Upon coming to the New world, Spain loosed an army of priests upon the Indians to take souls for God and gold for King. The sexual practices of the natives have not been recorded by anthropology. Anything that smacked of heathenism, religion, art, or sex was thoroughly destroyed. It must be recalled that pleasure-sex was branded “wrong” by civilized Europeans. Male love was destroyed more than ignored in the macho Spanish New World.
The French Jesuits, who first explored northeastern America, did not chronicle overt manifestations of homosexuality within the tribes they met. Nor did the Dutch, English, or Puritans. Homosexuality, being against God, king, and nature, would be a vile, repulsive subject for official record. Consequently New World writings mostly ignore any manifestation of male love in natives of the new land. Distortion and outright lies were used early in American history. Where can the data be found, in what record can it be discovered that the lonesome cowboy or the restricted soldier of the U.S. cavalry ever indulged in male love? Yet it may be easily assumed that cowboys and soldiers practiced homosexuality. Even America’s legendary heroes fall under suspicion. Mike Fink, the famous riverman, is said to have killed his young friend, Carpenter, out of a consuming fit of jealousy.
Though there are rare suggestions in the old chronicles or journals that the early mountainmen habitually cohabited with each other, or Indian males, probably the human shredding machine was early put to work. It is easy to propose that there existed a sexual fraternity at certain times. For the hardy mountaineer masturbation would not have been sufficiently gratifying. Sex with a female was completely accepted, but there might have been some sticky embarrassment were it known the mountaineer seduced the band’s young males, as well. This would suggest effeminacy to the Indian, and as Paul Radin suggested, “It is not the charge of effeminacy he fears but the possibility of being ridiculed.” This quote, however, does not prove there was no sexual activity between whites and Indian males.
In some tribes, it has been said that Indian women lived miserable lives and were sometimes known to commit suicide to rid themselves of their abject bondage to a merciless husband. A young man might also commit suicide on discovering he had no incentive to the warpath but did have tendencies toward homosexuality, or had a physical handicap that would negate the possibility of attaining honor as a warrior. The threat of donning the garb (“one who wears skirts”) and duty of females could definitely throw him into depression, making him fear rejection and ridicule.
In general, however, the Indian attitude toward sex was not constricting:
Compared to white attitudes toward sex, Indians were utterly uninhibited. They suffered no embarrassment… Adults coupled freely in front of their children or anyone else. One prominent chief was often seen walking about his village naked, displaying an erection… And the American Indian was completely innocent of the notion that something he enjoyed might be “wrong.” “Wrong” would have been an incomprehensible concept to them in that context. (Blevins 1973: 215-16)
Homosexuality is accepted if not condoned within most primal societies. In certain societies the homosexual was made a fetish of became an integral part of ceremony. The American Indian was no exception to the rule. He used the role as an advantage to obtain lovers. Ruth Benedict, in reference to the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, wrote in her book Patterns of Culture:
Social scorn, however, was not visited upon the berdache but upon the man he chose to live with him. The latter was regarded as a weak man who had chosen an easy berth of the recognized goals of their culture; he did not contribute to the household, which was already a model for all households through the sold efforts of the berdache. His sexual adjustment was not singled out in judgement that was passed upon him, but in terms of his economic adjustment he was an outcast (1959:264-65).
The cult of the berdache was more known on the western plains within the Sioux (Lakota) and Cheyenne tribes west of the Mississippi than in other areas of America. There is no particularly good reason why this should be true other than the possibility that these were large and powerful tribes before the white man decimated their numbers. Within such large groups a social-religious use could be found for the berdache. As there were sufficient warriors and hunters to protect and feed the community, some males were allowed to pursue more gentle endeavors. A more leisurely society could afford such deviations from the straight path of war and the hunt, as medicine men to provide the stimulus of religion, and as artisans. A youth not inclined to the warpath or game hunting might spend his life in pursuit of other careers and was not necessarily required to propagate the race. The tribe could afford to allow a youth the lifestyle of a berdache. In the Southwest, along with slavery, homosexuality was also known and condoned in such tribes as the Navajo and Mojave. “The conspicuous transvestism of the Mojave—where the transvestite men mimic pregnancy and childbirth, going aside from the camp to be ceremonially delivered of stones” attests to its presence in the desert lands (Mead 1949: 129). The Far West, the South, and the Northeast certainly were not without such personages.