Athabasca University has reproduced this material with permission of the author.
When we think or speak of “gay” or “lesbian” we tend to speak in terms of sexual behavior. After reading Dempsey’s chapter “they acted like women” one realizes that sex or sexual behavior has little to do with the North American Native response to or acceptance of alternative sexuality. In fact it is more about gender, and gender roles than about sexual behavior. North American Natives feel restricted by the categories gay or lesbian. These categories are defined by sexual behavior instead of personhood, spirituality, and specific, complex identities deriving from the experience of being Native American.1
How many genders are there? To a modern Anglo-American, nothing might seem more definite than the answer that there are two: Men and women. But not all societies around the world agree with Western culture’s view that all humans are either women or men.2
By allowing the flexibility of lifestyle variations, the Indians liberated themselves in spiritual sense we could learn from today. The emphasis among the Native American Indians was more towards the social role choices and expectations than focusing on sexual behavior. The North American Indians constructed a beautiful option of alternative gender possibilities. Dempsey writes about different roles and examples of men and women in the Native American culture that deviated from the norm, and took on a role in their culture that was neither male nor female. “Berdache”, taken from the Arabic word bardaj was defined by some as “an individual of a definite physiological sex (male or female) who assumes the status and role of the opposite sex. This all –encompassing definition included homosexual males and lesbians, transvestites, and those simply showing strong characteristics of the opposite sex. The word “berdache” could not adequately cover the wide variations in Native sexual roles or take into consideration the complexity of Native practices and beliefs. For example, there were “manly hearted women” who became warriors; women who disguised themselves as men to be with their male lovers; men who dressed like women but were great warriors; and men who cowered with the women in times of danger. And there were a few men, whose involvement was not sexual, but religious. These men were not homosexuals but wore women’s clothes because their spirit told them to do so.3 Walter Williams says: Briefly, a berdache can be defined as a morphological male who does not fill a society’s standard man’s role, who has a nonmasculine character. This type of person is often stereotyped as effeminate, but a more accurate characterization is androgyny.4Sabine Lang, does not use the term “berdache”, she uses the terms women-men (males in Native American cultures who had partially or completely adopted the socially defined women’s role) and men-women (females in a man’s role). In recent years the view has been that these roles, the women-men and men- women are socially and culturally constructed, rather than being innate. Feminist approaches opened the path to a new understanding of the ways sex and gender are viewed and constructed differently in different societies. This view has also made possible the reinterpretation of women-men’s and men-women’s roles and statuses in terms of gender rather than sexuality. 5 Within their respective cultures women-men and men-women are classified as neither men nor women, but as genders of their own. This is also reflected in words used in Native American languages to refer to them. These words are different from the words for woman and man, and often indicate that women-men and men-women are seen, one way or another, as combining the masculine and the feminine.6 In Dempsey’s paper, Tongue Eater is a good example of what has been described.
According to one man who knew Tongue Eater, he “acted like a woman, dressed like a woman, yet went to war parties and was very brave. He was dressed as a woman (on the war path) and had to tuck up his skirt to run. He married boys and did glorious bead work. He was not called he or she, but just by his name.”
According to Walter Williams berdaches or women-men or men-women have a clearly
recognized and accepted social status, often based on a secure place in tribal mythology.
They will do at least some women’s work, and mix together much of the behavior,
dress, and social roles of women and men. According to Will Roscoe there are important
variations in berdache roles, yet they share a core set of traits that justifies comparing
Specialized work roles. Male and female berdaches are typically described in terms of their preference and achievements in the work of the “opposite” sex and/or unique activities specific to their identities;
Gender difference. In addition to work preferences, berdaches are distinguished from men and women in terms of temperament, dress, lifestyle, and social roles;
Spiritual sanction. Berdache identity is widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of vision or dreams, and/or it is sanctioned by tribal mythology;
Same-sex relations. Berdaches most often form sexual and emotional relationships with non-berdache members of their own sex.7
Dempsey’s article supports Roscoe’s berdache roles. Piegan Man as described by his
Short Robe’s niece recalled that Piegan Man “was a good housekeeper, tanned hides, made lodge covers of hide. He was kind-hearted. He wore much jewellery, woman’s leggings, and a wide leather belt studded with brass nail heads.
As a young man, he was taken as a mate by Short Robe and performed the women’s chores of cutting and drying meat, doing quillwork and beadwork, and cooking.8 Before the arrival of Europeans, marriages between berdaches and non-berdache members of the same sex were commonplace, and individuals sometimes changed their gender because of a dream. In place of stereotypes of hypermasculine warriors and submissive women, Changing Ones describes individuals with complex sexual and gender identities playing key roles in their tribes. As Roscoe shows, sexual and gender differences were accepted because of the unique contributions they made. They were differences that served.9 Berdachism is a way for society to recognize and assimilate some atypical individuals without imposing a change on them or stigmatizing them as deviants. This cultural institution confirms their legitimacy for what they are.10
Walter Williams has also written generously on the roles of the berdache. In his book he states that:
Many Native Americans also understood that gender roles have to do with more than just biological sex. The standard Western view that one’s sex is always a certainty and that one conforms to one’s morphological sex is a view that dies hard. Most American Indian world views generally are much more accepting of the ambiguities of life. Acceptance of gender variation in the berdache tradition is typical of many Native cultures’ approach to life in general.11 Apart from gender constructions, the roles and statuses of individuals who are neither men nor women in Native American cultures are embedded within worldviews that emphasize and appreciate transformation and change...Within such worldviews, an individual who changes his or her gender once or more often in the course of her or his life is not viewed as an abnormality but rather as part of the natural order of things. As Tafoya has observed, the emphasis on transformation and change in Native American cultures also includes the idea that an individual is expected to go through many changes in a lifetime.12 Among the Navajo, for example there existed four genders- women, men, women-men and men-women, the two latter categories being called nadleehe, someone who is in a constant process of change.
As discussed berdache or women-men and men-women married or had sexual relationships with partners of the same sex. Since multiple genders were accepted and present in many Native American cultures these relationships may seem homosexual in the physical sense, but they were not on the level of gender. If a man, for example, is having sex with a woman-man, he is not seen as having sex with another man, he is having sex with someone who belongs to a gender different from his own.13 Williams discusses the sexual roles of berdaches as taking on a nonmasculine role, either being asexual or becoming the passive partner in sex with men. In some cultures the berdache might become a wife to a man. Dempsey gives a few examples of this in different context, but always accepted in the Native American culture. In fact the Native American culture seems to respond to gender variance by giving the berdache, women-men, men-women a special place in their culture-society rather than highlighting their difference. The berdache is not expected to suppress his tendency for feminine behavior. Neither does he internalize a low self-image. In Native American lifestyles, seldom is anything thrown away unused-including people. A Crow traditionalist says, “We don’t waste people, the way white society does. Every person has their gift.”
American Indians offer some of the world’s best examples of gender-egalitarian societies. Is male dominance universal? Looking a North American Indian cultures one sees that many of their societies operated on a gender-equal basis. Native American women were (and are still, to a great extent) independent and self-reliant personalities, rather the subservient dependents. Traditionally, women had a high level of self-esteem for they knew that their family and band economically depended on them as much as or more that it did on men. They were centrally involved in the society’s economy, controlling distribution of the food they grew and gathered.14 This theory is interesting, since women held a high status, there was no shame in males taking on women characteristics or becoming women-men. Williams suggests that it may be accurate to suggest that the status of berdaches in a society is directly related to the status of women.
Dempsey in describing the Blackfoot society which is male dominated suggests that the roles of male and female berdaches were considerably different. In this society the female that finds herself in a male (dominant) role, was more respected than the male taking on a female role. Thus not all Native American societies had the same cultural response.
In Western culture a male wanting to give up his dominant position would be seen in a different light, it might lessen the male in some people’s view.
Berdaches are seen as spiritual people in some cultures, perhaps because of their difference a special spiritual status was given to them. For some the spiritual role was not related in any way to a sexual role and for some it included both. Having both male and female characteristics they possess the vision of both, or they may be said to have double vision. This is why they are often referred to as “seer,” one whose eyes can see beyond the blinders that restrict the average person. In the “They Acted like Women” Four Bears is really the only berdache described that has a strong spiritual sanction. There seems to be no sexual behavior or sexual role that Four Bears is part of, but rather his strong spiritual connection is what gives him guidance to wear women clothing. Seeming to be a woman gave Four Bears huge advantage with the enemy, as they ignored him, thinking he was a woman.
And there were a few men like Four Bears, whose involvement was not sexual, but religious. Four Bears was not a homosexual but wore women’s clothes because his spirit told him to do so. He went to war, married, had children, and lived like any other man in the Piegan camp.15
Since the berdache could mix characteristics of both genders, they were viewed as having
a special status as if “blessed” by the gods. They were thought to be the “middle gender,”
and seen by prophets and visionaries as having an almost mystic and psychic vision into the future. A whole paper could be written on the spiritual role of the berdache, for the purpose of this paper this role will not be developed further, suffice it to say that in the prereservation era the connection to the spiritual in the North American Native culture was more intact and powerful, and it deserves mention as this connection played a huge part in the construction of and the cultural response (acceptance) to the alternative gender role in the Native North American culture.
Lancaster in The Trouble with Nature also adds some of his thoughts to the debate as to the innateness and social construction of sexuality. He brings the two concepts together. He writes: As a result of this uniquely appropriate relationship between culture and biology, much of what appears to be “natural” or “necessary” thus is actually the biological consequence of social arrangement, the course of biological development under social circumstances. To put in another way, human beings learn how to use their bodies. They learn how to see and to understand their bodies in the context of this
At the beginning of this paper I asked “How many genders are there?” Lancaster asks: “How many sexes are there?” All systems of social classification allow for two sexes, male and female. But do these systems give validation to only two sexes? Some societies expressly enunciate three sex categories, socially distinguishing hermaphrodites as a third, mixed intermediary, or alternate sex. Other societies seem to mark additional categories, allowing for various types of mixed, crossed, or fluid identities in between male and female. Traditional Pueblo- Zunis, like many other Native American societies, thus allowed for ritual transformations that would turn anatomical men into social women. Other Amerindian culture allowed for the reverse transformation of anatomical women into social men.17According to Dempsey: Anthropologists have applied the term berdache to women as well as men, although the Blackfoot made a distinction by calling a female berdache a “warrior-woman or a “manly-hearted woman.” As was the case with men, there were wide variations within these terms. They could apply to a woman who dressed as a man, went to war, and took female mates but were equally applicable to a woman who simply henpecked her husband.18(The latter may define me!)
It seems evident from the discussion thus far that American Indian culture was democratic enough to permit persons to find their own roles it its society. Western culture has not been so fortunate. Western culture is based on the notion that there are two “opposite” sexes with distinct culturally approved gender characteristics. Using this binary system allows little tolerance for cultural and social variances of what is perceived to be masculine or feminine. Western society is much more focused on sexual behavior rather than social role choices and expectations. In Western culture some people who are merely dissatisfied with their gender role often feel pressured to anatomically become the other sex through surgery. Some people do not believe that their gender identity corresponds to their biological sex, namely transgender people, including transsexual people and many intersexed individuals as well. Consequently, complications arise when society insists that an individual adopt a manner of social expression (gender role) which is based on sex. Berdachism is a way for society to recognize and assimilate some atypical individuals without imposing a change on them or stigmatizing them as deviant. This cultural institution confirms their legitimacy for what they are... American Indian cultures have taken what Western culture calls negative and made it a positive; they have successfully utilized the different skills and insights of a class of people that Western culture has stigmatized and whose spiritual powers have been wasted.19
... I am a two-spirit (gay) Ojibwe Indian. In point of fact
I’m one of the few that I know of in my generation.
The others of my kind were slaughtered by AIDS.
Although the two-spirit commonly referred to as the Gay Indian,
it’s not quite an accurate description.
My narrative is much more complicated. Historically and
traditionally in our Ojibwe culture we always had those who
were born with both the male and female spirit. It was
The berdache, which is probably close to what I am, would often
take on the task of becoming a “mother” to children in the village
when others could not. I’ve heard that in other tribes, the
two-spirit were used as an integral part of the sun-dance
ceremony. As well because of our duel nature, it meant that
we could perform various duties and roles within our communities.
It’s not about the sexuality as much as it is about what they
offer the community.20
Alternative sexuality, or more specifically alternative gender, may be all about the cultural response to the individual. Some people may be born with confusing sexuality and they need to find the gender role that fits with their nature, and others (most) find that the male/female, man/woman roles are not sufficient to embrace their gender/sexual role. By looking to the history and tradition of the Native American society we may find answers and ways to respond that would embrace all human beings.
Dempsey H. A (2003).The vengeful wife and other Blackfoot stories, 48-62, Chapter 5.
Lancaster Roger N. The trouble with nature. The practices of sex. University of California Press, 2003.
Lang Sabine. Constructing Sexualities, Chapter 20: Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits.
Roscoe Will. Berdache: Who and what are tow-spirit /berdaches?
Rose Eric. Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Review of Changing Ones.
Rowe Spencer J. Hope for Tomorrow. Issue 284, September 16, 2004, Reader Weekly
Williams Walter. The Spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian culture. 1996b, 1991, Boston: Beacon Press.
1 Lang Sabine Chapter 20 Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits p204
2 Williams Walter, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (excerpts from)
3 Dempsey Hugh The Acted like Women p50
4 Williams Walter, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (excepts from)
5 Lang Sabine Chapter 20 Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits page 203
6 Lang Sabine Chapter 20 Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits page 203
7 Roscoe Will Who and What are Two-Spirits/Berdaches? From Changing Roles
8 Dempsey Hugh They Acted Like Women page 52
9 Rose Eric Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Review of Changing Ones.
10 Williams Walter, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (excepts from)
11 Williams Walter (1996b, 1991) The spirit and the Flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press
12 Lang Sabine Lesbians, Men-Women and Two-Spirits Chapter 20 p204
13 Lang Sabine Lesbian, Men-Women and Two Spirits page 205
14 Williams Walter, The Spirit and the Flesh (excerpts from)
15 Dempsey Hugh They Acted like Women page 50
16 Lancaster Roger, the Trouble with Nature: The Practices of Sex, Chapter 16, p221.
17 Lancaster Roger, the Trouble with Nature: The Practices of Sex, Chapter 16, p222.
18 Dempsey Hugh They Acted like Women page 57
19 Williams Walter, The Spirit and the Flesh (excerpts from)
20 Rowe Spencer J. Hope for Tomorrow. Issue 284, September 16, 2004, Reader Weekly