21 March 2011

Berdaches and gender variation among Native Americans

Excerpts from The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, by Anton Treuer:
Sex usually determined one's gender and, therefore, one's work, but the Ojibwe accepted variation.  Men who cose to function as women were called ikwekaazo, meaning "one who endeavors to be like a woman.  Women who functioned as men were called ininiikaazo, meaning "one who endeavors to be like a man."  The French called these people berdachesIkwekaazo and ininiikaazo could take spouses of their own sex... The role of ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo in Ojibwe society was believed to be sacred, often because they assumed their roles based on spiritual dreams or visions... 

"I have known several instances of some of their men who, by virtue of some extraordinary dream, had been affected to such a degree as to abandon every custom characteristic of their sex and adopt the dress and manners of the women.  They are never ridiculed or despised by the men on account of their new costumes, but are, on the contrary, respected as saints or beings in some degree inspired."
Those interested in reading online more about the berdaches might try In Search of the "Berdache": Multiple Genders and Other Myths, or the Wikipedia entry on Two-Spirit.

I should add one comment re The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, which I have not included in my recommended books category only because it is rather specialized in content and scope, detailing the life and assassination of Bagone-giizhig.  It is, however, a scholarly and comprehensive work, recommended for those with an interest in Native American history.

Photo credit.  The image is of We'Wha from the Zuni tribe.  Another relevant image here (cannot be embedded).


  1. It always amuses me that it's historically been more acceptable in many cultures for a family to force a member to be asexual (monks, nuns, etc) than to allow them to act on 'non-standard' sexual inclinations.

  2. I'm sorry to nit-pick but the term berdache is considered offensive due it's roots (it's believed to come from a few languages, from a word meaning "male protistute" or "to strike, to wound") and no longer used by anthroplogist in the field. The term Two-Spirit is most often used, and it's proximately the translation of the Ojiwba word niizh manidoowag.

    Wikipedia has a very interesting article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_spirit

  3. And I should've noticed the link to the wikipedia article on the bottom, sorry.

  4. It is a natural occurrence around the world. Our Western culture just likes to oppress minorities so this concept boggles heterosexuals' minds.


    This should not be a TYWK for anyone.

  5. Anon, I think you're a little off there... this IS something most people don't know, so bringing it to their attention helps broadens peoples view of the world.

    I remember studying this in anthropology and being surprised since I had studied GLBT history on my own, but had never come across references on it before, so my teacher opened my eyes to something just as our good friend Stand has done here on his blog regularly.

    Keep it up Stan, I love your blog!


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