In various Native American tribes, a berdache was a man who dressed and lived entirely as a woman, fulfiling that cultural role within the tribe. In the native language, he was sometimes referred to as a "would-be woman," and was sometimes thought of as a third or separate sex. Common among the tribes of the Americas, these men-women had both social and religious powers. They might be givers of sacred names; first to strike the sun-dance pole; leaders of ritual dances; good luck bringers to war parties; visionaries and predictors of the future; matchmakers; artisans in beadwork, quillwork, hide-tanning and making clothing; creators and singers of songs. Understood as following a sacred vision by most Indians, they were not well-tolerated by whites. They persist today, discreetly.

The role of the berdache in Indian societies is fascinating as a window on their views on sexuality and gender roles. In most cultures, the berdache could be either a man who took on a female gender role, or a woman who took on a male gender role, though the former seems to be perhaps five or ten times more common than the latter. For the purpose of this writeup and the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to individuals by their birth genders. Whether a berdache took on sexual partners of their own sex is a matter of considerable academic debate; there are records of female berdaches who reach the status of chief taking wives, but this may have been more of a status marker than a sexual choice.

The existence of berdaches seems to have been quite nearly universal among the tribes of the Great Plains and the Southwest, and extended with less frequency into the Pacific West. Berdaches usually rose to high status within their tribe or village; the craftworks of of male berdaches were valued highly, and female berdaches were said to excel as warriors. Furthermore, berdaches were highly valued as ritual particpants because of their liminal nature, which is to say, by straddling both genders, they took power from both. The kachina art of the Pueblo tribes reflects this, with the berdache kachina depicted as a powerful figure, split down the middle, with one side dressed as a woman and hold an ear of maize, the other dressed as a male and holding a bow and arrow (a bit like the Eagle in the Great Seal of the United States).

Among the Zuni, of whom I have the most complete knowledge, the process of becoming a berdache was an organic one. In the Zuni culture, children are dressed and treated the same regardless of gender until they are five or six years old; in fact, even their names are gramatically of neuter gender. Once they grow up a bit, they begin to dress a bit differently, and play with different toys; if a child shows an interest in the behavior of the other gender, the parents are expected to accept this behavior, and many in fact encourage it as a berdache in the family is likely to be nothing but an asset. If a child continues to show interests in the roles and behaviors of the opposite gender, they are taught the skills that would normally taught to that gender: a male would be taught to keep house, pound corn, and weave, a female would be taught how to hunt, maintain a farm, and knit (odd as it sounds to a Westerner, kniting is considered by the Zuni to be a masculine pursuit). When berdache children reach adolescence, they are initiated into a mystery society appropriate to the gender they have chosen, and are accepted as full-fledged member of the opposite sex. Interestingly enough, once a berdache dies, they are a buried as a member of their biological gender, which they are believed to revert to at death.

Many Westerners who had close interactions with berdaches, even for a number of years, never figured out that they were born to the opposite sex. The prominent Zuni berdache We'wha even visited Washington, D.C. for six months in the 1890s, where he was celebreated in the papers as the visiting "Indian Princess". When Westerners did figure out what was going on, they were usually disgusted; the Spanish tried violently to wipe the practice out entirely, while the Americans usually confined themselves to angry mutterings about "Sodomites" and Indian barbarism.

Berdache tradition in Native American tribes

The concept of additional genders beyond typical male and female has been one that has been a part of society nearly as long as "gender roles" have been in place. Each culture has a group of people that don't fit to the societal "norm" of male or female, and each chooses to handle these individuals in different ways.

Some cultures are hostile towards them, some embrace them. Ancient Asia, the Middle East, and to some extent Egypt had their eunuchs, who while not born alternately gendered, were ritually castrated to serve primarily as guards for harems. However, they often ended up in roles of advisors, confidantes, and ministers because they were seen as less violent and thus somehow wiser than many intact men. The hijra culture is one native to India, and depending on the source defines them as either eunuchs and/or men choosing to live societally as women. Some clans of hijra still are revered as sages, healers, and magicians, while some have turned into a nomadic, gypsy-like culture who live off of their image. The United States is further less accepting, as it is of gays and lesbians as a whole, although legal rights are gradually being extended to transsexuals--those who choose to assume the role of one of the other gender for all purposes. However, just living as the opposite gender gives them no legal rights--only after they have had extensive and expensive surgery are they legally allowed to present themselves as their chosen gender.

However, out of all these cultures, the Native American tribes have one of the most elaborate, established, and understanding system of other-gendered people, whom they call "berdache" or "two-spirit people". Berdache is not a self-referential term originally used by native tribes. Rather, it was given to them by the Spanish, who generally disapproved of the behavior. Different etymologies suggest the word came from a French term which can mean 'male prostitute' or 'the younger, weaker, or submissive partner in a homosexual pairing'.

Although the word 'berdache' has come into common use, most tribes had their own term as well. The Aleut were Shupan; the Cheyenne called theirs the Heemaneh'; the Zuni word was Lhamana; Crow berdache were Bate; and both the Navajo and Hopi were Nadle (meaning 'being transformed'). Some cultures counted all berdache, men-as-women and women-as-men, as a third gender while others counted men-as-women as the third and women-as-men were seen as a separate fourth gender.

Assumption of the berdache role was almost always voluntary and taken on at puberty. There was no shame in choosing to live as an alternative gender, and in fact it was almost always a spiritual choice more than anything else. Berdache were not necessarily gay, although many did become the 'wives' of others, and not all individuals who felt homosexual leanings became berdache. The two were not much at all related. Some individuals chose the berdache path by themselves, feeling they had been called by a "holy woman" or a "moon woman" or a "lake woman" to follow this style of life. These callings usually came during visions or dreams, one of the many reasons berdache were thought to have immense prophetic power. The Omaha word for their berdache was "Mixu'ga" and literally translates to "Instructed by the moon."

However, if there was some doubt, by the family or tribe, as to the gender of the child, ceremonies were performed to determine whether or not the child was being called to the berdache path. Oftentimes, the boys were chosen to partake of the ceremonies if they were not interested in masculine activities and showed more skill at woman's tasks. These rituals were held shortly before puberty, often at 12 but sometimes as young as 9. A common ceremony, often attributed to the Papago, was to build a hut of brush and branches, and place inside a hunter's bow and a woven basket. The boy was told to sit and contemplate which of the two to take out, and the hut was then set on fire. Being brush as it was, it burned very quickly and he would have to make an instant, snap decision on what to grab. Sometimes he couldn't even really see, from the fire and smoke, and so it was thought whatever he took was his subconscious spiritual calling guiding him. The Mohave tribe had a singing circle set up without the knowledge of the boy, who is led to the ritual with no idea what to suspect. If he stays where he is placed, and then begins to dance when a ritual singer sings, he is from then on considered berdache.

The other two ways of being raised berdache were much less common, but are documented. Natural hermaphrodites or children born with indistinct genitals were often raised as berdache. Also, in a small handful of tribes, there were a set number of berdache per tribe, and the first boy baby born after an old berdache died was declared berdache and raised as such from birth.

The lifestyle of the berdache (male-as-female for ease of explanation, because those were by far the most common; of the at least 120 tribes with berdache, only 30 had records of female-as-male members) involved these men assuming all functions of a woman within that tribe. He would dress as a woman, without trying to imitate appearances he did not have (facial features, breasts, etc) and taught womanly arts such as weaving, beadwork, and keeping the house. Berdache were actually seen as 'uber-women' to some degree, being able to do "twice the work of a natural woman". They were physically stronger, and were never unable to perform their duties because of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, or family rearing. Berdache were almost never taken as primary wives because they were, of course, unable to produce children and thus an heir, but were very commonly taken as secondary wives because their skills were so prized.

Beyond the mundane, everyday womanly duties the berdache performed, however, they had many other important roles in society. They were mediators between men and women, "marriage counselors", and matchmakers in many tribes because they were seen as having both a male and female essence, therefore could aid communication between the two much more clearly than anyone with only one spirit could. They also nearly universally were seen as wise and blessed, rather than this difference being a weakness or curse. If anything, they were seen with a slight pity because of the massiveness of the Divine mandate placed on them. Says Claire Farrer, "Multigendered adult people are usually presumed to be people of power. Because they have both maleness and femaleness totally entwined in one body, they are known to be able to "see" with the eyes of both proper men and proper women"

Some took on the roles of shamans, but many times they were seen in a similar but different position. Shamans did what they did by striving to connect with the Divine--the berdache already had that connection. Many times, however, they were advisors and counselors of shamans and healers. In their own right, however, they tended to be especially revered as prophets, sages, and skilled at dream-work and visions and sometimes healers. Some tribes, mostly of the Plains regions, had their berdache--not the shaman or the chief--provide blessings for the most sacred of rituals, the Sun dance. No matter what their specific duties, berdache were always seen as sacred and important to the tribe and to have them was a blessing instead of an anomaly.

Female berdache, the 'fourth gender', were much less common but still in existence. Sometimes called "amazons" by European outsiders, they were warlike women who went to battle with the men. Occasionally, a woman would become chief of a tribe through right of battle. (In some tribes, it was not unusual for women to become chief because their society was so matriarchal, but a female war-chief in any clan was highly unusual.) These fighting women were only accepted in roughly a fourth of the tribes that had a berdache system at all. Even within their own systems, they were not quite as widely accepted as their male counterparts. While male berdache excelled at taking on female work, it was much harder for a woman, smaller and less strongly built, to be a more proficient warrior than the men. These women were for the most part warriors only and were rarely found in positions of spirituality such as shamans or healers because they were seen as far too warlike. Very few cultures had a separate word for women-as-men, and a handful of those that did had some derivative of the phrase for men-as-women.

The acceptance and integration of the presence of berdache peoples in these cultures is a very interesting one, and differs vastly from most modern viewpoints. Overall, Native Americans had one of the most complete, understanding, and healthy views of alternately-gendered individuals of any culture in which such people are noticeably present. It was something they accepted as a natural thing, and saw this difference as a gift instead of something to be ashamed of, which is a beautiful--if unusual--belief.

Works Cited:

"B.C. on Gender: The Berdache Tradition"

"What are two-spirits/berdaches?"

"A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum "

"The two-spirit tradition in Native American experience"

"The Berdache - Transgenderism Among Native-Americans"

Farrer, Claire R. "A Mescalero Apache Singer of Ceremonies", Two-Spirit People, (Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, Sabine Lang, Editors). University of Illinois Press, 1997.

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