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Native American Indian Berdache or “Two-Spirit” Tradition

Berdache. A strange word, to be sure, but one that has a long and complicated history. The Berdache tradition is a Native American/American Indian tradition that allowed for gender role change.

Gender role change is the adoption, for various reasons, of a culturally defined social role that is dictated to the opposite sex. This means that a man could adopt the social role of a woman and vice versa. In the Berdache tradition, this was almost always a permanent change.

However, unlike the gender role changes of today (as seen in cross-dressers and transvestites), it did not necessarily dictate who you preferred to sleep with. In fact, the berdache tradition rarely – if ever – dictated sleeping with members of one’s own sex. Sexuality and gender in Native American societies were two different concepts, which led to some confusion for the poor Europeans who just couldn’t understand why a man would dress as a woman yet still sleep with or marry a woman!

The berdache tradition and its specific roles in society were different for each tribe that practiced it.  Yet the berdache tradition played a vital role both in the tribe and at the individual level, allowing for the expression of one’s preferred way of life without dictating sexuality.

The berdache tradition in North America was as varied as it was extensive, although it was usually practiced strictly by males. Out of the over 150 tribes known to have sanctioned the tradition, only 30 groups – most of whom resided west of the Rocky Mountains – reported the presence of female berdaches.

Before the full imposition of European culture upon Native Americans, it is believed that berdaches existed in numbers that, in most cases, allowed them to inhabit their own social or cultural category within the tribe. They were respected and, although they spent much of their time with women, they had their own separate group within the village. Most were accorded special social status as well, gaining prestige through their spiritual or artistic abilities.

However, despite this R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Native American cultures held a wide range of views about the berdache way of life. These views ranged from the reverent and respectful to teasing, indifference, and scorn or contempt.

Despite these views, berdaches were still a part of tribal culture because Native American worldviews do not typically allow for either/or comparisons. Rather, their worldviews are expresses in terms of various degrees along a continuum between two opposing ideas. Thus, Native Americans did not view gender as either “male or female” but rather as “varying between” male or female. This continuum thus allowed for those who were born one way but inclined the other to be explained and accepted, especially in a world where tribal warfare and harsh environments could exact a costly toll upon a tribe.

In order to explain berdaches, many Native American traditions include explanations for their existence in creation or other myths. Native Americans also recognized the possibility of other explanations. The Inuit viewed berdaches as infants who had been one gender as a fetus but became the opposite gender at birth (called sipiniq). However, at birth one retained the gendered spirit of the fetus, thus showing why a boy could have the “spirit” of a girl. The berdache tradition may also have been created as a means of transferring property or helping in a specific gender role when one lacked the son or daughter dictated by tribal orientation (i.e., one lacked a son in a tribal culture where property was inherited through paternal lines or where only males were allowed to hunt, or vice versa).

A universal characteristic of berdaches was their participation in at least some work reserved for the opposite gender.  Female berdaches were allowed to participate in hunting and warfare, while male berdaches were allowed to participate in farming, herding, gathering food, weaving, knitting, basketry, pottery, and leatherwork.  Many berdaches gained social acknowledgement and prestige for their accomplishments in these roles.  

In fact, berdaches were so well known for their skills that many tribes viewed berdaches as inherently successful, generating both a powerful inspiration for young people to become berdaches as well as for parents to value education and advanced training for children who chose the berdache way of life.  However, these skills were typically never valued as much or more than the skills of men (in patriarchal societies, or vice versa in matriarchal societies).  

Their intermediate nature also allowed berdaches to become go-betweens in disputes between the sexes, able to resolve spousal conflicts or facilitate romances.  In the case of male berdaches, they were also free from the cultural restrictions imposed during women’s menstruation, pregnancy, or nursing.  This freedom allowed them to help with increased burdens of women’s work, when other women were restricted, as well as to become continually productive.  Berdaches were also allowed to assume parental roles for orphaned children or for children of large families.  A modern contemporary of this is Terry Calling Eagle, a Lakota berdache who adopted children whose parents were drunks and unable to provide for them.  Thus, berdaches even offered solutions to social problems within the tribes.

A common (but not universal) characteristic of berdaches was that they were believed to possess supernatural powers. It was believed that they could mediate between the psychic and physical since they possessed the visions of both sexes (called “double vision” by certain tribes). This was due to both their intermediate status in society as well as the belief that the spirits must have taken great care to create an individual so unique in society.

Some berdaches assumed the role of shaman, although this role was not limited to berdaches. This assumption was commonly seen among the Mohaves, Klamath, Yurok, and other California Indian groups.

Berdaches also occupied roles not associated with shamanism. Navajo berdaches – called nadle – were responsible for preparation and cooking of sacred food at large ceremonial gatherings. Other berdache traditions dictated their involvement in blessing objects, conducting burials, and grooming men before a hunt.  It was commonly believed that the berdache’s participation would provide the individual or tribe with luck or protection in its endeavors.

Berdaches were not homosexuals in the sense that Americans (and other Westerners) know them.  Native American sexuality was distinctly different from European conceptions, which unfortunately led to a lot of misinterpretation about the berdache role in Western literature.  

Sexuality in Native American world views as a gift from the spirit world, to be enjoyed and appreciated.  While most descriptions of berdaches stress homosexuality, they were not limited to this practice.  

For berdaches, homosexual behavior was the most commonly noted type of sexuality, at times being a cultural expectation of the berdache role.  Berdaches were often the non-masculine role in these relations.  However, these relations did not make non-berdache males into berdaches or require that either refrain from marrying or having sexual relations with a woman.  There are some cases where men married male berdaches, and in some tribes this even accorded a special social status (akin to a very good marriage of two rich parties in European traditions).  Berdaches also had heterosexual relations and marriages.  

Despite this freedom, there are no known accounts of berdaches having sexual relations or marrying other berdaches.  This may be due to the fraternity shared by berdaches, and sexual relations or marriage would have violated the kin group ties of berdaches.  It may also have been due to the gender-based economy of Native Americans, as having two male berdaches would have meant a lack of someone to continually fill the male role in the family’s economic duties.  (In other words, you have to have a “husband” and “wife” roles to make a marriage, and having two of one and none of the other can cause problems.)

Berdachism largely disappeared from the written record following the initial European encounters. Many European cultures were unable to fit the berdache role within their already defined concept of gender. While the tradition did continue, it became similar to homosexuality before the mid-1900s: hidden in the closet.

Today, berdachism has re-emerged on the cultural scene, providing a new way of understanding Native American societies. It also provides an outlet for modern-day Native Americans who have been lacking the freedom to express this gender role.

There are two distinct movements as a result. First, anthropologists studying Native America are re-thinking the concept of gender as a whole. Accounting for European bias, we are beginning to understand that gender has meant a multitude of things in different societies and is often distinctly separate from one’s sexual orientation.

Second, berdaches have been re-identified as “two-spirits,” creating a bridge between modern urban or homosexual Native Americans and their traditional past. The creation of this self-chosen terminology has also enabled Native Americans to separate from their Western homosexual counterparts, bridging the gap between native tribes while providing a unique Native experience.

What lies ahead for the berdache / “two-spirit” tradition is a mystery. Hopefully, the acknowledgement of this tradition – and the European biases which led to widespread discrimination and fear – will provide a meaningful contribution to our modern debates over gender roles, marriage equality, gay rights, and the like. By looking to the past, and clearing up the confusions rife within it, we are able to see a broader, more accepting worldview that could perhaps solve problems we experience today.

If we are able to open our minds to those who choose to live beyond traditional gender roles – just as we have accepted women expanding their traditional roles – perhaps we will be able to accept that gender is a socially-made construct – something alterable and impermeable – that has discriminated against others who would otherwise make meaningful contributions to society if not for the fear and hatred. The Native Americans were able to provide “two-spirits” with a place in their world that did not instill fear and hatred, but rather a society that accepted them and recognized their invaluable contributions both as humans and as part of the societies in which they lived.