PBS Two Spirits
Fred Martinez (center), a Navajo nádleehí, a boy who is also a girl, was brutally murdered in June 2001 at age 16.

PBS Documentary Explores Navajo Belief in Four Genders


"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.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I read that many different NDN nations aren't prejudiced against two-spirit people and can even remember the two-spirit character (Little Horse) in the ancient Dustin Hoffman movie, "Little Big Man." I have no qualms about accepting people as they are, and I firmly believe that NDNs have had their traditional values poisoned by Christianity. It's no secret that many Christian churches are vehement in their objections to gays and transgender people. They preach that we are to love our brothers, but they use their religion to draw a line between those who worship as they do and others. They preach that we should care for the poor and the sick, but when anyone talks of raising taxes for this purpose they call him a Socialist. They preach, "thou shalt not kill," but they support war. They say, "Turn the other cheek," but they support torture. My grandfather once told me that hate was a natural human emotion and we can't completely rid ourselves of it. He also told me that to hate anyone for something they cannot change (the color of their skin, where they were born, etc.) is wrong. He did say to hate someone for what they did to you or your family is not right, but understandable.

sweetgrass777's picture
Submitted by sweetgrass777 on
Native people did not practice sodomy! If there was a hermaphradite born into a tribe I believe these people where what they may have spoken of. All of this Homosexuality crap is a illusion and something created to throw us off the path of our true culture and Identity and only to confuse our people and youth. Keep it up folks! Our people are dying out and so is the culture. Do not let this evilness continue to poison you minds.

shadowdragon42's picture
Submitted by shadowdragon42 on
I asked this question to many tribal elders and this is what came back. The men where effeminate not homosexual. As for the women some where brought up to be protectors and hunters when no male was in the family. Both where considered to be of good luck to the tribe. The men never slept with the men in such as that was not excepted. And women of the same. I have to agree with sweetgrass as this is just another way to try and remove our culture by warping our beliefs to fit there sexual needs. This is not a Christian rant either as this elders are very traditional in the tribes beliefs.

Mr Honest's picture
Mr Honest
Submitted by Mr Honest on
Gay people or "Two Spirits" have always been celebrated in Native American culture. Warriors would sleep with Two Spirits before going to war, as it was believed to empower them for battle (so much for the idiotic "no sodomy" post). BTW: Christians - THIS IS NOT A RELIGIOUS FORUM, it's a HUMAN forum. Try it sometime.