Pierrette Désy

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Pierrette Désy

ethnohistoire et anthropologie
Professeure retraitée de l’UQAM

The Berdaches:

“Man-Woman” in North America
Traduit du français à l’anglais par S.M. Van Wyck, anthropologue, 1993.

Un document produit en version numérique par Mme Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole

Professeure à la retraite de l’École Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi, Québec

Courriel : mabergeron@videotron.ca

Dans le cadre de la collection : "Les classiques des sciences sociales"
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professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi

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Un document produit en version numérique par Mme Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole,

professeure à la retraite de l’École Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi, Québec.

courriel :marcelle_bergeron@uqac.ca

Pierrette DÉSY
“The Berdaches : ‘Man-Woman’ in North America.”
Traduction en anglais de “L'homme-femme. (Les berdaches en Amérique du Nord)”. Un article originalement publié dans la revue Libre — politique, anthropologie, philosophie. Payot, Paris: 1978, no 78-3, pp. 57-102.
Traduit du français à l’anglais par S.M. Van Wyck, anthropologue, 1993. Traduction inédite jamais publiée en anglais en version intégrale.

[Autorisation formelle accordée par l’auteure le 27 septembre 2007 de diffuser cet article dans Les Classiques des sciences sociales.]

Courriel : desy.pierrette@uqam.ca
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Édition électronique réalisée avec le traitement de textes Microsoft Word 2003 pour Macintosh.

Mise en page sur papier format: LETTRE (US letter), 8.5’’ x 11’’)
Texte revu et corrigé par l’auteure. Édition complétée le 29 juillet 2008 à Chicoutimi, Saguenay Québec.

Dance to the Berdash
By George Catlin, 1836-1837

University of Virginia Library

Digital Collection.


A Marriage Proposal
I. A Definition

II. The Chroniclers

III. Becoming a Berdache
a) The Man-Woman in Myth

b) Dreams and Visions

c) Roles and Functions

d) Sanctions and Irreversibility

IV. Anthropology and the Berdache

V. The Paradox of the Berdache

Apprehensible Enemies

The Berdache :
in North America 


Pierrette Désy

A Marriage Proposal

Back to Contents

In his exemplary narrative of captivity among the Ojibwa/Chippewa, John Tanner 2 (known as Sashwa’benase or “the Buzzard”) relates how he once received a marriage proposal from Ozawendib (or “Yellow Head”), whose fate it had been to become agokwa” 3, that is “like a woman”.

At the time, Tanner lived on a hunting territory in the Red River region (Manitoba/Minnesota). Like many aboriginal hunters, each spring he took his furs to the North West Company, which was then in keen competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company 4.

The moment Yellow Head chose to join Tanner’s camp was inauspicious ; the winter was harsh and provisions were scarce. The agokwa* was looking for a family in which to become socially integrated, one where he could attend to strictly female tasks. Without such a family, a certain death awaited him ; either from famine, which was rampant, or from warfare. Indeed, the Chippewa, who were allies of the Assiniboine (Siouan) and the Cree (Algonquian), were conducting an on-going war with the Sioux of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The fur trading companies, moreover, were known to have exacerbated such ancestral conflicts.

These, then, were the circumstances in which the agokwa * attempted to join Tanner’s camp, where Tanner’s adoptive mother Netnokwa also lived. Netnokwa was an exceptional woman who scorned neither leadership nor participation in the fur trade.

Here, then, is John Tanner’s narrative :

Some time in the course of this winter, there came to our lodge one of the sons of the celebrated Ojibbeway chief, called Wesh-ko-bug, (the sweet)... This man was one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians. There are several of this sort among most, if not all the Indian tribes. They are commonly called A-go-kwa, a word which is expressive of their condition. This creature, called Ozaw-wen-dib, (the yellow head), was now near fifty years old, and had lived with many husbands. I do not know whether she had seen me, or only heard of me, but she soon let me know she had come a long distance to see me, and with the hope of living with me. She often offered herself to me, but not being discouraged with one refusal, she repeated her disgusting advances until I was almost driven from the lodge. Old Net-no-kwa was perfectly well acquainted with her character, and only laughed at the embarrassment and shame which I evinced whenever she addressed me. She seemed rather to countenance and encouraged the Yellow Head in remaining at our lodge. The latter was very expert in the various employments of the women, to which all her time was given. At length, despairing of success in her addresses to me, or being too much pinched by hunger, which was commonly felt in our lodge, she disappeared, and was absent three or four days. I began to hope I should be no more troubled with her, when she came back loaded with dry meat. She stated that she had found the band of Wa-ge-to-tah-gun, and that that chief had sent by her an invitation for us to join him ... [He] had sent the A-go-kwa to say to me, ‘my nephew ... Come to me, and neither you nor my sister shall want any thing it is in my power to give you.’ I was glad enough of this invitation, and started immediately. At the first encampment, as I was doing something by the fire, I heard the A-go-kwa at no great distance in the woods, whistling to call me. Approaching the place, I found she had her eyes on game of some kind, and presently I discovered a moose. I shot him twice in succession... [but]... he escaped. The old woman reproved me severely for this... But before night the next day, we arrived at Wa-ge-tote’s lodge, where we ate as much as we wished. Here, also, I found myself relieved from the persecutions of the A-go-kwa, which had become intolerable. Wa-go-tote, who had two wives, married her. This introduction of a new inmate into the family of Wa-go-tote, occasioned some laughter and produced some ludicrous incidents, but was attended with less uneasiness and quarreling than would have been the bringing in of a new wife of the female sex 5.
Among other things, Tanner makes the essential point that Ozawendib the agokwa * found a point of entry into a marital context which, from all appearances, seems previously to have been completely normal. And this marriage provoked no scandal. As we shall see, the berdache occupies a precisely coded position in sexual and cultural relations, just as he is assigned an exact place by the logic of the religious system and the ethics connected with it. From the start, because of his status he does not transgress any social rule. On the basis of such premises, we may begin to explore the status, role and function of the berdache in the Amerindian societies of Canada and the United States.
I. A Definition
Back to Contents

All the North American Indian tribes who counted berdaches among them used a special term to designate men and women who, for clearly defined reasons, had chosen to be transvestites. This general term signified both men-women and women-men. In any case, the emphasis was on the notion of passage from one status to another, after a vision, dreams, revelations or signs had made evident the irrevocable character of a fate rather than a calamity.

The word berdache, as it is used in anthropology along with other contemporary terms, comes from the French bardache. According to the French classical dictionary, the Littré, it is an obscene term, which designates a “mignon” or “giton”. Along with the variants bardash and berdash, it was adopted in French to describe a phenomenon peculiar to aboriginal North America. The word berdache is, in turn, related to the Spanish bardaxa, the Italian berdascia, the Arab bardaj, and the Persian barah 6.

The term berdache, however, has often been used indiscriminately to refer to homosexuals, bisexuals, androgynes, transvestites, hermaphrodites and eunuchs. Hence, there is certain confusion for readers. Nevertheless, it is possible to infer from the ethnographic enquiries that chroniclers are speaking in fact about homosexuality even when the term hermaphrodite is used. As Dumont de Montigny says in his Mémoires historiques sur la Louisiane :

Nearly all the authors who have spoken of Louisiana have claimed that the country was full of hermaphrodites. I would not pretend absolutely that there are none as I have not traveled throughout all this large province, but in the parts that I know... I can attest that I have not found any. Also, I am tempted to believe that they have confused and taken for true hermaphrodites certain men who, among the Natchez and perhaps also among many other savage Nations, are called the Chief of the women. (...) ... I have no doubt that this man-woman was the basis for the fable of the hermaphrodites 7.
II. The Chroniclers
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Numerous European chroniclers have reported the presence of berdaches among the tribes they visited. In any case, it is not our purpose here to draw up an exhaustive inventory of known ethnographic facts but rather to analyse the evidence of a social fact which was practically attested to in every area of the Amerindian world : the institutionalised existence of individuals who exceeded the division of the sexes and the rules ordinarily related to that division, and were nevertheless recognized as having transgressed no law from the point of view of the society.

We should note, first of all, the regrettable brevity of the European observers. Certainly, it is understandable that, preoccupied with other objectives, the missionaries, explorers and traders showed little enthusiasm for describing customs which, in their eyes, were reprehensible and would surely not take long to disappear. At once modest and hypocritical, they were content under the circumstances to present an ostensibly exotic eccentricity which could exist only among Savages, whereas this “peculiarity” constituted a total social fact in Amerindian cultures at a time when in European cultures, a homosexual was a “poor bugger”, classified as a criminal.

In fact, if the chroniclers were all in agreement in underlining the “odious” character of this practice, it was because they were all thinking of the same thing : sodomy. As far as we know, they did not realize that this homosexuality was incorporated within a cultural model, which was both total and coherent, and excluded any pathological reference. In the berdache, these travelers saw a model of deviance, “lunatic and distraught”, to speak the language of the XVII century. th In their view, homosexuals were above all professional sodomists, notwithstanding their elevated social position as shamans. Such was the opinion of Baron de La Hontan when he spoke of the Illinois : “They have an unfortunate fondness for Sodomy, like the other Savages who live in the vicinity of the Mississippi River 8. In the XVIII century, another French observer, Jean-Bernard Bossu, made an analogous statement about the Choctaw : “Most of them take up sodomy. These corrupt men wear their hair long and a little skirt like that of the women th.

Needless to say, one must consider the time when those views were aired and realize that for a long time a European homosexual belonged to an “ambiguous category”, either a heretic or a backslider, and that his sexual practices were condemned to the same extent as his religious practices, both being a path which might lead to being burnt at the stake. But if in general the law provided for the severe repression of all aspects of homosexuality, it tolerated them in certain circles. One thinks particularly of the mignons at Henri III’s court in the XVI century or at Louis XIII’s court a century later. Besides, famous examples have come down to our time, such as the Abbé de Choisy, otherwise known as Mademoiselle de Sancy, or the Chevalier d’Eon, whose sex (masculine) was hastily established after his death. However this may be, the word lost this specific connotation when it was taken up first by Canadien Voyageurs, coureurs des bois and Jesuits.

Fortunately, however, the chroniclers left some detailed observations that permit us to form a fairly homogeneous picture. In the XVIthth century, evidence was provided by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, then a survivor with three other companions of the failed Pamfilo de Narvaez expedition in Florida. During his eight-year odyssey in North America, in 1528 he met some berdaches, probably among the Karankawa of Texas :

In the time I was among these people, I witnessed a diabolical practice : a living with a eunuch. Eunuchs go partly dressed, like women, and perform women’s duties, but use the bow and carry very heavy loads. We saw many thus mutilated. They are more muscular and taller than other men and can lift tremendous weight 9

Several years later in 1564, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (who left some very beautiful drawings of berdaches engraved by de Bry), observed that Timicua transvestites in Florida were gifted with therapeutic powers. Recalling that the hermaphrodites were “odious” to the Indians themselves, he wrote:

Persons having contagious diseases are also carried to places appointed for the purpose on the shoulder of the hermaphrodites, who supply them with food, and take care of them until they get quite well again 10.

In the XVII century, Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit who was one of the first Europeans to make his way to the shores of the Mississippi River with the explorer Jolliet, left the following commentary on Illinois berdaches around 1676:

I do not know by what superstition some Illinois, as well as some Nadouessis th, while still young, take to dressing as women and keep to it all their lives. It is a mystery because they never marry and they glory in lowering themselves to do all that women do. Nevertheless, they go to war but they can use only the club and not the bow and arrow which are the proper weapons of men. They help with all sorcery and at the solemn dances which are held in honour of the pipe. (...) They are called to all councils where nothing may be decided without their opinion. In short, because of the profession they make of an extraordinary way of life, they are considered as manitous, that is as protective spirits or persons of consequence 11.

In this commentary, which is moderate in comparison to the others, Father Marquette raises rather different problems : indeed, instead of putting the emphasis upon sexual relations, he is astonished by the fact that these men who go to war simultaneously glory in women’s work. Nevertheless, Father Marquette’s account has the great merit of underlining the political and religious roles of Illinois berdaches. Indeed, the latter are manitous, that is, those who reflect an implicitly sacred character.

Father Joseph-François Lafitau held similar views on religion to Father Marquette, from whom he seems to have borrowed his information. It is interesting to note, however, that despite his condemnation of this curious institution, he sought to explain it :

If there are some women of manly courage who glory in the practice of war, which seems suited only to men, there are also some men who are cowardly enough to live like women. (…) The sight of these men disguised as women surprised the first Europeans to reach the shores of America (...). Although the spirit of Religion causes them to embrace this state which makes them look like extraordinary men, they are nonetheless held in contempt – even among the Savages – as were the priests of Venus, Uranus and Cybele in ancient times, and whether in actual fact they attracted this contempt by submitting to shameful passions, [or] whether the ignorance of the Europeans as to the causes of their condition established the worst suspicions against them 12, the suspicions were so deeply fixed in their minds that they imagined the most unfavourable things they could think of ; this imagination so strongly fired the enthusiasm of Vasco Nugnes de Valboa (sic), the Spanish captain who first discovered the South Sea, that he put many to death, unleashing the ferocious dogs that those of his Nation used to destroy a great many Indians 13.

Lafitau had two hypotheses about the contempt in which berdaches were held. The first related to the sentiments of the Indians themselves and is not supported by any proof except that, in his own eyes, such men gave up their “virility” voluntarily in order to devote themselves to women’s work. The second, on the other hand, concerned the “worst suspicions” of the Europeans and it is amply confirmed even to the point of mentioning elimination. Why would we not expect the institution of berdache to fascinate them ? In a chapter entitled “Of Savage Cannibals and Hermaphrodites”, Dumont de Montigny provides valuable information on the so-called “Chief of the women” among the Natchez :

It is certain... that although he is really a man he has the same dress and the same occupations as the women. Like them he wears his hair long and braided. He has, like them, a petticoat or alconand instead of a breechcloth. Like them he labors in the cultivation of the fields and in all the other labors which are proper to them, and as among these people, who live almost without religion and without law, libertinism is carried to the greatest excess, I will not answer that these barbarians do not abuse this pretended chief of the women and make him serve their brutal passions. What is certain is that when a party of warriors or of Honored men leaves the village to go either to war or to the chase, if they do not make their wives follow them, they always carry with them this man dressed as a woman, who serves to keep their camp, to cook their hominy, and to provide, in short, for all the needs of the household as well as a woman might do 14.

But in reality, these people “without religion or law” possessed extremely complex rituals and mythology, as well as a social hierarchy which was structured in such a way that the different strata (Commoners – Honourables – Nobles – Suns) were in perpetual movement, ascending and descending 15. Consequently, it would be astonishing if the status of Natchez berdaches was not also registered at a highly religious level or if their presence among the men in war or on the hunt had no symbolic importance. In any case, as we shall see below, wherever they may be, berdaches are always surrounded with an aura of mystery, which straight off locates them beyond any specifically male or female status. And if they are not “men like the others”, neither are they “women like the others”.

Let us re-examine some remarks which seem to be even more hostile than those of previous centuries. In 1775, Pedro Font wrote about the Colorado Yumas of the Colorado region :

Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men. The commander called them amaricados, perhaps because the Yumas call effeminate men maricas. I asked who these men were, and they replied that they were not men like the rest, and for this reason they went around covered this way. From this I inferred they must be hermaphrodites, but from what I learned later, I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to those nefarious practices 16.

In the same era (about 1770), another Spaniard, Pedro Fages, said of the Chumash of Santa Barbara (California) :

I have substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession (it being confirmed that all these Indians are much addicted to this abominable vice)… They are called joyas, and are held in great esteem 17.

To conclude, let us turn to two XIX century voyagers. The first, Edwin T. Denig, a fur trader in the Upper Missouri, 1833-56, observed :

Another thing worthy of note with these Crows is the number of Berdêches or hermaphrodites among them. Most civilized communities recognize but two genders, the masculine and feminine. But strange to say, these people have a neuterth.

The second, the artist George C. Catlin, gives a brief and incisive reflection on the subject. He left a very intriguing sketch of the berdache dance (i-coo-coo-a) among the Sauk and Fox :

This is one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs, that I ever met in Indian country, and so far as I have been able to learn, belongs only to the Sioux and Sacs and Foxes — perhaps it is practiced by other tribes, but I did not meet with it ; and for further account of it I am constrained to refer the reader to the country where it is practiced, and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded .

It is pointless to wonder why most of the European explorers – hardly choirboys themselves – who had witnessed much stranger and more impressive rites, were offended. That such an “abominable vice” not be repressed reassured them in the idea they had of the Savages, who represented the very danger which they had escaped in so far as they were civilized, for to speak as one of them, Pedro Fages, this is an “excess so criminal that it seems even forbidden to speak its name” 18. It is of little importance whether or not they were being hypocritical ; these men belonged to their times, and it is what they said that is essential. And what they imply is that the Amerindian homosexual was a “subversive”.

In essence, their testimonies resemble each other. They have the merit of giving us a glimpse of the range of the phenomenon. Thanks to them, we know that the Choctaw and Chumash, Illinois and Natchez (among many other nations), who lived in diametrically opposed milieus whose socio-cultural structures were highly dissimilar, all had institutionalised homosexuality. Berdaches were alike everywhere, with some local variants.
III. Becoming a Berdache

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