Early Historical Documentation

It would be incredibly convenient if there were a book from 1502 that gave every tribal name and all their ceremonies.  Unfortunately, such a book does not exist.  Ideas regarding sexuality among the various tribes of the ‘New World’ is difficult to find for a variety of reasons.  Some tribes simply had no method for recording their histories other than oral tradition.  Other groups, though they had written languages, may be indecipherable.  Still others may have documents but those documents contain in-culture references that do not make sense to someone who did not live among them.  

What most historians and anthropologists are left with are interpreting the few surviving stories and the records of foreign explorers who had their own agendas and interests in what they chose to record.  But there are clues to how many tribes regarded what we now call ‘homosexuality’ and they offer valuable insight into pre-colonial tribal ideas.

First it is necessary to explain a term that became popular during the pre-colonial period and was therefore used several times in the documents of colonial authorities.  Concepts of what would eventually be popularly called “Two-Spirit” in the later part of the 20th century, differed from tribe to tribe as did the ceremonial and social roles they performed.  

These differences were collectively summarized in an early term for men and women who did not behave or dress in a way that European explorers found appropriate.  That term was “Berdache”.  The term is now seen as derogatory since it originated as a reference to a male prostitute, but many post-Columbus documents used it, making it necessary to know.

The term is of French origin, which is not surprising as French explorers were some of the first to document the behavior it described among various Illinois tribal groups including the Miami and the Sioux.  As early as 1704 Pierre Deliette, who traveled with the La Salle Expedition in 1682, wrote what has become one of the most important accounts of 17th Century Illinois tribal life.  Antoine Denis Raudot, who served from 1705 to 1710 as an indendant of what was ‘New France’ used Deliette’s records to report on the habits of the Natives as quoted in “The Berdache and the Illinois Indian Tribe during the Last Half of the Seventeenth Century” by R. Hauser (1 Jan 1990):

“Young boys were seen frequently picking up the spade, the spindle, the axe, but making no use of the bow and arrows, as the other small boys do.  They wore a skirt made of a piece of leather or cloth which envelops them from the belt to the knees as women do; Covered their upper torso with a little skin like a shoulder strap passing under the arm on one side and tide over the shoulder on the other… They were tattooed on their cheeks like the women and also on the breast and the arms…  They speak in the accents reserved for females.”

Though Diliette is almost clinical in his initial description, he does not hesitate to express his feelings about the appropriateness of overall ‘berdache’ behavior:  “The sin of sodomy prevails more among [these people] than any other nation.”  Which is quite a declaration to make considering how few of the total Native population of the New World he’d met up to that point.  More than anything his notes make it clear how Europeans regarded differences of sex and sexuality among the peoples they encountered.

Diliette and his companions had very strong views about the acceptability of ‘berdaches’ and were fairly uninformed about precisely what role they inhabited, but they do provide eye-witness testimony that it was a common and accepted behavior among several tribes as early as 1650.  In fact a contemporary of Diliette, Father Jaques Marquette, goes further and states, “… They pass for Manitous – That is to say ‘spirits’.”  This would suggest that ‘berdaches’ were not only integral parts of their Native community but potentially served a spiritual role of some sort.  That Diliette and Marquette are unreliable narrators does not discount the basic proof that at one time ‘berdaches’ were treated at least as equals by their own.

Another explorer and chronicler who used the term several centuries later was George Catlin.  He explored along the Mississippi River Valley in the 1830s and along his travels he wrote many letters of description and included with them illustrations of the groups he visited and the ceremonies he witnessed.  He is used as a primary source to this day.  One such illustration was what he titled “Dance to the Berdashe” [sic] which he recorded while visiting the Sac and Fox of  the Upper Mississippi.  His description of that dance is extremely informative, if one reads between the lines:

Catlin - Dance to the berdache“…A funny and amusing scene which happens once a year or oftener, as they choose, when a feast is given to the ‘Berdashe‘ as he is called in French, (or I-coo-coo-a, in their own language), who is a man dressed in woman’s clothes, as he is known to be all his life, and for extaordinary privileges which he is known to possess, he is driven to the most servile and degrading duties, which he is not allowed to escape; and he being the only one of the tribe submitting to this disgraceful degradation, is looked upon as medicine and sacred, and a feast is given to him annually; and initiatory to it, a dance by those few young men of the tribe who can, as in the sketch, dance forward and publicly make their boast (without the denial of the Berdashe), that Ahg-whi-ee-choos-cum-me hi-anh-dwax-cumme-ke on-daig-nun-ehow ixt.  Che-ne-a’hkt ah-pex-ian I-coo-coo-a wi-an-gurotst whow-icht-ne-axt-ar-rah, ne-axt-gun-he h’dow-k’s dow-on-daig-o-ewhicht nun-go-was-see.
Such, and such only, are allowed to enter the dance and partake of the feast, and as there are but a precious few in the tribe who have legitimately gained this singular privilege, or willing to make a public confession of it, it will be seen that the society consists of quite a limited number of ‘odd fellows’.
This is one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs, that I have ever met in the Indian country, and so far as I have been able to learn, belongs only to the Sioux and Sacs and Foxes – perhaps it is practiced by other tribes, but I did not meet with it; and for further account of it I am constrained to refer the reader to the country where it is practiced, and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.”

Though his sentences do run-on quite a bit, his description contains a wealth of information not only on the ceremony itself but repeats the French interpretion of the people they encountered.  It’s worth noting that Catlin refers to several dances in the same Letter 56, “The Begging Dance”, “The Discovery Dance”, “The Dance To The Medicine of the Brave”.  All are kindly described as a combination of pantomime and ceremony, as well as a method for reinforcing social cohesion and togetherness.  Strange then that Catlin would single out the ‘Berdashe’s’ Dance as something sarcastic, almost mocking.  Especially given that the ‘Berdashe’ is apparently having a feast in his honor, with several strong young men dancing for him from which he is expected to choose his favorites.

It is in the last sentence that Catlin reveals why it is that at the same time the ‘Berdashe’ is loathsome and yet holds so much social power.  The ‘Berdashe’ is loathsome to Catlin.  It is clear from the way the Sioux and the Sac and Fox are treating this member of their community that they respect him.  It is also clear that Catlin does not.  Sadly, it was Catlin’s disdain and not the Sioux’s respect, that would eventually become the standard.  His prediction proved quite accurate.


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