While the traditional roles of men and women were well defined, the Zunis viewed gender as an acquired rather than an inborn trait. Biological sex did not dictate the roles individuals assumed. Nor did Zuni thought limit gender to only two versions. Zuni berdaches occupied an "alternative" gender, a status anthropologists have termed berdache and the Zunis called lhamana.
Stevenson defined berdaches as men who "do woman's work and wear woman's dress." The decision to become a lhamana was made by the boy in childhood and based on a preference for "hanging about the house." It became final at puberty when the youth adopted female dress. The women of the family "are inclined to look upon him with favor, since it means that he will remain a member of the household and do almost double the work of a woman, who necessarily ceases at times from her labors at the mill and other duties to bear children and to look after the little ones; but the ko'thlama [lhamana] is ever ready for service, and is expected to perform the hardest labors of the female department." Stevenson had known five lhamanas at Zuni. Two were among "the finest potters and weavers in the tribe."
Another early, although less sympathetic, observer was Mary Dissette, who began teaching at the Presbyterian mission school at Zuni in 1888. Over thirty-five years later, Dissette recorded her recollections of Zuni berdaches in a letter preserved in the papers of the Indian Rights Association. Dissette had known five lhamanas, whom she considered "victims of a religious superstition." Two died shortly after her arrival; one, named Manna, had done some weaving for her. Most interesting is her account of a younger lhamana "in course of training." Kwiwishdi ("Que-wish-ty") was the cousin of a Zuni girl named Daisy, whom Dissette had adopted. At the time that Dissette first offered him a regular meal, enrollment in the mission school, and a dollar a week for doing chores and laundry, he had not yet formally entered lhamana status -- that is, he still wore male clothing. But he already manifested several traits typical of Zuni berdaches, especially his enthusiasm for hard work. As Dissette recalled, "He was so strong and so quick and willing." Kwiwishdi's blossoming as a lhamana, however, left the school teacher bewildered and dismayed:
He was with us a year or two and always spoken of as a boy by us and by the Inds. [Indians]. After a time he began to wear the `Petone' [bidonne] or large square of cloth over the shoulders [a traditional article of women's clothing] and was in great demand at grinding bees and other female activities in the village. In another year he had quite an illness it appeared and came to tell me of it, and that he could not work for me any longer. . . . I did not see him at all that winter but in the spring [of 1890] a camping party which included Dr. Fewkes came to Zuni and hired Quewishty as cook and he came out in full female attire.
Not long after this, Kwiwishdi formed a relationship with a young Zuni man and the couple set up housekeeping. Dissette found Kwiwishdi's behavior incomprehensible. When she asked him (through Daisy as interpreter) the reason he had adopted women's clothing, he replied that it was because he did women's work. "But I often do a man's work, Quewishty," she responded, "and I do not put on a man's clothes to do it." Daisy spoke to Kwiwishdi for several minutes and then told the teacher, "He say[s] you do not love all peoples in the world as much as he do[es], and that's why he do[es] that." Still confused, Dissette concluded, "This accounts for a kind of spiritual arrogance that is peculiar to those creatures."
By all indications, the berdache role was an ancient one. It has been documented in tribes in every region of North America, with every type of social and economic organization. Kroeber believed that some form of berdache practices, such as cross-dressing and homosexual relations by shamans, existed among the ancient Siberians who began migrating from Asia to North America thirty thousand years ago. In North America, however, a distinction between shamans and berdaches developed that is not apparent in Asia.
The earliest American account of Pueblo berdaches was that of William A. Hammond, a former surgeon general of the army, published in 1882. While stationed in New Mexico in the early 1850s, Hammond had conducted medical examinations of two men dressed as women, called mujerados, at Acoma and Laguna. "Of course the most important parts to be inspected were the genital organs," he reported, but these were normal. Like many authorities of his time, Hammond believed that if an individual did not conform to the social role considered appropriate for his sex, there had to be a physiological cause -- namely, hermaphroditism. Berdaches have been referred to as hermaphrodites since the time of Columbus. In his 1881 census of the Zunis, Cushing recorded We'wha's gender as "hermaphrodite," and Alexander M. Stephen, who lived among the Hopis, noted in his 1893 journal: "We'we is a man, but of the abominable sort known to the Hopi as ho'va, to the Navajo as nûtlehi, to the Zuņi as lah'ma i.e. hermaphrodite." While some berdaches may indeed have been individuals born with anomalous genitals, the known incidence of such a condition is too rare to account for their numbers among the Zunis and other tribes. As Dissette observed, "While nature might make a blunder once in awhile, she did not make them systematically."
In any case, the meaning of hermaphrodite, like that of berdache, has changed significantly over time. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, while providing the familiar zoological and botanical definitions, also defines hermaphrodite as "an effeminate man or virile woman, a catamite," and "a person or thing in which any two opposite attributes or qualities are combined. In the late nineteenth century, slang variants of hermaphrodite -- hermaphy, moff, morph, morphdite, muffie, murfidai, maphro, and so on -- were used by Americans to refer to flamboyant male homosexuals. The same terms were sometimes applied to berdaches. In 1892, anthropologist J. Walter Fewkes identified a Hopi man who "wore woman's clothes throughout life and performed a woman's duties," as Morphy. The restriction of the term hermaphrodite to a physiological condition is a twentieth-century development. Adolph Bandelier, another early investigator of the Pueblo Indians, mentioned berdaches only once in his writings, and then only in his private journal. In 1882, he made note of a "singular being" he had met in an Acoma village named "Mariano Amugereado," adding that there were four amugereados (compare mujerado) at Acoma and two, at least, at Santo Domingo. Bandelier was particularly curious about berdache sexual practices. "They have no inclination for women," he confided, "but pay men to sleep with them. When such propensities show themselves in a man, the tribe dresses him in a woman's dress and treats him kindly but still as a woman." In 1900, Sumner Matteson photographed an Acoma berdache and noted, "He is far more particular of dress than the women."
Stevenson was less forthcoming when it came to the subject of sexuality. "There is a side to the lives of these men," she wrote, "which must remain untold. They never marry women, and it is understood that they seldom have any relations with them." Dissette, on the other hand, confided that "these creatures practice Sodomy." In fact, the evidence shows that lhamanas were typically homosexual, although perhaps not exclusively so. That is, they formed sexual and emotional relationships with non-berdache men, often long term in nature. One of the lhamanas Stevenson knew, for example, was among "the richest men of the village" when he "allied himself" to another man. "They were two of the hardest workers in the pueblo and among the most prosperous." Parsons also described marriages between berdache and non-berdache men. Some lhamanas, however, appear to have enjoyed more casual relations. In the 1940s, anthropologist Omer Stewart observed a lhamana whose home was the site of frequent male socializing. The Zunis joked about his ability to attract young men to his house. Other lhamanas may have had sexual relations with women. In fact, Stevenson reported rumors that We'wha was a father -- although there is no other evidence to confirm it, and it is more likely that children used parental kinship terms with We'wha out of respect or to acknowledge the role he played in their relationship. In any case, if some berdaches were not exclusively homosexual, non-berdache men were not always heterosexual since some formed relationships with lhamanas.