This is a companion piece to the Love and Relationships issue of Shameless, which will be on newsstands and in your mailbox soon.
Editors’ note, January 8, 2014: A reader on Twitter has shared that the term “Berdache” is widely regarded as outdated and pejorative within the Two-Spirit community, and that the term Two-Spirit was coined largely to replace it.
by Adrian Teneese
In modern society, many groups are finding ways to keep traditional practices apart of their everyday culture. In some cases, a mixture of traditional and modern culture has been used to maintain the world of Two-Spirited people. Two-Spirited in most Aboriginal cultures means exactly that, the belief of sharing the spirit and personas of both male and female. In the 1970s Arthur Penn’s movie “Little Big Man” starring Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man, we see an interaction with a Two-Spirit character name Little Horse, who is a childhood friend of Little Big Man, and was very much wanting to be a wife to him promising to take care of him and even offering his warm bed covered in furs.
In the GLBTQI world, mainly in Canada, the term Two-spirited is often a term that is used, but rarely ever traditionally represented. The term Two-spirited is a basic overall term, and may also be known as Berdaches (Bur-Da-Shee). Each Aboriginal tribe had their own word, and roles as to how their Berdaches were tied to the tribe. Most tribes considered Two-spirited to be medicine men or women because they were often thought of sharing both the knowledge and spirit of man and woman. In most examples of Two-spirited people, a man would wear the attire of a woman, as well as do what was considered womanly work. At times they would even go with a travelling hunting tribe to assist with much of hunting camp’s needs.
While researching on two-spirited, I was lucky to have had a story involving a female berdache within my own Nation, the Ktunaxa people. The story brings us back to 1811, during which David Thompson, the infamous explorer, was discovering the western part of Canada. Born known as Ququnok Patke (one standing lodge pole woman), a Ktunaxa female living around what is now modern Creston, British Columbia, was said to be a quite large and heavy boned woman who desired to find the heart and hand of a husband. Unfortunately for her, none of the Ktunaxa men were interested. Upon the North West Company’s arrival, she helped navigate David Thompson and his party, and eventually married one of his slaves, and was known as Madame Bolsverd. David Thompson found her conduct to be very loose and he requested her husband to send her away to her friends.
As she returned to the Ktunaxa people after more than a year, Madame Bolsverd had quite a strange tale to tell, telling her people that her husband had operated upon her and thereby transformed her into a man. Kauxuma Nupika (gone to the spirits) as he then became known as and told her people “we Indians did not believe the white people possessed such power from the supernatural”. Whenever she encountered anyone she performed a little dance as an indication of her sexual transformation and began to claim great spiritual power. Beginning to adapt to men’s work and life style, including carrying a gun she soon decided to find herself a wife. After repeatedly being turned down and in an act of revenge, she would soon start wishing to bring the death to those who turned her down through use of her newly acquired spiritual powers, which brought upon fear of her and therefore leaving her people to avoid her entirely.
After many failed marriages and relationships with women, she then began to have an interest in raiding and warfare and soon found herself with a war party. Upon coming to streams or rivers the party would undress and cross together while the Berdache would stay behind and cross alone, to avoid exposing her true identity. Puzzled by this behavior, her brother stayed nearby to watch her cross, and had therefore confirmed his suspicion of his sister’s strange tale of a sex-change operation to be false. Late one evening, during which the Berdache was beating and arguing with her wife, her brother had overheard the noise and confronted her about her previous abusive relationships and exposing his knowledge of her true identity and revealing that he had seen her at the river.
While many years later, she found herself mixed up between a peace negotiation between the Blackfoot & Bowdash people, acting as a mediator between the two tribes, deceives the Blackfoot people and as a result, is put up to a good fight and is killed by the Blackfoot people.
A better relationship exists today between the Ktunaxa & Blackfoot, and the traditional ways of the Two-Spirited world has since been forgotten in the Ktunaxa culture today. Instead, we continue to work as a diverse Nation and accepting the GLBTQI lifestyle as a natural part of life. We have same-sex relationships that exist and are strong today, with both partners usually taking both gender roles. The modern way of a Two-Spirit continues to evolve within the individuals who identify as Two-Spirit, which is becoming a larger group within the aboriginal communities. As a participant at a conference for gay youth, I remember a group of Two-Spirit men were going around the tables to the Aboriginal males and asking us to fill out a Yes and No ballet with a question asking if we Identified ourselves as Two-Spirit and at the end of the conference, reviling that about 75% of us did.
The Two-Spirit world is not followed by all cultures, but to those that are still wanting to keep the term alive should be proud to identify as Two-Spirit, as Aboriginal culture is very much a part of the diverse atmosphere that exists across Canada. The most important thing is to always love yourself for who you are, and to remember to lead by example.