Plains Native Americans, and the “Third Gender”
During the 17th and 18th centuries in the Mississippi Valley, a third gender is known to have been recognized among Native Americans. The French deemed them “Berdaches,” a derogatory term that can mean male-prostitute or catamite. Today, educators and commentators use terms such as “two-spirit” or “third gender” to describe these individuals, as they better indicate the appearance of both genders in one person.
Historians and ethnographers have noted that these physically male individuals took on traditional female jobs, cross-dressed—using both male and female clothing—and engaged in relationships with other men. They played a vital, often sacred role in the community. Wrote anthropologist Walter Williams on the subject:
“Berdaches got a special recognition in native society not because they became social females, but because they took a position between the genders. They serve a mediating function as a Go-Between for women and men, in more than just a social sense. Because they are not considered the same as men and women, their emphasized difference is a way of defining what women are, and what men are.
Their androgyny, rather than threatening the gender system, is incorporated into it. Berdaches seem to symbolize the original unity of humans, their differentiation into separate genders, and the potential for reunification as well. Ironically, by violating gender norms, berdachism enhances the society’s definition of what is woman and what is man.”
Berdaches were common among the Arapaho, the Blackfoot, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and many other Native American tribes of the Great Plains region.