Review: Changing Ones

reviewed by Randy Conner

In his new book, Changing Ones, an admirable companion to his earlier efforts -- including Living the Spirit (with Gay American Indians), The Zuni Man-Woman, and Queer Spirits -- anthropologist and writer Will Roscoe examines sexual and gender diversity in Native American cultures, paying special attention to those persons described as "berdaches" in historical and anthropological accounts. Traditionally, berdaches have assumed the role or identity of either the opposite gender (of that role typically assigned to their anatomical sex) or a third or fourth gender often inclusive of functions such as ritual artisan and healer. Berdaches have also been traditionally associated with same-sex eroticism.

In this text, in his signature style blending academic discussion, narrative, and poetic imagery, Roscoe introduces us to numerous third gender deities or spirits, including Begochidiin, a pansexual trickster, healer, and artist/ craftsperson frequently depicted as a blue-eyed, blonde, fair-skinned, androgynous male, as well as to numerous third gender historical personages including the Crow bote Osh-Tisch and the Navajo nadleehi Hastiin Klah, both of whom are especially remembered as healers and as ritual artists. The latter is particularly renowned for his innovative weavings inspired by and documenting traditional sand paintings used in healing rites.

Roscoe further introduces us to fourth gender women warriors, chiefs, and berdaches, who in certain respects parallel male berdaches. One of these, a nineteenth-century Kutenai person named Qanqon-kamek-klaula, claimed to have undergone gender transformation, after which she left her husband and began to cross-dress, heal others, practice magic, and court women. Roscoe's literary craft is especially evident in his description of a 1992 San Francisco Lesbian/ Gay Pride Parade in which the members of GAI (Gay American Indians) marched: "The dancers were bedecked in rainbow[s] . . . As the group made its way up Market Street, Twin Eagle dancers were encircled by Swan dancers, while Rainbow Maidens danced around them." In his discussion of late-twentieth century lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Native Americans, Roscoe explains in depth the evolution of the contemporary ‘lgbt’ Native American movement from 1975, with the founding of GAI, to the present, with that movement's metamorphosis into the "two-spirit" movement.

Significant events include the 1988 "Basket and the Bow" gathering at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, the founding of the WeWah and BarChee-Ampe group in New York City in 1989, and a 1990 international gathering, held in Winnipeg, Canada, where the term "two-spirit," which derives from the Anishinabe/ Ojibway term nizh manitoag, was officially embraced.

In this context, Roscoe also includes a discussion of special problems and issues confronting today's two-spirit persons, paying special attention to AIDS/ HIV in the Native American community. AIDS posed a particular problem for Navajos, Roscoe relates, who traditionally avoid speaking of death. Nevertheless, since the emergence of AIDS, Navajos have reconsidered this tradition, as demonstrated by the formation of the Navajo AIDS Network in 1990.

In terms of the relationship between traditional berdaches and two-spirit persons living in the 1990s, Roscoe indicates that "survivance" may prove to be a useful concept by which to better comprehend their association. Following Gerald Vizenor, Roscoe explains that the emergence of the current two-spirit movement may be linked to the infusion of "new signifiers" (embracing symbols, identities, and other cultural forms and patterns) into traditional cultural paradigms which have been transmitted from one generation to another in the face of great oppression.

In one of the more theoretical chapters of the text, Roscoe confronts his critics, in particular, ethnic studies professor Ramón Gutiérrez and historian Richard Trexler, who portray berdaches as "sexual slaves" and as victims of ridicule rather than as honored members of their tribes. Not surprisingly, Gutierrez and Trexler have arrived at this perspective by way of adherence to the work of extreme constructionist theorist Michel Foucault, who based his general theory of sexuality upon a narrow, pederastic interpretation of Greek homoeroticism, barely venturing into non-western cultures. While Foucaultians pride themselves in deconstructing western colonialist texts, their arguments are often bound by western philosophical concepts, while their conclusions are more often than not supported by constructionist ideology rather than by specific evidence.

Where Gutiérrez and Trexler are concerned, Roscoe reveals that their arguments rely, ironically, "upon a literal reading of the texts of European conquerors and missionaries. To accept their position," he continues,"requires accepting that these source texts are unbiased and accurate reports of native practices. This is expecting a lot of Renaissance Catholic Spaniards bent on conquest and gold."

In this vein, Roscoe's own interpretation of evidence seems occasionally burdened by his acceptance of constructionist theory, as when he asserts that "native beliefs about gender and sexuality were avowedly constructionist." While Roscoe's constructionism is less extreme than that of the majority of Foucaultians, he errs when he obfuscates the role that the sacred or divine plays in the lives of both traditional berdaches and contemporary two-spirit persons.

Clearly, a strong sense of destiny, together with prenatal, supernatural gender transformations, dreams of gender transformation, and other forms of what we might call divine intervention indicate that an essential or archetypal force plays a crucial part in the creation of berdache/ two-spirit identity, as when Sue Beaver (Mohawk) asserts, "We look at ourselves as being very gifted. The Creator created very special beings when he created two-spirited people."

In spite of his rather limited interpretation of such evidence, Roscoe's analysis generally broadens and deepens previous constructionist interpretations, especially by way of his utilization not only of anthropological but also of ethnohistorical methodology and evidence, as well as by way of his inclusion of cross-cultural and cross-historical evidence of gender and sexual diversity. He includes, for example, a discussion of the mollies of eighteenth-century England; these were homoerotically-inclined transgendered males who in certain respects resonate with Native American berdaches as well as with transgendered votaries of ancient Mediterranean goddesses. A more conscious use of comparative religious methodology, combined with his reliance on anthropology and ethnohistory, might enrich Roscoe's interpretation of this cross-cultural, transhistorical data.

Having just finished reading three books focusing on berdaches and two-spirit persons, the others both titled Two-Spirit People, one edited by Lester Brown, the other by Sue-Ellen Jacobs et. al., I can state with confidence that Roscoe’s Changing Ones is by far the richest of these, in terms of information, analysis, and especially literary craft.

I must inject here that I was both shocked and offended by anthropologist Sue-Ellen Jacobs' portrayal of white gay men interested in the berdache phenomenon as cultural thieves. (One of my spiritual mentors, Olivier Garcia of the Iroquois Nation, was equally offended when I shared Jacobs' words with her.) Jacobs -- while she might well deny it -- intends to denigrate the work of Roscoe, Walter Williams, Harry Hay (one of Jacobs' mentors) and others, as well as to disparage the Radical Faeries and others who have shown an interest in this phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, Jacobs does not condemn Lynn Andrews, Michael Harner, or other heterosexual New Agers for their appropriation of Native American spirituality, nor does she condemn non-Native lesbians who weave dream-catchers and build sweat lodges. I have mentioned Jacobs' portrait of white gay men as cultural thieves here because I feel it is crucial to point out that Roscoe -- like Hay and others -- has been mentored by Native Americans, has profited very little from interest in this phenomenon in terms of material gain, and has, by way of his passionate, painstaking work, won the respect of many two-spirits and other Native Americans, as well as that of non-Natives, including this white gay male writer.

Randy P. Luncunas Conner is the co-author of Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit, recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, and the author of Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections Between Homoeroticism and the Sacred.

If you're interested in Changing Ones, here's a link to Will Roscoe's homepage. There's more about the book and a link to purchase the book so the author's gets a commission. (For all of underpaid authors, that's a plus!)