Many people ask what I know about the berdache — that sacred person in the native world who is said to be “Two-Spirited” — both female and male.
The questioners have read my novel One Is the Sun, which is a historical novel about 19th-century native Medicine women. They have also noted the thread of native people through my gay novels. Berdaches, it’s said, were accepted in the native world, and viewed as having mystical powers. They were colorfully portrayed in the 19th century art of George Catlin and other artists. Some in the gay community today feel a great connectedness with the berdache, and a yearning to be similarly powerful and accepted in American society. Walter Williams has written feelingly of the berdache in his book The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. GLBT youth like to hear about the berdaches.
Centuries ago, this person was the essence of deity and prayer.
I am a Montana metis (pronounced may-TEE by Montanans… it comes from a French word meaning mixed-blood). There is Cree, Cherokee and Lakotah woven through my German, Irish and English ancestry. Through the 1980s, as I wrote One Is the Sun, I searched for my native-American family roots, and found relatives in different tribes, including the Northern Cheyennes. They shared some amazing and hair-raising information that is not in books.
The information forced me to unlearn my assumptions about many things, including the berdache. To understand how a berdache saw himself/herself, or how others in the tribe or band saw this person, a 20th-century American — even a gay or lesbian American — has to put aside all the traditional Judaeo-Christian beliefs about sexuality, and even the western European non-Christian humanistic notions of sexuality. You have to step through the looking glass, into a different world.
Christianity’s perspective on personal and sexual identity is radically different than those of many native American cultures and spiritual systems. So the Christianized person has a hard time getting a fix on different non-Christian social types in the native world — the berdache, peace chief, Medicine person, sacred clown, male and female warrior, buffalo caller, SunDancer, Dog Soldier, sorcerer, storyteller, camp crier, healer, keeper of a Medicine Lodge, native-style prophet. These have no functional counterparts in today’s American society.
Christian European assumptions about cultures and people go so deep in many Americans that we have a hard time understanding the folk tales and historical traditions of native people… what the symbols mean, what the stories are really talking about. At first I stumbled in my attempts to step through the looking glass — away from my own ingrained assumptions, struggling to see how native women healers of the mid-1800s lived and saw the world, so I could write One Is the Sun. (The book was eventually published in 1991.)
To open up the question about berdaches, I’m going to follow a looping round-about trail, over hills and through valleys — like my native grannies often did when I asked a question! It is a complex subject, so I’ll do no more than a few loops in this article. The prophet is a good place to start, because prophets are so familiar to Americans from the pages of the Bible.
Native notions of the feminine
Non-native Americans insist on seeing the native prophet/preacher as a male — and as an Indian Jesus or “Christ-like” figure. Some anthropologists insist that native spiritual traditions are really pre-figurations of Christianity. This is because some classical anthropology operates off an arrogant western European belief that all human spirituality evolves towards monotheism — the Judaeo-belief in one male God, and the Judaeo-Christian belief in that God’s redeemer named Jesus Christ, that are the foundation of today’s western civilization. This belief assumes that monotheism is “better,” “more civilized,” “the only truth.” Whereas systems that honor a God and Goddess, or many gods and goddesses, are viewed as primitive, barbaric and untrue. Stories of native prophets are often called “redemptive allegories” by anthropologists.
Peter J. Powell, a noted anthropologist who was also an Episcopal missionary, made his reputation looking for Jesus and prophets and “redemptive allegories” among the Northern Cheyennes. In the 1980s I studied Powell’s works Sweet Medicine: Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History and People of the Sacred Mountain: A History of the Northern Cheyenne Chiefs and Warrior Societies. In his view, much in the old Cheyenne way was a preparation for Christianity. A case in point was his interpretation of the Cheyenne “culture figure” Sweet Medicine as a Jesus-like prophet. Powell meant well, and was trying to give the Cheyennes some political protection during that painful period (from the 1880s till the 1970s) when the federal government still criminalized native American beliefs and ceremonies. He wanted to destroy the historical stereotype that Indians were painted devil-worshippers — he desired to create a dignified and positive image of the Cheyennes as a deeply spiritual people. I can’t fault him there. Unfortunately much of the real meaning of this old Cheyenne stuff actually stands in direct contradiction to Christian doctrine.
Powell also failed to convey the true degree of bitter philosophical and political disagreement among the Northern Cheyennes at that time. He talked mainly to one faction… the one closest to his own viewpoint, naturally. Part of the disagreement was over the role of women in the tribe — could they be Keepers of sacred things, or not. Predictably, as a typical patriarchal-minded Christian, Powell didn’t talk to many learned women who were still living among the Cheyennes. With the exception of one — Josie Head Swift Limpy (who was distantly related to my cousins) — he confined his interviews to men. So Powell missed the boat on things that women could have told him.
My Cheyenne cousins, who were educated in the old traditions, were both amused and irritated at Powell’s interpretations. “Typical white man stuff,” they said.
The Sweet Medicine tradition
They explained that Sweet Medicine was not a Messiah-type figure, nor even a real historical person. “Sweet Medicine” was a tradition of “renewal of law” that filtered north from Mexico about a thousand years ago. It carried a body of pacifist teachings against war and violence that stands in sharp contrast to, say, the record of Christian conquest, war and violence down through European history. The Sweet Medicine tradition also opposed human sacrifice and slavery as practiced in Mexico and in some North American tribes. The Cheyennes were one people who took the Sweet Medicine movement to heart. The figure of Sweet Medicine in the Cheyenne stories is only a personification, in the same way that we personify the U.S. as “Uncle Sam.”
When Sweet Medicine people first encountered Christianity, they found the story of Christ’s torture and death on the cross, and God’s willingness to sacrifice his son, to be revolting and incomprehensible. The influence of this pacifist tradition among the Northern Cheyennes was what steeled them to resist European conquest and Christian missionizing for such a long time. To this day, in spite of long-time mission presence on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, a significant percentage of the tribe still follow the Old Ways.
I was intrigued at how Powell dismissed women. He penned a single line that went something like, “There were traditions of great women chiefs, and women of great spiritual power.” Then, having whetted the reader’s curiosity, he proceeded to say nothing more about these great women! Powell mentions only in passing that “sweet medicine” is a Cheyenne name for a medicinal root that makes women’s milk flow better. Later, during my One Is the Sun studies, I was able to access yet-unrecorded oral traditions about some of these great historical women — Temple Doors, Black Swan, Earth Thunder (whom my book was about) and others.
The very name of Sweet Medicine tells us, through symbol, that women had a central role in that peace movement. Enlightened women have always opposed violence and war and human sacrifice and wastage of human life, since they are the ones who nurture life most closely. So an anthropologist who believes in a male God and a male Saviour and a male priesthood, has a hard time making sense of a culture where women were priestesses, chiefs, fighters, great legal minds, prophets, magicians and healers!
Generally, U.S. anthropology during that period — from the science’s infancy in the late 1800s till after World War II — was oblivious to information about women’s power in the native traditions. George Bird Grinnell was one of the few who talked to Indian Medicine women. This was because white anthropology reflected the then-prevailing Christian view that women ought not to hold any authority within U.S. society. White women couldn’t be ministers, medical doctors, judges, lawyers, soldiers, politicians. So the fact that much anthropology skips over native women reflects the biases of anthropologists, not the reality of the native world being studied!
Introduction of the Virgin Mary
After Catholicism reached many of the North American tribes, there was a rash of Indian people having visions of the Virgin Mary. In western Montana, some Indian children saw Mary at the St. Ignatius Mission, shortly after the Jesuits started teaching there in the 1840s. Good Montana Catholics still make pilgrimages to that spot! My Cheyenne cousins gleefully pointed out that it was natural for native people — who had so intensely loved Mother Goddess Life, known by loving names like Wakan, Wakanada, Wyomee, Wyola, Essewan, Essewan-Kwan — to see Mary. After all, the European love of Mary has its roots in pagan Goddess traditions. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation tried to rid Europe of “mariolatry” …on grounds that loving Mary was pagan.
“Native people have been seeing Mary in their personal vision quests for endless centuries,” my cousins told me. “After the whites conquered us, these visions were a good way for some of the tribal people to fool the missionaries. This way, they could keep the old ways alive under cover of the white man’s religion.”
Most likely, all this “redemptive allegory” was injected into native traditions after first contact with whites. This process started five centuries ago. By the 1500s, the Spanish took over South and Central America and the American Southwest, while northern Europeans began invading the rest of North America in the 1600s. So when you read old native traditions that were recorded a mere 100 or 150 years ago, and you see “Christian-like material” there, you can’t assume that this material represents the primordial “pre-contact” tradition in all its purity! Most likely that the “Christ-like” material was included in post-contact times.
The Northern Cheyennes, some of whom traded as far south as Mexico, were influenced by Spanish culture as early as the late 1700s. Trading Cheyennes were bringing back strange prizes — horses, woolen blankets, heavy silver crosses — to their families and clans on the northern plains. Some brought ideas from Spanish missionaries they met. In the earliest 19th-century photographs of Cheyennes, you can see these trade crosses being worn by some noted chiefs. But those crosses have no ancient history in the Cheyenne arts! They don’t appear till after contact with missionaries. In his important book Seven Arrows, the Cheyenne writer/thinker Hyemeyohsts Storm touches on these intense conflicts in the 1800s, between Indians who started accepting Christian ideas, and Indians who thought the idea of burning in hell forever was horrifying and ridiculous.
Today it has been impossible to maintain these old native traditions in all their purity. By the 1930s, when the U.S. government finally began to ease up on missionizing, all but a few North American tribal people who knew anything about ceremony, history, herbal medicine, etc. had been either killed or silenced. In a single generation, the loss of vital cultural information can be devastating. Today, with their oral traditions largely devastated, and most native Americans being alumni of the government boarding-school system, many of them have to go to the writings of white anthropologists in order to eke out what tribal elders might know. Consequently, the way native people now retell their own historical and spiritual tales is often highly colored by recent non-pagan influence.
As my cousins said, “We read the same National Geographic articles about Indians and watch the same ‘Discovery’ specials as everybody else.”
Mistranslations and misunderstandings
Another problem is the assumptions by anthropologists about what some key native words and key symbols mean. Sometimes there were deliberate mistranslations. An example is the word “Manitou”, which is familiar to many Americans from casual reading on native American spirituality. It is commonly translated into English as “God.” Imagine my surprise that the word actually means “Goddess.” “Ma” is an almost universal syllable meaning “mother” — it even means “mother” in ancient Egyptian. If an anthropologist knows a native language well enough to hear the informant say “Goddess,” and then deliberately writes down “God,” we have to ask how scientific and ethical he (or she) was being. If he (or she) didn’t know the language and relied on a translator, we have to ask what axe the translator was grinding.
Likewise, the phrase “Great Spirit” is commonly translated as God or Holy Spirit, though its real meaning does not show any tie to Christian theology at all. A more accurate translation might be “the great collective spirit and consciousness of all things existing in the Universe” — meaning that all things, starting with the tiniest molecule of carbon floating in space, are alive and able to enjoy some level of will and consciousness. Whereas the European Christian tradition distinguishes between “animate” and “inanimate” things. So it’s easy for a Christianized American to read these mistranslations and happily believe that peoples in other cultures are leaning towards his own understanding of “God” …when in reality what he is reading is only the translator’s bias.
In the late 19th century, the Sweet Medicine Way collapsed under mounting pressures from white armies and white settlers, who wanted all Indians dead so they could occupy the land. Ultimately many Indians went berserk with grief and loss and bloodshed. They abandoned the old peaceful way, and adopted the “new way”, meaning they waged the same kind of total war as the whites. This resulted in wrangling among the Cheyennes and Sioux and other allied tribes, between the old pacifist tradition — as represented by peace chiefs like Morning Star and Red Cloud — and war chiefs like Crazy Horse who were ready to kill or be killed in self-defense.
The name Crazy Horse designates him as a leader of this nonpacifist “new way,” because the horse was the symbol of new ways coming from the white man. The word “crazy” doesn’t mean mentally ill as Europeans understand it — it means something like contrary or contradictory or going against the grain. So today, many white Americans thrill to the story of Crazy Horse’s last-ditch battles against the U.S. army, but they don’t understand his Medicine name or the real significance of his move to leadership.
This need to understand symbols is very fundamental to seeing what native spiritual or sexual tradition really means — including the berdache. If you can unlock the symbols, you can crack the walnut of meaning.
Book of the Hopi, a favorite sourcebook of mine, tells of one such misunderstood symbol. Frank Waters was a distant cousin on the tribal side, related to my Cheyenne cousins, and I spent time with him and his wife at Taos in the early 1980s. Decades before, the Hopi elders had asked Frank to write the book because they were fed up with white misinterpretations about Hopi tradition. In the book Frank relates a key Hopi story of how the tribe “lived with the Ants” for a while. Most white anthropologists dismiss this story as a “childish fantasy.” How could a tribe of humans possibly go live in an ant hill?
But I finally understood how an animal symbol, in a historical tale, has a clear meaning and a biological origin, as created by people who observed life closely. What do ants do? They live in highly organized societies, with armies and slaves and intensive food culture. And they build complex architecture shaped like… pyramids. Oh… the light dawned for me! The Hopi story was talking about the pyramid cultures of Central America, who were fiercely militaristic and practiced slavery and had sophisticated agriculture. According to the story, the tribe lived in Mexico for a while, before moving north to their present territory.
All the things I’ve mentioned have some bearing on what a berdache is, or isn’t. Now that the reader’s mind is bent this way and that (the way my teachers bent mine!), let’s go back to the berdache.
The truth about Two-Spirit nature
What did the name “Two-Spirit” mean in this vanished native world?
Many spiritual systems of the Americas taught that all being, including Deity, is twinned in nature — both male and female. The symbol of the two Sacred Twins is found throughout the native American world. Creeping patriarchy, as learned from the whites, made both the twins male in some revised traditions, but the symbol in its purest and most ancient form is female and male.
My native teachers pointed out that this philosophy of dualism used to be found everywhere in the world. For male and female to exist in the Deity’s creation, these two powers have to exist in the Deity itself, creation’s source. Even the very word “Deity” in English comes from a root word related to duo that means “two.” The teachers spoke of Goddess and God, Wakan and Sskwan, and compared it to similar twinnings of Goddesses and Gods in the pagan Mediterranean world — Juno and Jupiter, Cupid and Psyche, etc. So the concept of twinned nature is not exactly alien to the person with western European roots. Christianity, however, took the “two” out of Deity and taught that it was only “one,” meaning male. “Monotheism” doesn’t really refer to one God vs. many Gods — it really means “God minus His mate and female partner, the Goddess.”
In this view, all human beings are dual in nature as well — male and female. Humans are seen as minor relatives of the Goddesses and Gods, while animals and plants do not live on this plane of duality. When a human person is born, only one or the other twin usually comes into substance, into life on Earth — the other half remains in the spirit world as a “higher self.” A woman on Earth has a male higher self, while a man on Earth has his female higher self. The higher self is still part of the “total beingness” that each of us have. It can influence us and communicate with us. It can also be hurt, and its powers even diminished, by hatred and nonacceptance by the twin in substance. Men who hate women, or women who hate men, and war on them, end up warring on their own higher selves. The higher self helps preserve and protect the library of spirit knowledge and learning that each individual accumulated through many lives.
Some native American people had a concept like what Eastern philosophies call “karma,” meaning the long-term consequences of our actions through many lifetimes, through our struggle to learn and grow and discover what it means to be human. Each time we die, our twin selves are reunited back in the spirit world. The etymology of the word “die” has its root in the word for “two” also. When we die, we become “two” again — only to separate again upon rebirth in another life. That is the real meaning of the word “death,” which even today — despite Christianity’s effort to purge ancient meanings out of the dictionary — shows clearly that Western language had an ancient understanding of duality in all things.
However, all laws of nature allow for variance and change. Now and then, a person’s karma dictates that both male and female are coming into substance together. These are the Two-Spirit people. Sometimes their dual nature is actually visible in their genitalia, which may include both male and female features. In other cases, the influence of the spirit-world twin is simply felt as an overriding influence coming from the invisible. This explains the urgency with which some transgender people wear clothing of the opposite gender, or seek sex-change surgery. They are not imagining things when they feel that they are “women in a man’s body,” or “men in a woman’s body.”
In Deity, two are mysteriously also one. Thus the forked tree — key symbol of the Sun Dance — expresses that way in which all beingness is one. A woman may have her hidden male side, and a man may have his female side, and a Two-Spirit person may express both genders openly, but each of them are a single Person.
In pre-contact times, native American people had a great reverence for these Two-Spirit people. Quite naturally they viewed Two-Spirits as extraordinary sources of information about human nature. Two-Spirits were healers, artists, prophets — whatever their personal vision impelled them to be. The native world had great respect for personal vision. If you were born a male, but came back from your first vision quest at 13 years old and said your vision told you to live as a woman, your choice was honored. You even got a new name celebrating your choice! Likewise, the woman who said she wanted to live as a man, love as a man, even fight as a man, was able to do that freely.
Few cultures in the native world had a central authority, as in Christianity, that purported to know what was “right” and commanded each person to follow its dictates. There was no Bible-type dictate against cross-dressing. In the old Cheyenne “New Life Lodge” (Sun Dance), the men danced “in their woman,” meaning that they wore skirts, while women celebrants often wore men’s items of clothing. At the center of the people’s dancing circle was the two-forked Sun Dance Tree, symbol of life. The Sun Dance was one of the Cheyennes’ biggest ceremonies, celebrating their awareness that New Life was not possible without the magic energies that flow from twin-ness. They prayed that these twinned powers would flow through the tribe all year.
Old photographs show how this ceremony was still done in early reservation days, before the federal government banned it.
The sacred clown tradition
Some Two-Spirit people were prophets. Others took the role of sacred clown, or Heyoehkah, so-called by some peoples of the northern plains. The clown was a “contrary” whose role was to keep a camp’s social dynamics balanced. If the people were laughing too much over something, the Heyoehkah’s job was to cry. If the people were crying too much, the Heyoehkah laughed. Heyoehkahs were indispensable at major ceremonies, because feeling and experience could get so intense that somebody needed to move in and “lighten things up.”
Some Heyoehkahs were such artists at social commentary that they played an important role at law councils. They were the ones who formally raised issues, or introduced important questions of law into the debating circle — much as legislators introduce bills today. Every four years, until late in the 1800s, the entire Cheyenne nation came together for a great council where they reexamined their body of law. The Contraries helped this process along with great artistry and humor, acting out live scenarios that made people laugh about issues that had burdened them or terrified them. Or they made people cry about questions that needed to taken with more deadly seriousness. In this way the Contraries helped the whole tribe understand why an old law was bad, or why a new law was needed.
This acting-out was called “mirroring,” and it was important as a kind of tribal “media.” The mirroring included a cutting-edge Indian humor and social comment that survived in the great part-Cherokee humorist Will Rogers, who brought it to the white man’s Broadway stage.
Often the old-time Contraries lived as the opposite sex, or simply wore clothing of the opposite sex. Some made a show of doing everything backwards — walking backwards, riding horses seated backwards, to be a living symbol that reminded people of the need for balance. Some Contraries were healers. Some Two-Spirits, known as winktes among the Lakotah people, functioned as go-betweens when marriages were to be made. Here again, we can see some of these things in the old photographs.
Some Heyoehkahs were what we might call “transgender people” today. Others were what we might call “gay,” “lesbian” or “bisexual” — though we can’t equate our 1990s political and social concepts of sexual orientation to those of the 1890s, from other cultures and a more bygone day. Yet other native people simply crossed over, and lived as the opposite gender, but weren’t true Two-Spirit people. Such a one may have been the Blackfoot woman who is the subject of Benjamin Capps’ Woman Chief, a historical book that fascinated me as a child. She lived and fought as a man in the late 1800s, and took a woman as her wife. As the turn of the century approached, with native peoples absorbing the white man’s religious bans on sexual fluidity, she was eventually murdered — possibly by whites, possibly by newly biased people of her own race.
Not surprisingly, European and American missionaries were shocked out of their minds by the Two-Spirit people. Priests and preachers did everything they could to wipe out all shadings of native sexual diversity. Today’s fierce U.S. biases against transgender people have their roots in Old Testament teachings, but they were honed even sharper by these missionary purges of the tribes.
Yet the tradition has survived in some U.S. tribes. When I was with my native teachers, I heard many stories of several great Heyoehkahs, both women and men, who were still active on the northern plains in the 1930-1980 period. I had an opportunity to know two of them — a young bisexual woman and man who worked as a team in the mid-1980s. They were incredibly funny at ceremonies, with a cutting-edge humor that was as contemporary as space travel. They loved to show their “contrariness” to eagle feathers and other traditional trappings by pushing a noisy supermarket cart around the camp with their props in it, and turkey feathers tied to it.
Native humor in American society
Ironically, the Contrary’s unique brand of native humor survives in that unique American figure, the stand-up comic. All great stand-ups, including our own Ellen, trace their power to comment on American social foibles, and their show-biz ancestry, back to Will Rogers. From there we must trace their spirit bloodline to the reservation and the last of the great tribal Contraries and Two-Spirits. Our greatest comics still know how to “mirror” the realities of American life, and the needs for change. Ellen, our most celebrated Contrary, has her own unique offhand style of “mirroring” sexual diversity to a society that is still stuck in monotheism.
The Contrary even finds a distant echo in a more improbable mainstream American arena — that of the rodeo. Native American peoples in the U.S. and Canada have participated massively in rodeo since its birth in the early 1900s. Many rodeo clowns have been Indians or mixed-bloods. Traditionally, even today, rodeo clowns are men who wear some items of women’s clothing, even women’s makeup. Though today’s West operates off the most relentless kind of Christian European machismo, nobody dares to impugn the rodeo clown. His job is to save lives and — incidentally — he keeps people laughing when things get too intense.
I thought of this irony recently, at the gay rodeo in San Diego, as I watched the rodeo clowns lure a Brahma bull away from a fallen rider. At a gay rodeo, the clown’s dress and makeup is not so radical as it might be at the Mesquite Rodeo in Texas. But I was thinking how the concept of a sacred gay two- spirited clown has finally come full circle.
These are only a few of my thoughts on that Person known to anthropologists as the berdache. Human spirituality and human civilization reveals an unending quest to know the nature of Deity, and the nature of human destiny — to know what is true. Today the Two-Spirit person is here to tell us that U.S. laws and social customs outlawing sexual diversity are bad laws, and ought to be changed. The Two-Spirit ought to be not merely accepted, but celebrated as in those days of old. That experience of twoness as “one” is a key stage of our journey to learn what it means to be human.
Maybe the Two-Spirit Person is closer to truly human than the rest of us.
Copyright Patricia Nell Warren. This column may be cross-posted on the internet, without change and in its entirety for noncommercial purposes, without prior permission from the author. To reprint in print or other media, express permission must be asked.
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American novelist, poet, editor and journalist Patricia Nell Warren is best known for her second novel, The Front Runner, the first work of contemporary gay fiction to make The New York Times best seller list.