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Unformatted text preview: term as well. Coined around 1999, the
word was actually invented by urban gay and lesbian Native Americans. The term has sometimes been co-opted to include the berdache.
That seems inappropriate for at least two reasons. First, there is some
evidence that gay and lesbian native Americans coined the word to distance themselves from the berdache. 4 Secondly, the berdache are neither Alternatives 147 gay nor lesbian. That doesn’t seem to fit with the way the berdache see
Berdache have also been described as homosexuals because they do
at times have receptive sex with men. But the term homosexual has no
meaning within the culture of the berdache. Native American men having sex with berdache do not consider this a homosexual act, because
berdache are not considered men.
Europeans also called the berdache transvestites and hermaphrodites, and neither of those terms is accurate either. The problem with
English and French (not to mention all the other European languages)
is that those languages were born of cultures that saw the world differently from indigenous North Americans. Our words cannot easily hold
this other world.
The names for these people vary from tribe to tribe, as do their
cultural roles and their lives. Among the Navajo, these not-men are
called nádleeh, and the Mohave call them alyha. In other tribes, they
are absent altogether. And even though there are dramatic differences
in the behavior and the roles of the berdache between tribes, there are
many similarities. All cross-dress to some extent, all take up the occupations of the other sex, all have sex with men (but not exclusively),
all use special language, and they all are, or once were, recognized as
having spiritual power.
Most often, the boys who will become not-men manifest themselves
in childhood by their fascination with the things and the ways of women.
Interestingly, in most tribes where there are berdache, there are also women
who are not-women. And like the boys, these women usually identify
themselves in childhood by their fascination with weapons and horses.
So the Navajo recognize four sex/gender variants: men, women, femalebodied nádleeh, and male-bodied nádleeh. Sex between male nádleeh and
men or between female nádleeh and women is accepted by the Navajo as
a normal form of behavior. However, there are strong taboos against sex
between two men, two women, two female nádleeh, or two male nádleeh.
Not-men are in fact not men, and not-women are something beyond other
The social roles of these people can be extremely complex. One 148 Between XX and XY remarkable example of this happens with the alyha of the Mojave Indians. The following description relies heavily on information in the book
Gender Diversity by Serena Nanda.5
Alyha, though they have penises and testicles, do not see themselves
as men. And even during sex, they ignore their erect penises and expect
their partners to do the same. As alyhas reach adulthood, they actively
seek husbands. Once an alyha finds and marries a man, she begins to
simulate menstruation. She does this by cutting herself between her
legs with a sharp stick or stone. Her husband and her friends treat the
alyha just as they treat any other Mojave girl who has entered puberty
and menstruated for the first time.
As the marriage continues, about once a month the alyha cuts herself and bleeds. But after a time without children, some husbands of
alyhas threaten them with divorce, because children are important to
the Mojave. When that happens, the alyha stops cutting herself and
bleeding, and she begins to observe all of the tribal taboos that surround pregnancy. Then she publicly announces her pregnancy, something most Mojave women never do. For the next months, the alyha
stuffs increasingly larger rags into her skirt. Then, at about nine months,
she begins to drink a tea that will constipate her. That goes on for a few
days until her stomach pains become so severe they are—just like labor
pains—apparent to everyone, and she can no longer stand them. Then
she goes into the trees and bushes, digs a hole and, in the same position
as a Mojave woman giving birth, the alyha defecates into the hole. She
and others treat her feces as they would a stillborn child and bury them.
The alyha and her husband cut their hair and descend into a period of
deep mourning, just as Mojave couples who have lost children do. And
the alyha has saved her relationship with her husband.
For the sake of convenience, I have used the pronoun she throughout this description, but clearly, alyhas are not exactly women.
And though berdache often took up the jobs of women in their societies, their roles varied. They were not, as some trappers and others
suggested, cowards or failed men. One fascinating example is the Crow
Indian Finds Them and Kills Them. Finds Them and Kills Them’s dress
was striking. In one picture he wears the headband of a warrior and the Alternatives 149 dress of a woman. In one hand he holds a knife, in the other a shawl. A
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This document was uploaded on 02/04/2014.
- Spring '14