In the US, the month of November is dedicated to honoring the culture and contributions of the nation’s original inhabitants. To kick off Native American Heritage Month, today’s Google Doodle celebrates the life of the late We:wa, a Zuni textile artist, weaver, and potter. Born around 1849 in present-day New Mexico, We:wa was a Łamana (Zuni Two-Spirit) individual, meaning they assumed roles and tasks intended for men and women of the tribe.
The interactive Doodle, which invites Google visitors to learn Zuni weaving techniques, was designed by Zuni Pueblo artist Mallery Quetawki with music composed by the Zuni Olla Maidens. In an interview, Quetawki recounts a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian a few years ago, where she viewed works We:wa created during their stay in Washington, DC, in 1885. We:wa traveled to the nation’s capital as part of a Zuni delegation to foster cultural exchange and assisted the museum with ethnographic research, contributing important knowledge of Zuni artifacts and crafts.
“I was able to learn directly from our religious leaders and cultural keepers of knowledge of the items in that museum collection,” Quetawki said. “I have kept that knowledge with me, as well as the research I had done on We:wa in a college course describing the dual gender roles that can be seen in our tribe.”
The designation of “Two-Spirit,” a pan-Indian term, is an example of the ways in which different communities embrace nonbinary identities. In Zuni culture, Łamana were biologically male individuals who often wore traditional women’s attire and took on the responsibilities of both genders. We:wa was an expert weaver, a role typically occupied by men of the tribe, and also made ceremonial pottery, traditionally created by women. They were also one of the first Zuni artists to sell their works to non-Indigenous people, fostering the appreciation of Native crafts and art outside the tribe.
Quetawki notes that photos of We:wa are rare, and for her own portrait of the artist, she was inspired by We:wa’s various identities and roles in the social and ceremonial life of the Zuni tribe. In addition to their artistic contributions, We:wa was a spiritual leader and mediator as well as a cultural ambassador who advocated to protect Zuni lands and heritage.
Despite these efforts, as settlers continued their invasion of Native lands, the US government extended its policy of assimilation to the Zuni and other Pueblo Indians in the late 1800s, dismantling aspects of tribal culture and discouraging the recognition of Łamana members. In 1892, six years after the visit to DC, We:wa served a month in prison for striking an American soldier who was attempting to arrest the Zuni governor.
“Creating the We:wa Doodle was an honor as We:wa was such a warm and generous individual who exemplified our core values as A:shiwi,” Quetawki said. “To be representing my people on this Doodle is another honor that I will always be thankful for.”