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erdache

Chelsea Fischer
20 March, 1997

 


"Reef" by Elizabeth Herron, Copyright 1994

      While watching the movie Little Big Man, I saw
  a character that intrigued me. The character's name
  was Little Horse, and he was called a "hee-man-eh."

  In the Cheyenne tribe, which is the tribe that was
  featured in the movie, "hee-man-eh" is the word for
  what anthropologists often call a "berdache."

  Berdaches can be found in many cultures around the
  world, and in many American Indian cultures, as well.
  The term "berdache" is usually defined simply as
  "homosexual," but it actually describes a much more
  complex social role and gender identity than is implied
  by this simplistic definition.

The word "berdache" also implies a more derogatory view of the people thus labeled than was present in many of the tribes and other groups in which they were found. Walter Williams gives a short history of the term in his book The Spirit and the Flesh. In it, he tells that it came originally from the Persian "bardaj," and spread to many languages of Europe, including Italian, Spanish, and French. In each of these languages, however, the word carried meanings such as "young man who is shamefully abused" and "young man or boy who serves as another's succubus, permitting sodomy to be committed on him. These abominations . . ." (9). So, regardless of whether Lakota winktes or Cheyenne hee-man-ehs fit this definition or not, and completely ignoring the fact that, even if they did, that was by no means the most part of what defined them as such to their tribes, the European explorers who came across these people labeled them "berdaches." Thus, this term is considered derogatory by many, but, as it is the only "umbrella" term available, it continues to be used.

The role of the berdache has been documented in many tribes of North America. A chart in the back of Living the Spirit lists 133 separate tribes with berdache roles -- male and/or female. Among the better-known berdache roles are the "nadle" of the Navajo, the "winkte" of the Lakota, and the "hee-man-eh" of the Cheyenne. Each of these tribes has different customs for what specific social role the berdache plays. In each case, however, the berdache is a respected and, to some extent, revered person.

As Walter Williams says, "Shamans are not necessarily berdaches, but because of their spiritual connection, berdaches in many cultures are often considered to be powerful shamans" (35). He goes on to say that the Navajo nadle hataali had special chants for curing mental and physical illnesses, and for easing childbirth. Lakota winktes were considered to have, in addition to medicine for childbirth, powers for love medicine. And, the Cheyenne hee-man-eh was regarded as a powerful healer, so much so that "Cheyenne war parties almost always had a skilled berdache curer along to care for the wounded" (Williams 35).

The Navajo nadle was thought of as an extremely lucky person, especially in financial matters: "Because they [the nadles] were believed to have been given charge of wealth since the beginning of time, a family with a nadle was considered fortunate and assured of wealth and success" (Midnight Sun 41). The nadle was also generally revered, as shown by statements like "I think when all the nadle are gone , that it will be the end of the Navajo", and "If there were no nadle, the country would
change" (Midnight Sun 41).

In the Lakota tribe, the winkte were often given the responsibility -- and privilege -- of giving the "secret names" often bestowed in their tribe: "The Sioux had an old custom of giving themselves secret names divulged to no one. Only the donor and the recipient knew the name. The name given by the winkte is sort of a good-luck talisman . . . Sitting Bull, Black Elk, and the famed Crazy Horse [were] bearers of these secret winkte names" (Kenny 30). Since the winkte were entrusted with the giving of these powerful names, we can see that they were indeed held in high regard.

Maurice Kenny speaks of the Cheyenne hee-man-eh in particular as an example of berdaches as spiritual and/or supernatural beings. He mentions that hee-man-ehs were often chosen to act as leader of scalp dances and to carry the scalps back to the village with a successful war party. He says that it should come as no surprise that the hee-man-eh is chosen for these tasks, as "[h]e had special powers, or privileged medicine, and for all intents and purposes he had if not the outer apparel then the inner spirit of both male and female" (24).

Kenny also tells of the particular character that caught my eye in Little Big Man: "the young hee-man-eh, Little Horse, . . . stripped of masculine attire and lifestyle and costumed in a female's deerskin tunic" (27). He offers the following quotes from the novel (by Thomas Berger) on which the movie is based: "'If a Cheyenne don't believe he can stand a man's life, he ain't forced to. He can become a heemaneh, which is to say a half-man, half-woman. There are uses for these fellows and everybody likes them. They are sometimes chemists, specializing in making the love-potions, and generally good entertainers. They wear women's clothes and can get married to another man, if such be his taste. . . . My other foster-brother, Little Horse, dressed like a Cheyenne woman, came in and entertained us with very graceful singing and dancing. It did my heart good to see he made such a success of being a heemaneh'" (27).

In the movie version, Jack Crabb comes back to the group of Cheyenne he spent his childhood with and is greeted warmly by his old friend Little Horse, who is now, as in the novel, dressing in women's clothing. Jack says of his friend: "He had become a hee-man-eh . . . and he was a good one, too. The Human Beings [Cheyenne] thought a lot of him." Little Bear then proceeds to dance a bit, showing off his womanly skills. Later, when Jack again returns to the Human Beings, Little Bear offers to become Jack's wife. Jack, however, declines, perhaps in part because he already has four wives at this point in the movie.

In reference to the accuracy of the novel (and, at least in part, by extension, the movie), Kenny says "Berger was writing fictionally of a 'romantic' past, and, though accurately researched, Little Big Man may represent [only] one man's point of view" (29). So, I feel it can be safely assumed that Berger's novel (and Arthur Penn's movie) truly did try to convey accurate attitudes and customs (to some extent) of the Cheyenne tribe in the late 1800's. Of course, any novel or movie produced for
entertainment purposes will naturally have some (or many) parts that stray far from the truth. It seems, though, that in this case, at least insofar as the hee-man-eh is concerned, Berger and Penn portrayed him (Little Horse, that is) in a fairly realistic manner.

The portrayal of the Cheyenne hee-man-eh in the movie Little Big Man may seem, if taken out of context, to be degrading to members of the Cheyenne tribe, by suggesting that many of them are transvestites, and/or cross-gendered people, both of which categories are not exactly highly regarded in today's society. However, if we look beyond this misconception, we can see that it is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of one aspect of and role in Cheyenne life.


I'm a 19-year-old senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder, studying linguistics and religious studies. I'd appreciate it if you'd link to http://ucsu.colorado.edu/~ccfische


Works Cited


Kenny, Maurice. "Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study In Indian
Homosexuality." Gay Sunshine 26/27 (Winter 1975-76): 15-17. Rpt. in
Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Coordinating Ed.
Will Roscoe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. 15-31.

Little Big Man. Dir. Arthur Penn. Hiller Production Ltd, 1970;
CBS/FOX, 1995.

Midnight Sun. "Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America." Living the
Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology
. Coordinating Ed. Will Roscoe.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 198 8.

Roscoe, Will. The Zuni Man-Woman. U of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque,
1991.

Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in
American Indian Culture
. Beacon Press: Boston, 1986.


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