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Archive for October, 2017

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Famous Petroglyph Panel High on Cliff Wall

It’s only in the past few years that gender identity, and specifically the issue of the rights of trans (and otherwise gender-nonconforming) people, has become a prominent topic of public discourse and political debate in the US. It’s now firmly ensconced in the culture war pantheon, with “bathroom bills” being hot topics of political controversy in many parts of the country (including here in Anchorage, where an initiative to roll back current protections is on the upcoming municipal ballot). But it’s new enough as a prominent issue that it is still not well understood among wide swathes of the population, which is a large part of why it has become such a flashpoint now that earlier battles over issues like same-sex marriage are effectively settled. Culture-war political fights are always over things that seem new and scary to people who value traditional social norms and structures, and the turf is constantly changing as those norms and structures do.

Within anthropology, however, gender variation and how to understand it has long been a topic of interest and discussion. Anthropologists have long been aware that different societies have different interpretations of gender, and different ways of classifying it. In particular, many of the indigenous societies of North America had (and have) gender concepts and roles that do not fit neatly into the male/female binary traditionally prescribed by Ango-American culture, and American anthropologists have for decades been arguing over how best to interpret these social structures.

In particular, this debate has focused on a role common to many North American societies and recorded by both modern ethnographers and early European explorers: one in which an individual who appears to be morphologically male but has a social role more akin (but not necessarily identical) to that of women. Early French explorers referred to this role by the word berdache, from a term used at the time for the passive partner in male homosexual intercourse, and the word has stuck in the anthropological literature.

Which is not to say that modern anthropologists have necessarily emphasized the sexual role of the berdache! (Although the explorers were correct about what it typically was.) Especially in the mid-twentieth century, many anthropologists began to argue that it was actually the economic role of the berdache, providing “female”-type labor for crucial activities like farming and pottery-making, that was primary, and various theories came about to explain how this structure might have originated and why it was perpetuated and spread so widely. This “desexualization” of the berdache was perhaps an improvement over the lurid outrage of the explorers and the silence of scandalized Victorian ethnographers, but by the late twentieth century it became increasingly clear to a new generation of researchers that it was incomplete at best, and that the sexual role and identity of the berdache deserved a closer look.

One researcher who took a particularly close, and fascinating, look at the role of the berdache was Walter L. Williams in his book The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, published in 1986. In addition to reviewing the ethnohistoric and ethnographic reports of berdachism, as previous researchers had done, Williams actually went out to reservations and did fieldwork with living Native communities where the berdache role was still practiced to varying degrees (often unbeknownst to anthropologists who assumed it had died out). He found that as of the 1970s when he was doing his fieldwork the berdache tradition was still active among many tribes, and even where it wasn’t there was often a living memory of it having been practiced recently. From this work he developed a theory of berdachism, and of cultural variation in gender and sexuality in general, which is spelled out in the book. From the way he presents it this theory seems to have been innovative and controversial at the time, but it feels eerily prescient today, as it echoes a lot of arguments and concepts commonly encountered today, at least in activist and politically engaged circles.

Before going into Williams’s theory, some things are worth noting about Williams himself: First, despite the heavily ethnographic nature of the fieldwork he did, his training was actually as an historian rather than an anthropologist. This may have given him a different perspective on the internal debates within anthropology about how to define and interpret berdachism. Second, he was an out gay man himself, which by his own account made it easier for him to gain rapport and trust with his informants, some of whom explicitly stated that they would not have been comfortable talking about the same kinds of things with a straight researcher. He also went quite far in participant observation, even undergoing initiation rituals to better understand the spiritual aspects of the berdache tradition. That last part is particularly important, since in his interpretation of berdachism the spiritual component is key.

Indeed, in Williams’s view the spiritual aspect of berdachism is the most important component. Drawing extensively on his informants’ own words about how they understand the tradition and the status, he argues that berdachism is seen as an inherent personal quality of an individual with strong spiritual associations. In tribes that do vision quests, berdache status is often bestowed by a spirit during the quest. In other tribes it is seen as more of an inborn quality, but still spiritually important. It is not a matter, in other words, of an economic need for more “women’s work” but of the observed qualities and felt experience of the individual person that led to berdache status.

Here I am generalizing across many different tribes and cultures, as Williams does as well in many place, though he is careful to document specific evidence as backup for his generalizations. As he emphasizes at various points, the berdache tradition is very widespread, and it doesn’t manifest itself in exactly the same way everywhere. There are many striking similarities across cultures in certain aspects of it, however, and the importance of the spiritual aspect is one of these.

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Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Another is the sexual aspect, and here Williams adds a lot of data to rebut more economically focused theories. (There’s a reason for the book’s title, after all.) He goes into considerable detail about how the berdaches and other informants he spoke to behave sexually and interpret that behavior, and he concludes that the sexual aspect of berdachism is vitally important but not at all in conflict with the spiritual aspect, since traditional Native societies typically don’t see the same sort of disconnect between sexuality and spirituality that is typical of Christianity. (Many modern Natives are Christian, of course, and their attitudes toward people who might have become berdaches in a previous era reflect that; Williams discusses this phenomenon too, along with other changes to Native societies since European contact.)

Fundamentally, Williams presents berdachism as about individual identity rather than sexual behavior or economic activity. He notes several times that berdachism is not simply equivalent to the modern American concept of “homosexuality”; for one thing, while the berdache has sex with men, those men are not considered berdaches themselves, nor do they have any other specially designated status. Nor is it quite the same as “transsexual” identity, as it was understood at the time to be heavily focused on physically changing sex.

This is somewhat different from how trans identity is now widely understood, at least to my knowledge. One of the most interesting parts of the book to me, in fact, was where Williams does fieldwork among a (non-Native) segment of what would now be considered the trans community, namely people having male genitalia but living and presenting as women. From how he presents this work this community seems to have been largely unaddressed in the anthropological literature on gender and sexuality, but he finds it one of the closest counterparts to berdache status in mainstream American society.

Nevertheless, part of Williams’s point is that there isn’t an exact counterpart to berdachism in mainstream American society today, but that this doesn’t mean it has no relevance to that society. He discusses at length both the impact that study of berdachism has had on the modern gay liberation movement and the reciprocal impact that movement has had on young gay Native people. There is a sort of symbiosis that seems to have developed, in which understanding traditional attitudes to berdachism has helped non-Native gay activists develop a positive gay identity that can in turn transmit knowledge of berdachism to Native youths, especially those from non-traditionalist backgrounds who have not been exposed to berdachism as a positive aspect of their own cultural heritage.

Williams also addresses the less common counterpart to berdachism where morphologically female people take on male-like gender roles. Unlike some other researchers, he doesn’t accept the use of “berdache” for this role, preferring “amazon.” His analysis here is sketchier than with the berdache, due presumably to the much scantier and primarily ethnohistorical evidence he has to work with. It’s still very interesting, though.

Overall, one of the major and important messages Williams gives in this book is that gender and sexuality are separate concepts, and while they interact in complex ways they need to be understood and analyzed separately. Berdachism, in this view, is primarily a matter of gender identity rather than sexuality. Although the berdache has sex with men and this is an important component of berdache identity, homosexual behavior is not confined to the berdache role, nor is it definitive of it. Again, this is in contrast to the modern concept of homosexuality, which is a matter of sexuality rather than gender. It is more similar, though not identical, to the concept of trans identity, which seems to have been considerably elaborated in the thirty years since Williams wrote such that, as I noted above, it is now an important issue in public discourse and political activism.

All that said, readers of this blog may be wondering what all this has to do with Chaco Canyon. Well, the modern Pueblos are among the groups with a very highly developed berdache complex (along with the Navajos and many other Southwestern tribes), and many of the specific examples of both historic and modern berdaches Williams discusses are from the Pueblos. Gender roles are among the social concepts that are hard to project back from modern societies to prehistory, of course, but given the many continuities between the Chacoans and the modern Pueblos it is quite likely that something like a berdache complex existed at Chaco as well. It would in theory be possible to try to investigate this sort of thing archaeologically as well, through such approaches as comparison of skeletal morphology to presumed gender-identified grave goods, but as far as I know little research like that has been done in the Southwest. Even in archaeology generally, this sort of highly specific and detailed work on gender as a social variable independent of bodily morphology is in its infancy, although new techniques such as ancient DNA analysis should provide the opportunity for innovative approaches. In any case, while archaeology has so far not contributed as much to the study of cross-cultural diversity in concepts of gender and sexuality as other disciplines like history and anthropology, all these disciplines ultimately contribute to a fuller understanding of the human story. As society at large develops more nuanced and complete understandings of gender and sexuality today, we can expect researchers in many disciplines to extend the reach of those understandings much more broadly.

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Petroglyph Panel Showing People

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