Review: Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe

“For centuries throughout America, both before and after the arrival of the Europeans, gay and lesbian Indians were recognized as valued members of tribal communities. Combining make and female roles, gay Indians worked as mediators, artists, healers, and providers for their tribes.” (from the back of the book)

Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe, Coordinating Editor, St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Review by Tedy Ward

Rather by accident, several years ago, I found myself studying Native American cultures and writing about them. I did my graduate work focusing on European history, particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, and while I took the requisite courses in American history, it wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the darkly complex European periods. But when I started writing fiction, I found myself drawn to the period of American expansion referred to as ‘the American West’, a period from about 1830 to 1930 in which American ‘white’ culture spread itself economically, politically, and culturally across the wide plains and deserts of the heart of continental America.

Of greatest interest to me is the cultural clash between the indigenous peoples who lived there and the ‘American culture’ that moved in and took then over. The study of these Native American cultures – and there were far more than ‘one’ – is ongoing and probably always will be. Most of these cultures did not leave behind written documents, and the more they were exposed to ‘white’ culture, the more they changed, even when they didn’t want to.

Most of the records we have of the various cultures were left by Europeans and Americans who encountered them. It is from the French trappers who wandered through many of the Native American settlements that we get the word ‘berdache’, a term they used “to describe Indians who specialized in the work of women and formed emotional and sexual relationships with other men” (Preface, page 1). This concept, of the Native American acceptance of alternate gender and sexual roles, is the focus of the book Living the Spirit, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe, Coordinating Editor, published by St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

The book is an interesting collection of modern writings from gay and lesbian Native Americans – poetry, short stories, essays – and historical studies of alternate sexuality in some of the tribes. “Tinselled Bucks: a Historical Study of Indian Homosexuality” by Maurice Kenny discusses the problems of lack of primary source material, and also the differences between the berdaches – men who lived as women and women how lived as men – and men and women living their gender roles who preferred to be sexually and emotionally involved with others of their gender and gender roles. He discusses the different terms and customs of berdaches in various tribes, as well as the levels of importance that many berdaches held in certain cultures, where they were often respected as people of great magic.

“Toleration of the berdache varied from tribe to tribe. Some tribes, such as the Illinois, actually trained young men to become homosexuals and concubines of men. The Cheyenne and the Sioux of the plains may not have purposely trained young men to become berdaches but certainly accepted homosexuals more readily than perhaps other tribes.” (“Tinselled Warriors”, page 26).

The thesis of “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America” by Midnight Sun is as follows:

“Social, and specifically sexual, life is embedded in the economic organization of society – an organization that gives rise to a variety of cultural forms.” (page 32). This article discusses Native American sexuality as a function of the roles that men and women played in the survival of the various tribes. The author uses three specific case studies, of the Mojave, the Navajo, and the Peigan. All three tribes acknowledged cross-gender identities. “The Mojave believed that cross-gender individuals, especially hwames [female cross-dressers] were lucky in gambling and could become powerful shamans, while shamans and chiefs often married alyhas [male cross-dressers].” (pp. 37-38).

In Navajo culture, cross-gender people were called nadle:

“Because they were believed to have been given charge of wealth since the beginning of time, a family with a nadle was considered fortunate and assured of wealth and success.” (p. 41).

The Peigans, whose culture placed more importance on the role of men and the masculine-warrior ideal, had the ‘manly-hearted woman’, who was, unlike with the Navahos and Mojaves, not a sexual identity but an economic one. The ‘manly-hearted woman’ was a woman who dominated her husband but who was respected by the tribe because she was able to win and control property in traditionally masculine ways – inheritance, ingeniousness, and gifts of respect. The discussion of this article centers mostly on the roles that sexuality played in the respective tribes, and how equal the respect for women and men were, which seems to be dependent on whether the tribe supported itself through farming and agriculture (Mojave and Navaho), where women were often seen as equals to men, or hunters (Peigan) where men were more important and allocated more power and control.

“Strange Country This: Images of Berdaches and Warrior Women” by Will Roscoe, the contributing editor for the book, is a collection of short essays about cross-gender people in specific tribes, as seen in primary sources from European and American explorers during their early exposures to these tribes. Most of these essays are accompanied by pictures, either drawings or photographs taken at the time of these encounters or soon thereafter. There are twelve different Native American tribes represented in these essays and illustrations, covering all regions of North America. “Ever Since the World Began” is a collection of myths and tales from ten different tribes involving their cross-gender members or icons.

The second half of the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, short stories, and poems written by contemporary gay Native Americans; while many of them are modern, they often include family histories that discuss life on the reservations in the mid-1900s if not before, and the struggles that gay Native Americans faced then and now as their tribal culture has changed, taking on the values of the European and American culture.

This anthology isn’t technically an academic study; while some of the essays have internal notes, they don’t have individual bibliographies which makes it difficult to find the primary sources. That said, the history is fascinating, especially the individual views into various tribes and how tolerant and receptive they were to the ideas of homosexuality and cross-gender roles. To be clear, not all tribes were tolerant; the respect and tolerance varied depending on the tribe and how balanced the roles of women and men were in the tribe’s survival.

Overall, it is an interesting read, and a good resource for Native American concepts of sexuality and gender roles. It’s a little dated, politically as well as historically, and I’d very much like to see an new anthology from the Gay American Indians Organization, especially with the more recent interdisciplinary studies between anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. It’s appeal may be a little more specific than other books studying gay history, as it’s focus is on gay Native Americans, a very select group historically and currently, but it’s also an interesting look at how a dominant culture – in this case, European/American ‘white’ culture – interprets and eventually changes and redefines other cultural values.

I’d rate this at a 4; it’s informative and engaging and in many ways, a view into an alien world.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s a subject that doesn’t get as much study as it might.

    • Thanks for reading! As with almost all things ‘Native American’, it is one of the things that fascinates me!

  2. This sounds fascinating.

    The Sacred Hoop by Paula Gunn Allen talks about women and lesbians in native tribes, and Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions talks briefly about Winkte (gay men) in Lakota culture.

    The term ‘berdache’ has always annoyed me a bit; it’s a French word… I wish researchers would find the original name for these folks. After all, many of the Southwest tribes are still around, so there are elders to be asked.

    • Thanks for reading! There’s a lot of interesting etymology to the word – apparently, it’s got a Persian root, too, which one of the writers talks about. There’s a very nice chart in the back of the book in Appendix A, I think, that has the original names in the tribes that had/allowed for cross-gender roles, that we know about. I assume that the reason the French used the word – and that we still use it – is because with so many tribes, it’s impossible to know that word for each one – and each of those has its own connotations and social meaning for that particular tribe.

      One of the articles actually sites Lame Deer as one of its sources. I plan to go back and read his bio/auto bio in the near future. There just so much to know!

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