1698: A French explorer among the Illinois Indians remarks on the number of
"berdaches" (men living as women) and the prevalence of homosexual activity. |
Native American Sexuality
As Europeans settled in North America, they encountered Native American cultures which had different ideas about sexuality and gender (what it means to be a man or a woman). The accounts of French, Spanish and British travelers about Native American customs are full of references to such cultural differences, such as the kinds of work assigned to men and to women, the political power of women in some native cultures, and the acceptance among some groups of same-sex sexual activity and cross-dressing. The word "berdache" was used by the French to refer to Native men who dressed and lived as women, although each Native culture had their own word for the practice. In a number of cultures, berdache were particularly honored members of society.
Reactions to these differences ranged from amused to violent, as Europeans confronted cultures that did not follow what Europeans had always considered to be "natural" laws. As European settlers attacked and displaced Native American communities, descriptions of the different social and sexual practices of Native cultures often served to justify the conquest of North America by the "civilizing" forces of the colonizers.