Friday, August 5, 2011

Native American Transvestites

Juan Pardo travelled from South Carolina up to North Carolina and then west as far as what is nowadays Johnson City and Knoxville, Tennessee.

This journey has been chronicled by the ethnohistorian Charles Hudson.  One of the more curious incidents recorded in Charles Hudson's The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990) is an ethnographic observation of the local Indians:
" Cauchi they saw an Indian man who was dressed as a woman and walking in the company of women. When Pardo asked Cauchi Orata for an explanation he said that the man was his "brother," but because he was not a man for war or for doing the things that men do, he went about as a woman and did a woman's tasks..."
The illustration in the book, reproduced above, is Plate XXIII from the famous set of engravings by Jacques Le Moyne: "Timucuan male transvestites carrying packbaskets of food. Females are shown loading the packbaskets... Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution."

Source: "The transvestites of 16th century AmericaTYWKIWDBI ("Tai-Wiki-Widbee")

For "A brief history of the Timucua people of Northern Florida" click Read More below.

A brief history of the Timucua people of Northern Florida
By Haines Brown

Florida offers archaeological evidence of some of the earliest settlements in North America. In particular, spectacular finds from Florida sink holes may date from the end of the Wisconson glaciation in about 10,000 B.C. However, by historical times, much of Florida was occupied by Taino-speaking peoples from the Caribbean, who, like all Arawak speakers, came originally from Amazonia. Among the better known of these Taino peoples of Florida are the Tekesta, associated with the Maimi Circle, the state-level Calusa society based on a fishing economy in Southern Florida, and the Timucua tribe of Northern Florida.

Apparently the Timucuan language is a Caribbean kreol that derives from the Arawak language group of Amazonia as spoken by the Warao, but it was influenced by North American languages through trade and cultural exchanges. In this respect the Timucuan language resembles other Taino languages, but it seems to have emerged at a somewhat earlier point in Caribbean Arawak linguistic history. The separation of Taino and Carib languages had occurred even earlier.

The Timucua from northern Florida participated in a broad Southeastern American culture sphere, but preserved distinctive traits reflecting their Caribbean origin. By the 17th century, their population was greatly reduced, and with the influx of new peoples from the North such as the Creek and the impact of European colonizers, not much of that original culture survives among the Timucuan people today. For example, we know of only a small number of Timucuan words. Peoples of Taino descent, such as the Timucua, are trying to recover as much of their cultural heritage as they can and gain the tribal recognition necessary to win some control over their circumstances. Solidarity among Taino-speaking people everywhere, from South America to the Caribbean and North America, is a means to achive official recognition for Taino tribes.

The amount of surviving evidence and the extent to which survivers are able to perpetuate their traditions vary considerably from one Taino tribe to another. In the case of the Timucua, that evidence to a large extent derives from records of conquest by European whites, but from it we at least gain some idea of Timucuan society. In it there was the marked sexual distinction typical of Southeastern American culture. It gave rise to a sexual division of labor and affected many aspects of daily life. For example, in their dress, men wore a woven fiber breechcloth, sashes, and deerskin moccasins for travel. Timucuan women instead wore skirts of Spanish moss. In cold weather, both women and men put on feather or skin matchcoats, although worn differently. In warm weather, young boys and girls generally wore nothing.

Although gender was sharply distinguished, one's choice of gender was not dictated by sex. For example, the social demands on men were so great that some chose instead to be transvestites and accept responsibilities associated with the female role, to care for the household, to carry burdens and cultivate the fields. Likewise, some women would adopt a man's role, fight in war and sit on the governing council. This was common enough, apparently, that Taino people expressed surprise at the complete absence of women in Spanish councils.

Because of deepening social contraditions associated with their own social development and with European contact, Timucua lineages segmented into a large number of clan settlements consisting of people considered to be inlaws. If a young couple within a settlement wished to marry, to avoid incest their clan would segment so that the two parties came to represent different clans and therefore became marriageable. Social segmentation led to a large number of small lineages and clans, which greatly weakened the Timucua. To achieve the solidarity needed for defense against the white invaders, lineages would consolidate into larger lineages by means of exogenous marriage bonds.

It is thought that a settlement usually consisted of a small number of round timber houses with palm thatched roofs arranged in a semi-circle around a central plaza equiped with a large post for the traditional Timucua games. In larger settlements there would be an artificial mound for a temple and another for the chief's residence. Timucua settlements seem to have been generally quite small.

Early every morning the council in a settlement would meet to discuss the affairs of the chiefdom, smoke, and sometimes carry out the games. Important council meetings opened with a "White Drink" ceremony (the drink was actually black in color) that helped purify the men (and women posing as men) so that they would find it easier to interact. Women adopting a male gender would serve on the council, but young boys and women who chose a female gender were excluded. This White Drink was made from a local variety of holly, and so was related to the maté drink of Central and South America (perhaps brought by Arawak-speakers from Amazonia). Its main constituent was caffeine, and it was drunk hot like coffee to focus thought and enhance intellectual powers. A pipe would be lit and smoke blown in the four cardinal directions by one person after another according to their status.

While for many Taino peoples ceremonial games imply a contest among ball teams to resolve a judicial dispute, the Timucua adopted instead a variation of the North American game of chunkey. This involved using beautifully fashioned concave disks of stone about 45 centimeters in diameter. When rolled, the stone takes an irregular path, and each player throws a long pole toward the point they think the stone will eventually stop. The object is to throw just before you think the stone will fall over. In Creek Indian culture, the players had to throw the long pole before the disk passed a certain line, meaning that the players had to judge where the disk would fall over before it began to slow down.

In the community there would be wise men who functioned as priests as well as shamans able to mediate supernatural powers to serve the needs of the community. For example, the Timucuan shaman, through a trance was able to prophesy, diagnose a disease, locate stolen objects, and foretell the weather.

Archaeological evidence suggests a quite mature agricultural economy among the Apalachee and Timucua of northern Florida based on Indian corn, beans, pumpkins and vegetables. In fact, de Soto's four-year expedition through "La Florida" could not have taken place without the appropriation of enormous amounts of food from local populations. The American farmers first cleared the land by burning the brush, prepared the soil with hoes, and then women planted seeds with dibble sticks (coa). Apparently, two crops were planted annually, and there was field rotation. Guards stood in wooden watchtowers (barbacoa) to protect the crops from birds and foraging animals.

Besides beans, corn and squash, the people of Florida also cultivated the Zamia root for grinding into bread flour. They also apparently cultivated the tobacco needed for religious ceremonies (the halucinogenic "sot weed"). Cultigens were probably brought into Florida from the North to supplement or displace the traditional Taino dependence on marine resources in the South. The harvest was dried and stored in stone warehouses to protect it from spoilage and insects.

Hunted were alligators (by thrusting a long pole down their throats), sea cows and occasional nearby whales. Meat was cooked on a wooden rack over a fire, also called a barbacoa, from which derives the English word "barbecue." Although the Taino generally relied on a marine economy, unlike the Calusa, who managed to support a state-level society on a fishing industry, it seems that Timucuan culture constrained fishing and hunting so that Florida's west coast economic potentials were never fully exploited by the Timucua. Later on, due to a dependency on British trade, much of Florida's deer population was destroyed for the deerskin needed to exchange for tools, cloth, and ammunition.

Spanish pillagers penetrated Florida early in the sixteenth century in search of precious metal and slaves. One of them, the sinister Pánfilo de Narváez, landed in 1528 in order to conquer the Timucua, but he did not find the precious metal he expected and also apparently food supplies were inadequate. So, from Tampa Bay, he marched north along the coast to enter Apalachee territory. Although they, too, lacked gold, he appropriated sufficient grain from them to keep his band alive. However, facing the stiff resistence of the Apalachee, he had to abandon any idea of a permanent settlement, and his band continued on into what is now Texas and eventually reached New Spain (Mexico). Of the 260 who started out, only three survived. Unfortunately their account is sketchy, but they spoke of an arid and poor land (perhaps the result of the ravages of the desease broght by the Europeans spreading through Eastern Woodland trade routes. This abandonment of traditional settlements continued well into the next century and opened the way for immigration from the North by other Native Americans who eventualy prevailed in Florida and came to be known as the Seminoles.

Nevertheless, the Timucua economy must have remained highly productive for some time. In 1539, Hernando de Soto, who had been appointed Governor of Cuba and La Florida, landed with 622 men in Tampa Bay in a search for wealth and opportunities for colonization. He found the Americans living in a small town of timber houses with thatched roofs. The chief's house was near the beach on a high defensive mound, and opposite to it was a temple surmounted by a wooden bird with gilded eyes. Not finding any significant wealth in the area of Tampa Bay, de Soto attacked the surrounding region in order to rob, kill and enslave. People often abandoned their settlements at his approach. Like de Narváez before him, de Soto eventually marched north in the search for greater amounts of food and wealth.

De Soto eventually reached the large settlement of Cofachiqui (in modern Georgia), led by a female chieftain who greeted him in a shaded canoe. To avoid disastor, she ordered that all available white and yellow metal be given to de Soto. This meant copper and the mica sheets which artisans fashioned into ornaments. However, her efforts were in vain. Because there were no local pearls, de Soto's men looted the burial ground to seize 158 kg of the freshwater pearls that were buried there and proceeded to scalp and kill everyone they could (scalping was practiced in early Europe by the Alemani and Franks as a way to destroy a person's charisma).

The Timucua were not as warlike as the Apalachee to the North or the Calusa state of Arawak speakers to the South, although they were certainly capable warriors. They preferred to find ways to avoid overt conflict. For example, they would place the head of an enemy on a post outside public buildings or hang his limbs from trees to warn off possible enemies. Older male captives tended to fare poorly, but women and children were adopted and came to lead normal lives. Sacrificial killing was apparently also practiced.

Several kilometers from Cofachiqui lay Talomeco, an even larger settlement. Here too, the chief's house and the temple were placed on artificial mounds. The temple was 12 meters wide and 30 meters long, and had a steep roof of reeds and split cane with sea-shell decoration. The Spaniards looted the temple and found wooden statues decorated with pearls, and there were great stores of deerskin, dyed cloth and copper ceremonial weapons of superb workmanship.

De Soto gave up on Florida because of its lack of gold, because the local population had been decimated by disease, but most importantly because the Apalachee were quite effective in their own military defense (they were excellent fort builders and constantly harassed his troop). His negative reports discouraged further depredations against the chiefdoms in Florida until the mid-17th century.

Perhaps because the Spanish were unable to establish viable settlements in the Southeast, French Hugeuenots from 1564 tried their own hand at it. However, they had no better success. The Timucua people resisted conquest as effectively as they had resisted being culturally colonized by Franciscan Friars. One Frenchman, Le Moyne de Morgues, made sketches of the Timucuans which have been of enormous interest to ethnographers, and I have included reproductions of some etchings based on them here. The Huguenots tried to convert the Timucuans to Christianity, but only got back for their trouble the habit of tobacco smoking. Perhaps this threat to Timucuan culture helped persuaded the Timucuans to join in the Spanish attack of the Huguenots at Fort Caroline. The Spanish killed everyone there who did not swear they were Catholic.

Whether the Spanish Franciscan missions had any significant impact is debated, but clearly the penetration of British trade was important. Northern Indians were given guns by the British traders in Charleston in order to launch slave raids, particularly against the Florida missions because mission Indians had lost any ability to defend theselves.

With the collapse of the French mission system, the British were eventually able to take over in 1763. Because they were more successful in establishing a permanent presence than either the Spanish or French, there began a period of greater outside cultural influences upon the Timucua. One reason for the British success was their commercial aggressiveness. They brought in cheap manufactured goods such as utensils and tools, rum and guns; they backed up their trade advantage with Indian mercenaries; and they also had greater self-sufficiency by reason of their larger numbers. In exchange for manufactures, the British took back the deer skins, which Americans had long accumulated as prestige goods, and slaves. This trade made the Timucua dependent on the British for tools, cloth and ammunition, and complete subjection became only a matter of time.

By the eighteenth century, the Americans of Florida were entirely dependent on the white European colonizers, and often this was because they lost their land to an encroaching slave economy.

Today there survive people in Florida of Timucuan heritage who would like to unite on that basis, even though they have lost much of their language and culture. However, it should be noted that this loss does not actually prevent tribal reconstitution, but only makes it more challenging. The historical fact is that the social construction of tribes is only constrained by considerations of common origin, shared genes, and cultural survival. Without at least some objective constraints, a tribe will never emerge, but on the other hand a tribe does not reduce to them.

Source: Taino Timucua Tribal Web Page


Loki's Log said...


Awesome post. Weird that you would post this as I am reading Geraldine Brook's Caleb's Crossing -- a fictional account of the first Native American to attend Harvard College. The setting is Marthas Vineyard and Cambridge 1665. Gender differences in colonial america and in the local Indian cultures are explored through a sort of love story -- a bit contrived but interesting nonetheless. I appreciate the time and research you put into your blog man.

Jacob Woods said...

Sounds like they have a better idea of what androgyny is than most.

silvereagle said...

Very interesting article. I was at Amelia Island in the spring and picked up a "tourist" book of the island written by two men who lived there - one a photographer and one a writer as I recall. It contained a bit of history, and made refererence to the fact that the area was inhabitated by the original natives to the state and that evidences of their presence had been found. When I can locate my copy of the book, I will share it with you. Follows along with both of these articles.
Amazing fact here~~~our proclivity as men toward the non-traditional-male aspect of life is not something entirely new!! Of course, similar stories are, I am sure, in other cultures as well.

Thanks for the article!

silvereagle said...

Found the name of the book I referred to above:

Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach
by Ron Kurtz and Roger More

JoeBlow said...

Thanks for your comments, Loki. I have always found it sad that Europeans forced Native Americans to assimilate into their culture and they absorbed so very little of Native American culture. I think there is a tremendous amount of knowledge and tolerance that could have been learned.

Jacob, they certainly did. Not until the twentieth century did we begin to understand the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Most Native Americans had figured that out long ago.

Silvereagle, I am going to have to look into your book suggestion, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach. Our proclivity as men toward the non-traditional-male aspect of life is not something entirely new and it is evident in many cultures, something I try to explore on occasion with this blog.