American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Berdaches

Title: Zuni weaver
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Found throughout most of Native North America, berdaches were individuals who assumed, to varying degrees, the mannerisms, appearance, and labors of the opposite gender. In most Native societies, berdaches were biological males who assumed a feminine (or in some cases, a somewhat feminine) identity. Some scholars have argued that berdaches represent a third and in some cases, a fourth gender in Native American cultures.

The process of becoming a berdache varied from one Native society to another. Hidatsas believed that a young man became a berdache through the intervention of a female deity. While berdaches were accepted in Hidatsa society, parents did their best to prevent this particular "divine favor" from being bestowed on their sons by making sure that boys did not develop an interest in playing with girls' toys such as dolls. However, Hidatsa parents showed little concern—possibly because of the rarity of female berdaches—if their daughters developed a fascination with bows and arrows. Illinois peoples singled out young boys who played with women's tools, such as hoes and spindles, rather than bows and arrows, as eventual berdaches. The Illinois dressed them as girls and trained them to mimic the female " . . . accent, which is different from that of the men. They omit nothing that can make them like the women."

Europeans encountered berdaches during their earliest explorations of the Americas. Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca met berdaches during his eight-year sojourn through what is now much of the American Southwest, disapprovingly claiming that they were "impotent and womanish beings, who dress like women and perform the office of women." A few years later, berdaches attracted the notice of French explorer Jean Ribault in Florida, who erroneously concluded (as other Europeans would) that they were hermaphrodites.

Berdaches seem to have been prevalent among Illinois peoples. Louis Hennepin, a seventeenth-century French Recollet missionary, mentioned them, as did Jesuit Pierre Marquette. Marquette thought that some young men chose to become berdaches because they were regarded as spiritually powerful. He also noted that they were considered "persons of Consequence" and that "nothing is decided without their advice." French trader and soldier Pierre Liette had a very different opinion, noting that Illinois women "retain some moderation," making it impossible for young men to satisfy "their passions as much as they would like." To solve this problem (at least to Liette's understanding), the Illinois created a class of "men who were bred for this purpose since childhood."

To European and American observers, Native berdaches played a complex and, to them, confusing role in Native societies. A male berdache could cross the line between genders several times over the course of his lifetime. Among Miami peoples in the Northeast and Omaha peoples on the Great Plains, a male berdache normally performed women's day-to-day tasks. However, during times of conflict, they donned male clothing, picked up their weapons, and accompanied the other men to war. Upon returning, they again dressed as women and resumed their feminine pursuits.

Far rarer than male berdaches, female berdaches most often appeared in the northern Plains and the Plateau regions. Unlike the males, who in some societies could cross the line between gender lines several times in their life, female berdaches usually crossed it only once and never looked back. Berdaches became less common as Native peoples began adopting the mores of the larger American society in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As European-American society imposed its values, respect for berdaches was diminished. Indeed, some anthropologists working among Native people had difficulty locating informants willing to talk about berdaches.

Roger M. Carpenter


Further Reading
Roscoe, Will, ed. 1998. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.; Trexler, Richard C. 1995. Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 

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