Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Boundary Crossing Medicine
Agatha Garneau, Archange Garneau, Charlotte Garneau, and Placide Poirier. Strathcona, Alberta 1900-1901. Scan from the glenbow museum archives
I stumbled upon this wonderful picture at a recent history conference, and immediately had to track it down at the glenbow archives in calgary. Look at how extraordinary this picture is. From what I have been able to track down so far, there is little information about the circumstances when it was taken, other than that it was taken in 1900-1901. Furthermore, this picture wreaks havoc upon expectations for the period, when women supposedly only ever dressed in stereotyped ways that did not include any "masculine" elements. Photographs consistent with those expectations are often the most reproduced, especially when they feature Indigenous women, many of whom were managing complex entanglements between "racism" and "respectability." What I would like to especially draw your attention to with this picture, is that the three Métis women are wearing subtly different clothing on their upper bodies – we have no way to know whether they were wearing pants or skirts – although they were all delighted with the carefully pinned bowler hats. This clothing is fitted, unlike what we might expect of a costume. They also look like they're having a great time, unlike the gentleman in the picture, who has no sense of humour at evidence in his corner of the frame. I raise all this not to argue that any of these women were lesbian in current terms, but to illustrate the persistence, sometimes overt, of boundary crossing medicine in Indigenous communities. It's a bonus that this picture comes from near present day edmonton, alberta.
Indigenous sexualities today and prior to the european invasion are controversial topics, not helped at all by the mainstream assumption that sexuality is indelibly tied to sex-role and gender stereotypes. Yet the sheer diversity of open Indigenous perspectives and practices, and the evidence of diversity on this point in european cultures has made it quite clear that those supposedly "indelible" ties are thoroughly social creations. In 1990, the term "two-spirit" was proposed during a discussion at a north american gay, lesbian, and bisexual conference held in winnipeg, a brilliantly selected site for the event. The whole point behind proposing it was to establish a respectful and useful english-language term for non-heterosexual Indigenous people. Unfortunately it does not work well because in many Indigenous knowledge systems, everyone has two spirits, such as a blood spirit and a breath spirit, and these have nothing to do with sexuality or gender expression as such. Worse yet, non-Indigenous people have been encouraged into the bad habit of overextending any word that could be applied to some Indigenous people to all, regardless of nation or culture. This has led "two-spirit" to escaping from being a suggestion to the mainstream word for first non-heterosexual and now also gender creative Indigenous people, regardless of their nation's understanding of their medicine or whether anyone or everyone has spirits of one kind or another.
The hardest challenge when looking into pre-invasion Indigenous sexualities then is to break the habit of looking for systems of gender and sexual behaviour that are familiar now and/or in european communities even around the same time. Social and sexual life alike are embedded in a matrix of culture, economy, environment, place, and history. We can and do make many choices about our behaviour in the world, but those choices are constrained. There is considerable evidence to question whether there were binary gender systems in the americas at all before europeans arrived. Much of the easiest to access evidence on Indigenous practices derive from european sources, materials set down by people who could not make sense fo what they were seeing and had been taught they had a universal culture that applied or should apply everywhere. In some Indigenous cultures, clothing for male and female persons was highly differentiated, while in others clothing wasn't distinguished on this basis, but hairstyles were. Europeans could not identify these important clothing, hair or other differences in Indigenous terms, let alone record them. Yet they were also predisposed to refuse to do so.
What sets and set apart persons whose gender is not primarily defined by or otherwise linked to their biological sex is their medicine, that is, their spiritual gifts. Indigenous Elders and historians are quite clear that the spiritual gifts in those now often called "two-spirits" in english is boundary crossing medicine, an ability to bridge different worlds that seem otherwise completely separate to those who don't share that gift. I have often read and heard references to bridging two worlds, which sounds like a lot to handle already, but there are certainly more worlds than that, as some examples of boundary crossing show. The big ones many of us will be familiar with are doctoring, midwifery, undertaking and burial, and of course translation. Examples that may surprise non-Indigenous people include ceremonial leadership, warfare, and trade. There was a sexual division of labour in all Indigenous cultures, but again, which jobs went to who was not universal, and so boundary crossing medicine could be expressed via doing different work than what might otherwise be expected based on the person's biological sex. The boundary crossing in this case can be interpreted as moving between the worlds of the two sexes not because those worlds are completely separated, but in order to prevent them from becoming separated, which is quite dangerous. Everyone needs to understand the basics of survival skills, from sharpening knives to caring for babies and small children in a society looking to the long term.
What a given Indigenous society deemed to be more dangerous sorts of boundary crossing varied just as it does now. Even the oversimplified category of "warfare" was not necessarily a type of dangerous boundary crossing. Counting coup involves touching an enemy without hurting them and getting away safely yourself, which is far more dangerous than horse raiding, for example. While the boundary crossing medicine of people who would be called gays and lesbians today was and is strong by nature, that did not mean that they were considered to be of a different gender. They could be, that is true, yet rarely were on the basis of their sexual orientation. Anishinabe scholar Midnight Sun noted in 1988 that being gay or lesbian did not determine a person's gender classification. Instead their social identity as defined by their work did. This means that a heterosexual person gifted with boundary crossing medicine could also receive a different gender classification. Consider Piikani Blackfoot women who today would be called heterosexual and served as political and military leaders. They would be called by a term anthropologists usually translate as "manly hearted women." We also need to watch out for what on further research turns out to be temporary ceremonial gender status, such as that of Haudenosaunee men who had to be "made women" in order to take part in certain women's political councils. To that end they wore dresses and ceremonial corn pounders, the symbols of their hard work to earn the chance to participate.
So now the stage is set with two great continents of wildly creative Indigenous peoples whose cultures enshrine various views and expressions of human sexuality and divisions of labour based on sex. Europeans arrive, focussed on getting full or partial control of a land and its people to seize and profit by their labour and goods. They decry what they label sinful behaviour, and Indigenous nakedness. The question of what it means to be "naked" is a warning for us here, because what counts as naked also varies by culture and time period. There are times and places in which a european man could be declared naked because he didn't have a hat on, because hats represented a whole range of social mores around how each person conformed to the practices of their social class. Similarly, european women could be considered naked at times if they didn't have gloves on. Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that the europeans who wrote about Indigenous people were from two main groups with plenty invested in depicting them in a poor light, deflecting attention from real or potential regularities in their own behaviour, and justifying expensive projects. Christian missionaries considered many boundary crossing individuals religious rivals and opponents to their own proselytizing projects. Explorers and traders were part of groups who built forts and trading posts where the sex ratio among whites remained extremely skewed, so somehow demonstrating that they were not engaged in or approving of any sexual or gender impropriety inflected their views and their writing.
In what is currently known as canada, free Indigenous peoples gathered and processed the goods of most interest to traders, who therefore spent less effort trying to enslave them and more on convincing them to trade. For the purposes of trade, europeans soon learned that in order to trade successfully, they had to acculturate. They were expected to become relatives and learn how to behave appropriately in an Indigenous context. Indigenous communities integrated european traders by marriage, less often by adoption. Marrying in was useful to men not just in trade, but also in reassuring themselves and the folks at home that they were being properly heterosexual. When they did take note of Indigenous men who had sex with other men, they were usually quick to emphasize any cases where these men did work that traders believed was otherwise carried out by women and critical to the products they valued such as drying meat or preparing furs. They were pointedly silent about what they saw of women who had sex with other women or otherwise held boundary crossing roles through the 17th and 18th centuries. After all, they did not want to suggest to the women back home that there were any other options.
As soon as the invading europeans decided they wanted to be "settlers," removing Indigenous people all together in order to take over their lands, Indigenous and european sexualities and labour practices became a whole new set of problems for various civil and religious authorities. Indigenous societies who resisted christianization soon had to hide their boundary crossers, especially homosexuals wholesale to save them from being tortured, killed, or by the mid to late 19th century, confined in insane asylums. Heavily christianized Indigenous communities began driving them into exile, which is historically the more usual Indigenous response to persons whose behaviour is considered unacceptable and potentially dangerous to the community. Meanwhile, acculturated european men or european men living in primarily male communities inspired worries about their weakening or non-existent "civilization," evidenced by their presumed questionable sexual behaviour leading to "mixed blood children" and sex between men. The french at first considered the former no issue at all, because to be french-speaking and catholic was to be french. At least, they weren't concerned until they noticed that Indigenous peoples stayed Indigenous even if they were baptized catholic and spoke french. The english deemed "full bloods" improved just by learning english, let alone also being baptized into some sort of protestant christianity. As far as they were concerned though, Indigenous people were lesser beings, and "mixed bloods" degraded by their parentage, an attitude that soon spread to the french and other europeans.
The english solution was wholesale importation of white women, especially supposedly "excess" white women who would have no chance of marrying otherwise. These women were expected to recivilize the white men in the colonies, take away the convenient rationalization for miscegenation that otherwise men would have sex with each other, and support the final destruction of boundary crossing medicine that missionaries so despised. As Adele Perry has written about the early colonial society of what is currently called british columbia, white women were expected to ensure that "proper," meaning european gender roles and sexual behaviour would hold sway over First Nations peoples whom they considered inherently degraded. This extraordinary feat of complete cultural and religious transformation was to be achieved primarily by example, though white women might take more active roles as teachers or missionaries. This increased european discomfort about settler women however, because by necessity these women had to do work that in europe was not considered appropriate to their sex. They were boundary crossing, and in europe that was always assumed to mean sexual misbehaviour. This may have contributed to hardening of class definitions and divisions, according to which female servants and slaves could be given "men's work" and not threaten hegemonic ideas about sex and gender precisely because they were servants and slaves. They were degraded and social exemplars only of what not to do.
In the meantime, Indigenous peoples found many ways to evade strictures on their boundary crossing practices, which soon everybody was doing to some degree even if they didn't originally have boundary crossing medicine. So it was that the importance of people who did and do have such medicine rose again, because they needed to share it and therefore help their nations and communities survive. And while they were at it, not a few folks with boundary crossing medicine found the opportunity to do cheeky things like make use of new-fangled photographs to capture an image from their busy day.