White Crane #70 – Williams’ & Johnson’s Two Spirits

RvuwilliamstobyTwo Spirits: 
A Story of Life With the Navajo

by Walter L. Williams & Toby Johnson
Lethe Press; 332 p $18.

Reviewed by Jesse Monteagudo

Two Spirits is a collaboration between two of our leading gay cultural figures.  Walter L. Williams is a historian and anthropologist who is best known as the author of The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture.  Toby Johnson is the former editor of White Crane and author of various books of gay spirituality, history and culture. In Two Spirits the ideas that Professor Williams expounded in his earlier book are used in a fictional adventure that is as exciting as it is instructive.

In 1864 the U.S. Army under General James Carleton and Colonel Kit Carson decimated the Navajo nation (the Diné in its own language) and forced it to leave its ancestral home to settle in the Bosque Redondo reservation, where it barely survived in what was essentially a concentration camp. Only after Carleton was found guilty of corruption and removed from his post were the proud Diné allowed to return to their homeland, where they survive and flourish till this day.  Many of the Diné were gender-variant nadleehí, “two spirit” men and women who, as in other Native tribes, reached positions of great leadership and respect.

So much for history.  In Two Spirit these facts form the basis of a great historical novel. In 1867, the young Virginian Will Lee is sent to Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo reservation, where he is to serve as the government’s Indian Agent.  Though the unscrupulous General Carleton and his associates do their best to keep him in the dark, Will soon realizes that the people whose interests he is supposed to represent are being exploited by his own government forces.  Will becomes friendly with the down but not out Diné, particularly with Hasbaá, a young spiritual healer and gender-bending nadleehí.  This forbidden love between the “hairy face” Will Lee and the “two spirit” Hasbaá leads Will to question the values that he grew up with.  Together, Will and  Hasbaá set out to help free the Diné and allow them to return to their ancient home.

Two Spirits tells an exciting tale, about a way of life that is sadly no longer with us.  Though the Navajo/Diné nation has survived and prospered, like other Native nations it has given up many of its old ways, including the time-honored nadleehí.  Even so, those of us who are GLBT in the early 21st century can learn much from the experiences of the fictional Will and Hasbaá in the mid-19th century.  Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo is the well-deserved recipient of a development grant awarded by the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation.  Williams and Johnson have given us a book that is both entertaining and inspiring.  As if that was not enough, Two Spirits features a well-written “Commentary” by Wesley K. Thomas, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies & International Studies at Indiana University and himself a gay Navajo.

Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance author, activist and frequent contributor to White Crane.  He lives in South Florida with his life partner.  Write him a note at jessemonteagudo@aol.com

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