Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Spirit and the Flesh

from the diary: “Saturday 10/10/87

“finished The Spirit and the Flesh, a book about berdaches.”

From Walter L. Williams’ The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture:

“How many genders are there? To a modern Anglo-American, nothing might seem more definite than the answer that there are two: men and women. [Yet a]mong many cultures, there have existed different alternatives to ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ An alternative role in many American Indian societies is referred to by anthropologists as berdache … Briefly, a berdache can be defined as a morphological male who does not fill a society’s standard man’s role, who has a nonmasculine character. [Berdache has also occasionally been used in reference to women of a nonfeminine character.] This type of [male] is often stereotyped as effeminate … Such a person [typically] has a clearly recognized and accepted social status, often based on a secure place in the tribal mythology. Berdaches have special ceremonial roles in many Native American religions, and important economic roles in their families. They will do at least some women’s work, and mix together much of the behavior, dress, and social roles of women and men. Berdaches gain social prestige by their spiritual, intellectual, or craftwork/artistic contributions, and by their reputation for hard work and generosity. They serve a mediating function between women and men, precisely because their character is seen as distinct from either sex. They are not seen as men, yet they are not seen as women either. They occupy an alternative gender role that is a mixture of diverse elements.

“In some cultures the berdache might become a wife to a man. This male-male sexual behavior became the focus of an attack on berdaches as ‘sodomites’ by the Europeans who, early on, came into contact with them ...

“The berdache receives respect partly as a result of being a mediator. Somewhere between the status of women and men, berdaches not only mediate between the sexes but between the psychic and the physical — between the spirit and the flesh. Since they mix the characteristics of both men and women, they possess the vision of both. … This is why they are often referred to as “seer,” one whose eyes can see beyond the blinders that restrict the average person. ... By the Indian view, someone who is different offers advantages to society precisely because she or he is freed from the restrictions of the usual. ...

“Proceeding from the view that a person’s different character is a reflection of her or his closeness to the spiritual, berdaches are often associated with shamanism and sacredness. Such spiritual abilities mean that berdaches may take on specific ceremonial tasks that are recognized as specifically their own. Whether in blessing ceremonies, providing lucky names, offering spiritual protection, or predicting the future, berdaches are both respected and feared for their qualities of strength and power. ...

“Native American women were (and are still, to a great extent) independent and self-reliant personalities, rather than subservient dependents. Traditionally, women had a high level of self-esteem for they knew that their family and band economically depended on them as much as or more than it did on men. They were centrally involved in the society’s economy, controlling distribution of the food they grew or gathered.

“Since women had high status, there was no shame in a male taking on feminine characteristics. He was not giving up male privilege, or ‘debasing’ himself to become like a woman, simply because the position of women was not inferior. It may be accurate to suggest that the status of berdaches in a society is directly related to the status of women. In societies with low status for women, a male who would want to give up his dominant position would be seen as crazy. ...

“Whether berdaches are seen as a third gender or as a mixture of female and male, with some distinctive elements added, there is perhaps no crucial difference. The Indian languages themselves are in a sense imprecise about this. For example, the Cree word for berdache, ayekkwew, can be translated as ‘neither man nor woman’ or ‘man and woman.’ ... The real problem that scholars have been facing is that there is no good label in the English language to communicate a complex concept like berdachism.”

After my father found out I was gay (my mother told him) he sent me a sympathetic letter revealing that he had done some reading about berdaches and their honored and spiritual (and sexual) roles in Native American society.

No comments: