Claude E. Schaeffer: "Kutenai Female Berdache," 1811

A rare, detailed history of a female berdache among the Kutenai Indians of western Montana and neighboring parts of Idaho and British Columbia describes her variously as a courier, guide, prophet, warrior, and peace mediator.

Modern Kutenai verbal tradition refers to her birth and childhood. The earliest written reference to the Kutenai berdache dates to June 1811 and is found in Gabriel Franchere's account of events at Fort Astoria, in the Oregon area, where this woman appeared, dressed as a male and accompanied by a "wife."

Schaeffer writes:

There was general agreement among my informants that the Kutenai berdache was born and raised in the Lower Kutenai country...

... Informants denied that she was an intersexed individual, word of which would have been impossible to conceal from her people. Her baby name, according to Mary White Pete, was ququnok patke, 'one standing (lodge) pole woman.' As a young woman she was said to have been quite large and heavy boned. She wished to marry at this time, but because of her unusual size none of the young men were attracted to her. The Kutenai girl reached maturity at the time employees of the North West Company were first entering the Kutenai country from the east. Eneas Abraham [a Native informant] said that a party of fur traders arrived in the Lower Kutenai region, and upon their departure she accompanied them...

We are fortunate in having information about the marriage of the Kutenai woman from David Thompson [who in 1811 refers to her as]...

the Woman who three years ago was the wife of Boisverd, a Canadian, and my servant; her conduct was then so loose that I had to request him to send her away to her friends...[2]

From the above it would seem that the Kutenai woman had married Thompson's servant, a Canadian named Boisverd in 1808...

After more than a year's absence Madame Boisverd returned to her own people. She had a strange tale to relate. According to her story, her husband had operated upon her and thereby transformed her into a man. She told her relatives, 'I'm a man now. We Indians did not believe the white people possessed such power from the supernaturals. I can tell you that they do, greater power than we have. They changed my sex while I was with them. No Indian is able to do that.' Thereafter she changed her name to Kauxuma nupika, 'Gone to the spirits'. And whenever she encountered anyone she performed a little dance as an indication of her sexual transformation. Soon she began to claim great spiritual power. Her people were unable to understand these strange happenings and some believed she was bereft of her senses.

Following Madame Boisverd's return, she began to assume the habits and pursuits of the opposite sex. Men's shirts, leggings and breech cloths were now substituted for the women's dresses she had previously worn. She seems to have had little or no difficulty adapting herself to the new garments, since she evaded detection in such garb at Fort Astoria for an entire month. She also began to carry a gun as well as bow and arrow. Now she wished to marry a person of her own sex and is said to have approached several young unmarried women in succession, all of whom refused her...

The rumor now got around that in revenge Madame Boisverd wished to bring about the death of those girls who refused her through use of her recently-acquired supernatural power. As a result people came to fear and avoid her. So she was obliged to seek the company of divorcees and widows.

Finally Madame Boisverd found one woman from the area along the Kootenay River, southeast of modern Nelson, B. C., who had been abandoned by her husband and was willing to live with her. The two were now to be seen constantly together. The curious attempted to learn things from the consort but the latter only laughed at their efforts. A rumor ran through the community that Madame Boisverd had fashioned an artificial phallus of leather for use in marital intimacy but the godemiche, these inquisitive individuals surmised, failed to deceive her 'wife'. Soon the news circulated about the camp that Madame Boisverd was becoming jealous of her companion. The former accused her friend of having an affair openly with a man and began to beat her.

About this time or shortly after-it is difficult to know the exact order in which some of these events take place-the Kutenai berdache, as we may now speak of her, started to gamble with a group of men at Duck Creek and lost by wager her bow, quiver of arrows, and bark canoe. Her 'wife' became angry at this loss of property and ... left her 'husband' and returned to her own people. Thereafter, the Kutenai berdache is said to have changed wives frequently. The berdache, in keeping with her newly assumed status, now began to manifest an interest in raiding and warfare...

Her assumption of a warrior's role ... represents a considerable achievement, greater perhaps than that of women warriors among the Plains tribes. The masculine ideal among the Kutenai, certainly the Lower Kutenai, was the skilled hunter, capable of providing game and fish for his family in a forested region of rather limited resources...

The reports of modern Kutenai disagree as to the details of the berdache's first war excursion [which failed to come upon any enemy horses and decided to return home.] Upon coming to a stream, the raiders would [undress and] wade across together but the berdache always hung back so as to cross alone ... Her brother, puzzled by this behavior, determined to learn the truth about her. At the next stream, a shallow one, he decided to ford and then return to observe his sister ... he turned and ran back, coming upon his sister in the middle of the stream. She was nude, and he verified his suspicion that her sex had not been changed. She, in turn, saw him and crouched down in the water, pretending that her foot was caught between two rocks. She realized that her brother was aware of her true condition...

... Starting out next morning, the raiders reached present Elmira on Lake Pend d'Oreille.... All tried to cheer the leader, who was down-hearted over an unsuccessful trip. He replied that of course they would not be permitted to give the Victory Song upon reaching camp, but that anyone who wished could select a new name. None of the men accepted the offer. The berdache spoke up, however.... she had selected a new name for herself. Explaining that her injury had forced her to sit down in the stream and that her brother had witnessed it, she declared that now she wished to be called Sitting-in-the-water-Grizzly (qanqon kdmek klatda).

The warriors cheered her. Not approving of her action, her brother remarked to his friends that he would call her Qanqon, a derisive term taken from her self-conferred name. Stating that he would never use her new name, a meaningless term for her, he threatened to expose her.

[The berdache] now took a new female companion from the present Creston area for her wife. It was not long before she again evinced jealousy of her consort's behavior.

One night the two began to quarrel inside their mat lodge. The berdache began to beat her wife. Nearby was located the dwelling of her brother. Hearing their loud voices, he came out and began to call, 'Qanqon! Qanqon! Qanqon!' The quarrel ceased at once. The brother continued, 'You are hurting your woman friend. You have hurt other friends in the same way. You know that I saw you standing naked in the stream, where you tried to conceal your sex. That's why I never call you by your new name but only Qanqon.' Thus the brother carried out his threat in the hearing of the entire camp. People thereafter spoke of her as Qanqon... 

The earliest documentary reference to the Kutenai woman appears in Gabriel Franchere's account ... of events at Fort Astoria. It was June, 1811...

On the 15th some natives from up the river Columbia, brought us two strange Indians, a man and a woman...[3]

Alexander Ross's comment on the same event runs as follows:

Among the many visitors who every now and then presented themselves, were two strange Indians, in the character of man and wife, from the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains ... The husband, named Ko-come-ne-pe-ca, was a very shrewd and intelligent Indian, who addressed us in the Algonquin and gave us much information respecting the interior of the country...[4]

... Qanqon maintained her disguise at Astoria until David Thompson arrived a month later...

For July 15, the day of David Thompson's arrival at Astoria, Franchere ... writes:

He [Thompson] recognized the two Indians, who had brought the letter addressed to Mr. J. Stuart, and told us that they were two women, one of whom had dressed herself up as a man, to travel with more security...[5]

[On July 22, a party including David Thompson and the two Indians departed down the river for the interior.]

In her journey downstream, it will be noted that Qanqon predicted the imminent end of the Indians and their land in a devastating plague and through the agency of two enormous supernaturals. Thompson ... continues:

Having proceeded half a mile up a Rapid, we came to four men who were waiting for us ... the four men addressed me, saying, when you passed going down to the sea, we were all strong in life, and your return to us finds us strong to live, but what is this we hear, casting their eyes with a stern look on her [the "man woman"], is it true that the white men ... have brought with them the Small Pox to destroy us; and two men of enormous size, who are on their way to us, overturning the Ground, and burying all the Villages and Lodges underneath it; is this true, and are we all soon to die. I told them not [to] be alarmed, for the white Men who had arrived had not brought the Small Pox, and the Natives were strong to live, and every evening were dancing and singing...At all which they appeared much pleased, and thanked me for the good words I had told them; but I saw plainly that if the man woman had not been sitting behind us they would have plunged a dagger in her...[6]

Thompson ... [on] August 2nd, had this final entry:

It is with some regret we proceed past several parties of the Natives, they are all glad to smoke with us, and eager to learn the news; ... the story of the Woman that carried a Bow and Arrows and had a Wife, was to them a romance to which they paid great attention and my interpreter took pleasure in relating it...[7]

Upon his arrival at the Okanagon, [Alexander] Ross [a member of the expedition]... concludes his remarks with the following statement. It will be noted that [in Ross's version] Qanqon's predictions to the Indians deal not with death and destruction but with a great outpouring of gifts to be made them by the White people.

In the account of our voyage I have been silent as to the two strangers who cast up at Astoria, and accompanied us from thence; but have noticed already, that instead of being man and wife, as they at first gave us to understand, they were in fact both women-and bold adventurous amazons they were. In accompanying us, they sometimes shot ahead, and at other times loitered behind, as suited their plans.

The stories they gave out among the non-suspecting and credulous natives as they passed, were well calculated to astonish as well as to attract attention. Brought up. as they had been, near the whites-who rove, trap and trade in the wilderness-they were capable of practicing all the arts of well-instructed cheats; and to reflect their purpose the better, they showed the Indians an old letter, which they made a handle of, and told them that they had been sent by the great white chief, with a message to apprize the natives in general that gifts, consisting of goods and implements of all kinds, were forthwith to be poured in' upon them; that the great white chief knew their wants, and was just about to supply them with everything their hearts could desire; that the whites had hitherto cheated the Indians, by selling goods in place of making presents to them, as directed by the great white chief...

These stories, so agreeable to the Indian ear, were circulated far and wide; and not only received as truths, but procured so much celebrity for the two cheats, that they were the objects of attraction at every village and camp on the way; nor could we, for a long time, account for the cordial reception they met with from the natives, who loaded them for their good tidings with the most valuable articles they possessed-horses, robes, leather, and higuas; so that, on our arrival at Oakinacken, they had no less than twenty-six horses, many of them loaded with the fruits of their false reports.[8]

Up the Okanagon River the two Kutenai Indians with their richly-laden pack train of 26 horses guide David Stuart, and two men to the Shuswap region...

We lose sight of them at the Thompson River.... [John Franklin relates that the Kutenai berdache, whom he says the Natives called "Manlike Woman," acquired the reputation of having supernatural powers and making prophecies subversive to the ruling class of white traders. She reportedly predicted to the Indians] that there would soon be a complete change in the face of the country; fertility and plenty would succeed to the present sterility; and that the present race of white inhabitants, unless they became subservient to the Indians, would be removed and their place be filled by other traders, who would supply their wants in every possible manner. The poor deluded wretches, imagining that they would hasten this happy change by destroying their present traders, of whose submission there was no prospect, threatened to extirpate them ...[9]

... for the next 14 years we have no word of the Kutenai berdache in the historical literature, while traditional sources are silent about her as well. In 1825, however a Kutenai woman wearing men's clothing is mentioned in the journal of John Work, Hudson's Bay Company trader at Flathead Post. Bundosh, as she is known here, has been satisfactorily established as the same Kurenai woman mentioned earlier by the Astarians and by David Thompson...[10]

The entries referring to her follow:

Monday 12-The Kootenay chief with about a dozen of his men arrived ... A woman who goes in mens clothes and is a leading character among them was also tipsy with 3/4 of a glass of mixed liquor and-became noisy...

Tuesday 13 ... A present was also given to Bundosh, a woman who assumes a masculine character and is of some note among them, she acted as interpreter for us, she speaks F. Head well...[11]

It was probably during these years that another largely masculine activity shamanism- was evidenced by Qdnqon, one known to us only through the accounts of modern Kutenai. Chief Paul claimed that she had treated and cured his father, Chief David, of illness...

A period of 12 years elapses before our next historical reference to the Kutenai berdache. It is contained in the journal of W. H. Gray, the missionary, who was journeying to the states in 1837, travelling with Francis Ermatinger, the Hudson's Bay Company trader to the Flathead.

A party of Flathead was virtually surrounded by Blackfoot and Bowdash, as she is known here, had gone back and forth trying to mediate between them. On her last trip she deceives the Blackfoot while the Flathead, as she knew, were making their escape to Fort Hall and the fur rendezvous.

Gray's journal reports:

June 13th ... We have been told that the Black Feet have killed the Kootenie woman, or Bowdash, as she is called. She has hitherto been permitted to go from all the camps, without molestation, to carry any message given her to either camp.[12]

The modern Kutenai are unaware of Qdngon's role as intermediary in Flathead-Blackfoot peace negotiations, although Eneas Abraham stated that 'she got mixed up with two groups fighting one another.' Instead they assign the cause of her death to a Blackfoot Indian ambush.... [Francis Simon, a Native informant, relates:]

It had taken several shots to seriously wound her. Then while she was held in a seated position by several warriors, others slashed her chest and abdomen with their knives. Immediately afterwards the cuts thus made were said to have healed themselves. This occurred several times but she gave no more war cries.

One of the warriors then opened up her chest to get at her heart and cut off the lower portion. This last wound she was unable to heal. It was thus Qanqon died. No wild animals or birds disturbed her body, which is said to have gradually decayed.


Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976) pg. 293-298.

  1. Claude E. Schaeffer, "The Kutenai Female Berdache: Courier, Guide, Prophetess, and Warrior," Ethnohistory, vol. 12, no. 3 ([965), p. 195-216. This long article contains much extraneous detail which has been deleted, as indicated in the present text. Schaeffer's source citations are included; other notes are omitted.
  2. David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America 1784-1812, ed. J. B. Tyrrell (Toronto: Champlain Society Publications. no. 12, 1916), pp. 512-13.
  3. Gabriel Franchere, Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America in the Years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814 ... trans. and ed. J. V. Huntington (N.Y.: Redfield, 1854), p. 118-19.
  4. Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River (London. Smith, Elder, 1849), p. 85.
  5. Franchere, p. 122.
  6. David Thompson Papers, 1807-181 I, Ontario Archives (Toronto).
  7. David Thompson, "Narrative of the Expedition to the Kootanae and Flat Bow Indian Countries ..." ed. T. C. Elliott, in "The Discovery of the Source of the Columbia River," Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 25 (1925), p. 5 I 2-13.
  8. Ross, p. 144-49.
  9. John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Seas, in the Years 1819 ... [18]22 (London: J. Murray, 1823), p. 152.
  10. O. B. Sperlin, "Two Kootenay Women Masquerading as Men? Or Were They One?" Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. 21 (1930), p. 127-130.
  11. John Work, "Journal" [title varies], ed. T. C. Elliott, Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. 5 (1914), p. 190.
  12. "The Unpublished Journal of William H. Gray from December 1836 to October 1837," Whitman College Quarterly, vol. 26 (1913), p. 46-47.