The Berdache Tradition
Walter L. Williams
Modern society recognizes only two distinct genders: male and female. This is not the case among many American Indian Societies because there exists among them a diversity of sex roles beyond the traditional definition. The berdache tradition is one proof of the existence of something considered as a diverse rather than deviant.
A berdache is a morphological male whose does not fill a society’s standard man’s role and is regarded as effeminate. Such a person is considered androgynous or asexual. They are not seen as men, yet they are not seen as women either. Their gender role is considered an alternative and they have a mediating function between women and men. In many Native American religions, berdaches have special ceremonial roles.
The berdache tradition symbolizes the diversity of humanity. Berdaches have been characterized in different Native American religions. In their creation stories, some religions consider the Great Spiritual Being as a combination of both male and female and the Kamia of the Southwest tells of a man-woman spirit Warharmi who first introduced their culture. In the creation story of the Zunis, the berdache was created by the deities for a special purpose which led to the improvement of their society by bringing hunting and farming together. There is continuous reenactment of this story up to this day which provides a justification for the Zuni berdache in each generation.
The Navajos’ creation story best highlights the sacred role of berdaches in their tribe. In the Navajo language the word for berdache is nadle which means “changing one” or “one who is transformed”. The Navajo tale tells a story of the First Man and First Woman who were created equal who were unhappy with the first two worlds they lived in until they settled on a third world where they met the twins Turquoise Boy and White Shell Girl, who were the first berdaches. In the third world, they began farming with the twins until a great flood came which they escaped just in time by climbing to the fourth world with the help of a reed that Turquoise Boy found. From there, White Shell Girl brought another reed, and they climbed again to the fifth world, which is the present world of the Navajos. The tribe contributes the survival of their tribe to the inventiveness of berdaches such that nadle is held in high regard.
American Indians strongly believe on the spiritual explanations of the world rather than on logic or reality. They believe that many mysteries of existence are best explained by the multiplicity of spirits. Individuals may be anatomically male or female, but Indians believe that they may choose between the two sexes or might have a spirit that is neither male or female. Whichever option is chosen, Indian religions have spiritual explanations.
Berdaches are called haxu’xan among the Arapahos of the plains and are recognized as such as a result of a supernatural gift from birds or animals. The creation story of the Mohave of the Colorado River Valley also tells of a time when people were not sexually differentiated and they believe that from the very beginning of the world it was already predestined that berdaches should exist. A Mohave elder explained that a child’s tendencies to become a berdache are apparent before puberty. A public ceremony is even held by many tribes to acknowledge the acceptance of berdache status.
The berdache roles in many tribes see it as signifying on an individual’s penchant for dreams or visions. Among the northern Plains and related Great Lakes tribes, the idea of supernatural dictate through dreaming or the vision quest, had its highest development. Among the Lakotas, or Sioux, there are several symbols for various types of visions. A person becomes wakan (a sacred person) if she or he dreams of a bear, a wolf, thunder, a buffalo, a white buffalo calf, or Double Woman. A white buffalo calf is believed to be a berdache. If a person has a dream of the sacred Double Woman, this means that she or he will have the power to seduce men. Males who have a vision of Double Woman are presented with female tools. Ceremonial acceptance of such tools means that the male will become a berdache. Receiving instructions from a vision inhibits others from trying to discourage or change the berdache because the spiritual dictate is higher than human opinion.
Native American religions demand a basic respect for nature. If nature makes a person different, then humans are in no position to counter this spiritual dictate. Berdachism is thus not considered something alien or taboo to their society rather it is symbolic of spirituality.
The article provides an interesting but rather fleeting picture of the role of Berdache as spiritual beings in many Native American Indian tribes. Most of the accounts presented about the history of this type of gender type was taken from creation stories or myths where such non-man, non-woman genders are claimed to play major roles. As reader, I believe there is a lack of evidence that berdaches have a distinct status among the Native Americans. Aside from creation stories and myths, actual recounts of the descriptive role of berdaches and how they were separated in status from male and female should be part of the evidence-based claim that such a mixed-gender identity existed then. Aside from myths and creation stories, it would have been more convincing if the author added more actual recounts of rituals and comprehensive description of a berdache’s specific role in each of the tribe, as well as a comparison.
To claim that with the history and myths it is easy to accept that certain individuals can combine the element of masculinity and femininity is a statement that can be challenged. If berdaches were highly regarded among the Navajos because of their role in saving their people as told in their creations story then what explains the stigma associated with homosexuals in modern civilization. Maybe only a few tribes truly regarded the existence of berdaches as sacred or spiritual, thus when modern civilization came, such beings lost their place and was never carried over as part of the status quo of the society.
Overall, berdachism among tribes was probably the exception and not the rule among Native American religions. This can be related to modern society where homosexuals are fighting to have a place in society to be recognized as “third sex”. Among the Indians they believed that it was a spiritual choice rather than a will based on logic and reason. Those who accept berdache status were given female clothing, assumed female chores and adopt a female name. Such practices in modern society are practiced by gay individuals but society is less tolerant of such. If the Indians consider it as an expression of diversity, modern society with all its arrogance considers it as a deviant behavior.