A Film Review of Two Spirits
“This is the true story of a Navajo boy who was also a girl.”
Two Spirits opens with this line, introducing the Navajo concept of four genders and Fred Martinez.
To understand Fred’s circumstances, first we must understand what being two spirited means. While homosexuality and gender identities are considered more modern concepts, the Navajo have long believed in the existence of four genders. The first is the feminine woman, the second is the masculine man, the third is the male-bodied person who has a feminine essence (nadleehi), and the fourth is the female-bodied person who has a masculine essence (dilbaa). In the Navajo tradition, the latter two genders often played important roles in the community as healers and spiritual leaders, although these genders’ acceptance and their roles were mostly lost as Western influence progressed.
Two parts of the film are woven together effortlessly like the people it discusses. While half of the documentary focuses on Fred’s murder, the real issues in the film are those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and how its members are viewed in a traditional Navajo culture vs. a historical and modern Western culture. The horrible crime committed against Fred is just one example that highlights the conflicting cultural views and the potential hatred that Western culture can breed.
Fred, both his life and his murder, represents the clash of ideas and cultures. He lived as a nadleehi, but he didn’t live singularly in a Navajo culture. Instead, he had to face his peers and school administrators who were not as accepting of his identity as his family was. As the film says, he was at the crossroads of male and female, of desert (Navajo) and city (the West). Although he struggled with the negative reactions he received to the point that he attempted suicide, he came out stronger on the other side of the incident and was always proud of who he was.
The film interviews other nadleehi and dilbaa to discuss their childhood and the acceptance they often received from their more traditional family members compared with those who were more Westernized. However, Two Spirits is careful to avoid demonizing Western ideas and does not portray Navajo beliefs as perfect; instead, it tries to demonstrate what each individual faced, although Western culture is not shown in a particularly good light.
Fred’s death was a tragedy, but it brought media attention to a small group of people and, in doing so, has the potential to open the eyes of a nation. Two Spirits is an opportunity to see through a Native American perspective and to alter what has been long considered true: the dichotomy of sexuality. While the concept of four genders does tear down the wall between man and woman, it constructs walls of its own. But these walls are presented as more flexible, and the film offers a sense of hope that the present and future generations of the Navajo LGBT community will be able to continue to express the fluidity of their sexuality.
Two Spirits premieres on PBS on Tuesday, June 14.
— Brandi Redding is an editorial assistant at Social Work Today.