Phil Colin Hawkins
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The berdache was a biological Native American male that assumed the gender of a female with regards to dress, mannerisms, and social roles. The following examines the berdache tradition in the earliest written records from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to show that such accounts are not very useful for extrapolating credible ethnographic conclusions. Different representational strategies—including the expediencies of conquest, cultural assumptions, and rules of discourse—shaped what appears to be regional variation of the tradition. Regardless of whether a particular author was justifying or contesting New World conquest, virtually everyone’s account of the phenomenon was shaped by some ulterior motive. This paper is not a history of truth or the past as it really was but rather a history of projection, propaganda, and presentation. It also deals with the theme of New World Sodom: a sixteenth-century Iberian representational strategy that likened the natives of the New World to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah through such literary tools as intertextuality, allusion, imitation, and parody.
“I saw a devilish thing” recalled Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: “I saw a man married to another man.” One was typical and less noteworthy, but the other was “covered like [the] women” and performed “the work of women.” In the anthropological idiom, these biological men, who assumed the dress, manners, and social roles of women, were berdaches. In the Spanish vernacular, they were sodomitas. This was not a casual word choice. By evoking the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, conquistadors hoped to justify their paths of destruction in the Americas, which they fashioned in their texts as a New World Sodom. By the time that native voices entered the records, acculturation was well underway, and given the high stakes of sodomy accusations, natives had little interest in or ability to articulate a pre-contact worldview. On the contrary, they symbolically sacrificed the berdache before the newcomers. The following will outline the mythical invention and destruction of New World Sodom at the hands of Spaniards and natives.
THE BERDACHE DEBATE
The following admittedly trespasses on a previously trekked landscape. The premier scholar on the sixteenth-century berdache, the late Richard C. Trexler, argued that Native American warriors gendered their enemies as feminine in ways that surpassed mere rhetoric: they captured men from the battlefield, turned them into women, and raped them. This militaristic tradition bled into the domestic sphere and inspired the homegrown berdache phenomenon, in which coercion, rape, and child abuse were defining features. According to Trexler, “Based on the absence of evidence alone, we would have to characterize the existence of berdaches as a degraded one. "
Although evidence-driven, Trexler often treated European representations as ethnographic reality. According to Will Roscoe, Trexler’s positions “depend upon a literal reading of the texts of European conquerors and missionaries.” Roscoe suggested: “A more careful approach would begin by asking why this information was collected and written down, and what discourse (and rules of discourse) was it apart of.” In the face of such criticism, Trexler replied: “one marvels at the naiveté of the notion that the Spaniards referred to the berdache so often merely because ‘the conquerors were collecting evidence to justify their conquest.’” To think otherwise, claimed Trexler, is to be “unfamiliar with the primary sources,” and “there is no alternative to the use of these European records.” Without entirely dismissing the theory of social construction, the following seriously questions the ability and will of anyone in the sixteenth century to articulate a pre-Hispanic social reality.
“THEIR SIN SO GRAVE”
Michel Foucault argued that Europeans exhibited a “nearly universal reticence” to discuss sodomy. To Foucault, the scientific and legalistic discourses of sodomy and sexuality were interesting, not scriptural interpretations. True, Europeans were reluctant to speak of sodomy, but only among their own people. In theory, sodomy was a foreign and contagious custom carried by the exotic, proverbial other. Unsurprisingly, sixteenth-century Iberians convicted a significant number of Italian immigrants, Muslims, and Jews for sodomy while rarely acknowledging homegrown practices.
At the heart of this paper is the notion of New World Sodom: a sixteenth-century Iberian representational strategy of conquest that likened the natives of the New World to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah through such literary tools as intertextuality, allusion, imitation, and parody. Thus, in order to understand sixteenth-century representations of the berdache tradition, one must understand the biblical tradition that informed those representations. According to Genesis 18-19 (New American Bible), the Lord said: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave” that the Lord sent two angels to investigate if the rumors were true. If there were less than ten decent people, then the Lord would destroy the two cities. While staying at Lot’s house, every man in Sodom (“to the last man”) gathered outside demanding: “Where are the men who came to your house tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have intimacies with them.” Lot refused, and the Sodomites decided to seize the angels. As they broke down the door, the angels blinded the intruders while Lot and his family escaped. The angelic reconnaissance confirmed the outcry: Sodom and Gomorrah were unredeemable. The wicked cities even infected some of Lot’s in-laws, who refused to join the escapees. After their departure, the Lord “rained down sulfurous fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah.” The following morning, Abraham examined the scene and saw a dense smoke over the land rising like fumes “from a furnace.”
Christians often molded their reports of New World sodomy to resemble the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah where the Lord’s messengers could not even find ten descent people. When Spaniards declared that “they are all sodomites,” “sodomites more than any other race,” who “take great pride in it,” the message was clear. In the words of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, “due to the sin of nefarious intercourse fell from heaven fire and brimstone and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.” Therefore, Europeans should fulfill the role of the Lord, because “it is not only lawful to subject them to our dominion…but they can be punished with even more severe war.” Of course, proponents of conquest believed that destruction was in the natives’ best interests. According to Francisco López de Gómara, “the Indians benefit from the Conquest” because “there is no longer sodomy, [the] hateful sin.”
New World Sodom was not monolithic, but we should be hesitant to interpret the differences as regional variations. Quite often different representational strategies, including the expediencies of conquest, cultural assumptions, and rules of discourse, shaped what appears to be regional variation. Of the rules, there was only one: Spaniards were not allies with sodomites, or at least they were reluctant to admit it. Since New World Sodom existed beyond the pale of Spanish colonization, conquistadors could report the most fantastic tales of debauchery with relative ease. As such, the following puts little stock into finer distinctions between sixteenth-century history (historia) writing and story (historia) telling.
Europeans constructed New World Sodom not long after reaching the Islands of the Caribbean. In 1495, Michele de Cuneo, the first documented rapist in the New World, reported that both the good “Indians” and the alleged man-eating Caribs were “largely sodomites,” and both practiced that vice as if they were unaware of its sinfulness. Yet, in the Christian mind, there were clear distinctions. According to Cuneo: “We have judged” that the spiteful Caribs “may also have committed that extreme offence” with their male captives, by which this sin “may have been transmitted” like a contagious disease from Carib to Indian. Doctor Chanca, who participated on the same voyage, told a fantastic tale that appeared to confirm European assumptions. According to Chanca, the Caribs captured Indian boys, castrated them like farm chickens, and “used them” [sirvense] for years until they ripened at adulthood. Then, “when they want to make a feast, they kill and eat them, for they say that the flesh of boys and women is not good to eat.” Chanca claimed to have seen three of these eunuchs.
In an age where cannibal reports are highly suspect, this tale of eunuch eaters deserves special scrutiny. Although the reports of Cuneo and Chanca were similar, the devil is in the details. Consider the order of events. Chanca’s 1494 report provided alleged eyewitness testimony of the eunuch-eating custom, but Cuneo’s 1495 report admitted collective inference: “we have judged.” Furthermore, Cuneo contradicted Chanca by insisting that the Caribs had no taboo against eating the flesh of boys, only women. Most importantly of all, Chanca stands alone and unverified. No one else ever recorded the custom of eunuch eating. Instead, Europeans began talking about the berdache, who was often misrepresented as identical to the Old World phenomenon of eunuchism. Despite these red flags, Trexler used Chanca’s report to build his overarching thesis that all across America native warriors turned their prisoners of war into sex slaves, who became the basis for the berdache tradition.
In this first image of New World Sodom, we see the beginnings of the rules of discourse that disassociated Spanish allies from sodomy. The Spaniards assumed that the Caribs infected the “good” Indians with the vice, but then they stopped talking about the vice amongst the “good” ones. While Cuneo’s report sat in a private collection, the Caribs remained, in the words of Father Tomás Ortiz, “sodomites more than any other race.” Most importantly, nobody challenged that assessment. The Caribs were unredeemable. On the other hand, when Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo broke the silence about sodomy among the “good” Indians of Hispaniola, Bartolomé de Las Casas accused Oviedo of writing a “false history” filled with “great lies told about these people,” especially for “saying they were all sodomites.” Las Casas discredited Oviedo as untrustworthy, because Oviedo, the supervisor of gold smelting, had “thrown many of them into mines, where they died, and was thus their cruel enemy.” The friar’s complaints, along with a changing attitude among the Council of Indies, led to a prohibition of later works detailing widespread sodomy among the “good” Indians.
Although charges of sodomy bolstered their claims, Europeans justified their conquest of the Caribs primarily because of their alleged cannibalism. When Spaniards began colonizing the Isthmus of Panama or Tierra Firme, charges of sodomy began to take center stage. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s men butchered hundreds of Panama natives, including King Quareque, “like brute beasts,” for having the audacity to order their expedition to halt. When the army reached Quarequa’s village, the only men in town were the king’s brother, by then the new king, and a number of berdaches, who generally did not participate in war. The Spaniards identified these “young men in women’s apparel, smooth and effeminately decked” as sexual tools and accused the new king of having “abused with preposterous Venus.” In the name of God, Nuñez de Balboa threw forty alleged sodomites to his war dogs.
The native response to this massacre was fantastic: they were overjoyed and ran to the Spaniards as if they were demigods on par with Hercules. “Lifting up their hands and eyes towards heaven,” the natives “gave tokens that god was grievously offended with such vile deeds.” They thanked the conquistadors for wiping out their royal bloodline, because “this stinking abomination had not yet entered among the people, but was exercised only by the noblemen and gentlemen.” They also begged the Europeans to exterminate the remaining sodomites, who the natives blamed for all of their woes. Perhaps Nuñez de Balboa invented this story to justify his actions. Who could accuse him of barbarism when everyone, including his victims, approved of his harsh measures? Historian Ward Stavig suggested that natives may have responded in such a way out of fear. Whether it was invention or theatrics, Nuñez de Balboa’s report remains highly problematic.
The Council of Indies’ official historian, Peter Martyr d’ Anghiera, first put the Panama tale into print. When the king appointed Oviedo as an official historian, Oviedo took Martyr’s account and elaborated on it. Oviedo surmised: “The Indian chiefs and lords publicly have boys with whom they commit this damnable sin. As soon as the boys begin this practice they put on the short cotton skirt of the Indian women.” Far from a genuine cultural exchange, Oviedo explained this cultural phenomenon by an inference that clearly justified conquest. In one of Trexler’s more enlightened moments, he recognized correctly that “transvestitism was not a just title of conquest,” but sodomy “did bestow a right to conquer, if it could be demonstrated that it was widespread and tolerated by the indigenous civil authority.” Such a realization did not stop Trexler from using Oviedo’s elaboration of Martyr to argue that “the more characteristic reality” in most American societies was that “their lords first raped these boys and then ‘punished’ them, at least in Christian eyes, by dressing them as women.”
As Cortés’s army marched through Mexico, Spaniards “learnt and been informed for sure” that the natives were “all sodomites.” Bernal Díaz del Castillo recalled that “we warned every town through which we passed: against wickedness and human sacrifice, and the worship of idols, and eating their neighbors’ flesh, and sodomy.” When talking to the Cempoala natives, Cortés demanded that they “must give up sodomy, for they had boys dressed as women.” Unlike the Tierra Firme, the chiefs were not the culprits. On the contrary, they expressed that “measures would be taken to see that the practice was stopped.” Perhaps it was coincidental that the chiefs were Cortés’s military allies, but more likely the rules of discourse forbid such associations.
As a general rule, the Spaniards were not friends with sodomites. For instance, once Moctezuma became an ally, Spaniards deemed him free of sodomy. Mexican religious leaders, on the other hand, were expendable. Spaniards described them as peculiar men wearing black robes with their “ears cut to pieces as a sacrifice.” They wore their hair “very long, down to their waists, and some even down to their feet.” When Cortés ordered his men to give four native priests white robes and haircuts, they found the priests’ hair was “so clotted and matted with blood that it could not be pulled apart.” The priests were unclean and “smelt of sulfur” and something worse: of decaying flesh. On top of it all, they had “no wives, but indulged in the foul practice of sodomy.” Coincidentally or not, that was the day Cortés ordered his men to smash the Mexican religious “idols.” For Trexler, the context of this content did not matter much. He insisted that berdaches were symbols of tribal power, and they were created to be “anally raped” by such priests, just as they were raped by the tribal chiefs in the Tierra Firme.
As the wheels of conquest moved northwards, it was the same story all over again. Pedro Castañeda, a chronicler of the Coronado expedition into North America, labeled the “more barbarous” Pacaxes as “great sodomites.” They and their allegedly cannibal neighbors, the Acaxes, were “very hard to subdue.” Nevertheless, Castañeda announced that their friends, the Zuni, had “no drunkenness among them, nor sodomy, nor sacrifices, neither do they eat human flesh or steal.” American ethnographers found numerous Zuni berdaches, including history’s most famous berdache, We’wha. Perhaps the Zuni scorned the berdache in 1540 and later became indifferent, but the more probable explanation was that Castañeda would not represent the Zuni as sodomites, because they were allies. Instead, he chose to label those hostile Indians as ridden with sodomy. Such were the rules of discourse.
“NO MEMORY SHOULD REMAIN”
Jean Paul Sartre once told a parable of a voyeur peering through a keyhole, who suddenly heard footsteps behind him. Without even turning around, the voyeur felt an instant wave of shame. In the New World, Spanish missionaries needed to teach the natives to feel instantaneous shame about sodomy. The Provisional Council of Lima went to great lengths to compile and translate into indigenous languages a number of stock sermons. One sermon warned that “if there is anyone among you who commits sodomy, let them be known that because of that fire and brimstone fell from heaven and burnt the fine cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and left them in ashes.” The Catholics announced that “the reason God has allowed that you the Indians should be so afflicted and vexed by other nations is because of this vice.” The Council also informed the natives that in the new order of things sodomy carried “the death penalty under the just laws of our Spanish king.”
According to Serge Gruzinski, natives in the post-conquest world “forged new identities, invented memories, and set up a space for themselves in the midst of the surrounding colonial society.” Part of this process involved symbolically sacrificing the berdache and burning New World Sodom. Perhaps born out of political expediency, these new memories were tantamount to the colonization of the pre-Hispanic past, but this did not happen overnight. There was a fascinating period when the old and new stories coexisted and intermingled. For instance, one investigator noted the multiplicity of accounts in the Collas province of Peru where “some witnesses say that they were punished and other that they were not.” Antonio de Herrera found the same: “Though some people say in Mexico that those who committed the nefarious sin were put to death, others say that they did not pay attention to it for punishment.” Over time this multiplicity shrunk as acculturated tales of harsh punishment, along the lines of Leviticus and sixteenth-century European customs, became the dominant narrative. By the seventeenth century, many acculturated natives insisted they squashed the sin more ruthlessly than their Christian rulers ever did.
When Europeans questioned the Aztecs about their ancient laws, native responses contradicted the accounts of their conquistadors, who tended to find sodomy everywhere. According to Las Casas, there was some confusion about Mexican laws, because a few “not entirely authentic” documents were circulating in the form of “an unauthorized small Indian book.” Nevertheless, Las Casas assured his readers that “those which follow are all held authentic and true.” In ancient times, the Mexicans “hanged those who committed the abominable sin, and also those who dressed like women.” In Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, Aztec artists drew a two-captioned picture that portrayed two men conversing around the symbol of love and lust: the flower. The second caption depicted one of the men consumed by flames. The accompanying text identified “the Sodomite” as “womanish, playing the part of a woman, he merits being committed to flames, burned, consumed by fire, he burns.” The active partner apparently went unpunished. By the seventeenth century, Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, an acculturated native of Texcoco, described how “the nefarious sin was punished in two ways” depending on the active or passive role. They took the “one acting as a female” and “removed his entrails from the bottom.” He was “tied down to a log” and buried with ash. Then they would “put a lot of wood and burn him.” The active partner was “covered with ash, tied down to a log until he died.” This mimicry flattered Europeans. According to Leviticus 20 (New American Bible), “if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed.” In 1607, Gregorio García pointed out that “the Indians of New Spain kept this law, without missing one point, and they executed it with great severity.” To García, this was clear evidence that the natives of America were from the Lost Tribe of Israel.
Despite the pattern of inconsistencies, natives of the former Aztec empire were consistent on one point: they executed berdaches in ancient days. Alfredo López Austin, Clark Taylor, and Noemí Quezada saw these tales as reliable pre-Columbian memories, but what if they were invented memories? After all, the former Aztec region was the most acculturated in Central Mexico. They were better prepared to master and naturalize the post-conquest script. This point becomes clearer when we turn to another people, the Tlaxcaltecs, who were not subject to the Aztecs at the time of conquest. According to the mestizo historian Diego Muñoz Camargo, “they considered [sodomy] as a great abomination, the nefarious sin, and the sodomites were despised.” Nevertheless, “they did not punish them.” By the seventeenth century, natives had learned the script: “Sodomy was punished by death” in pre-contact Tlaxcala, “although practiced in other Provinces.”
In Peru, mid-century historians remarked the Inca were free of sodomy, and they “despised those who used it, looking down on them as vile and contemptible for glorying in such filth.” Although most authors proclaimed that the Inca severely punished sodomites, the earliest historians only alluded that the Inca had the culprits “pointed out and known to all.” Even Cieza, who described the Incas as “absolute rulers who had to account to nobody for what they did,” admitted that the Inca “overlooked certain things…so that ”they would not be disliked. Later historians, especially acculturated Incas and mestizos, no longer mentioned that the Inca “overlooked certain things.” In the early seventeenth century, Garcilasso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and Inca princess, told ancient tales of severe anti-sodomy imperialism. Long ago, the Inca general, Augui Titu, “ordered that a careful search was to be made for the sodomites and when found they were to be burnt alive in the public square, not only those found guilty, but also those indicted by circumstantial evidence, however slight.” If one person committed the sin, the Inca would “destroy the whole town, and burn all the inhabitants.” Their houses were “burnt and pulled down.” Even the trees growing by their homes were “burnt and pulled up by the roots.” All this was a symbolic act “so that no memory should remain of such "an abominable thing.”
Today’s scholars were not the first to recognize intertexuality. Cornelius de Pauw argued that “all this he [Garcilasso] mentions about penalties reserved for those found guilty, are without any doubt a great fiction.” He accused Garcilasso of borrowing the custom from Roman law and giving it to the Peruvians, who never punished the act. He argued: “If the Inca empire had the men being burnt after the slightest evidence, this empire could have never survived ten years.” True, but the important point was that Peruvians had naturalized Leviticus 20.
The above has highlighted the complexity of native storytelling, in which past and present were in a continuous dialog. Once natives understood that Spaniards linked New World Sodom to conquest, they set out to destroy it with stories miming those of their conquerors. In mid-century, the Inca destroyed New World Sodom in an ironically acculturated way. As the story went, long ago an all-male group of giants sailed from faraway on large cane rafts. These newcomers looked “deformed and ugly,” but the natives did not give them much thought, because they did not believe that they would stay for long. This assumption proved incorrect. The giants dug the earth, and they devoured the region’s food supplies. After the giants captured the native leader, Otoya, the native people became “confused and frightened.” In the midst of this chaos, the giants “oppressed the land and became masters of everything.” Since the newcomers did not bring any of their own women, they raped many native women. The Indians often gathered to discuss how to get rid of the giants, but “they never dared risk it.” Suddenly a miracle happened. According to their ancestors, “Our Lord God” sent down an angel with a sword of fire to destroy the giants for their monstrous sins. In a single blow, “the fire consumed them.” All that was left were their large bones still found in the countryside today. The people were free “from such toil,” and it was a time for celebration. Unfortunately, the Inca were left “without their head to govern them, because Otoya died in prison.” There was no turning back the clock.
This tale was told, retold, and discussed by numerous Spaniards, who were flattered by the imitation, because it confirmed their own sacred tale. In the words of Agustin de Zárate, “It is thought among the Spaniards to be true” that the giants were “much inclined to the vice against nature, the divine justice removed them from the earth sending an angel to this purpose as it happened in Sodom and other places.” Nevertheless, underneath this fascination, some Spaniards were apprehensive. Pedro Cieza de León, the first to put this tale on paper, worried that he and his countrymen might be the giants, but the natives “affirmed that they had no beards.” This was a satisfactory answer. Nevertheless, if natives accused the Spaniards of sodomy and suggested that God might destroy the newcomers for their sins, then they had already internalized the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. The main difference was that in the biblical tale the natives were the sodomites. In the Inca’s tale, the newcomers were the sodomites.
While traveling in Cuba, Las Casas saw an elderly berdache in the distance, perhaps the last one on the island. He could have approached the berdache to learn the “truth” of the tradition, but chose “not to investigate it.” In the end, the sixteenth-century berdache was a faceless and nameless product of the Old World imagination: one that nearly everyone had an interest in misrepresenting. This paper has outlined how the contexts of these tales were more important than their content. The real tragedy is that scholars uncritically use these tainted documents as windows into the pre-Columbian mind. This paper problemitizes such an enterprise, but does not dismiss it entirely. Perhaps with new and critical methodologies, scholars could salvage aspects of the sixteenth-century berdache tradition, but until then all we have at face value are tales of conquest and acculturation revolving around the image of New World Sodom.
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Trexler worked out his theories in Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995); “Making the American Berdache: Choice or Constraint?” Journal of Social History 35, no. 3 (2002): 613-633; and “Gender Subordination and Political Hierarchy in Pre-Hispanic America,” in Infamous Desires: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America, ed. Pete Sigal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Michele de Cuneo to Lord Hieronymo Annari, Savona, 15 Oct., 1495 in Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, trans. S.E. Morison (New York: Heritage Press, 1963), 220.
W. Arens, Man-Eating Myth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Michael Palncia-Roth, “Cannibal Law of 1503,” 21-63; Michele de Cuneo in Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 219.
Oviedo’s Historia General y Natural was prohibited. The council of the Indies denied Sepúlveda’s Democrates Secundus (ca. 1544) and Apologia pro Libro de Justis Belli Causis (1555) permission for publication. Francisco López de Gómara’s La Historia de las Indias y Conquista de México was prohibited in 1553. See Cristián A. Roa-de-la-Carrera, Histories of Infamy: Francisco López de Gómara and the Ethics of Spanish Imperialism, trans. Scott Sessions (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005), 38, 44-45, 55, 57-58.
For a great, albeit somewhat romanticized, overview, see William Roscoe, Zuni Man-Woman (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991); For some examples o ethnographic reports, see Jonathan Katz, ed., Gay American History (New York: Crowell, 1976), 313-14; Elsie Clews Parsons, “The Last Zuni La’mana,” American Anthropologist 18 (Oct.-Dec., 1916): 521-22; Parsons, “The Last Zuni Transvestite,” American Anthropologist 41 (Apr.-Jun., 1939): 339.
Pedro Cieza de León, The Inca, ed. Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, trans. Harriet de Onis (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), 179; Damián de la Bandera (1557): “the Inca punish with great severity the nefarious sin,” in PCM, 100.