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

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)."

With the arrival of European settlers and pressure from Christian and governmental sources, the tradition of the berdache changed in dramatic ways. The homosexual aspect of the role was all that was seen by the whites. The white powers attempted to remove all traces of berdachism.

As Native Americans began to convert to Christianity, internal pressure developed to disown the berdache tradition within the Indian Nations. Although pockets of traditional berdache practice survived, these were seen primarily among the old. As these people began to die off, the tradition, which had gone underground for the most part, was lost to upcoming generations.

In the last three decades, interest has been rekindled in the tradition. Disenfranchised Native American gays and lesbians searching for a means to access their spiritual heritage looked to the traditions and found much in the berdache role. As groups became reacquainted with the role, questions arose about its definition and application. Still in the formative stage, the reexamination of berdachism has provided many with a foothold by which they are able to step back into becoming meaningful members of society.

Lee Staples, founder of American Indian Gays and Lesbians, said "... I thought all there was to our lives as gays was the bar scene and sex, but to explain our lives as Indian gays and lesbians is to look at our spiritual journeys. It has much more depth on a spiritual level (Roscoe, Changing 108)."

Some Native Americans object to the very word used to describe the special role of berdache. Some sources say the term has its origins in an Arab word for male prostitute or "kept" boy and was coined not by the Indians, but by Europeans. Will Roscoe, author of several books on the topic states the problems involved with choosing a term "creates as many problems as they solve, beginning with the mischaracterization of the history and meaning of the word berdache. As a Persian term, its origins are Eastern, not Western. Nor is it a derogatory term, except to the extent that all terms for nonmarital sexuality in European societies carried a measure of condemnation. It was rarely used with the force of faggot, but more often as a euphemism with a sense of lover or boyfriend. (17)."

Those who object to the term feel the implications are derogatory and insulting. In addition and perhaps more importantly, it is felt the term berdache does not speak to the many facets of the role. This is of course very true as the role has many variations and aspects.

All tribes that recognized the role, had their own terms for it. Using these terms would be ideal, but as Roscoe also points out, " order to speak of traditional statuses generally, to compare roles of different tribes and those for males to those of females, it is necessary to have an umbrella term to refer to the subject. (19)".

Out of respect for the Native American culture, much deliberation took place about whether to use the term berdache or to substitute some other term for it in the remainder of this paper. Although the term Two Spirit has come into vogue among Native Americans, I have chosen to follow Mr. Roscoe's decision to use the term berdache.

Much of the anger and frustration expressed about the use of the term stemmed from Native people's experience of being studied and often misinterpreted by white anthropologists and is therefore certainly acknowledged. Considering Will Roscoe's well-respected position within the area of study and his obvious good intentions and love for the people, I feel confident in following his lead. The following is a very limited glimpse into the amazingly complex world and history of the berdache.

The consideration of alternative genders does not come easy to most Americans, but many traditional Native American tribes had no trouble accepting berdache into their midst. The concept of a gender continuum, completely separate from biological sex types is something widely accepted by Native cultures. Many native religions explain the concept of the berdache.

The Arapaho of the plains believe the role existed due to supernatural gifts from birds or animals (Williams 22). The Creation story of the Colorado Mohave "speaks of a time when people were not sexually differentiated". In the Omaha language, the term for berdache meant, "instructed by the Moon" (29). Many myths warned not to try to interfere with the fulfillment of the role. Consequences could be dire and sometimes resulted in death (23).

In a similar vein, the belief was strong that no one should not resist spiritual guidance when lead to follow the berdache path (30). This, combined with a level of respect sometimes bordering on fear, lead to acceptance with blind faith that the berdache was indeed a gift to the tribe; someone to be honored and cherished.

Many tribes believed that the person was lead by a spiritual experience into the role. A boy was never forced into the role but rather was allowed to explore his natural inclination (24). They often went through some sort of ceremony to determine their path. Because berdaches were believed to have great spiritual vision, they were often viewed as prophets (42).

The following sentence seems to sum up the overall feeling of the Native American about differences among their people. " By the Indian view, someone who is different offers advantages to society precisely because he or she is freed from the restrictions of the usual. It is a different window from which to view the world."

In 1971, a Sioux shaman interviewed a winkte (berdache). "He told me that if nature puts a burden on a man by making him different, it also gives him a power" (42). The Zapotec Indians around the Oaxaca area in Mexico, staunchly defend their berdache's right to adopt different gender and sex roles because "God made them that way."(49). The emphasis in defining the role is placed on the person's character and spirit and not on the sexual aspects.

Nearly all tribes honoring the berdache status had different names for the roles. Most sources used suggest using the specific name associated with the tribe and this was done whenever possible

The Lakota call their berdache Winktes. The Mohave call theirs alyha. Lhamana is the Zuni word for berdache as is nadleeh among the Navajo. There are literally dozens of others; most being variations on a general root word that is used in a certain geographic area (Roscoe, Changing 213-222). The berdache role also exists among peoples of the Southern American continent and various other places in the world as well. In Mexico, Zapotec people call their berdache ira' muxe (Williams 49)..

Some Definitions

There are many definitions of being berdache. Some of the many found are listed below.

1) "Berdache has been employed to refer to special gender roles in Native American cultures that anthropologists have interpreted as ceremonial transvestitism, institutionalized homosexuality and gender variance/multiple genders." (Jacobs, Thomas and Lang 4).

2) ".....a berdache can be defined as a morphological male who does not fill a standard society's man's role, who has a nonmasculine character (Williams 2)."

3) In 1975, in their book, The Female of the Species, Martin and Voorhies wrote, "sex differences need not necessarily be perceived as bipolar. It seems possible that reproductive bisexuality establishes a minimal number of socially recognized physical sexes, but these need not be limited to two (Roscoe, Changing 123)."

4) In The Zuni Man/Woman , author, Will Roscoe describes the famous We'Wha as "a man who combined the work and social roles of men and women, an artist and a priest who dressed, at least in part, in women's clothes (Roscoe, Zuni 2)."

Anthropologist, Evelyn Blackwood felt "The berdache gender is not a deviant role; nor a mixture of the two genders, nor less a jumping from one gender to its opposite, nor is it an alternative role behavior for nontraditional individuals who are still considered men and women. Rather it comprises a separate gender within a multiple gender system (Roscoe, Changing 123)."

Suffice it to say the subject is complex and often seems to defy description. There are common attributes, however. These vary from group to group, but a core set of four traits is shared.

Specialized work roles- Male and female berdaches are typically described in terms of their preference and achievements in the work of the "opposite" sex and/or unique activities specific to their identities.

Gender difference - In addition to work preferences, berdaches are distinguished from men and women in terms of temperament, dress, lifestyle and social roles.

Spiritual sanction - Berdache identity is widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams, and/or it is sanctioned by tribal mythology.

Same-sex relations - Berdaches most often form sexual and emotional relationships with non berdache members of their own sex" (Roscoe, Changing 8).

The role of berdache was determined during childhood. Parents would watch a child who seemed to have a tendency toward living as berdache and would assist him in pursuing it rather than discouraging him. At some point, usually around puberty, a ceremony would be performed which would formalize a boy's adoption of the role. One ceremony commonly practiced involved placing a man's bow and arrow and a woman's baskets in a brush enclosure. The boy went inside the enclosure that was then set on fire. What he took with him as he ran to escape the flames was believed to be indicative of his spiritual guidance to follow or not to follow the berdache path (Williams 24).

It is important to remember that Indians do not consider this role one that is a matter of personal choice. They generally believe that one who follows the path is following his own spiritual guidance. The important feature here is living a life true to one's spiritual path. In most cases, a person assumes berdache status for life, but in the case of a nineteenth-century Klamath berdache named Lele'ks, the role was abandoned. He began wearing men's clothing, acting like a man and married a woman. His reason for doing so was because he had been instructed to do so by the Spirits.

Following spiritual direction is the key issue in assumption or abandonment of the role (25). "Of those who became berdaches, the other Indians would say that since he had been 'claimed by a Holy Woman, ' nothing could be done about it. Such persons might be pitied because of the spiritual responsibilities they held, but they were treated as mysterious and holy, and were respected as benevolent people who assisted others in time of starvation (30)."

Berdaches excel in weaving, beadwork, and pottery; arts associated almost solely with the women of the tribe. We'Wha, a famous Zuni berdache was an accomplished weaver and potter as well as a sash and blanket maker. Her pottery was sold for twice that of other potters in the village (Roscoe, Zuni 50-52). Berdache men are also involved with cooking, tanning, saddle-making, farming, gardening, raising children, basket-making (Williams 58-59).

One notable attribute of the berdache is that the work of these people is greatly prized both within and without the tribe. "To tell a woman that her craft-work is as a good as a berdache's is not sexist, but rather the highest compliment" (59) Because of their superior quality, work done by the berdache is highly valued by collectors and tribal members as well. There is a belief that some of the spiritual power of the maker has been transferred to the craft itself. Some believe that the exquisite art is itself a manifestation of that power (60).

In addition to craftwork, berdaches are known to be strong family and community members. They were traditionally considered assets to the tribe and were sources of great pride. A man raised with his berdache cousin said, "The boy lived as though he had some higher understanding of life (52)."

Many berdaches adopt children and are known to be excellent parents and teachers. Native Americans as a whole readily accept adoption of children and traditionally share in child rearing among their kin (55). They excel at cooking, cleaning and all other domestic duties. Many, such as We'Wha, took great pride in being able to provide their families with the ultimate in comfort, nourishment and nurturing.

Throughout the literature there are references to the berdache finding no greater purpose than that of serving his fellow tribesmen. Hastiin Klah, a famous Navajo shaman and berdache was written about with much love and respect by the wealthy Bostonian, Mary Cabot Wheelwright. " I grew to respect and love him for his real goodness, generosity -and holiness, for there is no other word for it.... When I knew him he never kept anything for himself. It was hard to see him almost in rags at his ceremonies, but what was given to him he seldom kept, passing it on to someone who needed it... Everything was the outward form of the spirit world that was very real to him (Roscoe, ed. Living 63)."

In terms of child rearing and education, the berdache fulfil an important role. They not only adopt children of their own; they are often involved with the care of other's children. One of the best examples of this is within the Zuni culture. All adult members consider themselves responsible for the behavior of all the children within the tribe. An adult passing the misbehaving child of another will correct the child. We'Wha was reported to have benefited from this as a child herself and became noted for her excellent way with children as she matured and became a berdache (Roscoe, Changing 36).

Today, the practice of berdaches being involved in child rearing persists and seems to be gaining importance in tribes where abuse and alcoholism abound. "Terry Calling Eagle, a Lakota berdache, states, 'I love children, and I used to worry that I would be alone without children. The Spirit said he would provide some. Later, some kids of drunks who did not care for them were brought to me by neighbors. The kids began spending more and more time here, so finally the parents asked me to adopt them.'

After those children were raised, Terry was asked to adopt others. In all, he has raised seven orphan children, one of whom was living with him when I was there. This boy, a typical masculine seventeen-year-old, interacts comfortably with his winkte parent. After having been physically abused as a young child by alcoholic parents, he feels grateful for the stable, supportive atmosphere in his adoptive home. (Williams 56)."

The berdache role is most often characterized by a tendency to a pacific temperament, but they were known to go to war or on hunts on a regular basis. Some cultures took the berdache along to do the cooking, washing, caring for the camp and tending to the wounded.

Their presence among the warriors was valued because of their special spiritual powers. Occasionally, a berdache would participate directly in warfare. This dispels the argument among early anthropologists that the role was adopted as a means of avoiding warfare. The Crow berdache Osh-Tisch, which means Finds Them and Kills Them got his name by turning warrior for one day in 1876. He took part in an attack on the Lakota and was distinguished for his bravery (68-69).

Because of their unique position as neither male nor female, berdache would act as counselors for marital conflict. Among the Omaha tribe, they were even paid for this service. Berdache also performed the role of matchmaker. When a young man wanted to send gifts and get the attention of a young woman, the berdache would often act as ago between with the girl's family (70-71).

One of the most notable aspects of the berdache is their association with wealth and prosperity. Because they were subject to menstruation, pregnancy or tied down to nursing infants, they were able to work during times when women could not. In addition, their greater musculature made them strong and able to endure long days of hard labor. They were known to do almost twice the work of a woman. "...the berdache is ever ready for service, and is expected to perform the hardest labors of the female department (58-59). " When a man wished to marry a berdache often her ability and inclination to work hard was a large part of the attraction.

Although there is much fluidity in alternate gender behavior, a berdache reaches some absolutes when it comes to adopting biological female roles. This limitation has not eliminated attempts at mimicking such female biological processes such as menstruation and pregnancy. The Mohave alyha were known to have gone to great lengths to simulate mock pregnancies. They would self induce constipation and then "deliver" a stillborn fecal fetus. Appropriate mourning rites and burial were performed with the involvement of the alyha's husband.

Alyha also simulated menstruation through scratching their legs until they bled. They would then require their husbands to observe all the taboos associated with menstruation. They had never been observed attempting to nurse infants, however (Roscoe, Changing 141). Sometimes an alyha would fake a pregnancy to stop her husband from trying to leave or divorce her on the grounds of infertility (Roscoe, ed. 38).

Certainly one of the most entertaining stories associated with the berdache adoption of female dress and attitude comes from We'Wha. In 1886, she went to Washington DC to meet President Grover Cleveland accompanied by anthropologist and debutante, Matilda Coxe Stevenson. Because she passed easily as a woman, she was allowed into the ladies rooms and boudoirs of the elite. She delighted in telling the Zuni upon arriving home that "the white women were mostly frauds, taking out their false teeth and 'rats' from their hair." One woman gossiped, "To hear Mrs. Stevenson give Waywah's description of the way a society lady in Washington 'makes herself young again' was exceedingly amusing (Roscoe, Zuni 71)."

The traditional berdache was known for living within a strong moral code. Their ethics were above reproach and they were valued as peacemakers and settlers of disputes (Williams 41). They accepted the duties of the role and tried to exceed the expectations of others in how well they performed. Not only were they adept at settling disagreements among tribe members, but they also could act as intercessors between the physical and the spiritual world (41).

The tribes held them in great esteem and were quite respectful and often frightened of their connection with the spirit world. This seems to be one reason traditional berdaches were not harassed or bothered. Most tribes believed it very dangerous to attempt to interact with the spiritual realm and felt fortunate to have a berdache in their midst to perform that task.

Although berdache often fulfilled the role of caring for the sick and wounded, they were not usually shaman, but rather ones to whom the shaman would turn for guidance. As a Lakota stated, "Winktes can be medicine men, but are usually not because they already have the power (36)."

Berdaches were closely associated with dreams and visions. In some cultures dreams were believed simply to guide the person and, as such were considered a benevolent force. In others, such as the Maricopa, adoption of the berdache role was associated with "too much" dreaming (Roscoe, Changing 145-146).

Among the Plains tribes, it was the berdache who was assigned to bless the sacred pole for the Sun Dance ceremony, the most important religious rite of the culture. Their association with anything on a spiritual plane brought luck to the ritual or the person involved. Berdaches are often in charge of preparing the dead for burial. Among the Yokuts, tongochim were so esteemed, they were allowed to keep any of the deceased's belongings they chose (Williams 60).

In the Potawatomi tribe if a berdache groomed the hair of a man going on a hunt, it was thought to provide "special spiritual advantage and protection for the hunter (36-37)." Although they could be among the most gentle and loving members of a group, if crossed, they could become vindictive and formidable foes, a characteristic, which underscores the mystery and power of the role (103).

In relation to the spiritual nature of the role, people approached their relationships with the berdache, as they would have with a deity, with awe, respect and a sense of acceptance without needing to fully understand.

As opposed to European views of sexuality, Native Americans experience sex as more than a means of reproduction. It is also an activity to be enjoyed and appreciated. Sexual pleasure is considered a gift from the spirit world. As a result, most traditional tribes felt no inhibition in regard to sexual relations. Children were exposed to the sight of adults having sex and some ceremonies involved sex on an orgy level (88). Additionally, sexual contact was not necessarily limited to one's spouse or to the opposite sex; thus same sex activity was not the exclusive realm of the berdache (90-91).

There are some characteristics of the sexual practices of berdache, which differ from those of other same sex relationships. Berdaches almost always observe an incest taboo which involves the avoidance of sex with another berdache. One explanation for this is that sexual partner of the berdache must, by nature, be masculine (93). This belief is consistent with the emphasis on the gender aspects of the role rather than the sexual aspects. It also dovetails with the information on berdache marriages to masculine men. In these unions, the berdache is considered a wife and is valued by the husband not only for the domestic duties the berdache performs, but also for the socially acceptable homosexual relationship.

In a sense, Native American cultures have institutionalized and socially sanctioned homosexual relations by utilizing the berdache role as the preferred same sex partner. When men want to have male/male sex, they are encouraged to do so with a berdache (95).

The usual sexual behavior of the berdache is to take the passive role in anal intercourse. At times they may indulge in oral sex or take the active role in anal intercourse, but this is not widely talked about. If a berdache wishes to take an active role, it is usually done only in secret and with a partner who can be trusted not to talk. This is also true of the feelings of the man involved with a berdache. If he wishes to assume the passive role, he will try to keep the activity secret.

Another distinctive aspect of berdache sex is that during foreplay and actual intercourse they generally do not like to have their genitals touched. ".... Intercourse with an alyha is surrounded by an etiquette to which the partner had better conform; or else the man could get in all sorts of trouble. Kuwal, a Mohave man who had several alyha as wives, said "they insisted on having their penis referred to as cunnus (clitoris) (97)." ".... I never dared touch the penis in erection except during intercourse. You'd court death otherwise, because they would get violent if you play with their erect penis too much (98)."

Berdaches frequently are available for sex with both unmarried adolescent boys and married men who occasionally seek out same sex partners. Because of this, female prostitution is not needed. Traditional berdaches were also available as sexual partners during hunts and in war parties (102). This was yet another reason why they were welcomed on these excursions.

During research on the Internet, I came across the website of Berdache Jordan, an "Other". His site is listed under "Hermaphrodite-The Other Gender" and he states he is a true genetic hermaphrodite, having the rare DNA karyotype XXXY (mosaic). He has both male and female characteristics. From a scientific standpoint one theory that explains his genetic makeup is that his mother produced two ova and the eggs were fertilized separately as fraternal twins. Sometime during the gestation, the two eggs merged. If one egg was destined to be male and the other female, the ambiguous gender of hermaphrodite could occur. There is a chance this could have been caused by incest, which is a distinct possibility in this case according to his writing. Another possible cause could have been fertility drugs, but these were not available at the time.

At the time of his birth, he was assigned as an "open birth" meaning the medical staff could not determine his sex. In a subsequent e-mail to me, he described himself as an "abandoned, premature miscarriage." Later he was given two birth certificates and finally was legally recorded as a male. He was given an ambiguous gender nickname along with both a girl's and a boy's name by his foster parents. During his years as a child growing up, several members of his family abused him in every way imaginable. At age sixteen, he was able to put a stop to the most invasive sexual abuse by taking massive doses of testosterone to maximize his secondary male sex characteristics. He was abused by both sexes and stated that there seemed to be a need for these people to live out their sexual fantasies with him as the victim.

Berdache Jordan alludes to having been in several all male environments such as the military, jails and prisons and passing as a macho male during that time. He states he did not succumb to homosexual relations during this time, even though they were common in prison, especially. He was too inhibited and traumatized by his abuse history.

"Actually, the only way I could even have a homosexual relationship would be to have sex with someone like myself (not likely)." He married and divorced two "normal" women and raised three children as a single parent. He writes eloquently about the pain and healing that have been the substance of his life. He is writing a book titled Masquerade which is close to publication.

In one of his e-mails, he wrote, "As to your 'I began to wonder how present day transgender people were feeling', I can't answer this as I am not now 'transforming to some other gender, nor am I transforming my biological sex (as in transsexual). I am intersexual, of both sexes." He goes on to explain his attempts to pass as masculine through hormone supplements and concludes with, "I contributed to society as a male, better perhaps than some who were born of the single male sex.

Were circumstances different I could have contributed and performed as a female too. How well we will never know, as I have the legal identity as a male, assigned by our western culture, which denies my existence except as a single sexed person. Every social application form has a limited answer to the blank Male----- Female-----. Choose one or we will. It is the path of least resistance... and the law. If your question above was addressed to me... how intersexuals are feeling, I would have to answer, denied, disenfranchised, occasionally happy, productive at times, sad and human X two."

After "meeting" this man via the Internet, the far-reaching possibilities of the berdache role began to shift and deepen for me. I was struck with the realization that although Berdache Jordan does not fit the precise definition of the word, there is a sense that this is the perfect title for him. It seemed perhaps to speak to some of psychological healing he seems to have done. It seems to imply a return to a healthy way of perceiving his existence on this planet. His journey must be a very difficult one and I like to think that having the ability to assume an identity that seems to suit him even if it is not totally accurate according to the literature seems right somehow.

There must be others like him and perhaps rekindling the traditional can help the healing process. In a world where differences are sought out and exaggerated, is this a traditional role that perhaps can embrace and empower those who would otherwise be without definition? Does the spiritual basis of the role give a sense of purpose and of belonging to the universal human family?

In the cold and sterile medical world, does the berdache role offer nurturing and being seen and appreciated for being different? In a society that must have people categorized, does the role provide a delicious array of variations? I like to think so.



Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Long. Two-Spirit People. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Jordan, Berdache. A Berdache's Odyssey. 1997. Online. Internet. 4 April 1999. Available

Jordan,Berdache. "Re: Just Touching Base." E-mail to the author. 01 April 1999.

Roscoe,Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Roscoe, Will, ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Complied by Gay American Indians. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

---.The Zuni Man-Woman.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Williams, Walter L.The Spirit and the Flesh, Sexual Diversity in the American Indian Culture.Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2007, August 9). A Native American Perspective on the Theory of Gender Continuum by DRK, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: March 15, 2016

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