Crow Bote Life and Resistance in the Late 1800s
By Sophia Seaberg-Wood
In an article for the New York Medical Journal in 1889, Dr. A. B. Holder describes “a class which exists as a class, so far as [his] knowledge goes, nowhere but among certain tribes of the American Indians.”[i] This class which Holder discusses is the bote, a Crow Indian gender identity which does not fall into typical Western conceptions of gender. Holder’s writings at the end of the 19th century offer insight into Western perspectives on and attempts to contain Native gender categories which did not fit into the male/female gender binary. Holder tells the story of one Crow bote, who ran away after being punished for their gender, an anecdote which reveals that boarding schools were one institution through which colonialist gender ideals were imposed on American Indians, and illuminates the ways in which Crow peoples resisted the enforcement of these ideals.
According to Holder, the word bote, which is specific to the Crow Nation, means “not man, not woman.”[ii] Historically, the Crow, whose language belongs to the Siouan family, lived near the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and Montana, though two treaties between the Crow and the United States diminished Crow lands to eight million acres in South-Central Montana by 1868.[iii] The word bote is meant to describe people who are neither men nor women; in other words, bote describes a gender that falls outside the typical Western conception of a male/female gender binary. The Crow are not the only American Indian tribe to include more than two genders: Holder himself claims that bote are found in quite a few, if not all, American Indian tribes, and is able to give specific numbers of “bote” found in various Native communities. He identifies bote people among the Gros Ventre in Northern Montana, Ree (Arikara) in North Dakota, Lakota in the Great Plains, and Nez Perce in the Pacific Northwest.[iv] Historically, bote and other American Indian non-binary people were categorized under the umbrella term berdache. The word berdache, however, comes from an Arabic word for a male concubine, and so is understandably problematic in its use because the term both assumes maleness and sexualizes the subject.[v]
Holder’s article gives readers a swath of information regarding the roles and everyday experiences of bote people. Bote as discussed in Holder’s article are assigned-male-at-birth people who wear women’s clothing and partake in traditionally feminine activities, though the gender and sexuality historian Will Roscoe points out that other explorers and traders documented the existence of Crow “female berdaches,” presumably assigned-female-at-birth bote.[vi] The assumption of a bote identity began very early in life; one bote tells Holder that they started wearing women’s clothing when they were five years old.[vii] Other sources suggest that bote were considered to be excellent craftspeople and that they inhabited distinct religious roles.[viii] Holder’s article also gives the example of a bote who had a “marital partnership” with a man in which the bote was “the female party,” though this was unlikely to have been a regular occurrence.[ix]
While Holder’s goal is providing information about the bote to a larger medical community, his article is a valuable resource because it gives insight into Western views on sex and gender at the time. Holder constantly refers to the bote people using disparaging language. From the title of the piece, which declares bote to be a “Peculiar Sexual Perversion,” to various points throughout which reiterate Holder’s notion that bote are “the most debased [sexual perverts] that could be conceived of.” Clearly, Holder’s moral understanding of gender is in direct opposition with Indigenous conceptions of such.[x] These views should not be understood as harmless opinion: Holder worked as the Crow reservation physician for at least two years, which would allow him some degree of institutional power over the Crow. Also, as Will Roscoe notes, Holder was not alone in his perception of bote and other Indigenous non-binary people as “perverted:” the anthropologist Robert H. Lowie describes berdache as “pathological,” “psychiatric cases,” and “predispos[ed] to perversity” in his 1936 book, Primitive Religion.[xi]
Along with giving insight into Western perspectives on Indigenous gender, Holder’s writing also demonstrates an example of bote resistance to colonial gender roles. According to Holder, at one point during his time with the Crow, “[o]ne little fellow while in the Agency Boarding School was found frequently surreptitiously wearing female attire. He was punished, but finally escaped from school and became a bote, which vocation he has since followed [sic].”[xii] This anecdote reveals how boarding schools were one of the institutions in which the colonialist gender binary was imposed on Indigenous people, by punishing Native children who were beginning to identify as bote. Schools were also an important institution for spreading notions of Christian morality. The reverend at the Baptist day school that opened in 1909, as well as the church, repeatedly condemned bote people, incuding Osh-Tisch (also known as Finds Them and Kills Them or Woman Jim), a prominent bote who lived near St. Xavier, Montana from the mid- to late-1800s until 1929.[xiii] According to Thomas Yellowtail, a Crow medicine man and Sun Dance chief, this frequent denunciation might have made people unwilling to take on bote identity after Osh-Tisch’s death.[xiv]
Yet the bote child resisted colonialist efforts to enforce a Western gender binary. While many Native children resisted the institution of Indian boarding schools by running away, often assisted by parents who hid or simply refused to send their children away for school, Holder’s story demonstrates that, for at least one child, the enforcement of strict Western gender roles could prompt an escape.[xv] Once away from boarding school, the child continued to resist by fully embracing a bote identity. In “That Is My Road,” Roscoe details another instance of bote resistance in the life of Osh-Tisch. According to Joe Medicine Crow, a Crow historian, an agent in the 1890s “incarcerated the badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men’s clothing,” and had been attempting to do the same to Osh-Tisch, who refused. Significantly, the agent’s attempts to control Osh-Tisch and the other bote was distressing to non-bote Crow, enough so that they brought in Chief Pretty Eagle, who told the agent to leave.[xvi] This illustrates that non-bote Crow were also invested in resisting the imposition of a white gender binary, as well as demonstrates the cultural importance of bote to the Crow.
Holder’s writing shows that colonialist, particularly Christian or Christian-influenced, morality, schools, and the rhetoric of medical science all contributed to the assimilation of Native people into Western gender roles. Separate accounts demonstrate the role governmental agencies played in punishing bote and other Indigenous non-binary identities. These factors in turn resulted in a decline in the public adoption of bote and other non-binary Indigenous gender identities. This does not necessarily mean that Native people stopped identifying with non-binary Indigenous genders, just that they were less able or unwilling to publicly express their identities for fear of institutional punishment. The fact that modern Indigenous people continue to identify as two-spirit, “a new term for Native sexualities and gender diversity,” from the Northern Algonquin niizh manitoag, is a direct result of Indian resistance to gender colonialism as demonstrated in the examples of Osh-Tisch and the bote child who ran away from boarding school.[xvii] In part a result of such long and sustained efforts to resist the colonial imposition of Western sexual and gender norms, modern queer and two-spirit Indigenous people have more opportunities to, as gay American Indian activist Erna Pahe says, “proclaim what was once kept quiet.”[xviii]
[i] A. B. Holder, “The Bote. Description of a Peculiar Sexual Perversion Found Among North American Indians,” The New York Medical Journal 1 (Dec. 1889): 623.
[ii] Ibid., 623. The spelling of bote varies, and can include bate, boté, bode, bade, etc. I use ‘bote’ to maintain consistency with Holder’s article throughout.
[iv] Holder, “The Bote,” 623; bote is a tribe-specific term for a Crow conception of gender identity and should not be universalized as Holder attempts to do in his article.
[v] Will Roscoe, “‘That Is My Road’: The Life and Times of a Crow Berdache,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 40.1 (1990): 48.
[vi] Ibid., 48. Assigned-male/female-at-birth refers to the assumption that the apparent physical sex of a child at birth is and will remain their gender identity; in Western culture this can refer to the moment when a doctor hands a child to the parent and says “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy!”
[vii] Holder, “The Bote,” 624.
[viii] Roscoe, “That Is My Road,” 48.
[ix] Holder, “The Bote,” 624.
[x] Ibid., 623.
[xi] Quoted in Roscoe, “That is My Road,” 48; Robert H. Lowie, Primitive Religion (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1936): 243-244.
[xii] Holder, “The Bote,” 624.
[xiii] Roscoe, “That Is My Road,” 49, 55.
[xiv] Quoted in Roscoe, “That Is My Road,” 54.
[xv] For more information see Brenda Child, “Runaway Boys, Resistant Girls: Rebellion at Flandreau and Haskell, 1900-1940,” Journal of American Indian Education 35.3 (Spring 1996).
[xvi] Roscoe, “That Is My Road,” 54.
[xvii] Scott Lauria Morgensen, Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011): 81.
[xviii] Quoted in Morgensen, Spaces Between Us, 80.