Berdache (from French, from Arabic bardajo meaning "kept boy") is a generic term used by some for a third gender (woman-living-man) among many, if not most, Native American tribes.
Term Offensive to transgender Native Americans
There are terms for these individuals in the various Native American languages, and the term "berdache" is frequently rejected as inappropriate and offensive by Native Americans, many of whom prefer Two-Spirit, which usually implies a man spirit, and a woman spirit, living in the same body.
Because of the colonial (European) origin of the term "berdache," transgender people of many tribes and nations view the term as highly offensive and as being of similar ilk to the expressions used as a derogatory terms for other races and groups of people including African Americans. "Berdache" is a term assigned to an entire range of life expressions that vary greatly from one tribal tradition to another and has the effect (intended or not) of creating one big "pan-Indian" genderal expression. Consequently, the promulgation of this term, except historically, appears antithetical to the most basic principle of transgenderism, namely the recognition of the variety of human and gender expression. The continued application of this term reflects a very Euro-American (white) point of view and the use of it self-referentially represents the worst kind of cultural appropriation, a form that isn't accurate in its genesis.
These individuals are often viewed as having two spirits, and two sexes, at the same time. Their dress is usually mixture of male and female articles. They have distinct gender and social roles in their tribes. For instance, there was one ceremony during the Sun Dance that was performed only by a member of this group. (See winkte.)
Function in society
Two-spirit individuals perform specific social functions in their communities. Some are counselors, therapists of sorts, while others are shamans or spiritual functionaries. They study skills including story telling, theater, magic, hypnotism, healing, herbal medicine, ventriloquism, singing, music and dance.
The word "berdache", though not universal, is most often used today to signify a traditional cross gendered "male" performing in a shamanic function in any society from Native American (with the above semantic caveat) to Siberian to Island-Pacific. There are descriptions of two-spirit individuals having strong mystical powers. In one account, warring braves of a rival tribe ride up to attack a group of foraging women when they perceive that one of the women, the one that does not run away, is a two-spirit. They halt their attack and retreat after the two-spirit counters them with a stick, determining that the two-spirit will have great power which they will not be able to overcome.
Some examples of Berdache or Two-Spirit tradition
Some examples of Berdache or Two-Spirit tradition in history include the Spanish conquistadors who met a two spirit shaman in every village they entered in Central America and whom they then killed. The Hopis used to hold a ritual in which a 16 year old boy was dressed as the Corn Goddess. All the men of the village then performed anal sex with him in order to bring fertility to the corn crop for the year. Subsequently a huge feast was held in the youth's honor.
Expansion beyond Native American society
Today, groups of cross gendered male bodied persons have picked up the tradition of the two-spirit and put them into practice. These groups include the Radical Fairies, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and others.
The (Piegan) Blackfoot do not have well documented male Two-Spirits, but they do have "manly-hearted women" (Lewis, 1941) who act in much of the social roles of men, including willingness to sing alone, usually considered "immodest", and using a men's singing style. (Nettl, 1989, p.84, 125).
Alternate spellings are Two Spirit and Twospirit.
- Male: Winkte (short for Winyanktehca)
- Female: Koskalaka
Two-Spirit like identities outside of North America
- okule (male to female)
- agule (female to male)
- Northwest Two-Spirit Society - See The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture by Walter L. Williams
- The Two-Spirit Tradition article at the Androgyne Online site
- The Two-Spirit Tradition article in the Androphile Project site
- Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits includes links to other two-spirits groups
- GLBTQ.com: Berdache
- Readers may use this email link to report errors and/or omissions they have discovered, or to add additional material or comments regarding this article "Berdache"
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