Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French explorers, traders, and missionaries in the Mississippi Valley occasionally encountered Native Americans who could be classified neither as men nor women. They called such individuals berdaches, a French term for younger partners in male homosexual relationships. In fact, Plains Indian berdaches are best described as occupying an alternative or third gender role, in which traits of men and women are combined with those unique to berdache status. Male berdaches did women's work, cross-dressed or combined male and female clothing, and formed relationships with non-berdache men.

Plains Indian women often engaged in hunting and warfare, but a female role equivalent to that of male berdaches, although common west of the Rockies, has been documented in the Plains only among the Cheyennes (the hetaneman). Even so, some Plains Indian women became notable warriors and leaders and behaved much like berdaches. In the early nineteenth century, Running Eagle of the Piegans wore male clothing on war parties, while Woman Chief of the Crows had four wives.

Male berdaches were known among the Arapahos (hoxuxunó), Arikaras, Assiniboines (winktan'), Blackfoot (ake:śkassi), Cheyennes (he'eman), Comanches, Plains Crees (ayekkwe), Crows (boté), Gros Ventres, Hidatsas (miáti), Kansas (minquge), Kiowas, Mandans (mihdeke), Plains Ojibwas (agokwa), Omahas (minquga), Osages (mixu'ga), Otoes (mixo'ge), Pawnees, Poncas (minquga), Potawatomis (m'nuktokwae), Quapaws, Winnebagos (shiéngge), and the various Siouan-speaking tribes (winkte, Lakota; winkta, Dakota). The two most common reasons cited for individuals becoming berdaches were childhood preference for work of the other sex and/or certain dreams or visions. The Lakotas credited dreams of Double Woman with influencing men to become winkte; others credited the Moon. Such dreams also conveyed valued skills–in particular, proficiency in women's arts, such as quilling, tanning, and beading. Among the Dakotas the saying "fine possessions like a berdache's" was the highest compliment one could pay a household.

Berdaches often had distinct religious roles. A Crow boté selected the central pole used in constructing Sun Dance lodges. Cheyenne he'eman directed the tribe's most important ceremony, the scalp dance. In Hidatsa villages, miáti were an "organized group" of as many as fifteen to twenty-five, treated as a "special class of religious leaders." In several tribes, berdaches were shamans and healers. Other skills attributed to berdaches included the ability to foretell the future and convey luck by bestowing obscene nicknames (Lakota), make love magic (Pawnee), and arrange marriages (Cheyenne). By reputation, many Plains berdaches were sexually active. George Catlin illustrated a Sauk and Fox dance in which a berdache is the central figure surrounded by "her" male lovers. Dakota warriors sometimes visited berdaches before joining war parties in the belief that such encounters augmented their masculine ferocity. Prominent warriors and chiefs, including the Omaha American Horse and the Lakota Crazy Horse, had berdaches among their wives.

Some observers have explained berdache roles as niches for males unable to fulfill rigorous standards of Plains masculinity. But as Dakotas told anthropologist Ruth Landes, a distinction was made between men afraid to join war parties and berdaches, who "had a dream." In fact, Plains berdaches were active in all aspects of warfare, from providing assistance on war parties to leading war ceremonies and entering battles (and some Dakota berdaches hunted, even as they maintained tipis that women envied). When the Hidatsa chief Four Bears encountered a Lakota winkte, and his arrow failed to penetrate his robe, the winkte exclaimed, "You can't kill me for I am holy. I will strike coups on you with my digging stick." In 1866 a winkte predicted the success of Lakota and Cheyenne forces against the Americans at Fort Phil Kearny. In 1876 the Crow boté Finds Them and Kills Them killed a Lakota warrior in the Battle of the Rosebud.

In the reservation period, American missionaries denounced berdaches, government agents forced them to do men's work, and boarding-school teachers punished children for inappropriate gender behavior. As European American attitudes toward homosexuality were adopted in Indian communities, families often intervened to prevent their own members from becoming (or behaving like) berdaches. Nonetheless, traditional berdaches like Finds Them and Kills Them successfully resisted efforts to change their lifestyles. In the 1980s anthropologist Walter Williams found individuals on Plains reservations still performing traditional functions of the berdache role.

In the 1990s the term "two-spirit" was introduced by Native Americans as an alternative to berdache, and traditional third gender roles became the subject of renewed interest among Natives and non-Natives alike. As Michael Red Earth, a gay-identified Dakota, writes, "Once I realized that this respect and acceptance was a legacy of our traditional Native past, I was empowered to present my whole self to the world and reassume the responsibilities of being a two-spirited person."

Will Roscoe California Institute of Integral Studies

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

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