Missionaries seeking converts to Catholicism had been a part of New France since the colony’s birth. In the 1640s, the missionary effort expanded with the founding of Montreal.
The Jesuits – an order of monks and priests with highly-disciplined, almost military training – were the Catholic Church’s shock troops in the war for souls. They spread out, travelling along trade routes and setting up missions among the peoples they encountered.
They also sent a newsletter back to France, publicizing their work in hopes of encouraging donations. Around the time that the Seigneur de St-Michel was defending himself in court, the Jesuits began encountering a new “vice” among the Native peoples – a vice proper to a group of people in Native societies that the Jesuits came to call “berdaches.” These were people who were physically of one sex but who dressed and took on the roles of the opposite sex, including in many cases having husbands (if physically male) or wives (if physically female).
Now, “berdache” is not from any Native language, and probably any Native person this was applied to would have been offended to have found out that the word comes from bardaj — Persian for slave, especially a boy slave kept for sexual purposes. First Nations people now use the word Two-Spirit in English to describe what Europeans called the “berdache,” so that’s the term I’ll be using as well.
The oldest description I’ve found of a Two-Spirit – the description given in 1674 by Jesuit explorer Jacques Marquette – suggests that the these people were anything but “slaves”:
“I do not know by what superstition some Illiniwek, as well as some Sioux, take on women’s clothing while still young, and keep it all their lives: there is some mystery, as they never get married, and lower themselves by doing everything that women do; they go, however, to war, but they can only use clubs, and not the bow and arrow which are the proper weapons a man; they attend all performances and the solemn dances made in honour of the medicine pipe, they sing but may not dance; they are called to the Council, where nothing may be decided without their advice; finally, their claim of living an extraordinary life lets them pass for manitous, that is to say great spirits, or important people.” (Translation mine)
French explorer and soldier Baron de Lahontan was more expicit:
“Among the Illinese there are several Hermaphrodites, who go in Womans Habit, but frequent the company of both sexes. These Illinese are strangely given to sodomy, as well as the other Savages that live near the River Missisipi.” (anonymously translated, 1703)
Lahontan also described another kind of Two-Spirit folk in the area:
“…but I ought to have added that some young Women will not hear of a Husband, through a principle of Debauchery. That sort of Women are call’d Ickoue ne Kioussa, i.e. Hunting Women : for they commonly accompany the Huntsmen in their Diversions. To justify their Conduct, they alledge that they find themselves too indifferent a temper to brook the Conjugal yoak, to be careless for the bringing up of children, and too impatient to bear the passing of the whole Winter in the Villages. thus it is that they cover and disguise their Lewdness. Their Parents or relations dare not censure their Vicious Conduct ; on the contrary, they often approve of it…”
Later European missionaries and explorers encountered these Two-Spirit folk in dozens of different nations over the next 200 years. French, Spanish, and British accounts put them in most Native civilizations of North America. Not every Native society was as welcoming as the Illiniwek were of their Two-Spirits, however. French explorer Bacqueville de La Potherie gave this description of the Iroquois in his third volume of Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale
“Perhaps these male Iroquois are so horrified by [doing] women’s work because they have seen among the nations of the south some men who act like women, and give up men’s clothing for those of women. You see this very rarely among the Iroquois and they condemn this way of life by the light of Reason.” (Translation mine)
Later narratives by explorers give accounts that backed up those of the French missionaries and military men. Both Alexander Henry and John Tanner, on separate voyages, encountered a person named Ozawwendib, the child of an Ojibwe chief, who was, in Henry’s words “a curious compound between a man and a woman” who “is a man both as to his members and courage, but pretends to be womanish, and dresses as such.”
Explorer and artist George Catlin may have been the first European to document “The Dance of the Berdash,” a ceremony among the Sauk and Foxes people living on the western shore of Lake Huron. Catlin was horrified by the concept of Two-Spirit folk, and called the role a “disgraceful degradation.” Nevertheless, he admitted that the Two-Spirit was looked upon as “medicine and sacred.” During the dance, young men came forward and boasted something to the Two-Spirit – something Catlin was apparently too disgusted by to translate into English, and so he left it in the original Sauk. He then called for the Two-Spirit tradition to “be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.”
Catlin, sadly, got his wish. Missionaries struggled to bring homophobia to the peoples they encountered, as part of the effort of conversion. When the reserve system began, and First Nations’ land was stolen in violation of all the treaties Britain had signed with them, Native peoples came more fully under British and then Canadian criminal law. Under those legal codes, of course, homosexuality was punishable with death or imprisonment.
There has since been a cultural Renaissance in Native communities, and a reclaiming of the Two-Spirit tradition is part of that. For now, though, we return to New France, and to Bishop Saint-Vallier’s moral crusade.