am a US citizen now, which my family is not happy about. But anyway, I did find that people didn't assume knowledge on my part. And so that meant people were much clearer and tended to explain things to me in in much more detailed way than if I was a member of say, the Navajo Nation, or, or the Muskogee Nation, or the Cherokee Nation, or whichever tribal nation that happened to be. There wasn't an assumption of knowledge. And I found that to be really interesting. I've seen other oral historians talk about this, that if you build that trust with people, and you're open and honest with them, that that that can happen, that sort of relationship where that deeper, deeper dive into history and culture can can occur with that trust that's built. And I think it helps too, I think this is the final thing I'll say about this. It helps too that I have something of a track record now of doing this type of work. So people it's, you know, I'm easy to find on the internet and so people can look at the type of work that I do and decide whether or not they want to work with me on that basis, also.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:16  
So how can listeners get this book?

Dr. Gregory Smithers  37:20  
Well, you can go to your fabulous local independent bookstore and pick up a copy. You can visit the beacon websites, and any reputable bookstore in this fine country of ours should have a copy of it. And if they don't,I'm sure they'll be able to order a copy for you.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:40  
 Excellent. I'll put a link in the show notes as well so people can find it there. Greg, thank you so much for speaking with me today. And for writing this book. I learned so much. And like I said, it's 500 years of history. So everybody's gonna learn something in here, I promise you. And some unexpected people show up in the book like Barack Obama, Jane Fonda. So you know, watch out for that as well.

Dr. Gregory Smithers  37:42  
Yeah, thank you. And Anthony Anthony Fauci is in there, too.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:55  
So yes, that's right.

Dr. Gregory Smithers  37:57  
So it's a history as someone said, after the 1990 powwow, where the term Two Spirit was, was adopted, sort of came out sort of ebullient and excited about the possibilities of the future. And they said to a journalist, "We are everywhere!" And that is really the case. As you can see with people like Obama and Jane Fonda running through the narrative. So Two Spirit people are everywhere.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:37  
Excellent. Well, thank you.

Dr. Gregory Smithers  38:39  
Thank you. 

Teddy  38:41  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Gregory SmithersProfile Photo

Gregory Smithers

I am a professor of American history and Eminent Scholar (2019-2024) in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. I received my Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Davis. I've taught in California, Hawaii, Scotland, and Ohio. I am currently a British Academy Global Professor, based in the Treatied Spaces research cluster at the University of Hull. .

My research and writing focuses on the histories of Indigenous people and African Americans from the eighteenth century to the present. I am particularly interested in the rich history of the Cherokee people, Indigenous history from the Mountain South to California and the Southwest Pacific, and environmental history. My work is devoted to narrating the past in ways that are publicly accessible and connect with issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, and racial and gender equity.