Gender identity discussed at 'Two Spirits' screening

“Two Spirits” documents the story of Fred Martinez, a Native American who was born a man but identified as a woman. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

For the Navajo people, everything from mountains to a blade of grass has gender, according to a Rainbow Center screening and discussion of the documentary “Two Spirits” by Julia Nibley. To keep balance in the spiritual world, the gender of all things must also be balanced. This sexual spirituality was front and center during the screening. The film was a piece of the ongoing Native American Cultural Society Film Series sponsored by the Rainbow Center.

“Two Spirits” documents the story of Fred Martinez, a Native American who was born a man but identified as a woman. When Martinez was just 16 years old, he was bludgeoned to death with a rock in a clear hate crime against his sexual identity. Today we would refer to Fred as transgender. Yet the Navajo people have a different, more nuanced view of this sexual identity. The identity is referred to as “nádleehí,” and it has a deeply-rooted positive connotation in the Navajo culture.

The history of these “two-spirited” people provided a fascinating insight through the film and demonstrated the Navajo’s complex understanding of gender roles. The native culture recognizes four main genders which are woman, man, woman with a male essence and male with a female essence. Fred would fall in the latter of these categories and the history of these individuals shows the benefits of having fluid gender roles within a society.

Because of their dual social ability, nádleehí would often have a revealed status within the Navajo community, filling the roles of both weaver and healer, for example. The role of matchmaker was another popular role filled by nádleehí because of their sexual diversity. This is a clear example of where interculturalism can be hugely beneficial.

Two students posing with the film. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

“The government asking native Alaskans about climate change because of their wealth of knowledge about the land,” Catharine Kimberly a seventh-semester classics major said.

It is amazing to think that Western society has been castigating and shaming their own nádleehí for centuries. The Navajo system seems to be far more conducive to creating a well-functioning society. The film raised questions about why society sometimes tries to change the way people are inherently born. Why not use the nature of transgender people to benefit society? According to the film, Western morality, guided mostly by a Christian belief system, developed in opposition to this way of thinking and, at the end of the Civil War, began indoctrinating the Native Americans into the Western worldview. Manifest Destiny led to schooling in which Navajo children, as one subject of the documentary put it, “had the culture rubbed out of them.”

The documentary explored whether this acculturation process was directly responsible for the death of Fred Martinez. Those who differ from societal norms are always targets for the angry or alienated, who aim to take out their insecurities on those they see as weaker. But people like Martinez are perceived as weaker because of society’s oppression. The Navajo tradition of treating nádleehí with inclusion provides one possible solution to this problem. If Martinez was treated as a valuable insider to his community, he may not have been seen as such an easy target. But instead, he was a social outcast, who tried to commit suicide months before his murder.

Fred Martinez was described by the documentary as standing at a crossroads of two forms of discrimination, which was a very dangerous place to be. “Two Spirits,” and the Navajo tradition, offers a safer alternative for the nádleehí to walk.


Teddy Craven is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.craven_jr@uconn.edu.