Native American Women and Berdachism

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Research into Native American Women and Berdachism:
A Review of the Literature

The purpose of this paper is to explore the lives and different roles of Native American women. In this paper we will discuss the term berdache, what it means and how it played an important role in the lives of Native American women. Furthermore we will be discussing an article by DRK, in titled A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum. This article will help us discover how berdachism seemed to blur the lines between male and female roles.

In the article by DRK, entitled A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum, (1) the author points out how Native Americans seem to recognize more then two genders categorizes. Unlike most Americans who only accept male and female gender categories, many different tribes could have as many as five different categories for gender roles. One such category was referred to as Two- Spirit; the Europeans later dubbed this Berdache. Quoted from Shadi Rahimi, “The term "Two-Spirit" refers to a belief among some tribes that there are people who manifest both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities.”(3) In further detail this category referred to a man or women that had the outer appearance of one sex, but felt like the opposite sex on the inside. An example of this would be a man who had genitals of a man but displayed behaviors of a woman. This term was also used to describe a child born with both genitals, clinically referred to as a Hermaphrodite. So how did this affect the traditional roles of a man or women? In order to answer this we must first understand the different roles. What Are The Traditional Gender

Roles Within a Tribe?
Traditionally, women played the role of the mother/caretaker of the people. Their jobs included cooking, cleaning, tending to the children, gardening, beadwork, weaving, pottery and providing shelter for their families. In addition, some women could also earn enough status to participate in religious rituals or act as medicine women. According to the writings of The Wind River Rendezvous, (author unknown), “Women enjoyed a great deal more independence and security than the white women of that era.”(4) In most tribes women were viewed as a life-giving force to their future generations. They were often idolized and the inspiration of many songs and myths that were passed through generations. (4) However this was not understood by the European explorers of the day. Even today many people view Native American Women as powerless members of their tribes, mere slaves to their husbands in a male-dominate society.

The male’s role in a traditional tribe was quite different from that of the female. Men were seen as the protectors of the people. Men were the ones who bravely went into battle. They were also the hunters and spiritual leaders, who performed the rituals and ceremonies of the people. They were the brave and strong people among the tribe. So what happened if someone didn’t fit into one of these role categories?

When The Lines Between Male And Female
Roles Where Blurred, Where Did One Fit in?
In spite of these seemingly starkly different gender roles, there was a great deal of freedom allowed before assuming an adult gender role. If a child was born who didn’t seem to fit neatly into one of these two genders they were thought to have a special spiritual power to connect between the temporal and spirit world. This is where the term “Two-Sprit” comes from. When Europeans came over and started to force their influence onto the Native Americans they called Two-Spirit people “Berdache”. The Europeans then proceeded to remove all traces of berdachism from the Native American culture. This attempt by the Europeans was almost entirely successful. However, within the last three decades Native American gays and lesbians have been trying to rekindle this tradition. So who were the berdache people and what role did they play?

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