Native American Berdache as Mediator

Towards a Culturally Specific Understanding

Kathy Allen
Native American History
Prof. i forget
Yale University
December 3, 1993

She was a remarkable woman, a fine blanket and sash maker, an excellent cook, an adept in all the work of her sex, and yet strange to say, she was a man. There never has been, as yet, any satisfactory explanation given, as far as I know, of the peculiar custom followed by the Pueblos of having one or two men in each tribe, who foreswear their manhood and who dress as, act like, and seemingly live the life of, women. We'wha was one of these...(Roscoe 51)

We'wha was what anthropologists call a berdache and what the Zuni people call a lhamana. The French explorers in the "New World" applied the name "berdache" to those men in the tribes they encountered who defied their Western conception of "normal" sexuality and gender. According to linguist Claude Courouve, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of French exploration, the term "bardache" had an explicit definition of same-sex behavior in its European usage (Williams 9). But the French observed another strange Native American practice, that of cross-dressing, which they mistakenly termed hermaphrodism. Simply put, according to the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century anthropologist Matilda Cox Stevenson, berdaches were men who "do woman's work and wear woman's dress" (Roscoe 22). In the way Stevenson's statement overlooks the complexity of the berdache, it reveals some of the problems Western conceptualization of the berdache role in Native American society.

One of the major problems in understanding the berdache phenomenon among Native American tribes is that an understanding has been attempted from a Western perspective and not enough attention and seriousness has been given a culturally specific perspective. The lens through which many anthropologists and contemporary Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Rights advocates see the berdache is tinted with our Western assumptions about binary gender roles and our categories of sexual behavior.

As the contemporary Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual community appropriates the berdache concept (and essentially calls it "gay" as lesbian writer/poet Judy Grahn does) to strengthen its Civil Rights Movement in America, it treats the history of the berdache among Native Americans unfairly by hijacking the already misunderstood concept into a contemporary political context. Identity politics aside, I do believe it is possible for the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Rights movement to make use of traditional Native American attitudes toward gender and sexuality as informed by the berdache figure. But this is only possible if we listen to what Native Americans themselves have to say about the berdache, thus gaining a more accurate understanding of the berdache phenomenon.

Many Native American peoples had (and still have) berdaches among their communities who occupied important positions within the community. According to data compiled by the GAI (Gay American Indians) history project, 133 tribes have been documented as having berdache or other alternative gender roles within their community. Although the berdache role has cross-cultural similarities the role is diverse in the way it functions and is characterized in different tribes. Therefore I will concentrate on one particular tribe, the Zuni Pueblo people in western New Mexico. But where generalizations on the berdache appear outside the context of the Zuni tribe, they should be treated as loose patterns that may or may not be accurate from tribe to tribe.

Before attempting a study on the berdache, I should mention that the ethnographic record throughout Native American history has been rather selective. due to the prejudice and discomfort of ethnographers, much of the information on gender and sexuality has been lost: take for instance anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson's statement, "There is a side to the lives of these men which must remain untold" (Williams 185). Other times discussion of berdache sexuality has been dismissed under such blunt judgmental statements as "abomination in the eyes of God."

Stevenson studied the Zunis in the 1880s and 1890s and befriended the Zuni berdache, or lhamana, We'wha who lived from 1849 to 1896. We'wha was one of the most respected members of his tribe. Stevenson said "[h]is strong character made his word law among both men and women with whom he associated. Though his wrath was dreaded by men as well as by women, he was beloved by all the children, to whom he was very kind...." (Williams 62).

We'wha was not only the tallest member of the Zuni Pueblo but was considered to be one of its most intelligent members. He was the best weaver and potter and he held prominent roles in social activities and religious ceremonies (Williams 32). But We'wha was a lhamana. He was not necessarily effeminate, but androgenous. Simply put, he adopted female dress and performed some of the female roles, such as maintaining the home and making pottery. However he also engaged in farming and weaving, both considered male roles. Stevenson observed

[i]f they are to continue woman's work they must adopt woman's dress; and though the women of the family joke the fellow they are inclined to look upon him with favor, since it means that he will remain a member of the household and do almost double the work of a woman. (Williams 57-8)

And if the men of the tribe were upset by a male assuming the berdache status, it was because they were losing a male from the men's work group (57-8), although We'wha did in fact perform some male roles, such as leading religious ceremonies in addition to weaving and farming.

One difference in familial response between the Zunis and much of Western society is that not only did We'wha's family accept him fully but he was a central and prominent figure in the family. For instance, We'wha was a valuable economic contribution to his family; he brought in money by providing laundering service to white officers and settlers in the surrounding area and by selling his fine weaving and pottery. Without the burden of menstruation, pregnancy, or nursing, We'wha made a more consistent contribution to the household and many times he "most willingly took the harder work from others of the family. [We'wha] would not permit idleness; all had to labor or receive an upbraiding from We'wha..." (Williams 58).

We'wha's and other lhamana's acceptance by their tribes and families has much to do with Zuni attitude towards gender. The Zuni people consider an individual's gender an acquired trait instead of an inborn trait; individuals need not shape their gender according to their biological sex, but instead gender is shaped according to cultural and ritual interventions. Through the Zuni lhamana tradition, alternative gender roles exist along a continuum between masculine and feminine, instead of the oppressive Western conception of dichotomous gender.

Before the ages of four to six, Zuni parents did not emphasize gender as an attribute of their children and referred to children of both sexes by the same term, cha'le', which means "child" (Roscoe 132). Should a Zuni child begin to show behaviors usually associated with the "opposite" sex, this would be accepted as a natural process. One of the most important aspects of the berdache is the inner character, or "spirit." If the parents of a Zuni boy suspect that he is on the way to assume a lhamana status, they will not discourage him because they know that their son's actions are a reflection of his inexorable inner character. In many ways (economic, social prestige), the presence of a berdache in a Native American family is highly desired, but the status of berdache is never forced upon a son. The parents and tribe allow the son to develop according to his own pace, and when he displays the characteristics of a berdache, such as effeminacy and playing with girls, some tribes offer an initiation ceremony where the son can accept his status as a berdache. In We'wha's case, before he became a berdache he received male religious training, but once his berdache orientation was evident his vocational training was provided by females (Roscoe 38).

The accepting Zuni attitude towards gender and lhamanas is important for the basis of their culture. The Zuni creation myth sanctions the possibility of different gender identities other than the dichotomous male/female roles. In their creation myth, there is a battle between the agricultural spirits of the Zunis and the enemy hunter spirits. During the battle, a kachina spirit called ko'lhamana is captured by the enemy and is transformed. Having been transformed, ko'lhamana returns as a mediator between the farmers and the hunters, bringing peace to the differing lifestyles. The Zunis reenact their creation myth in a religious ceremony every four years to remind each generation that the deities created the lhamana for a special purpose which leads to the improvement of society. In the ceremony, a Zuni lhamana plays the role of the ko'lhamana who is captured and transformed.

The lhamana personifies the role of this kind of transformed gender, or "third sex," and plays not only a productive economic role but also a spiritual or symbolic role. The Zunis view the lhamana as a kind of mediator between the sexes.

Their androgyny, rather than threatening the gender system, is incorporated into it. Berdaches seem to symbolize the original unity of humans, their differentiation into separate genders, and the potential for reunification as well." (Williams 84)

This kind of mediator status enables the lhamanas to become prominent in spiritual and ceremonial roles. In ceremonial dances, the Zuni lhamanas like We'wha would cross back and forth between male and female dance lines, thus perhaps signifying the "third gender" and mediator status between the sexes of the berdache (70). Because We'wha did not give birth or menstruate, he was not subject to the Zuni taboos that required the periodic separation of men and women, therefore he could move freely in both social worlds (Roscoe 145). If there arose a dispute between two parties going back and forth with messages between the two until a settlement was reached.

In 1896, when We'wha died of heart disease, the entire Pueblo mourned his death. When they buried him, not only did his family dress him in female clothes, but they also pulled white trousers over his legs which were the first article of male clothing he had worn since he first accepted lhamana status years ago. In addition, lhamana were always buried on the men's side of the cemetary. According to anthropologist Walter L. Williams, this burial ritual shows that lhamana were not merely "institutionalized women" or "transsexuals" but occupied a kind of third gender (83).

The accepting attitude towards lhamanas began to wane soon after the Zuni people were subjected to Western contact. Not only were the Euro-Americans wary of accepting anything other than stable dichotomous gender roles, but they vigorously attacked any same-sex sexual behavior. As officers and missionaries attacked many of the sexual and cultural practices of the Zuni, the Zuni people themselves either began rejecting the lhamana as generations passed or simply silenced them and hid them from judgemental Western eyes.

Same-sex sexual behavior was prevalent in much of the berdache tradition, but many scholars try to downplay this aspect. Although in my research I found no direct references about We'wha's sexual behavior, Stevenson reports of another Zuni lhamana she know who "allied himself to a man" and that "this couple were living together, and they were two of the hardest workers in the pueblo and among the most prosperous." (Williams 114)

Another point to note is that the Zuni people, and Native Amercan society overall, held a generally open view about sex and sexuality. Often parents would have sex in the same room as their children were and children of both sexes engaged in sexual play usually by age six.

But to understand the same sex sexual behavior of the berdache, it is necessary to be careful not to apply the Western label "gay" to it because "gay" takes on a whole new load of contemporary understandings about not only sexual behavior but also sexual and political identity. One difference between the berdache and a Western gay identity is that the berdache will never have sex with another berdache, but will usually only play the passive sex partner with masculine men who do not identify as berdache. Whereas this is true for the berdache, in the gay community passive/aggressive role playing is not mandatory. Also in the gay community, the category of homosexual usually "includes many masculine men whose only difference from average men is their sexual involvement with other men" (Williams 125). Furthermore, same-sex sexual behavior in Native American societies is not confined to the berdache role: two masculine men sometimes engage in same-sex behavior, but are more discreet about it. Therefore in a certain sense there are more kinds of sexual orientation in Native American society: in addition to opposite and same-sex sexual behavior, some Zunis were sexually attracted to lhamanas, or the third gender. (Roscoe 146).

The Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Rights Movement can learn much from the berdache figure if we don't force the berdache to conform to our own contemporary, culturally specific category of "gay." In Another Mother Tongue, a gay cultural history, Judy Grahn expresses her relief in tears at the realization that she has not been alone, that there have been other gay and lesbian people before her in the Native American past. Grahn goes on to make reference to the inadequacy of Western education and of our learned images of Native Americans "we were not taught that Indian tribes openly included Gay people and that these Gay people held positions of power and office, some of which required Gayness, cross-dressing, and homosexual love bonds and sex" (54).

While embracing (her conception of) the gay past, she pigeonholes berdache figures into contemporary gay categories. For instance, when she describes the "cross-dressing people who take on the work, dress, and social position of the opposite sex while establishing sexual and even marital bonds with their own sex," she explains that "[t]hese are people who in English are called bulldikes and drag queens" (55). She makes a very convenient, even nostalgicc theoretical jump here, ableit an inaccurate one. She is accurate when she speaks of the openness toward sexuality that was prevalent in Native American Society and the way that berdache inhabited a kind of respected mediatory role between the sexes. However, her method of framing when she labels the berdache "Gay" is inaccurate and defies the necessary culturally specific approach to gaining a true understanding of the berdache.

Not only do writers like Judy Grahn and movements like the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Rights Movement have valuable lessons to learn from the Native American berdache, but society in general, with its oppressive dichotomous sex roles and self-centered perspectives on the world, can benefit greatly by listening to other cultures' perspectives. As rigid gender and sexual ideology threatens Western society, the berdache transcend these categories as Native Americans view them as affirmations of a once unified humanity, and a hope for a return to wholeness.

Works Cited


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