In 1953, anthropologist Nancy Lurie wrote an article for American Anthropologist about a Ho-Chunk man who was what she called a "berdache"-- or a "two-spirit person," as it is referred to commonly today. Berdache men, Lurie wrote, dressed as women, performed women's roles, had the ability to tell the future, and sometimes married other men. They were highly respected within the tribe, until the influence of Christianity made the tradition something to be ashamed of.
In her article, Lurie mentions the last known berdache, whose brothers threatened to kill him if he put on a skirt. "This berdache then affected a combination of male and female clothing, fearing that he would die if he did not at least attempt to follow the directions given him in his vision of the moon," she wrote.
Theater artist and solo performer Kohl Miner, himself of the Ho-Chunk tribe, happened upon Lurie's article when a friend sent it to his partner. He normally doesn't like reading historical documents, but reading this piece was very emotional. "It was fresh and raw," he says. "I thought -- it's too difficult for me to read this. But I did." He learned a lot about his tribe, and the tribal history of two-spirit people, who were once revered. In recent years, Miner says his tribe has become very homophobic, and Lurie's article lead to a greater self-realization.
Blue Lake Woman
Image courtesy Kohl Miner
After reading the piece, Miner googled Lurie and found was she was still alive (she's 87), and had been recently interviewed on a Wisconsin radio program. He called the radio station and contacted the interviewer, who gave him Lurie's number after he told his story. Miner called Lurie, and they chatted for quite some time. "Our beliefs were similar," Miner says. From there, they traded emails, and finally met at the Black River Pow Wow. They spent the afternoon talking, and became friends. It was then that Miner showed her a photograph that he had received from Tom Jones, an associate professor of photography at UW Madison who was authoring a book with Miner's friend of photographs taken in the late 1800s.
The photograph shows a group of Ho-Chunk people in the late 19th century. The women are dressed traditionally, and the men are dressed in Western clothing. That is, with the exception of one man: Blue Lake Woman. In the photograph, he stands in the second row of a group, wearing a woman's earring and a shawl.
When he showed Lurie the photograph, she confirmed that the man was Blue Lake Woman, a two-spirit person.
Two-spirit people are "spiritual conduits," Miner says. Usually, they are identified by Western definitions as "other-gendered people," but there's a difficulty in that understanding of the term, according to Miner. Unlike Western conceptions of gays and lesbians, which have a deep sexual component, for two-spirit people, sex was something "very natural like breathing." They were sometimes considered profits, and most tribes had some sort of reverence to them.
Miner blames Christianity for much of the rejection of two-spirit people in his tribe and others. For the Ho-Chunk, it was mainly Southern Baptists who acted as missionaries. Also, many Ho-Chunk have been actively sending men to fight for the U.S. military since World War I, where young men have become indoctrinated and "bring all that bullshit back," he says.
In Lurie's article, she writes that two-spirit people take on the role because they are directed to do so by the moon during their vision quest. Miner says that when he was nine years old, he had a deep connection with the moon. Suddenly, when he read the article, he had an amazing experience of realization.
Heidi Arneson, also performing at Patrick's Cabaret
You'll have a chance to see Miner's performance about Blue Lake Woman this weekend at the newly renovated Patrick's Cabaret, as part of Not Guilty (Your honor, it's the laws that are wrong)
, an evening of works by such performers as Heidi Arneson, Denise Armstead, Venus DeMars, Mari Harris, Farheen Hakeem, Patrick Scully, and Kevin Kortan. Besides Miner's piece, the evening promises some delightful political content, such as the Heidi Arneson's "Eat Dirt!" which includes a nude chorus and a celebration of the "tiny Tiger Worm."
In addition to the project that he's presenting this weekend, Miner also is currently working on a book of short stories based on his solo performance work, at the encouragement of Alexander Street Press, which published four of his plays.