Berdache tradition in Native American tribes
The concept of additional gender
s beyond typical male
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 sage
s, and magician
s, 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 gay
s and lesbian
s as a whole, although legal rights are gradually being extended to transsexual
s--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
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 hermaphrodite
s 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
, 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 counselor
s", and matchmaker
s 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
, rather than this difference being a weakness
. 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 shaman
s, 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 advisor
s 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 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.
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
"B.C. on Gender: The Berdache Tradition" http://www.bcholmes.org/tg/berdache.html
"What are two-spirits/berdaches?" http://www.geocities.com/westhollywood/stonewall/3044/berdache.html
"A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum "
"The two-spirit tradition in Native American experience" http://www.androphile.org/preview/Culture/NativeAmerica/amerindian.htm
"The Berdache - Transgenderism Among Native-Americans" http://www.msu.edu/~lees/Kristina/Berdache.htm
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.