Berdache Tradition Essay

Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora Kracaw Kroeber were pioneering anthropologists largely responsible for the establishment and growth of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California. In 1939 Alfred Kroeber published a landmark essay in which he called his fellow anthropologists to task for their reluctance to study the American Indian berdache tradition because of its close link to homosexuality. The berdaches occupied a position of respect among many tribes, serving an almost shamanistic function in tribal culture. They were usually men who cross-dressed as women, and took on many of the tasks and skills associated with the women of the tribe. They also actively engaged in sexual relations with other men, and since it was unavoidable to discuss the berdaches without making reference to homosexuality, most anthropologists chose to turn a blind eye to the practice. For Kroeber, the enlightened treatment of male-male sexuality among �primitive� peoples provided a model from which more �advanced� societies had much to learn.


Psychosis or Social Sanction


To put it in another form, certain of what one calls psychotic phenomena are socially channeled by primitives � standardized, recognized, approved, rewarded � but regarded as wholly outside the approved channel by ourselves.


To this there is at least one parallel in the institutional field: the transvestite, in American ethnology often called the berdache (French from Arabic bardaj, �slave�). In most of primitive Northern Asia and North America, men of homosexual trends adopted women�s dress, work, and status, and were accepted as non-physiological, but institutionalized, women. In Siberia the transformation was generally associated with shamanistic power, control of spirits or possession by them; in America, usually not. In both areas, choice of status was left to the individual; if he decided to transform his sex, he was socially accepted as a woman. How far invert erotic practice accompanied the status, is not always clear from the data, and probably varied. It is conceivable that in some cases there occurred a partial sublimation of specific erotic urges into feminine occupation, dress, and association. The berdaches are usually spoken of as willing as well as skilful and strong workers at female tasks. At any rate, the North American Indian attitude toward the berdache stresses not his erotic life but his social status; born a male, he became accepted as a woman socially.

[Note: The time is ready for a synthetic work on this subject. The cultural data are numerous. On the involved psychology the information is less satisfactory. While the institution was in full bloom, the Caucasian attitude was one of repugnance and condemnation. This attitude quickly became communicated to the Indians, and made subsequent personality inquiry difficult, the later berdaches leading repressed and disguised lives. The fullest account is by G. Devereux, Institutionalized homosexuality of the Mohave Indians, Human Biology, 1937, 9, 498-527. The Mohave are unusually uninhibited both in sex activity and in speech about it. They even recognized women inverts, active female homosexuals, who are rare elsewhere. I suspect that many Indian men understood the phenomenon imperfectly, or misunderstood it. An old Yokuts, born about 1840, who knew the social functions of the transvestites quite well � they were corpse-handlers or �undertakers� among his people � told me that in his opinion they were men who took on female dress and occupation in order to have free association with women and special opportunities for secret heterosexual activity with them. While this may have occurred now and then, it is obviously in the main a rationalized misconstruction by an unimaginatively normal heterosexual.]

Here, accordingly, we have another set of psychiatric phenomena, those of sexual inversion, which our culture regards as abnormal, asocial if not antisocial, and in general views with considerable affect of repugnance, but which certain primitives accept with equanimity and provide a social channel for.

[Note: That the peoples who accept transvestism are essentially those of Northern Asia and America, a continuous area, suggests that the institution is a single historic growth. If it were something characteristic of a certain �state of advancement� it ought to occur much more scatteringly over the world. The ancient Near Eastern development was different: it was associated with specific cults and with mutilation. The pederasty which was more or less openly tolerated in certain advanced civilizations � Greece, later Islam, China in connection with the theater � is also not the same, the emphasis being on sexual practice rather than on transvestite �sublimation,� and scarcely leading to a lifelong status.]

The case is not wholly parallel to shamanism, but is definitely like it in the point of socio-cultural acceptance instead of rejection. Furthermore, in this matter of transvestitism it cannot be said that the difference between the Indian and ourselves is one of greater enlightenment on our part. It is only since eighteenth-century enlightenment that homosexuality has begun to be regarded in the Occidental civilization as somewhat less than the ultimate abomination and offense. Our tolerance toward it has increased in proportion with what we call our enlightenment. And certainly the American Indian system seems to work well from the angle of human happiness: the invert is free to work out his inner satisfactions as he can, without persecution from without; and society does not feel itself injured or endangered. A status adjustment is achieved instead of one of conflict and tension.

At any rate, we have here a second case in which primitives meet a condition stigmatized by us as psychologically pathological, with social tolerance and acceptance if not rewards. Like ourselves, they regard both conditions as not normal, in the sense of not being common, everyday in character, or in line with the majority of experienced events. But their social affects toward these conditions are positive or neutral; ours are negative. This appears to be a better description of the facts than to say that we have come to exceed them in intelligent enlightenment. Undoubtedly we possess on the whole a far greater body of knowledge, criticism, and understanding than the primitives. But it is doubtful how far this increase is responsible for similarly constituted individuals being accorded respect and influence among many primitives and being classed as dements and social liabilities by ourselves. Fundamentally the difference seems rather to lie in institutions, which in turn express the emotional attitudes of society toward its parts and itself.

From Character and Personality, volume 8 (Sept. 1939-June 1940), p. 209-211.

The Psychosexual Spirituality and Worldview of the Shamanic Berdache: A Philosophical Exploration into Two-Spiritedness

Image of two-spirited woman quoted from The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture by Walter Williams.

Once I asked the spirit if my living with a man and loving him was bad. The spirit answered that it was not bad because I had a right to release my feelings and express love for another, that was good because I was generous and provided a good home for children. I want to be remembered most for the two values that my people hold dearest: generosity and spirituality. If you say anything about me, say those two things. (Terry Calling Eagle in The spirit and the flesh, p. 126-127)


Prior to colonial contact, berdachism was a widespread socio-sexual institution; its culture area united North America from coast to coast. Nevertheless, not all Native American societies have acknowledged its existence. Berdachism has been a prevalent practice among the tribes of four particular regions: firstly, the Prairies, the western Great Lakes, the northern and central Great Plains, the lower Mississippi Valley; secondly, Florida and the Caribbean; thirdly, the Southwest, the Great Basin, and California; and fourthly, throughout pockets of the Northwest, western Canada, and Alaska (Williams, 2004, p. 136). With the Westernization of gender roles, this culture area continues to decline into non-existence.

During and after the colonial encounter, the word “berdache” was eticly applied to American Indians, and its etymology—according to Angelino and Shedd’s, Massimiliano’s, and Thayer’s translation—is highly derogatory; it denotes a “catamite,” a “kept boy,” a “male prostitute,” an “old whore,” or a “sex slave” (Angelino & Shedd, 1953; Massimiliano, 1997; Thayer, 1980). However, the negative connotations of this Eurocentric term have fallen out of usage, and it is, according to Massimiliano, the precursor to the Native American concept of two-spirit (Massimiliano, 1997). For practicality, this essay will use the term “berdache” to refer to the diversity of native-specific terms, such as winkte (from Lakota) and nadle (from Navaho).

A berdache is an anatomically functioning male or female who has acquired an interstitial gender identity, whereby they are neither male nor female, but they assume at least some of the characteristics and occupations of their opposite sex. Moreover, in the case of intersex individuals, North American cultures often classify them as berdache. This gender construct has a gestalt structure: a berdache is more than his or her constituent male or female parts. Thus, a berdache has his or her gender-specific roles as a mediator in either male-female or physical-spiritual relations.

In this essay, I will examine berdachism as an indicator of American Indian methods of achieving social cohesion, solidarity, and stability. Firstly, I will focus on the ontogeny of berdachism. This section will, furthermore, be divided into the socialization and enculturation processes of berdaches. Secondly, I will suggest the secular nature of berdachism. This section will examine the berdache’s role in clothing, occupation, and sexuality. Thirdly, I will comment on the spirituality of berdachism. This section will, moreover, be organized into the berdache’s association to Native American mythology and worldview. As its theoretical framework, this essay will take a structural-functionalist perspective. Finally, this essay will argue that berdachism—for the majority of Native American societies—increased social stability.


The berdache initiation process, in anthropological literature, primarily centers on one of two themes. Prominently, this gender construct comes from supernatural validation—which typically takes the form of a dream or vision at adolescence. Alternatively, this gender construct results from the efforts of a child, who identifies himself or herself with the identity and role of his or her opposite gender. In this sense, an individual’s behaviour is often self-fulfilling because it will permit society to accept and treat him or her as a berdache. Moreover, both forms of berdache initiation focus on a community’s transformation of an individual’s gender identity. These socialization processes are functional because they strengthen the links between individuals and society.

Native American cultures intensify social stability by accepting gender variant individuals through initiation rituals. In these kin-based societies, it would be highly dysfunctional and immoral to exile members whose alternative lifestyle can provide an economic and perceptual benefit. Therefore, to avoid the disruption of kinship groupings, American Indian societies sanctioned—even encouraged—an individual’s choice to assume the berdache gender. Among the Papago, a child’s decision of objects—either a basket or a bow and arrow—determined his or her gender identity; for example, if a boy chose a basket, he would become a berdache (Callender & Kochems, 1983, p. 451). The Mohave believed that a child’s response to music established the presence of berdachism; for example, if a boy chose to dance to the music, he effectively renounced his masculine gender (Williams, 2004, p.138). These ceremonial practices respect the spirit, character, and agency of the initiates by letting them take an active and authoritative role. In this sense, society is able to reinforce its connection with divergent individuals by reincorporating them into a new gender identity.

The berdache initiation ritual indicates social solidarity because its participants internalize and project societal beliefs and values. In Native American cultures, the berdache rite of passage valued experiential knowledge in the form of dreams or visions, which allowed individuals to surpass “logical thought and connect with the higher reality of the supernatural” (Williams, 2004, p. 138-139). Therefore, the berdache initiation ceremony was encouraged because it recreated the spiritual and epistemological basis of American Indian society. For the Lakota, the presence of White Buffalo Calf Pipe, a hermaphrodite, in a vision quest signified that the individual was to become a berdache (Williams, 2004, p.139). Other dream symbols, like the moon, were indicators of the berdache gender (Thayer, 1980, p. 289). In Dakota dreams or visions, Double-Woman offered men “a choice between male and female implements, the later made them berdaches” (Callender & Kochems, 1983, p. 451). The content of these dreams and visions validate the power of Native American worldviews by having an influential impact on the initiate, who, in turn, reinforces the cultural paradigms of society. In other words, the dreamer’s account of the supernatural is evidence of its existence.


Berdachism is an American Indian institution with incredible variation—especially in the shifting nature of role reversal. Taking advantage of cultural contexts, a berdache was able to assume gender-specific characteristics to optimize occupational or sexual opportunities. For instance, a berdache was not limited to weaving or hunting; thus, seasonal patterns of prosperity were probably indicators of a berdache’s occupational preference. The dress of berdaches often conformed to the masculine or feminine activities that they pursued (Schnarch, 1992, p. 112). Although a berdache’s dress was either male or female, the clothing had minor variations in structure and iconography to accommodate the physique and personality of the berdache (Logan, 1996). In a “win-win” situation, the berdache gender benefits individuals with the ability to exploit shifting prospects, and it also benefits society by providing a divergent identity by which men or women could define their gender.

The economic productivity of berdaches enhances social stability because Native American societies took advantage of their industrious nature. Throughout the anthropological record, berdaches often gained prestige through there resourcefulness and generosity, but they also embraced humility to preserve the egalitarian social structure of American Indian culture (Callender & Kochems, 1983). Since male berdaches were free from menstruation, pregnancy, and child-care responsibilities, they were “ever ready for service, and [were] expected to perform the hardest labors of the female department” (Williams, 1986, p. 58). In other words, male berdaches had more potential to accumulate and to contribute wealth and technique than women, who were participating in other forms of labour. Interestingly enough, female berdaches demonstrated a similar pattern of thriving in male occupations: Woman Chief was “equal to any Crow man as a hunter; significantly, she was able to support four wives” (Callender & Kochems, 1983, p. 447). Furthermore, the spiritual power of the berdache validates their economic prosperity because their work carried supernatural power, which is highly valued in North American societies (Williams, 1986, p. 60).

The sexual functions of the berdache encourage social cohesion by creating and strengthening human bonds. The berdache as a mediator between the sexes facilitated the amicable interaction of males and females. For example, berdaches organized matchmaking dances, whereby their skills as “love-talkers” united young lovers (Thayer, 1980, p. 290). In addition, the medicine of berdaches often took the form of love potions due to their “stored sexual power” (Klieger, 1984, p. 31). During times that heterosexual contact was taboo, the berdache became a necessary outlet for sexual activity (Williams, 1986, p. 101). In this sense, society created sexually specific periods that promoted the incorporation of the berdache. However, this does not mean that the berdache is an institutional form of homosexuality because their gender is neither male nor female: the word “multisexual” is closest to the folk definition of berdache sexuality (Schnarch, 1992, p. 109). The sexually permissive attitudes of the majority of American Indian cultures may account for the acceptance of berdachism.


The berdache in the majority of Native American mythologies and worldviews is a vital figure in maintaining social stability. Since the berdache primarily achieves this through the gender-specific role of mediator in either male-female or physical-spiritual relations, it would be highly dysfunctional to disregard this institution. In addition, American Indian societies would not prohibit berdachism because they recognized gender diversity along a masculine-feminine continuum, which allowed societies to accommodate individuals that did not conform to male-female dichotomies (Williams, 1986, p. 80). Therefore, the berdache is seen as a natural extension of native gender systems.

Native American stories confirm the societal importance of berdachism by focusing on their role in creating stability. In Zuni creation stories, ko’lhamana, a Zuni spirit of agriculture, transformed into a mediating spirit after being captured by the enemy hunter spirits; this transformation allowed ko’lhamana to unite the two spirit groups through peacemaking skills that merged agricultural and hunting lifestyles (Williams, 2004, p. 136). Since the Zuni berdache was connected to ko’lhamana, they were seen as existing for a special purpose: the improvement of society. Oneroad and Skinner document Dakota stories that reveal some of the berdache’s spiritual power. For example, the berdache blessed people with secret names that could prevent illness and death when they were vocalized (Oneroad & Skinner, 2003, p. 195-196). Taking King’s maxim, “The truth about stories is all that we are,” into account, the truth of these two stories suggest that American Indian cultures that recognize berdachism cannot be defined outside the realm of this institution (2003). In other words, the berdache is a functional and essential part of Native American societies.

The worldviews of American Indians account for the advantageous nature of the berdache. This is evident in the positive attitudes of Hill’s informants towards berdachism: “If there were no more nadle, the country would change. They are responsible for all the wealth in the country. If there were no more left, the horses, sheep, and Navaho would all go” (Williams, 1986, p. 63-64). In other words, berdaches are obliged to prevent the destruction of humanity. With this belief system, it is no wonder that the berdache is revered. Furthermore, Native American religions express this reverence through the notion that the Great Spiritual Being is neither male nor female but a combination of both (Williams, 2004, p. 136). Therefore, the berdache is the closest emulation of the divine realities that are expressed in Native American cosmologies. As a physical manifestation of the supernatural, the berdache is able to communicate the spiritual basis of society to American Indians.


As I have elaborated, berdachism is a socio-sexual institution that is characterized by dressing patterns and gender constructs that neither men nor women shared. The berdache ceremonies of initiation reveal socialization processes that stress the importance of human agency in Native American culture. The economic and sexual diversity of the berdache is vital in its shifting nature that benefits both individuals and societies. Although similar to shamanism, berdachism is differentiated by its gender-specific mediator roles and otherworldly services. This leads to the notion that berdaches were unique and unparalleled in American Indian societies. Ultimately, this institution is a Native American method of increasing social stability.

In a broader sense, berdachism directs academics to the discussion of gender in their own societies. As I have lived in a Euro-Canadian society, I have found that its gender system presents a false dichotomy: an individual is either male or female. Western institutions have vehemently defended this dichotomy as a reality—especially in the practices of “corrective surgery” that denies intersexuals or hermaphrodites the right to live as they were born. In ignoring the voices of those who do not conform to this rigid ideal, I have a feeling that Western societies are silencing the human spirit. If academics are to “undichotomize” Western concepts of gender, they must look to cross-cultural systems that recognize the plurality of gender.

List of References

    Angelino, H., & Shedd, C. L. (1953). A note on berdache. American Anthropologist, 57 (1), 121-126.

    Callender, C., & Kochems, L. M. (1983). The North American berdache. Current Anthropologist, 24 (1), 443-470.

    King, T. (2003). The truth about stories: A native narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.

    Klieger, P. C. (1984). The berdache as shaman: An analysis. Lambda Alpha Journal of Man, 16 (1), 29-39.

    Logan, M. H. (1996). Identifying berdache material culture: An anthropometric and statistical approach. Tennessee Anthropologist, 21 (1), 67-78.

    Massimiliano, C. (1997). The berdache as metahistorical reference for the urban gay American Indian community. In M. Marie (Ed.), Past is present: Some uses of tradition in native societies (pp. 113-129). Lanham: University Press of America.

    Oneroad, A. E., & Skinner, A. B. (2003). Being Dakota. Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

    Schnarch, B. (1992). Neither man nor woman: Berdache—A case for non-dichotomous gender construction. Anthropologica, 34 (1), 105-121.

    Thayer, J. S. (1980). The berdache of the Northern Plains: A socioreligious perspective. Journal of Anthropological Research, 36 (3), 287-293.

    Williams, W. L. (1986). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Williams, W. L. (2004). The berdache tradition. In E. Angeloni (Ed.), Annual editions: Anthropology (pp. 135-140). Guilford: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

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