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Monday, July 20, 2009

Native American Gender Continuum

Berdache Jordan writes:

Many of the world’s cultures recognize more than two genders. The notion that there are those of us who do not fit precisely into either a male or female role has historically been accepted by many groups.

Among Native Americans, the role of third, fourth, or even fifth genders has been widely documented. Children who were born physically male or female and yet showed a proclivity for the opposite gender, were encouraged to live out their lives in the gender role which fit them best. The term used by Europeans to describe this phenomenon is Berdache. "Indians have options not in terms of either/or, opposite categories, but in terms of various degrees along a continuum between masculine and feminine (Williams 80)."

A berdache was one who was defined by spirituality, androgyny, women’s work and male/male homosexual relationships (127). The berdache could adopt the clothing of women, associate and be involved with women, do the work normally associated with women, marry a man and take part in many spiritual ceremonies of the tribe. Female versions of the role also occurred, but are less well documented and will not be discussed in this paper. Generosity and spirituality more than homosexuality and gender characterized berdachism.

In the traditional tribal sense, these roles have often been ones associated with great respect and spiritual power. Rather than being viewed as an aberration, the role was seen as one, which bridged the gap between the temporal and spirit worlds. The spiritual aspect of the berdache role was emphasized far more than the homosexual or gender variant aspect. Because of this, berdaches were highly valued by the people of the tribe.

Given the choice between discarding or honoring a person, who did not fit neatly into rigid gender compartments, many Native American groups chose to find a productive and venerated place for the berdache. A Crow traditionalist says, "We don’t waste people the way white society does. Every person has their gift ( 57)." According to the Mohave creation story, "Ever since the world began, there have been transvestites, and from the beginning of the world, it was meant that there should be homosexuals. (Roscoe, ed. 39)."

link: A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum by DRK


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