Directed by Lydia Nibley
Say Yes Quickly Productions
Running time: 64 minutes.
Reviewed by Bo Young
A 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.
And 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 Dictionary 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.”
But 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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