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Quarterly Report on Women and the Military: Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders In Native America. – Review

Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders In Native America. – Review – book review

Donna M. Dean

Will Roscoe. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders In Native America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. viii + 320 pp. Illustrations, tables, glossary, tribal index of alternative gender roles and sexuality, notes, bibliography of native gay/lesbian literature, bibliography, index. $16.95 US/25.95 CAN (paper), ISBN 0-312-22479-6.

Dualism’s Just A Construct

In discussing gender and sexuality, it is important to recognize and acknowledge that the Western, or Euro-centered construct of a binary, or dualistic gender structure is not necessarily held by other cultures. Nor is gender necessarily determined by genitalia, sexual activities or choice of sexual partners, or even gender-based roles.

Western culture views gender as essentially based on a binary system: “we have boys and we have girls, and they act in certain ways, have sex with the opposite sex and are suited for pre-determined roles, and any deviation from this template is a freak; unnatural, a biological accident or wantonly evil.” This narrow perspective is then utilized as a perceptual filter through which all human cultures and societies are viewed. However, many cultures did not utilize this particular construct, particularly in the past, prior to European contact with the concomitant pejorative and destructively violent imposition of Western belief systems and societal constructs, and the more insidious, but equally devastating imposition of Western religious beliefs and moral judgments in a context which would be utterly inappropriate. North American natives comprise many tribal groupings, each unique and with its own culture and social structure. At least 155 of these tribes had documented third genders, and perhaps fourth. Roscoe defines third gender people generally as male or sometimes female tribal members who undertook a lifestyle of another gender. Often called berdaches by Europeans, most tribes had special gender designations for these individuals. Occasionally, tribes had a designation restricted to women who undertook a male lifestyle, thus the status of “fourth gender.” These genders were predicated upon any number of factors; dress, genitalia, religious or spiritual roles, work roles, governing roles, sexual preference or choice, sexual practices, dream or vision imperatives, parental decisions, and other aspects of individuals’ lives.

The sheer complexity of the tribal differences, and the necessity of examining them not only through a comprehensible methodology, exacerbated by a frustrating inadequacy of empirical data makes even the examination of alternative gender systems difficult. Time and distance, and the overwhelming destruction of native cultures through conquering colonization combine to make even present day tribal members largely ignorant of their own history, and also to produce in them the alien and inappropriate judgmental morality of their conquerors. Roscoe manages to pull together literally hundreds of multi-lingual sources, a multiplicity of tribes and social systems and constructs and produces a coherent, highly readable work. This alone makes the book well worth reading for anyone even remotely interested in gender studies.

While the majority of the book deals with male berdaches, Roscoe does devote one chapter to the topic of females who became warriors, chiefs, or who managed to acquire wealth and thus power through various means, normally through widowhood. Women’s status in the various tribes varied; some tribes were very egalitarian, others subjugated women severely. However, all tribes had at least some ways women could gain power and prestige. Some warrior women and chiefs were well-known and admired even by Europeans post-contact.

In chapter four, devoted to the alternative identities and genders for native women, Roscoe presents arguments that not only did past chroniclers and observers report observations and opinions (often the same thing) through their own cultural biases, they often do so today. He dissects feminist theory as applied to native history as coming out of the same Euro-centered assumptions about women and their roles, and their concomitant status within the tribal groups. While work roles did tend to be genderized across the range of tribes and type of culture, whether hunter-gatherer, agricultural, warrior, highly mobile, etc., the ability to cross genders and assume roles and lifestyles as desired, or at times determined by others, the status and power attached to those roles did not align with the European social aspects of the same roles, nor did they form the conditions of pan-Indianism often assumed by many observers.

Roscoe repeatedly remarks upon the built-in bias of historical primary resources in any attempt to reconstruct what conditions and cultural and societal structures of pre-contact native tribes actually were. For the most part, chroniclers found native ways so alien to their preconceived beliefs of their own moral superiority that they were incapable of interpreting what they saw in the context within which they saw it. Additionally, Europeans operated out of extraneous agendas of desired exploitation and colonization that made it extremely desirable to characterize natives as savages, beasts, and even, in some cases, sub-humans as part of their need to justify their actions in the many brutal incidents of genocide, mass forced “conversions” while indulging in murderous behavior, enslavement, and so on. Obviously, then, accounts and observations of contact and interaction between Europeans and natives tend to be highly colored by these factors.

Native women were particularly vulnerable to biased and flawed observation, as sex enters in as an additionally complicating factor. While many chronicles of European culture meeting native cultures center around sexuality, the practices of many tribes regarding sexual activity of males and berdaches normally resulted in censorious and disgusted commentary by men who viewed those individuals and their activities by European standards and beliefs. However, those men had a different outlook when it came to women, often possessing cultural beliefs of their own that most women were sexual objects, and that what they saw as promiscuous and openly sexual behaviors in many tribal women equated to loose morality, sexual availability justifying any kind of sexual aggression against them, and a discounting of the positions of power and respect the women really possessed. At the same time, many chroniclers found themselves strongly attracted to native women, so that sexual desire contributed to the highly colored fantasy or myth of the incredibly wild and deliciously sexual wanton still prized today in such films as the regrettable Disney offense “Pocahontas” in which a twelve year old girl is depicted as a voluptuous, slender-waisted siren barely clad in a conveniently clinging designer deerskin dress.

In addition to the thorough discussion of historical native cultures, the problems associated with accurately determining what those cultures looked like because of the origin of observations, the incompleteness of those records and observations, and the lack of knowledge in the tribes themselves in the present day due to the obliteration and repression of tribal identity and cultures, Roscoe presents a discussion of today’s gay and lesbian community.

It is here perhaps that this reviewer finds some question. In our society, we deem same-gender sex and associated behaviors as homosexuality, and Roscoe examines his resources minutely on that issue. While simultaneously noting the negative results and aspects of historical reports when made through cultural ignorance and bias, he appears to focus heavily upon certain sexual preference and behaviors through his own cultural lens of a dichotomous system. Admittedly, discussing the full spectrum of sexuality in our basically binary world view, trans-gender, bisexual, cross-dresser, ambiguous-gender, and tree hermaphroditic people cannot be readily lumped in as “homosexual.” Historical reference must by necessity lack the refinement necessary to examine sex and gender due to the lack of knowledge on the part of the chroniclers to the nuances and differences among the various individuals if they are to be discussed from our perspective. While he does emphasize that often religious or spiritual roles, work roles, parental or spiritual assignment of gender and so on could, and did, result in assignment of gender or choice of lifestyle, he does seem to ignore this in discussing present-day situations. Here it would seem that he has ready access to individual stories and motivations, as well as psychological insights and personal feelings, yet he deals only with the groups he calls “homosexual,” “gay,” or “lesbian.” This issue is not a major one, as the primary purpose of the book is to examine the generally little known and poorly understood sex and gender roles of native people historically.

Changing Ones is a valuable contribution not only to scholars in native culture and history, but to women’s studies, gender studies, and related areas as well. It is also a highly readable, well-organized compilation of hundreds of historical references and accounts from a multi-lingual bank of European records and commentaries which promotes a more realistic appreciation of alternative genders and the derivation of their establishment as constructs. Roscoe is a well-known scholar who writes on gender and sexuality in many cultures, and this work continues his outstanding contributions to the fields. This reviewer highly recommends it.

Reviewed for H-Minerva by Donna M. Dean , Ph. D., Independent Scholar

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