July 17, 2006

Two-spirits in Transamerica

In the 2005 film Transamerica, Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a woman who was a man before undergoing treatments. Based on her college anthropology, Bree tells her son how Native Americans such as the Zuni accepted and honored transgendered people. They were known as berdaches or two-spirit people.

A website offers lots of quotes on the subject. A definition:Two-Spirit is a term used by some Native Americans to describe a person who embraces a gender identity that differs from his or her biological sex and/or a person who is attracted to members of the same sex. The term, which may be defined or used differently by various Native Americans, stems from a traditional belief that some people have two spirits, embodying both male and female gender identities.Their roles in Native societies:In pre-contact times, Native American people had a great reverence for these Two-Spirit people. Quite naturally they viewed Two-Spirits as extraordinary sources of information about human nature. Two-Spirits were healers, artists, prophets--whatever their personal vision impelled them to be.

The holiness of the berdache has to do with Indian views that everything that exists is a reflection of the spiritual. If a person is different from the average individual, this means that the spirit must have taken particular care in creating this person....[B]y this reasoning, such an individual must be especially close to the spirits.
The Zuni case:When Europeans arrived in North America they were shocked that native peoples often interpreted gender differently from them. Not only were many cultures matriarchal, a great many tribes accepted three genders instead of only two. Zuni Pueblo, in western New Mexico, honored three genders before the coming of protestant missionaries. Men who chose not to become hunters and warriors became Ihamana, members of an alternative gender that bridged the other two. While they were initiated into male religious societies, they became crafts specialists and wore female garb. They were non-warriors who moved freely in the male and female worlds.In the movie, Graham Greene plays Calvin Many Goats, a rancher who gives Bree and her son a ride. Significantly, he says he's part Navajo but had a great-grandparent who was Zuni--both tribes that recognize the two-spirit person. He and Bree are attracted to each other from the beginning. Judging by his comments, we suspect he'll accept her regardless of her hidden past.

Incidentally, Transamerica has little of the "freakishness" you might expect in a transgender movie. It's really about relationships--people bonding on a road trip. And everyone in it did a great job. Huffman deserved an Oscar for her performance more than Reese Witherspoon did.

Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10. See it for its Native core.

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