"In another time, he would have been honored. Instead he was murdered," states the PBS documentary Two Spirits, which aired last night as the season finale of their Independent Lens series. The film examines the Navajo concept of nádleehí, the interrelationship between the feminine and the masculine within the individual, and mourns the death of a young Navajo, Fred Martinez, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature.
Martinez tragically became one of the youngest victims of a hate crime in modern history when he was brutally murdered at age 16 in June 2001. Filmmaker Lydia Nibley's Two Spirits explores the life of Martinez, a nádleehí, a boy who was also a girl, and more essentially, the spiritual nature of gender.
Nádleehí directly translates in English to "one who constantly transforms." Navajo and some other Native cultures embrace the concept of four genders, abandoning the binary dichotomy of male and female and the Western construction of what those two genders mean.
In traditional Navajo culture, Martinez's two-spirit identity would have been revered as a special gift.
"In Navajo teaching, in the old traditional world, there were four basic genders," explains Wesley Thomas, Navajo scholar from Tsaile, Arizona, in the Two Spirits documentary. "Women are the first gender, because Navajo is a matrilineal society. Men are the second gender; and the third gender is the nádleehí, who is born as a male person but functions in the role of a girl in early childhood and in the role of a woman in adulthood. And it's just the opposite for the fourth gender, where they were born biologically female but functioned in the role of a boy in early childhood and matured into a man, and conducts their life in that gender identity."
In today's society, people are too quickly labeled as a typical male or a typical female, despite the fact that people almost always diverge from those typical qualities.
"In Western culture, when they say 'a girl,' there's an automatic assumption that that girl is female. Or when they see a boy, they never pause to think that boy may be female," Thomas says.
Richard LaFortune, a Two-Spirit organizer in Minneapolis, echoes Thomas' sentiment in the documentary: "The masculine and feminine are oftentimes reflected so completely in the body of one person, it's as if they have two spirits."
Watch clips from Two Spirits at pbs.org/independentlens/two-spirits/film.html.