Women of the Navajo Calendar Reject Trans Woman

Terese Mailhot

Recently, a beautiful Indigenous woman, Sharnell Paul, was barred from being featured in the Women of the Navajo calendar for being transgender. According to Paul, the founders called her after finding out she was transgender, and informed her that, “ … This is for real women and you’re not a real woman.” While the founders stumbled through a true account of this interaction, Paul has remained firm that this was blatant discrimination. Bodies are sovereign and must be respected as such. All Indigenous people have the right to self-determination.

Across our country, there were several stories. I believe in stories and their ability to transmute and create meaning. Some nations recognized five genders, others three, and it was difficult to retain those stories post-contact and colonization. There are several activists working against historical erasure and dispossession. Saylesh Wesley writes in her work on being a Sts’ iyóye Smetstíyexw (Twin Spirited Woman), “Although the Canadian Government made a very successful attempt to erase Sts’ iyóye Smetstíyexw, some of us live on to tell new stories and to re-generate an entire gender and sexuality category that has been put away for so long. I invite other self-identified Sts’ iyóye Smetstíyexw to pray together, laugh together, and weave our stories into a theirstory.” West’s narrative isn’t unlike Paul’s. Both are working toward active reclamation. Both women are carrying a personal narrative we should regard with respect and recognition.

Had Women of the Navajo calendar founders included Paul, they would have been working against historical erasure, reclaiming the stories within their own inclusive cultural roots. Their discriminatory acts speak of lateral violence within our own communities. Oppression works laterally and vertically. Their acts against Paul are acts against cultural reclamation and Indigenous sovereignty. It’s time to give our people voice. Our bodies and our stories have the right to acceptance and recognition. Women of the Navajo had the opportunity to empower culture, identity, and acts of reclamation. Granted, it would have been late to the game, but it’s better to be late than never arrive at a political occasion that is inevitable. All Indigenous bodies are sovereign, deserving of protection, respect, and recognition. What are they scared of? Whatever phobia they invite, it is no doubt the product of boarding schools, assimilation, and other genocidal acts put upon us.

For too long our nations and bodies have been subject to the Crown, the Government, and systems that do not protect our lands or bodies. As a sovereign people we did not surrender our lands or our bodies. In order for any nation to have sovereignty we must come together as a people against the things pulling us apart. A slight against one of our weakest or strongest members is a slight against the collective.

The stories where I’m from are gone. There is no pre-contact narrative of people who identified as anything beyond the gender binary. There are only a few stories of sexuality and gender, let alone any that speak of gender roles. Our ceremonies and stories were forbidden. Only within the past few generations have people been able to stand and bear witness. There is something from the past that still resonates: that our stories can be erased, and our bodies forbidden. If we do not claim our people, and their identities, and their stories, and their struggles, they will be erased from the continuum, just like everything that has been stripped from us. Their beautiful faces and struggles will not thrive if we don’t lift them up now, to praise their clarity and power.

What we can do as a people to encourage the sovereign body’s rights within our communities is respect how one identifies. Carry their stories, and respect the pronouns in which they wish to be referred. Let our people be self-determined. Defend their rights within our communities. The power we carry individually to hold each other up should be recognized. It isn’t simply an effort to be on the right side of history for Native people. It is the reclamation of a history and the retention of story we should be fighting for. We invite erasure when we negate the voices of our people––any of our people. The voices against transgender people are the resounding voices of assimilation, which splinter us and weaken our unification. It is the tool of white supremacy that keeps us from understanding one another. Reclamation is beautiful and so are our people and the diversity of their beings.

In high school I had a beautiful Native friend who was transgender. She had long, black hair, a wide smile, and lots of cavities like me. Once I was with her and my best friend Thomasina at an arcade during lunch break, where most of us were segregated: Native and white. She dared to walk across the room, swaying her long hair, smiling at the white boys. It wasn’t long before two boys pushed her down. I couldn’t see her body, only the boys’ ugly cowboy boots and tight jeans above her hair. When she emerged, her face was scratched, and she refused to speak. The next day she got a school check from her tribe. Thomasina and I went out for lunch at the finest establishment in town: The Cariboo Lodge. We ordered burgers, and a white server begrudgingly refilled our drinks while we giggled. I asked the girl if she was okay after the arcade incident. She said, “Don’t matter anyways. I’m okay.” How many times had I heard that from people who were anything but okay. The world refuses to acknowledge their grief, and tells them it is their fault for being ‘that way.’ “Don’t wear your hair like that,” a girl told her. Thomasina and I knew. We knew to love her as she was, and stand close to her at lunch. She’s become estranged from me, living a life I hear is harsh. I carry her story in my heart when I say we must treat each other humanely, and none of us have much time on this earth to do right, so we must do it today.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, The Offing, and The James Franco Review. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. 

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smartphoenixnavajo's picture
Though I follow your argument, in Navajo its not about sovereign. Thats another word and term from them, which is somewhat against your writing and yourself. What this say to me is how our full assimilation has brought us to basically the same thought process as the culture who dominates us. In Navajo and those who know and practice the Holy Peoples way, we know such people are not different, maybe even special. But the calendar is basically another dominate tool to further assimilation of young people to worship themselves and their bodies and make some money doing it. I know it hurts to read that, it hurts to think it too. But its my comment.
Sammy7's picture
In your face alternative sexuality seems not the road to acceptance and harmony. Is there not as better path?
tmsyr11's picture
When an opportunity knocks, open the door and let it in! Is the glass have full or half empty. Rather than dwell on the 'shock', all the more reason to step up and devise a Calendar for Both-Ways, i.e. two-spirits. There's enough of an public audience now that could buy these calendars and post them in their closets.
WinterWindTeacher's picture
Wow! Thank you for your story, it was thought full, thoughtful and kind. It is also heart wrenching and heart touching. Some of us are exiled, a prison built for us that we were to stay in for the rest of our lives. It is painful. We tried to make a run for it, but like a repeat offender we returned. That harshness and brutality becomes carved into yourself and they reinforce it daily to help you remember what your place is in a "free" society, imprisonment. I imagine 'repeat offender' is similar. It's just society's way of knowing where to throw you away to. It is also the 'buy' product of a consumerist society; a bigger bang for your buck, a winner, what a steal, making a run on it, can't beat those prices, and kill for it. Nothing is expected to last nor is it hoped for. No sooner are two together than start shopping early for the next best model. Take it out for a spin, she's smooth and handles easy, or he's got it all under the hood and will kick ass and get you there and back before the bread is out of the oven. I saw what effect the years of abuse held for me and what kind of future. The trauma is there and all the ways one feels broken just like poked out sprung sprockets on a bicycle wheel. If we were porcupines we would probably look like the defense mode, all the quills standing erect at top and sides. I got a better view of it when working around horses. Some people tormented those horses they cared for so the horse would develop a rank attitude, be nasty. bite and nip, pin their ears and kick. This exercise of rankness in horses was job security. It caused fear or rejection by others to work around those animals with bad dispositions. It greatly backfired on those handy helpers. Besides developing a nasty disposition they also invisibly created emotional injury severe enough that if things were not just routine enough the animal literally would have a tantrum. Some of them started out with horses that were unbeatable in the field, champions, and an event or person that was out of the horses routine and expectations, they emotionally collapsed and now could not and would not cooperate in anything formerly competitive. The extreme forms in people I saw were suicide. My understanding, which is limited, is that the church found offense in our having any good place and persecuted us into death. With repeated acts of violence reinforced with fear, the church made it clear - they would stand between man and woman, that was their sanctified position, all others were forbidden. From that time on, now hundreds of years we were to be disappeared, or executed for this violation or the other, anything. We were not to be tolerated.Thank you for keeping your friend in your heart, it offers her a way back to you if she wants and therein is a divinity in you. The spirit of love that lives on and doesn't disappear. I bless you. It is a starvation place away from such a loving heart. I do not have the stories either. It has been so long ago and so much violence that helps us forget yesterday, we were so busy with what happened in this day not finished. It was necessary to live and those who were using us as a decoy were naturally some of the worst offenders. They were the real circus clowns entertaining the crowds with so much guano tea and some amazing stories about us. Their talents lie in fabricating histrionics high and wide to shock and surprise those around them who were able to celebrate them as funny friends. They were not able to tell the simple truth about themselves; they were perverts who shamefully hid their rank games by throwing us in the hot light. so they could keep doing dirty deeds and keep everyone bringing the roof down on our heads. It is a shame all the normal abuse and exploitation that goes on here on earth. A lot of lives were sacrificed yet those who judge others to condemnation and sacrifice forget that they did not create any of this life. Many have said they were Christians and that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. I think Jesus was born to teach us how to live, to love. I think Jesus died on the cross because they needed him to, just like all the other millions of people they have sacrificed. I do wish that someone would have stood in the way and asked the torturer tormentors to take their life and to spare Jesus. I would hope that I could not stand and stare at someone I love being beaten to death, it's the same death just another heart. I hope a new world will be born and in that world the liberty to love is tops by pops. There ain't nothing weird about love, what is weird is all this dungeon fortress perversion that normalizes violence and abuse. The man who walks on water never killed anyone nor did he ever speak in a violent way toward others or about others. It is quite a curve ball from the pitcher who can have a foul called, and one deservedly should have been called to have him removed a long time ago for so dishonestly misleading the people about who he really was. Thank you for your story, it touches me personally and for your love and compassion for your friend. It is a get out of jail card that she deservedly needs. Moth balling the mindless destruction of life, human being, earth and dreams that clowns purport to be entertaining the crowds with could have their mouth wired open and a test of concentration and excellence along the midway to see how many moth balls can his/her mouth be filled with? It is a far better thing they do then press their lips together, for when they do out poops a sound foul with lies for some poor souls last day. Win get out of the liars prisons for you or a friend or someone who wants to go home. This theft of life is what needs to stop or pay what it's worth, priceless.
cheswain's picture
I have always heard of "twin spirits" and was taught acceptance of such people as special. My mother is horrible toward the LGBT community. I see no difference in them as people. I don't bat and eye. People discriminate to distract themselves from what they should be doing in their own lives. A way to procrastinate. Some may become upset with me for printing this, but this is a Christian belief. I often walk away when someone tells me they are Christian, Mormon or Jehovah Witness. Even some of Islamic and Jewish faiths punish such people. This furthers the erasing of the Indigenous individual and our cultural beliefs. I thought this was not tolerated in our community, but I am from New York City. I am sickened when I see Caucasian people claiming they are indigenous and getting into our Government and dis-enrolling REAL natives. There is a further breakdown of this nonsense tolerance of hate that they spew everywhere throughout this Country. Our leaders need to wake from their slumber and be strong. We count on them. This is intolerable and disgusting. I can't believe I am reading this as taking place in the Indigenous community. SHAME!!!
Ani's picture
This is a beautiful and measured response to an unfair and insulting situation. I commend Terese Mailhot for her sensitivity.
Ani's picture
This is a beautiful and measured response to an unfair and insulting situation. I commend Terese Mailhot for her sensitivity.
theresapepion's picture
Keep private life private and out of the public eye. It is private, privacy, practice privacy.