WC81 – Review of Lydia Nibley’s Two Spirits

Rev81_twospirits TWO SPIRITS
Directed by Lydia Nibley
Say Yes Quickly Productions
Running time: 64 minutes.

Reviewed by Bo Young

long time ago, in a universe far away, I sat with politico David
Mixner, after we had won the No On Six ballot initiative in California,
talking about “what comes next?” I’ve always been haunted by what he
said, “Someone has to die. Like Martin Luther King; movements need
martyrs”… because, less than two weeks later, Harvey Milk and George
Mosconi were killed in San Francisco. In many ways, Harvey’s story has
become larger than the life he led, and, sadly, this is often the case
with our martyrs. And too often it’s the case with films about GLBT
people. In the end, the GLBT person is usually dead. Alas, we don’t get
“happily ever after” very much.

Now comes the story of yet another
hate-filled murder of a teen-age Navajo boy…a Navajo nádleehí …Fred
Martinez, told to us by the filmmaking/writing team, and real world
husband and wife, Lydia and Russell Martin, asking the question “Why
are people killed for being who they are?” in the documentary, Two
Spirits. In doing so, they have elevated the life of Fred Martinez into
something greater.

Not that Fred hadn’t done a pretty good job in
his short life, on his own. Wonderfully self-aware, and born into the
Navajo culture, that, like many Native American cultures, recognized
the existence of more than two genders, Martinez’s expressions of his
nature were greeted by those close to him with warmth and
understanding, if not embraced, as an expression of the traditional
“nádleehí” or Two Spirit tradition. Coming out of an understandable
adolescent “dark night of the soul,” Martinez recovered to thrive and
was loved by most in his community. Until one night, when some thug
decided to “bug smash a fag.” It’s an ending with which we’ve become
all too familiar.

It is worth noting that Fred’s story, purely on
the basis of the facts of the murder, is almost identical to that of
another martyr that became larger in death, Matthew Shepard. But Fred
was dark-skinned, Native American and Matthew was blond-haired,
blue-eyed. Should we wonder, then, why more people know about Matthew
than Fred?

This documentary goes a long way toward remedying that
cultural lacuna. Elevating Fred’s story from more than another hate
crime tragedy in a small, dusty reservation, the film interweaves the
story of a mother’s loss of her son with a revealing look at the
largely unknown history of a time when the world wasn’t simply divided
into male and female and many Native cultures held places of honor for
people of integrated genders. Often confused as containing both male
and female, the two spirit, was called “nádleehí” in the Navajo language — tennewyppe in Shoshone, lhamana in Hopi, winkte
in Lakota, there were more than 500 nations with different languages —
was the “not-male, not-female” gender…something in between.

in the space in between the male sex and the female, as Two Spirits
examines beautifully, the nadleehi were considered the
culture-carrying, spiritually connected holy people of their community.
The many forms of this tradition have until recently been lumped by
historians under the rubric of “berdache,” being defined by Webster’s
as a “homosexual male – an American Indian transvestite
assuming more or less permanently the dress, social status, and role of
a woman.”

Not surprisingly, the experience of Native
peoples, as is shown so vividly in this film, is something other than
either the popular or the professional stereotype. Though it would be
presumptuous to claim to represent its essence from the perspective of
outsiders, we can still look at certain features of two-spirit life in
Native cultures, features that delineate how First Nations peoples
integrated individuals with uncommon gender identity into their
society. And the irony is, we called them “savages.”

The first
step on the path to a two-spirit life was taken during childhood. The
Papago ritual is representative of this early integration: If parents
noticed that a son was disinterested in boyish play or “manly” work
they would set up a ceremony to determine which way the boy would be
brought up. They would make an enclosure of brush, and place in the
center both a man’s bow and a woman’s basket. The boy was told to go
inside the circle of brush and to bring something out, and as he
entered the brush would be set on fire. They watched what he took with
him as he ran out, and if it was the basketry materials they recognized
him as a berdache.

In recent times that pattern of acceptance has
been undermined, originally by the boarding school education forced
upon native children, and further by the influence of Christian
missionaries, and increasingly by the encroachment of television into
the psychic space of the tribe, with the result that two-spirit people
are more and more being viewed with suspicion by the less
traditionalist in their community. Yale anthropologist, Robert Stoller,
observed the “… deterioration in American Indians of techniques for
ritualizing cross-gender behavior. No longer is a place provided for
the role – more, the identity – of a male-woman, the dimensions of
which are fixed by customs, rules, tradeoffs and responsibilities. The
tribes have forgotten. Instead, this role appears as a ghost.”

Native two-spirit peoples are experiencing a re-awakening to the
validity, and to the cultural and spiritual roots, of their inner
calling. Many who, as a result of the cultural scorched-earth policies
of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), had sought escape from isolation
and rejection by adopting modern “gay” identities are now reconnecting
with their heritage by way of groups like the Native Gay and Lesbian
Gathering. They are re-interpreting their identity in terms dictated
neither by white culture nor by ancient customs, or perhaps by both.
The result is a mix peculiarly their own, which by breaking with both
traditional as well as modern forms remains true to the essence of the
two-spirit life. Fred Martinez embodied this modern form.

And he
died for it. The filmmakers pay proper respect to the horror of Fred’s
death. But they unpacked this story, and we should all be grateful they
did. There’s deeper value to be learned here. Fred’s memory is
well-served. We can only hope his mother finds some solace in his story
being told in this important, rich and loving manner.

Bo Young is White Crane’s publisher.  He lives in Upstate New York.

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