Catlin's "Dance to the Berdashe," 1832-39

Artist George Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, written during his eight years of travel among the Native Americans (1832-39), contains engravings from Catlin's original paintings, accompanied by his comments on the scenes depicted. Of the Sioux, Sacs, and Foxes' "Dance to the Berdashe" Catlin writes:

Dance to the Berdashe ... is a very funny and amusing scene, which happens once a year or oftener, as they choose, when a feast is given to the "Berdashe," as he is called in French, (or l-coo-coo-a. in their own language), who is a man dressed in woman's clothes, as he is known to be all his life, and for extraordinary privileges which he is known to possess, he is driven to the most servile and degrading duties, which he is not allowed to escape; and he being the only one of the tribe submitting to this disgraceful degradation, is looked upon as medicine and sacred, and a feast is given to him annually; and initiatory to it, a dance by those few young men of the tribe who can, as in the sketch, dance forward and publicly make their boast (without the denial of the Berdashe), that Ahg-whi-eechoos-cum-me hi-anh-dwax-cumme-ke on-daig-nun-ehow ixt. Che-ne-a'hkt ah-pexian I-coo-coo-a wi-an-gurotst whow-itcht-ne-axt-ar-rah, ne-axt-gun-he h'dow-k'sdow-on-daig-o-ewhicht non-go-was-see.

Such, and such only, are allowed to enter the dance and partake of the feast, and as there are but a precious few in the tribe who have legitimately gained this singular privilege, or willing to make a public confession of it, it will be seen that the society consists of quite a limited number of "odd fellows."

This is one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs, that I have ever met in the Indian country, and so far as I have been able to learn, belongs only to the Sioux and Sacs and Foxes-perhaps it is practiced by other tribes, but I did not meet with it; and for further account of it I am constrained to refer the reader to the country where it is practiced, and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.[1]


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 301-302.

  1. George Catlin, Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, with Letters and Notes Written during Eight Years of Travel and Adventure among the Wildest and Most Remarkable Tribes Now Existing, both ed., 2 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1866), vol. 2, p. 214- 15. Catlin also speaks of a group among the Native population who observe "the strictest regard to decency, and cleanliness and elegance of dress." In this group are some "chiefs," "braves," "warriors of distinction, and their families, and dandies or exquisites." Later, writing from a Mandan village on the upper Mississippi, Catlin describes these dandies, "often seen stalking about in all Indian communities, a kind of nondescript (?), with whom I have been somewhat annoyed, and still more amused, since I came to this village ..." He continues: "The person I allude to [is] familiarly known and countenanced in every tribe as an Indian beau or dandy. Such personages may be seen on every pleasant day, strutting and parading around the village in the most beautiful and unsoiled dresses, without the honourable trophies however of scalp locks and claws of the grizzly bear to their costume, for with such things they deal not. They ... generally remain about the village, to take care of the women, and attire themselves in the skins of such animals as they can easily kill ... They plume themselves with ... harmless and unmeaning ornaments, which have no other merit than they themselves have, that of looking pretty and ornamental. "These clean and elegant gentlemen, who are very few in each tribe, are held in very little estimation by the chiefs and braves; inasmuch as it is known by all, that they have a most horrible aversion to arms, and are denominated 'feint hearts' or 'old women' by the whole tribe, and are therefore but little respected. They seem, however, to be tolerably well contented with the appellation, together with the celebrity they have acquired amongst the women and children for the beauty and elegance of their personal appearance; and most of them seem to take and enjoy their share of the world's pleasures, although they are looked upon as drones in society. "These gay and tinselled bucks may be seen in a pleasant day in all their plumes, astride their pied or dappled ponies, with a fan in the right hand ... and underneath them a white and beautiful and soft pleasure saddle ..." They will spend an hour or two overlooking the "games where the braves and the young aspirants are contending in manly and athletic amusements ... Catlin describes "two or three of these fops" gathering and posing around his door, while inside he paints all the "head men" of the village. When he finally asks one "beautiful" dandy to come in and be seated for his portrait, the displeasure of two or three chiefs forced him to stop painting the "worthless fellow" (vol, I, p. 96, 111-14). Alexander P. Maximilian. Prince of Wied, who traveled in North America between 1832 and 1834, reports: "Among all the North American Indian nations there are men dressed and treated like women, called by the Canadians Bardaches; ... but there was only one such among the Mandans, and two or three among the Manitaries." Later Maximilian says of the Crows: "They have many bardaches, or hermaphrodites among them, and exceed all the other tribes in unnatural practices" (Travels in the Interior of North America ... vol. 22 of Early Western Travels, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, 32 vols. [Cleveland: A. H. Clark, '906], p. 283-84, 354). Victor Tixier's Travels On the Osage Prairies (in 1839-40) says: "In the Head Chief's lodge lived a warrior named la Bredache. This man, who a few years before was considered one of the most distinguished braves, suddenly gave up fighting and never-left Majakita [the Head Chief] except when the latter went to war. The extremely effeminate appearance of this man, and his name, which was that of an hermaphrodite animal, gave me food for thought. Baptiste [an Osage] accused him of being the lover of the WomanChief; but the Osage tell only half of what they think" (trans. Albert J. Salvan, ed. John F. McDermott [Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1940], p. 234; note omitted). In a curious chapter, "The Metamorphosis," in his Indian Sketches Taken during an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes (in 1833), John Treat Irving describes the change of a once famous male warrior to the degraded status of a "squaw." Although homosexuality is not mentioned, this description seems important for the study of the related "berdache" phenomenon (ed. John Francis McDermott [Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1951, p. 93-95)·