Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures

Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures

Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures

Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures

Synopsis

As contemporary Native and non-Native Americans explore various forms of "gender bending" and gay and lesbian identities, interest has grown in "berdaches," the womanly men and manly women who existed in many Native American tribal cultures. Yet attempts to find current role models in these historical figures sometimes distort and oversimplify the historical realities. This book provides an objective, comprehensive study of Native American women-men and men-women across many tribal cultures and an extended time span.

Excerpt

When the German version of this book was published in 1990, the most exhaustive works about those people in Native American cultures commonly referred to as "berdaches" in anthropological literature--that is, people who partially or completely take on the culturally defined role of the other sex and who are classified neither as men nor as women, but as genders of their own in their respective cultures-- were Callender and Kochems' 1983 article, The North American Berdache,Walter Williams' book, The Spirit and the Flesh (1986b), and the anthology Living the Spirit, edited by Gay American Indians and Will Roscoe (1988). What was still missing was a monographic work taking into account all the available written sources and the great diversity expressed in them. Callender and Kochems' contribution to the subject came closest to accomplishing this task, yet, since it was an article and not a book, its scope necessarily had to be limited. Williams' book, on the other hand, was the first monograph on the North American "berdache," as well as similar phenomena in cultures outside North America. Williams (1986b:4), however, explicitly "focuses on those societies which, at least aboriginally, provided berdaches a respected status." While this is a legitimate approach, it results in a one-sided picture of the role and status of "berdaches" in Native American cultures, leaving the reader with the impression that being a "berdache" in those cultures was a universal, timeless, and blissfully primeval experience (cf. Jacobs,Thomas, and Lang, 1997a).

As I point out in more detail in the introductory chapters to follow, the present book attempts to demonstrate and discuss the great variety of roles and statuses that have been subsumed under the term "berdache." In some Native American cultures, for example, male-bodied "berdaches" traditionally (that is, in the pre-reservation and early reservation periods) were held in high esteem as medicine persons endowed with special powers, but in other cultures their roles and statuses apparently were far more secular and less esteemed. Although "berdaches" of both sexes were certainly not universally highly revered individuals to whom special supernatural potential was attributed, they seem at least to have been accepted in almost all Native American cultures in which they have been reported to exist. The present book was written to explore . . .

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