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social sciences

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Native Americans  
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The spiritual dimension of alternative gender roles varied in different tribal belief systems. Among Plains tribes, characterized by what anthropologists term a "vision complex," dreams and visions defined one's identity and imparted luck, talents, insights, and power. Men sought visions for success in hunting and warfare; women sought visions for inspiration for their arts; and male berdaches, among the Mandan, Lakota, Assiniboine, Arapaho, Omaha, Kansa, Osage, and Oto, had dreams and visions of female deities or the moon that served to endorse their identity and convey unique skills.

Skill in Tribal Arts

Of the various traits attributed to berdaches by far the most common was skill in tribal arts. As Ruth Benedict related in Patterns of Culture, "The Dakota had a saying, 'fine possessions like a berdache's,' and it was the epitome of praise for any woman's household possessions." Among Plains tribes, this meant proficiency in working with hides, which were used to make everything from clothing to shelter and elaborately decorated with quillwork, beads, paint, and other treatments. In California, berdaches were renowned for their basketry; in the Southwest, berdaches like the Navajo weaver Hastíín Klah and the Laguna potter Arroh-ah-och were innovators as well as masters of traditional arts.

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Among the Pueblo Indians, whose religious life was centered on collective ceremonies rather than individual vision quests, berdache status was sanctioned by myths and tales. These relate the origin of multiple gender roles and provide accounts of supernatural berdaches--like the Zuni Ko'lhamana, the Navajo Begochídíín, and the Storoka of Acoma-Laguna legend, an entire tribe of berdaches. Sometimes these deities were portrayed in masked dances, as well. In several tribes, berdaches filled special roles in religious ceremonies. Cheyenne he´eman directed the tribe's victory, or scalp, dance; Crow and Hidatsa berdaches selected the tree used for construction of sun dance lodges; and Navajo nádleehí were often medicine men.

Relationship to Warfare

Perhaps the most misunderstood dimension of alternative genders in North America was their relationship to warfare. In the early twentieth century, anthropologists often characterized the berdache role as a stopgap for men who failed to live up to the (presumably) hyper-masculine standards of tribal society. There are indeed recorded instances of men forced to cross-dress in certain tribes based on some ignominy, and male captives similarly treated. However, as Ruth Landes found among the Winnebagos, men who were afraid to go to battle were consistently distinguished from berdaches, "who had a dream."

In fact, berdaches were intimately involved in several aspects of tribal warfare. Early reports from the Southeast and the Texas gulf indicate that berdaches throughout that region joined war parties to provide logistical support and sometimes to fight. Some male and female berdaches were celebrated for their war exploits, like the Crow Osh-Tisch or Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them, the Ojibway Yellowhead, and the Kutenai female berdache Qánqon-kámek-klaúlha. In Yuman and Pueblo mythology, third and fourth gender figures appear as warriors.

Underlying the role of third and fourth genders in tribal warfare was a broader association of these roles with the mediation of life and death. This is evident in Cheyenne and Mohave scalp ceremonies in which male berdaches were responsible for handling the scalps of newly killed enemies and conducting ceremonies to transform their dangerous and violent power into life-giving power for the tribe as a whole--in particular, the promotion of sexuality and fertility. This association with death is also evident in various California tribes, where berdaches served as undertakers and mourners.

The connection of alternative gender status with beliefs about death were a function of the nonprocreative nature of berdache sexuality. Some native terms for berdaches literally mean "sterile" or "impotent." All these associations--between death, fertility, sexuality, creativity and inspiration, and gender difference--point to an archaic level of belief difficult to grasp from a Western perspective.

Prestige of Berdaches

In some tribes, third and fourth gender persons could attain significant prestige. According to early French accounts, Illinois ikoueta went to war, sang at religious ceremonies, gave advice at councils, and were considered "manitou," or holy. Some berdaches were key figures in tribal history--the Crow Osch-Tisch, who fought in the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876 and resisted government efforts to suppress his role; the Zuni We'wha, who traveled to Washington, D. C. in 1885 dressed as a woman and met President Grover Cleveland; and the Navajo Hastíín Klah, who also traveled widely in the white world and created large scale weavings depicting religious themes that helped transform what had been a craft into a fine art.

Scattered ethnographic reports suggest, however, that in some tribes berdaches were held in low esteem (Pima). Some contemporary natives sometimes deny that their tribes had such a role or such persons (Cahuilla). Ambivalent attitudes toward berdaches sometimes reflect fear of their supernatural power. In many cases, however, there are simply no data for determining the presence of absence of alternative genders.

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