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social sciences

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Native Americans  
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A social role for individuals who crossed or mixed male and female characteristics was one of the most widely distributed institutions of native North America--a continent otherwise noted for its cultural diversity (as many as three hundred languages and four hundred distinct societies at the time of contact). Such roles for males (and, likely, intersexed persons) have been documented in 155 tribes, with about one-third of these also having a named role for women who adopted a male lifestyle as well.

Although there are no reliable data concerning the numbers of such persons in various tribes, they were numerous enough among the Timucua of Florida and the Hidatsa, Crow, and Cheyenne of the Plains to be recognized as a social group that functioned cooperatively. Among the Hidatsa, there was said to be 15 to 25 miáti in a village, while informants of the small Yuki tribe of California recalled as many as 30.

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Anthropologists adopted the term "berdache" to refer to such individuals, following its frontier usage by whites and natives, having been first introduced by the French. Today, native people often prefer the neologism "two-spirit," both to refer to historic "berdaches" and as an identity label for lesbian, gay, and natives. In native languages, a single term sometimes served to identify both male and female berdaches (thus denoting a third gender), while in others distinct terms were employed for each (denoting third and fourth genders).

Signs of Berdache Status

The most visible sign of berdache status was cross-dressing, although this practice was far from universal and often symbolic in nature. In some cases, male berdaches dressed differently from both men and women, or they did not cross-dress at all, or only partially or for special circumstances. Similarly, despite the clichéd description of berdaches as "doing the work of the opposite sex," they just as often combined men's and women's activities with pursuits unique to their status.

Berdache roles can be viewed as alternative or multiple genders because the individuals who occupied them were consistently distinguished from both men and women, and because these roles were multi-dimensional. Berdaches differed from men and women in all the dimensions that women and men differed from each other--work, social status, cultural meanings, and sexuality. Berdache status, like that of "man" and "woman," functioned as a core identity.

Individuals who became berdaches were typically identified in childhood by their families based on a marked preference for activities of the "opposite" sex. Since these inclinations were apparent before puberty, sexual preference was usually secondary in defining berdaches. In some tribes, a boy's entry into berdache status was formally marked. Shoshone, Ute, Kitanemuk, and Pima-Papago families staged a ritual test in which the boy was placed in a circle of brush with a bow and a basket (men's and women's objects respectively). The brush was set on fire, and whichever object the boy picked up as he ran out determined his gender identity--if the bow, male; if the basket, berdache.

Sexual Activities

Although male berdaches typically engaged in sexual relations with non-berdache males, and female berdaches with women, some had relations with both men and women, and occasionally heterosexually married men became berdaches on the basis of dreams or visions. (The one sexual pattern not attested is that of berdaches in relationships with each other.)

Many third and fourth gender natives had active sex lives. The Navajo nádleehí (literally, "changing one"), Kinábahí, claimed to have had sex with over one hundred different men. The Sauk and Fox held an annual dance in which a berdache, or aya'kwa, appeared surrounded by "her" lovers. Lakota winkte bestowed bawdy nicknames on the men who visited them, and warriors sometimes had sex with them before going to battle as a means of increasing their own virility.

Indeed, third and fourth gender individuals were often viewed as having special aptitude in all matters relating to love and sexuality. Navajo nádleehí, Cheyenne he´eman, and Omaha minquga were matchmakers; Pawnee berdaches made love charms for men. The Mohave alyha: (male) and hwame: (female) were considered lucky in finding lovers, and if they became shamans, they specialized in the treatment of sexual diseases.

Berdaches as Seers

Berdaches were believed to be fortunate in economic pursuits as well. According to a Navajo saying recorded in the 1930s, "A nádleehí around the hogan [house] will bring good luck and riches." Indeed, nádleehí were often entrusted with the management of their families' resources. Berdaches also had a reputation for luck in gambling. Lakota winkte could convey this good fortune through the lucky names they gave to infants. From good fortune to the ability to foretell the future is a small step, and, indeed, Lakota winkte and berdaches in other tribes were sometimes seers, an especially useful skill when war parties needed to locate and surprise enemies.

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