Gender Perspectives Among Native Americans


Many of the world’s cultures recognize more than two genders. The notion that there are those of us who do not fit precisely into either a male or female role has historically been accepted by many groups.

Among Native Americans, the role of third, fourth, or even fifth genders has been widely documented. Children, who were born physically male or female and yet showed a proclivity for the opposite gender, were encouraged to live out their lives in the gender role, which fit them best. The term used by Europeans to describe this phenomenon is Berdache. "Indians have options not in terms of either/or, opposite categories, but in terms of various degrees along a continuum between masculine and feminine."

A berdache was one who was defined by spirituality, androgyny, women’s work and male/male homosexual relationships. The berdache could adopt the clothing of women, associate and be involved with women, do the work normally associated with women, marry a man and take part in many spiritual ceremonies of the tribe. Female versions of the role also occurred, but are less well documented. Generosity and spirituality more than homosexuality and gender characterized berdachism.

In the traditional tribal sense, these roles have often been ones associated with great respect and spiritual power. Rather than being viewed as an aberration, the role was seen as one, which bridged the gap between the temporal and spirit worlds. The spiritual aspect of the berdache role was emphasized far more than the homosexual or gender variant aspect. Because of this, berdaches were highly valued by the people of the tribe.

Given the choice between discarding or honoring a person, who did not fit neatly into rigid gender compartments, many Native American groups chose to find a productive and venerated place for the berdache. A Crow traditionalist says, "We don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift." According to the Mohave creation story, "Ever since the world began, there have been transvestites, and from the beginning of the world, it was meant that there should be homosexuals."

With the arrival of European settlers and pressure from Christian and governmental sources, the tradition of the berdache changed in dramatic ways. The homosexual aspect of the role was all that was seen by the whites. The white powers attempted to remove all traces of berdachism.

As Native Americans began to convert to Christianity, internal pressure developed to disown the berdache tradition within the Indian Nations. Although pockets of traditional berdache practice survived, these were seen primarily among the old. As these people began to die off, the tradition, which had gone underground for the most part, was lost to upcoming generations.

In the last three decades, interest has been rekindled in the tradition. Disenfranchised Native American gays and lesbians searching for a means to access their spiritual heritage looked to the traditions and found much in the berdache role. As groups became reacquainted with the role, questions arose about its definition and application. Still in the formative stage, the reexamination of berdachism has provided many with a foothold by which they are able to step back into becoming meaningful members of society.

Lee Staples, founder of American Indian Gays and Lesbians, said "... I thought all there was to our lives as gays was the bar scene and sex, but to explain our lives as Indian gays and lesbians is to look at our spiritual journeys. It has much more depth on a spiritual level."

Some Native Americans object to the very word used to describe the special role of berdache. Some sources say the term has its origins in an Arab word for male prostitute or "kept" boy and was coined not by the Indians, but by Europeans. Will Roscoe, author of several books on the topic states the problems involved with choosing a term "creates as many problems as they solve, beginning with the mischaracterization of the history and meaning of the word berdache. As a Persian term, its origins are Eastern, not Western. Nor is it a derogatory term, except to the extent that all terms for nonmarital sexuality in European societies carried a measure of condemnation. It was rarely used with the force of faggot, but more often as a euphemism with a sense of lover or boyfriend."

Those who object to the term feel the implications are derogatory and insulting. In addition and perhaps more importantly, it is felt the term berdache does not speak to the many facets of the role. This is of course very true as the role has many variations and aspects.

All tribes that recognized the role had their own terms for it. Using these terms would be ideal, but as Roscoe also points out, "... in order to speak of traditional statuses generally, to compare roles of different tribes and those for males to those of females, it is necessary to have an umbrella term to refer to the subject."

The consideration of alternative genders does not come easy to most Americans, but many traditional Native American tribes had no trouble accepting berdache into their midst. The concept of a gender continuum, completely separate from biological sex types is something widely accepted by Native cultures. Many native religions explain the concept of the berdache.

The Arapaho of the plains believe the role existed due to supernatural gifts from birds or animals. The Creation story of the Colorado Mohave "speaks of a time when people were not sexually differentiated." In the Omaha language, the term for berdache meant, "instructed by the Moon.” Many myths warned not to try to interfere with the fulfillment of the role. Consequences could be dire and sometimes resulted in death.

In a similar vein, the belief was strong that no one should not resist spiritual guidance when lead to follow the berdache path. This, combined with a level of respect sometimes bordering on fear, lead to acceptance with blind faith that the berdache was indeed a gift to the tribe; someone to be honored and cherished.

Many tribes believed that the person was led by a spiritual experience into the role. A boy was never forced into the role but rather was allowed to explore his natural inclination. They often went through some sort of ceremony to determine their path. Because berdaches were believed to have great spiritual vision, they were often viewed as prophets.

The following sentence seems to sum up the overall feeling of the Native American community about differences among their people. "By the Indian view, someone who is different offers advantages to society precisely because he or she is freed from the restrictions of the usual. It is a different window from which to view the world."

In 1971 a Sioux shaman interviewed a winkte (berdache). "He told me that if nature puts a burden on a man by making him different, it also gives him a power." The Zapotec Indians around the Oaxaca area in Mexico, staunchly defend their berdache’s right to adopt different gender and sex roles because "God made them that way." The emphasis in defining the role is placed on the person’s character and spirit and not on the sexual aspects.

Nearly all tribes honoring the berdache status had different names for the roles. Most sources suggest using the specific name associated with the tribe and this was done whenever possible.

The Lakota call their berdache Winktes. The Mohave call theirs alyha. Lhamana is the Zuni word for berdache as is nadleeh among the Navajo. There are literally dozens of others; most being variations on a general root word that is used in a certain geographic area. The berdache role also exists among peoples of the Southern American continent and various other places in the world as well. In Mexico, Zapotec people call their berdache ira’ muxe.

There are many definitions of being berdache. Some of the many found are listed below.

Suffice it to say the subject is complex and often seems to defy description. There are common attributes, however. These vary from group to group, but a core set of four traits is shared.

The role of berdache is determined during childhood. Parents would watch a child who seemed to have a tendency toward living as berdache and would assist him in pursuing it rather than discouraging him. At some point, usually around puberty, a ceremony would be performed which would formalize a boy’s adoption of the role. One ceremony commonly practiced involved placing a man’s bow and arrow and a woman’s baskets in a brush enclosure. The boy went inside the enclosure that was then set on fire. What he took with him as he ran to escape the flames was believed to be indicative of his spiritual guidance to follow or not to follow the berdache path.

It is important to remember that Indians do not consider this role one that is a matter of personal choice. American Indians generally believe that one who follows the path is following his own spiritual guidance. The important feature here is living a life true to one’s spiritual path. In most cases, a person assumes berdache status for life, but in the case of a nineteenth-century Klamath berdache named Lele’ks, the role was abandoned. He began wearing men’s clothing, acting like a man, and married a woman. His reason for doing so was because he had been instructed to do so by the Spirits.

Following spiritual direction is the key issue in assumption or abandonment of the role. "Of those who became berdaches, the other Indians would say that since he had been ‘claimed by a Holy Woman, nothing could be done about it. Such persons might be pitied because of the spiritual responsibilities they held, but they were treated as mysterious and holy, and were respected as benevolent people who assisted others in time of starvation."

Berdaches excel in weaving, beadwork, and pottery; arts associated almost solely with the women of the tribe. We’Wha, a famous Zuni berdache, was an accomplished weaver and potter as well as a sash and blanket maker. Her pottery was sold for twice that of other potters in the village. Berdache men are also involved with cooking, tanning, saddle-making, farming, gardening, raising children, basket-making.

One notable attribute of the berdache is that the work of these people is greatly prized both within and without the tribe. "To tell a woman that her craft-work is as a good as a berdache’s is not sexist, but rather the highest compliment." Because of their superior quality, work done by the berdache is highly valued by collectors and tribal members as well. There is a belief that some of the spiritual power of the maker has been transferred to the craft itself. Some believe that the exquisite art is itself a manifestation of that power.

In addition to craftwork, berdaches are known to be strong family and community members. They were traditionally considered assets to the tribe and were sources of great pride. A man raised with his berdache cousin said, "The boy lived as though he had some higher understanding of life."

Many berdaches adopt children and are known to be excellent parents and teachers. Native Americans as a whole readily accept adoption of children and traditionally share in child rearing among their kin. They excel at cooking, cleaning, and other domestic duties. Many, such as We’Wha, took great pride in being able to provide their families with the ultimate in comfort, nourishment, and nurturing.

Throughout the literature there are references to the berdache finding no greater purpose than that of serving his fellow tribesmen. Hastiin Klah, a famous Navajo shaman and berdache, was written about with much love and respect by the wealthy Bostonian, Mary Cabot Wheelwright. "I grew to respect and love him for his real goodness, generosity, and holiness, for there is no other word for it... When I knew him he never kept anything for himself. It was hard to see him almost in rags at his ceremonies, but what was given to him he seldom kept, passing it on to someone who needed it. Everything was the outward form of the spirit world that was very real to him."

In terms of child rearing and education, the berdache fulfil an important role. They not only adopt children of their own; they are often involved with the care of other’s children. One of the best examples of this is within the Zuni culture. All adult members consider themselves responsible for the behavior of all the children within the tribe. An adult passing the misbehaving child of another will correct the child. We’Wha was reported to have benefited from this as a child herself and became noted for her excellent way with children as she matured and became a berdache.

Today, the practice of berdaches being involved in child rearing persists and seems to be gaining importance in tribes where abuse and alcoholism abound. "Terry Calling Eagle, a Lakota berdache, states, “I love children, and I used to worry that I would be alone without children. The Spirit said he would provide some. Later, some kids of drunks who did not care for them were brought to me by neighbors. The kids began spending more and more time here, so finally the parents asked me to adopt them.”

The berdache role is most often characterized by a tendency to a pacific temperament, but they were known to go to war or on hunts on a regular basis. Some cultures took the berdache along to do the cooking, washing, caring for the camp, and tending to the wounded.

Their presence among the warriors was valued because of their special spiritual powers. Occasionally, a berdache would participate directly in warfare. This dispels the argument among early anthropologists that the role was adopted as a means of avoiding warfare. The Crow berdache Osh-Tisch, which means Finds Them and Kills Them got his name by turning warrior for one day in 1876. He took part in an attack on the Lakota and was distinguished for his bravery.

Because of their unique position as neither male, nor female, berdache would act as counselors for marital conflict. Among the Omaha tribe, they were even paid for this service. Berdache also performed the role of matchmaker. When a young man wanted to send gifts and get the attention of a young woman, the berdache would often act as ago between with the girl’s family.

One of the most notable aspects of the berdache is their association with wealth and prosperity. Because they were subject to menstruation, pregnancy or tied down to nursing infants, they were able to work during times when women could not. In addition, their greater musculature made them strong and able to endure long days of hard labor. They were known to do almost twice the work of a woman. When a man wished to marry a berdache often her ability and inclination to work hard was a large part of the attraction.

Although there is much fluidity in alternate gender behavior, a berdache reaches some absolutes when it comes to adopting biological female roles. This limitation has not eliminated attempts at mimicking such female biological processes such as menstruation and pregnancy. The Mohave Alyha were known to have gone to great lengths to simulate mock pregnancies. They would self induce constipation and then "deliver" a stillborn fecal fetus. Appropriate mourning rites and burial were performed with the involvement of the Alyha’s husband.

Alyha also simulated menstruation through scratching their legs until they bled. They would then require their husbands to observe all the taboos associated with menstruation. They had never been observed attempting to nurse infants, however. Sometimes an Alyha would fake a pregnancy to stop her husband from trying to leave or divorce her on the grounds of infertility.

Certainly one of the most entertaining stories associated with the berdache adoption of female dress and attitude comes from We’Wha. In 1886, she went to Washington DC to meet President Grover Cleveland accompanied by anthropologist and debutante, Matilda Coxe Stevenson. Because she passed easily as a woman, she was allowed into the ladies rooms and boudoirs of the elite.

The traditional berdache was known for living within a strong moral code. Their ethics were above reproach and they were valued as peacemakers and settlers of disputes. They accepted the duties of the role and tried to exceed the expectations of others in how well they performed. Not only were they adept at settling disagreements among tribe members, but they also could act as intercessors between the physical and the spiritual world.

The tribes held them in great esteem and were quite respectful and often frightened of their connection with the spirit world. This seems to be one reason traditional berdaches were not harassed or bothered. Most tribes believed it very dangerous to attempt to interact with the spiritual realm and felt fortunate to have a berdache in their midst to perform that task.

Although berdache often fulfilled the role of caring for the sick and wounded, they were not usually shaman, but rather ones to whom the shaman would turn for guidance. As a Lakota stated, "Winktes can be medicine men, but are usually not because they already have the power."

Berdaches were closely associated with dreams and visions. In some cultures, dreams were believed simply to guide the person and, as such were considered a benevolent force. In others, such as the Maricopa, adoption of the berdache role was associated with "too much" dreaming.

Among the Plains tribes, it was the berdache who was assigned to bless the sacred pole for the Sun Dance ceremony, the most important religious rite of the culture. Their association with anything on a spiritual plane brought luck to the ritual or the person involved. Berdaches are often in charge of preparing the dead for burial. Among the Yokuts, tongochim were so esteemed, they were allowed to keep any of the deceased’s belongings they chose.

In the Potawatomi tribe if a berdache groomed the hair of a man going on a hunt, it was thought to provide "special spiritual advantage and protection for the hunter." Although they could be among the most gentle and loving members of a group, if crossed, they could become vindictive and formidable foes, a characteristic, which underscores the mystery and power of the role.

In relation to the spiritual nature of the role, people approached their relationships with the berdache, as they would have with a deity, with awe, respect and a sense of acceptance without needing to fully understand.


Source: A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum, DRK