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Gender-Crossing Shamans Spanning Different Cultures
Koryak Shamanism in Russia's North-East
The Chukchee [people] had two words to describe the shaman: ne uchica which meant "similar to a woman", and kirkalaul, or "soft man".
The Art of Shamanism Across Siberia
The word shaman comes from the Tungu term Samman meaning practitioner of occult magic and magical healing. Shamans, or medicine men, were found in many parts of the world, such as in North American Indian tribes, in native Brazilian communities, across sub-Saharan Africa, amongst tribal societies in South East Asia and India, throughout Oceania, and in Aboriginal Australia. But, in these areas Shamans were usually always men. But in Siberia, many shamans were also women. In Tungu society young girls could enter the profession of magical healing, and amongst the Kamchadal almost all shamans were women. As the Russian Anthropologist Marie Antoinette Czaplicka noted early last century: "the woman by nature is a shaman ... is not restricted to tabus specifically female, for her social position is much higher than that of the ordinary woman. Whilst purely male tabus are not applied to the man shaman, who has, together with certain male tabus, some privileges of a woman". So it was that male shamans achieved their best results when adopting the mannerisms and dress of female shamans.
Amongst the Koryak the secrets of shamanism were passed on to women by their mothers, whilst men could only acquire these secrets through a dream in which particular spirits appeared and advised the dreamer to thereafter to live as a woman. According to the anthropologist Jochelson who visited the tribe in the 1890s, a Koryak myth which tells of a powerful male shaman who became impotent discouraged men from becoming shamans out of fear of ending up impotent. So, most shamans were women, and men who were supernaturally ordered to take up the profession dressed as women to avoid impotency.
The Kamchadal referred to their male shamans as Koekchuch, which means, "woman-man", because once they entered the profession from that moment they must live as women, taking up female occupations, like making hide clothing, entering a house through it's smoke hole as women did, and act shyly in the company of men just like women. Some Koekchuch married men with many wives to become one of their concubines, With the Yakut, an equestrian tribe of the great Steppes, shamans were divided into "white magicians" and "black magicians" The former were healers and always men, who inherited their profession from older male shamans, and who were not required to dress as women. "Black magicians" were sorcerers and always women or men who lived as women. These latter donned the iron hoops worn by women over their breasts, women's jackets, and shaped their hair in a female fashion. They also slept on the left side, or the woman's side, in the yurta, a tent erected on the backs of horses, when the tribe was on the move.
The Ambivalent Sex of Chukchee Shamans
The religious practices of the Chukchi, a reindeer herding tribe of the Siberian tundra, were thoroughly investigated by the Russian ethnographer Bogoras at the turn of the century. Like other Siberian tribes male shamans in Chukchee society were required to live as women. The Chukchi's had two words to describe them: ne uchica which meant "similar to a woman", and kirkalaul, or "soft man". These might imply that the male shamans were pretending to be women, but many Chukchi's believed that they did actually have their sex-changed by supernatural beings. Yet, as Bogoras discovered, some ne uchica also lived as men. One of his informants in fact was an old bearded man who, like all ne uchica, dressed as a woman, but was happily married with four children and numerous grandchildren. Other ne uchica he had heard about had secret mistresses who bore many children fathered by the shamans. It would seem that at least some Chukchi's were aware that a change of sex had not occurred.
However, most Chukchi ne uchica conformed to the inevitable by adopting the full lifestyle of women. They changed their names to female ones and if the opportunity arose married men. As wives they took up needlework and skin dressing and made the clothes for both their husbands and themselves. Some of these ne uchica wives also had supernatural husbands, to whom they had been married long before the marriage to their mortal husband. The supernatural husband, or kele, passed onto his wife orders for her mortal husband, and he refused to disobey for fear of offending the spiritual force. Obviously, it is easy to see how ne uchica wife could take advantage of such a situation in a Chukchi version of the wife wearing "the pants" in the family.
There were also cases of Chukchi women, known as qa cikicheca, meaning "similar to a man", who cropped their hair short like men, learned to shoot arrows and hurl spears, and married young girls. They were not, though, shamans.
The Women-Males of the American Arctic
Shamans were found in native societies across both American continents, but while male shamans often cross-dressed, female shamans were rare, and usually only occurred with post-menopausal women, if it occurred at all. The opposite opinion to the Siberians existed amongst American Indians, who often viewed women as polluting to spiritual power, especially during menses. Gender crossing females in native America were also rare, although they have been reported amongst the Mohave of the south-west, and in some tribes of the Amazon rainforest. Indeed, the very word "Amazon" comes from the Spaniard Orellana when confronted by female warriors on the river which now bears that name. Amongst the Mapuchas and other Araucanian tribes in Chile there were shamans very similar to the Siberian phenomenon. Mapuche shamans were often young women. whilst their male shamans wore female clothing and lived as woman.
There was one people in aboriginal America who carried the arts of shamanism and the female arts among men to extreme. These were the Aleut tribes of the Aleutian Islands off the south-west coast of Alaska. The name for their male shamans was chupan, which referred to their custom of dressing and adopting the lifestyle of women. But the Aleuts considered them special beings who were themselves semi-supernatural, and, the Aleuts believed that it was certainly not beyond the powers of the chupan to actually change their sex. What was different about these womanly male shamans was the very early age of their gender crossing. Elsewhere in the world a promising shaman might be discovered in boyhood, but they usually did not adopt a female role until in their teens or as adults. But amongst the Aleuts a chupan might be chosen while the boy was still an infant, and thereafter he would begin preparation for the profession of shamanism. Some reports suggest that the child's testicles were removed. As these transformed girls grew into womanhood they gradually became full-fledged medicine-women. On the chupans, the armchair anthropologist Ernest Crawley said "that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not." Aleuts considered it lucky to have a chupan living in their house.
chupans were the most powerful beings in their tribe because of their close association with supernatural spirits. Mothers hoped some of their magic might rub off on their daughters, and sent girls to be trained in the feminine arts of chupans, who were considered to be idyllic women. Writing about "primitive" peoples early this century, Edward Carpenter drew upon the nineteenth century reports of Russian visitors to the Aleutians: "As soon as the chupan has moulded into (a shaman) the tribe confide to him the girls most suitable in bodily grace and disposition. He has to complete their education; he will perfect them in dancing and other accomplishments, and finally will initiate them into the pleasures of love. If they display intelligence, they will become seers and medicine-women, priestesses and prophetesses.
Across the Arctic the Eskimos depended heavily upon their angagoks, or shamans, to detect tabu-breakers, but gender-crossing, or even simply cross-dressing, was virtually unknown in Eskimo society. Perhaps this was due to a shortage of men, who frequently disappeared in the sudden and fierce blizzards of the tundra. There was, however, one Eskimo tribe, the Kaniagmiut of Kodiak Island off the south coast of Alaska, who did have male angagoks who adopted the lifestyles of women. Perhaps this might be due to their close proximity to Indian tribes to the south who practised the custom of gender-crossing, and certainly might be due to their much less severe environment than other Eskimos. The Kaniagmiuts called their gender-crossing shamans achnutschik, which meant they had special powers, but in having these powers it was natural for them to live as women. They tattooed their chins like women and practised the womanly arts. They usually had husbands, who were considered fortunate to have married an achnutschik. Like the Aleuts, the Kaniagmiuts raised a boy as a girl if he showed some feminine characteristics. Some parents who desired a daughter were even known to raise a boy as a girl from the moment of his birth. In this regard the Kaniagmiuts contrasted with other Eskimos, who highly valued males above females and wouldn't dream of raising a boy as a girl, even placing baby girls out on the freezing tundra to die.
Roberta Perkins established the Gender Centre (then known as Tiresias House) in 1983. She is also a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of New South Wales and has conducted many government-funded research projects into prostitution. A transsexual herself, she has the confidence of the people she interviews; a sociologist, she has counselled transsexuals for a number of years; an activist, she has worked with them in the struggle to overcome the problems they face every day of their lives. Roberta is also the author, and co-author of five books and scores of journal articles on sex work research in Australia and has also taught Native American Studies for many years in Sydney
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