The Basket or Bow: Bernard Cache & the Berdache

In chapter 8, “Subjectile/Objectile,” of Earth Moves, Bernard Cache briefly mentions the determination of sexual identity in the Guaranis tribe. About this initiation rite, Cache says, “the adolescent must choose an object: a bow for men, a basket for women. A bow and basket are thus the figures of Guaranis sexual identity, just as vector and concavity form the figures of an extrinsic singularity in mathematics” (88).

I loved the simplicity of the half-moon convex and concave sides of an inflection signifying gender. At this point in Earth Moves, I was struck by the spirituality of Cache’s writing. In chapter 10, “Body and Soul,” when Cache talks about the figure of the yin-yang, he says, “For the concavities of the soul form the convexities of the body.” This simple illustration of becoming-gender made sense to me, especially in the figure of the yin-yang, a symbolused to describe how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other in turn. Opposites thus only exist in relation to each other” (wikipedia).

Upon further research of the basket or the bow initiation rite, I came across an article entitled, “The Berdache Tradition” by Walter L. Williams. A berdache, or “two-spirit” is defined as an alternative gender role that was believed to house both a masculine or female spirit. One way to identify a berdache member was if during the initiation rite, a man chose a basket or a woman chose a bow. The berdache tradition has been “documented in over 130 tribes, in every region of North America, among every type of native culture.” A two-spirit often took the role of a medicine man and was a mediator between men, women, and the physical and spiritual worlds. Berdache could have relationships with members of either sex and their clothing and social roles were a representation of both genders (wikipedia).

In Native American religions, the term Wakan Tanka is translated as “god,” when a more accurate translation would be “The Great Mystery.” The religious emphasis is on the spiritual essence of all things in the physical world. One of the basic tenets is that everything has a counterpart and that between every polarity: sky and earth, water and fire, man and woman, there is a mediator. Therefore, berdache were accepted as the mediator between genders. Furthermore, berdache were often found in the creation myths of tribal religions where the Great Spiritual Being often embodied characteristics of both sexes.

In the Navajo tribe, the term for berdache is nadle, which means “changing one” or “one who is transformed.” The presence of nadle was never questioned since stories of their contributions to human society, such as the inventions of tools and crafts, were often celebrated through oral tradition. In the Zuni tribe, it is believed that a special two-spirit deity named lhamana was created for the purpose of bringing hunting and farming together. The celebration and reenactment of these creation myths celebrated the berdache tradition. (Williams)

When Deleuze speaks of “becoming-woman,” he says:

Sexuality brings into play too great a diversity of conjugated becomings; there are like n sexes, an entire war machine through which love passes…What counts is that love itself is a war machine endowed with strange and somewhat terrifying powers. Sexuality is the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings. Sexuality proceeds by the way of the becoming-woman of man and the becoming-animal of the human: an emission of particles” (278-279)

The Lakota word for berdache is winkte and is composed of win, “woman,” and kte, “would become.” Another understanding of a two spirit is the indication of “two contrasting human spirits (such as Warrior and Clan Mother) or two contrasting animal spirits (which, depending on the culture, might be Eagle and Coyote)” (wikipedia). Within Native American religions and the berdache tradition there is the understanding of sexuality as “the becoming-woman of a man and the becoming-animal of the human.”

It was only when Spanish conquistadors, Western frontiersmen, and Christian missionaries were introduced to Native American tribes, that the berdache tradition was condemned. Cache says, Shaped like a wave, inflection introduces the form of the vague. Inflection is a true in-between.” There is not one sex, nor two, but “n sexes, an entire war machine through which love passes.”

– christine zenyi lu


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