Within the past decade, there has been a thunderous debate among Americans of all political persuasions regarding the marriage of homosexual couples. Most of them would be surprised to learn that, if gay marriage were legalized in the United States, it would not be the first time that it was accepted on this continent.
The Shoshone tribe of the northwest, and many other Native American tribes, subscribed to the notion of Berdache. Berdache, a word of French/Persian origin, refers to a person who identifies with the gender of the opposite sex. While today’s modern society recognizes two genders, male and female, the Shoshone recognized four: male, male berdache, female, and female berdache. Shoshone culturally generally followed traditional gender roles; the men hunted and went to war while the women attended to domestic tasks, such as cooking and making clothing. The berdache, however, showed preference at a young age for tasks and play activities of the opposite gender. As boys approached puberty, they were often put to the “basket test”. The boy was placed in a circle of brush with a bow and a basket. The brush was then set on fire, and whichever item the boy grabbed before escaping the fire determined his “gender” as either male or a male berdache.
The roles of male and female were considered equally important among the Shoshone. The only area of discrimination was in the area of polygamy. A male berdache could have both a male and female spouse, whereas a female berdache could only have a female spouse. In the female-female relationships, one woman was considered the “amazon”, or the hunter/warrior. There is no documentation as to the possible relationships among berdaches. Although the class text book states that, “three genders were recognized; female, male, and berdache. A berdache was an individual born as either male or hermaphrodite who abstained from traditional male roles, behaving in a more feminine manner. Berdaches were allowed to marry and engage in sexual intercourse with ‘true’ males, but not females”, this was not precisely true. There were various tribes of the Shoshone scattered throughout the west and midwest, and not all of them followed the same policies regarding the berdaches.
A berdache was often considered a seer, and frequently took the role of medicine-man of the tribe. Today’s Native American experts prefer to refer to these persons as “Two-Spirits, since the belief is that they possess the spirits of both man and woman within them. They say that the berdaches are “bridge-people”, or those who walk between the male and female genders. In addition, they were considered to be highly gifted, and became extraordinary teachers, craftspeople, healers, musicians, and dancers.
In the spiritual traditions of the Native Americans, “crossroads” are spiritual points. Berdaches were people who were at the crossroads of male and female, and thus were considered sacred persons.
As in all anthropologic studies of unfamiliar cultures, the more we learn from them and the greater our acceptance of their differences, the greater the advancements of our own societies.