B.C. on Gender: The Berdache Tradition

History of the Berdache

In 1530, The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his diary of seeing "soft" native Indian males in Florida tribes dressing and working as women. Later, numerous reports by 17th century Spanish Conquistadors in the southwest, and 15th century writings by Catholic missionaries, French fur traders and British Colonists in the northwest confirmed the same phenomenon in other tribes. Cultural anthropologists later documented this "third gender" status in at least 120 other North American tribes and in numerous other cultures around the world.

They were named by Europeans as berdache" from the Persian "bardaj," originally a derogatory term meaning a passive homosexual partner usually a "pretty" or feminine young boy. Yet, Indian berdache are very different from the European view of "berdaj" as "sodomite heretics" as written about by the Crusaders invading Persia in the Middle Ages.

- Wendy Susan Parker, "The Berdache Spirit"

While 'berdache' is in common use among white gays, Native Americans find the term offensive as it comes ultimately from the Arabic where it means roughly, 'male prostitute'. We do not appreciate having our sacred people referred to in this way. The consensus of opinion is that 'berdache' should not be used and the tribal name should be used when known. There is no consensus of opinion on a generic term, it is safest to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Native Americans. However, some use the term GAI (Gay American Indian) or Two Spirit

- Gary Bowen, Chair, Two-Spirit Conference '98

Kindred Spirits

As I've heard it told, Kindred Spirits -- a group of trans people exploring questions of spirituality -- evolved from an invitation and challenge from Rena Swifthawk in 1992, to find a place for the berdache tradition within Western culture.

If this challenge were to happen today

Native Terms for Berdache

Sabine Lang [1998] compiles the following list of terms for Native American tribes:

Tribe Term Healers?
Achomawi MTF: (men-women) Yes M/F
Acoma MTF: Mujerado ("womaned")
Qo-Qoy-Mo (Effeminate person)
Aleut MTF: Shupan
Arapaho MTF: Haxu'xan
Assiniboine MTF: Win'yan inkwenu'ze
Atsugewi MTF: Yaawa Yes M
FTM: Brumaiwi
Bankalachi MTF: No M
Bella Coola MTF: Sx'ints
Chumash MTF: No M
Chetco River MTF: Yes F
Cheyenne MTF: Heemaneh' Yes M
Cocopa MTF: Elha
FTM: Warrhameh
Coeur d'Alène FTM: St'amia (hermaphrodite)
Cree MTF: Aayahkwew Yes M/F
Crow MTF: Bate
FTM: (woman chief)
Chugach-Eskimo MTF: Aranu'tiq
Dakota (Santee) MTF: Winkta
Diagueño MTF: No M
Eskimo (Chugash) MTF: No M/F
Eskimo (St. Lawrence) MTF: Anasik Yes M/F
FTM: Uktasik
Eyak MTF: (No good)
Flathead MTF: Ma'Kali, me'mi, tcin-mamalks (Dress as a woman) Yes M/F
Gabrielino MTF: No M
Hidatsa MTF: Miati (To be impelled against one's will to act the woman)
Yes M
Hopi MTF: Na'dle (being transformed)
FTM: Nadle
Houma FTM: Femme chef (?)
Huchnom MTF: Iwap kuti
Ingalik MTF: (woman pretender)
FTM: (men pretenders)
Isleta MTF: Lhunide
Juaneño MTF: Kwit
Kaniagmiut MTF: Shupan (?)
Kaska FTM: (Females in a man's role, woman chief)
Kato MTF: No M
Kawaiisu MTF: No M
Kitanemuk MTF: No M
Klamath MTF: Tw!inna'ek Yes M
FTM: Tw!inna'ek
Kutenai MTF: Tupatke'tek (to imitate a woman)
FTM: (manlike woman)
Kwakiutl MTF: (Act like a woman)
Laguna MTF: Mujerado (Man-woman ?)
Kokwimu, kokwe'ma
Lakota (Ogala) MTF: Winkte (Desirous of being women, would-be woman or hermaphrodite)
Lakota (Teton) MTF: Yes M
Lassik MTF: Murfidai ("Hermaphrodite") No M/F
Luiseño MTF: Cuit
Maidu Both: Suku Yes M
Mandan MTF: Mihdäckä (Mih-hä = woman)
Maricopa MTF: Ilyaxi' (impolite)
Yesa'an (polite - barren man or woman)
No M
FTM: Kwiraxame
Mattole MTF: Yes F
Miami MTF: Waupeengwoatar (The White Face)
Miwok MTF: Osabu (Osa = woman)
Modoc MTF: Yes M/F
Mohave MTF: Alyha (Coward?) Yes M/F
FTM: Hwame
Mono MTF: Tai'up No M
Natchez MTF: (Chef des femmes)
Navajo MTF: Nadle (Being transformed) Yes M
FTM: Nadle
Nomlaki MTF: Walusa, tohket (Hermaphrodite, "boy who goes around the them women all the time)
Ojibwa MTF: Agokwa (man-woman or split testicles)
Omaha MTF: Mixu'ga (Instructed by the moon)
Minquga (Hermaphrodite)
Oto MTF: Mixo'ge
Paiute, Northern MTF: Tübas, t'üBáse, moyo'ne, tüBázanàna (polite) Düba's (sterile person) No M/F
FTM: Düba's
Moroni noho Tüvasa
Paiute, Southern MTF: Tüwasawuts, maipots, onobakö, töwahawöts, Maai'pots No M
Panamint No M
Patwin MTF: Panaro bobum pi (He has two (sexes))
Piegan MTF: Ake'skassi (acts like a woman) Yes M
FTM: (manly-hearted woman, female 'berdache')
Pima MTF: Wik'ovat (like a girl)
Pomo, Northern MTF: Das (Da = woman) No M/F
Pomo, Southern MTF: T!un No M/F
Ponca MTF: Misu'ga
Morphodite (hermaphrodite)
Potawatomi MTF: M'netokwe (Manito plus female suffix)
Quinault MTF: Keknatsa'nxwixw (part woman)
FTM: (man-acting)
Salinan MTF: Joyas (Spanish: gem, jewel) No M
Sauk MTF: I-coo-coo-a
Shasta MTF: Gitukuwaki No F
Shoshoni (Lemhi) MTF: Tübasa (sterile)
tenanduakia (tenap = man)
FTM: Tübasa
waip:ü sunwe (woman half?)
Shoshoni (Bannock) MTF: Tuva'sa (Vasap = dry)
Shoshoni (Promontory Point) MTF: Tubasa waip (waip = woman)
Shoshoni (Gosiute) MTF: Tuvasa
Shoshoni (Nevada) MTF: Tuyayap
Tubasa'a (half man, half woman)
Tangwu waip (man-woman)
Tangowaip (man-woman)
Waip: sinwa (half woman)
No M
FTM: Nüwüdüka (female hunter)
Tewa MTF: Kwido
Tillamook MTF: Yes F
Tlingit MTF: Gatxan (Coward)
Tolowa MTF: Yes F
Tübatulabal MTF: Huiy No M
Ute (Southern) MTF: Tuwasawits
No M/F
Wailaki MTF: Clele
Winnebago MTF: Shiánge (Eunuch, unmanly man)
Wintu MTF: No M/F
Wishram MTF: Ikte'laskait No M/F
Wiyot MTF: Yes F
Yana MTF: Lo'ya No M
Yokuts (Kocheyali) MTF: Tonoo'tcim ("undertaker")
Yokuts (Paleuyami) MTF: Tono'cim
Yokuts (Tachi) MTF: Tonochim
No M
Yokuts (Michahai) MTF: Tono'cim No M
Yokuts (Yaudanchi) MTF: Tongochim No M
Yokuts (Wakasachi) MTF: Tai'yap No M
Yuki MTF: I-wa-musp (man-woman)
Iwap-naip (man-girl)
Iwop-naiip (men-girls)
No M/F
FTM: Musp-iwap naip
Yuma MTF: Elxa No M/F
FTM: Kwe'rhame
Yurok MTF: Wegern Yes F
Zuni MTF: Ko'thlama
FTM: Katsotse

According to this table, for example, among the Yurok tribe, shamans/healers were usually femal, and MTF people (Wegern) were also shamans/healers.

Copyright © 2000 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated August 14th, 2000.
Kindred Spirits logo Copyright © by Holly Bowell.

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