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Alfred Kroeber



Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora Kracaw Kroeber were pioneering anthropologists largely responsible for the establishment and growth of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California. In 1939 Alfred Kroeber published a landmark essay in which he called his fellow anthropologists to task for their reluctance to study the American Indian berdache tradition because of its close link to homosexuality. The berdaches occupied a position of respect among many tribes, serving an almost shamanistic function in tribal culture. They were usually men who cross-dressed as women, and took on many of the tasks and skills associated with the women of the tribe. They also actively engaged in sexual relations with other men, and since it was unavoidable to discuss the berdaches without making reference to homosexuality, most anthropologists chose to turn a blind eye to the practice. For Kroeber, the enlightened treatment of male-male sexuality among “primitive” peoples provided a model from which more “advanced” societies had much to learn.


Psychosis or Social Sanction


To put it in another form, certain of what one calls psychotic phenomena are socially channeled by primitives — standardized, recognized, approved, rewarded — but regarded as wholly outside the approved channel by ourselves.


To this there is at least one parallel in the institutional field: the transvestite, in American ethnology often called the berdache (French from Arabic bardaj, “slave”). In most of primitive Northern Asia and North America, men of homosexual trends adopted women’s dress, work, and status, and were accepted as non-physiological, but institutionalized, women. In Siberia the transformation was generally associated with shamanistic power, control of spirits or possession by them; in America, usually not. In both areas, choice of status was left to the individual; if he decided to transform his sex, he was socially accepted as a woman. How far invert erotic practice accompanied the status, is not always clear from the data, and probably varied. It is conceivable that in some cases there occurred a partial sublimation of specific erotic urges into feminine occupation, dress, and association. The berdaches are usually spoken of as willing as well as skilful and strong workers at female tasks. At any rate, the North American Indian attitude toward the berdache stresses not his erotic life but his social status; born a male, he became accepted as a woman socially.

[Note: The time is ready for a synthetic work on this subject. The cultural data are numerous. On the involved psychology the information is less satisfactory. While the institution was in full bloom, the Caucasian attitude was one of repugnance and condemnation. This attitude quickly became communicated to the Indians, and made subsequent personality inquiry difficult, the later berdaches leading repressed and disguised lives. The fullest account is by G. Devereux, Institutionalized homosexuality of the Mohave Indians, Human Biology, 1937, 9, 498-527. The Mohave are unusually uninhibited both in sex activity and in speech about it. They even recognized women inverts, active female homosexuals, who are rare elsewhere. I suspect that many Indian men understood the phenomenon imperfectly, or misunderstood it. An old Yokuts, born about 1840, who knew the social functions of the transvestites quite well — they were corpse-handlers or “undertakers” among his people — told me that in his opinion they were men who took on female dress and occupation in order to have free association with women and special opportunities for secret heterosexual activity with them. While this may have occurred now and then, it is obviously in the main a rationalized misconstruction by an unimaginatively normal heterosexual.]

Here, accordingly, we have another set of psychiatric phenomena, those of sexual inversion, which our culture regards as abnormal, asocial if not antisocial, and in general views with considerable affect of repugnance, but which certain primitives accept with equanimity and provide a social channel for.

[Note: That the peoples who accept transvestism are essentially those of Northern Asia and America, a continuous area, suggests that the institution is a single historic growth. If it were something characteristic of a certain “state of advancement” it ought to occur much more scatteringly over the world. The ancient Near Eastern development was different: it was associated with specific cults and with mutilation. The pederasty which was more or less openly tolerated in certain advanced civilizations — Greece, later Islam, China in connection with the theater — is also not the same, the emphasis being on sexual practice rather than on transvestite “sublimation,” and scarcely leading to a lifelong status.]

The case is not wholly parallel to shamanism, but is definitely like it in the point of socio-cultural acceptance instead of rejection. Furthermore, in this matter of transvestitism it cannot be said that the difference between the Indian and ourselves is one of greater enlightenment on our part. It is only since eighteenth-century enlightenment that homosexuality has begun to be regarded in the Occidental civilization as somewhat less than the ultimate abomination and offense. Our tolerance toward it has increased in proportion with what we call our enlightenment. And certainly the American Indian system seems to work well from the angle of human happiness: the invert is free to work out his inner satisfactions as he can, without persecution from without; and society does not feel itself injured or endangered. A status adjustment is achieved instead of one of conflict and tension.

At any rate, we have here a second case in which primitives meet a condition stigmatized by us as psychologically pathological, with social tolerance and acceptance if not rewards. Like ourselves, they regard both conditions as not normal, in the sense of not being common, everyday in character, or in line with the majority of experienced events. But their social affects toward these conditions are positive or neutral; ours are negative. This appears to be a better description of the facts than to say that we have come to exceed them in intelligent enlightenment. Undoubtedly we possess on the whole a far greater body of knowledge, criticism, and understanding than the primitives. But it is doubtful how far this increase is responsible for similarly constituted individuals being accorded respect and influence among many primitives and being classed as dements and social liabilities by ourselves. Fundamentally the difference seems rather to lie in institutions, which in turn express the emotional attitudes of society toward its parts and itself.

From Character and Personality, volume 8 (Sept. 1939-June 1940), p. 209-211.


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