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V. The Paradox of the Berdache

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We have already noted that the berdache has both a unique – but not a marginal – status and a social status that is incorporated at the heart of group life. It would be a mistake to speak of “tolerance” or “permissiveness” in this connection, or rather it is an ethnocentric point of view in which categories which are suited only to the West or to some other cultural formations are transposed to Amerindian societies. We have not sought to show that the Amerindian social formations would be relatively more permissive or more tolerant with regard to homosexuality than Western societies.

The oppositions of permitted/forbidden and tolerated/prohibited are not relevant for defining the specificity of the “berdache” phenomenon. Homosexuality seems to be relatively widespread, not to mention generalized. But that has no more to do with the supposed absence of social constraints than with a so-called spirit of tolerance. Sexual relations follow well-determined social rules (exchanges, marriages, taboos), which apply as much to homosexual relations as to heterosexual ones (hence, the Navajo nadle * may transgress the sodomy taboo with his partner because he is also a healer). Homosexuality as a limited set seems to be related more generally to the erotic arts of one or another Amerindian culture, and in this sense one may speak of “sacred homosexuality”. It developed as a compulsory relationship between the figure of the berdache and supernatural authority. As Lévi-Strauss writes on the shaman being an integral part of the social system, the berdache is often seen as a shaman, a visionary, a healer, an “exorcist”. He occupies a transitional point in the ceremonies, a privileged place in relation to everything in the symbolic dimension. In every case, the position of the berdache is human-centered rather than eccentric : his knowledge and competence are required to ensure different functions in the life of the group.

Besides, there seems to be no natural correlation between sexual identity (in the biological sense) and occupation (feminine or masculine), as if the second prevailed over the first. It is the character of “Eros” (homosexual or heterosexual desire) to determine “aptitude” for one or another position (feminine or masculine, with the corresponding occupations). On the other hand, clothing behaviour, like occupation, must be neutral in order to apply indifferently to one or the other sex. Thus, because the berdache may not be a man and a woman at the same time, he assumes all the feminine roles even if he must simulate them to do so. If clothing transvestism is the first degree of a more profound transformation, it is also there as an indicator of this metamorphosis : being and seeming have merged.

Thus, transvestism cannot be “shocking” in Amerindian societies. From the start, it is incorporated at the level of custom. Similarly, it is not comparable with transvestism in our societies. What is possible, on the other hand, is to circulate from one sex to the other. There may be reversibility under certain circumstances (as we learned from the case of the Omaha warrior mentioned earlier), and in this situation, there are many passages from one sex to the other for a definite period. This does not mean that we find ourselves beyond sexual differences ; on the contrary, it means that there is an irreducible distance between the sexes, and that this distinction is not biological but rather transbiological. Paradoxically, clothing and comportment are more important as “designators” than biological sex for situating someone as a man or a woman. In most cases, one could only assume women’s behaviour if one had first put on the right clothes. The latter appears to be a decisive criterion for membership in the category of either man or woman.

Observe in this connection that on the physiological level, the berdache is no less a man and certainly no weakling. On the contrary, according to chroniclers and anthropologists, he often appears as a super-man : stronger and more muscular, he is more prosperous, intelligent (“a man of genius”), generous, and gifted (in art and politics) ; without exception, he does not seem sexually impotent either. (Thus, the Navajo nadle * could take a wife and become a man once again.) Physiologically, nothing seems to have predestined him to become a woman (even though sometimes his voice “changed”, there were few signs), but despite everything he became effeminate (in the true sense of the term), at the level of comportment and attitude. These, in turn, form a part of a homogeneous and coherent set. Like heterosexuality, homosexuality is articulated in different social and cultural functions (division of labour and economic, political, martial and religious roles).

Note again that in Amerindian cultures, homosexual practices were not necessarily exclusive of heterosexual practices. The majority of men who had regular relations with the berdaches seem to have had loving relations no less regularly with partners of the opposite sex. They could be married, with several wives, and the berdache could come to occupy the position of “new spouses” (as we have already seen with the Ojibwa agokwa *). Thus, it is not a matter of occasional homosexual relations, of a “latent homosexuality” which manifested itself in a roundabout and irregular way but of habitual and frequent sexual practices. Homosexuality is less “recognized” or “admitted” than it is practiced in regulated or institutionalized ways (as when the male berdache takes the status of wife or the female berdache the status of husband).

For the majority of men or women practicing homosexuality : (a) it seems there is no disjunction or incompatibility between homosexuality and heterosexuality ; (b) only the berdaches had uniquely homosexual practices ; (c) in cases where there was a definite disjunction between homosexuality and heterosexuality, homosexuality seems to have necessarily implied transvestism. This is at least true for male berdaches, and as far as female berdaches are concerned, documentation is lacking – and we might well ask ourselves if this is coincidental (in spite of the case of the Kutenai prophetess) ; and, (d) it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone practicing homosexuality was a berdache or a transvestite. Thus, the majority of partners (men for the male berdache and women for the female berdache) seem to have heterosexual practices. Which is not to say that all “heterosexuals” inevitably have homosexual practices.

It is not, therefore, a matter of the legalization but of the institutionalization of a status. It is altogether inadequate to say that homosexuality is permissible or tolerated. Homosexual or heterosexual relations are regulated according to well-defined terms. The same goes for the male or female berdaches, who constitute a particular case in the set of homosexual practices. Thus, it is less a matter of a “right to be different” than of real and effective recognition of this difference, incorporated into custom. The status of berdache is not marginal. It is not a question of an attitude of tolerance or permissiveness in Amerindian cultures with respect to this difference or “anomaly”. Thus, it is not legitimate to refer to the berdache as a deviant.

As we have seen, the berdache constitutes the indispensable medium for a nexus of essential social and cultural functions : sacred, religious, therapeutic, ritual, martial, political and economic. Because he is at the crossroads of all of these, the berdache is incorporated into the totality of the system.

Apprehensible Enemies
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Two years after the massacre of the Cheyennes who were camped at Sand Creek in 1864, 2 000 Arapahos, Cheyennes and Sioux attacked Fort Phil Kearney. This incident is known to the Americans as the “Fetterman Massacre” and to the Indians as the “Battle of 100 Dead”.

Despite the Treaty of Fort Laramie which guaranteed the Indians freedom in their territory at the time, the Indians were increasingly overwhelmed by the Americans who used the Bozeman and Oregon Trails, along the length of which the army had erected forts.

On December 21, 1866, some warriors decided to attack Fort Phil Kearney. Ten braves belonging to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Minneconjou, Oglala and Brulé Sioux tribes were busy setting up an ambush ; one of them was Crazy Horse. The ambush consisted of luring the soldiers out of the fort and into the area where the other warriors were hidden 82.

This battle ended in a victory for the Indian allies, even though they also suffered fatalities.

But what is most often overlooked in connection with this incident is that before the battle a ceremony took place among the assembled warriors. This was why December 21, 1866 was chosen by the chiefs and medicine men as “a god day to die”.

Here is the ceremony as it was reported to G. B. Grinnell, from his book The Fighting Cheyennes :

Soon a person, half man and half woman -heemaneh 83- with a black cloth over his head, riding a sorrel horse, pushed out from among the Sioux and passed over a hill, zigzagging one way and another as he went. He had a whistle, and as he rode off, he kept sounding it. While he was riding over the hill, some of the Cheyennes were told by the Sioux that he was looking for the enemy – soldiers. Presently he rode back, and came to where the chiefs were gathered and said : “I have ten men, five in each hand ; do you want them ?” The Sioux chiefs said to him : “No, we do not wish them. Look at all these people here. Do you think ten men are enough to go around?” The heemaneh turned his horse and rode away again, riding in the same way as before. Soon he came back, riding a little faster than before and swaying from one side to the other on his horse. Now he said : “I have ten men in each hand, twenty in all. Do you wish them ?” The same man replied, saying “No, I do not wish them ; there are too many people here and too few enemies.” Without a word the half-man/half-woman turned his horse and rode off. The third time he returned, he said : “I have twenty in one hand and thirty in the other. The thirty are in the hand on the side toward which I am leaning.”

“No,’ said the Sioux, ‘there are too many people here. It is not worthwhile to go on for so small a number.” The heemaneh rode away.

On the fourth return he rode up fast and as his horse stopped, he fell off and both hands struck the ground. “Answer me quickly, he said, I have a hundred or more,” and when the Sioux and Cheyennes heard this, they all yelled. This was what they wanted. While he was on the ground, some men struck the ground near his hands, counting the coup. Then they all went back and camped on the Tongue River, at the mouth of the little creek they were going to follow up 84.


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1 Translated by Sheila M. Van Wyck. This essay was originally published in French as “L’Homme-Femme (Les Berdaches en Amérique du Nord)” in Libre, 78(3) : 57-102 Payot, Paris, 1978, and translated into Spanish as “El hombre-mujer”, Vuelta, Revista mensual, número 46, vol. 4, sept. 1980 : 5-21 and número 47, vol. 4, oct. 1980 : 26-35, Mexico.
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