Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The 'Berdache'/'two-Spirit': A Comparison of Anthropological and Native Constructions of Gendered Identities among the Northern Athapaskans

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The 'Berdache'/'two-Spirit': A Comparison of Anthropological and Native Constructions of Gendered Identities among the Northern Athapaskans

Article excerpt


This article argues that anthropologists have conceptualized gender variance among Native North Americans without paying sufficient attention to the ways in which indigenous practices 'construct members of a community "as" woman or "as" man (or member of other gender categories)' (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992: 463). The article is divided into three parts. The first focuses on issues of definition and terminology in anthropological studies of Native North American gender identities. The second challenges recent claims that the status of 'berdache' existed, and continues to exist, among Northern Athapaskans. I argue that in identifying some Northern Athapaskans as 'berdaches' anthropologists err in two ways: they read into the ethnographic record more than is there, and they fail to consider indigenous constructions of personhood and gender. The third and final part examines how personhood and gender identities are constructed among the Dene Tha of Chateh, a Northern Athapaskan population of northwestern Alberta, Canada.(1) I describe the beliefs of the Dene Tha in reincarnation and the ways in which they identify certain individuals as 'being made again' in a sex other than their previous one. Cases of cross-sex reincarnation are discussed to illustrate how, in such cases, Dene Tha social and linguistic practices construct personal dual gender identities.

Native North American gender variance: issues of definitions and terminology

Let us first consider definitions of the category 'berdache' or 'Two-Spirit' as a means of conceptualizing gender variance among Native North Americans.(2) At issue are the processes whereby anthropologists define categories for descriptive and comparative purposes, and argue for their applicability to specific ethnographic data. For the purpose of this discussion I have selected four definitions, drawn from well-known contributions to the literature.(3) Jacobs (1968: 273) defines the 'berdache' as 'one who behaves and dresses like a member of the opposite sex'. According to this definition the 'berdache' is a case of gender-crossing, as is argued also by Angelino and Shedd (1955) and by Whitehead (1981). Against this view, Callender and Kochems define the 'berdache' as 'a person, usually male, who was anatomically normal but assumed the dress, occupation, and behaviour of the other sex to effect a change in gender status', a change that resulted in an 'intermediate status that combined social attributes of male and female' (1983a: 443). Callender and Kochems are thus opposed to earlier views of berdaches 'as biologically abnormal hermaphrodites or "degenerates"' (1983a: 443) whose biological and psychological destiny it was to assume socially deviant roles (Herdt 1994: 23).

Callender and Kochems suggest that the 'berdache' status is a mixture of two genders and constitutes a distinct third gender. This is not quite so, however, for Blackwood (1984: 3-4), who argues that the berdache role 'is not a deviant role, nor a mixture of two genders, nor less a jumping from one gender to its opposite', but rather 'a separate gender within a multiple gender system' (Blackwood 1984: 3-4). Roscoe (1994: 338) also maintains that the 'berdache in fact occupied a third gender role or in the case of tribes with both male and female berdaches and distinct terms for each, a third and fourth gender'. According to Roscoe, the key defining features of these third and fourth genders are productive specialization, supernatural sanction and gender variation. Of these features, dressing 'has proven a more variable and less reliable indicator ... than previously assumed' (1994: 332-5; see pp. 333-4 for illustrations of Navajo and Crow 'berdaches').

While Jacobs (1968: 1983), Callender and Kochems (1983a; 1983b), and Roscoe (1994) all apply the term 'berdache' to both males and females, Blackwood and Williams apply it only to males. Williams (1986:2) defines a 'berdache' as 'a morphological male who does not fill a society's standard man's role, who has a non-masculine character' but who 'has a clearly recognized and accepted social status'. …

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