A Glimpse Into The Diné Gender System And Two Spirit People

In 2001, Diné (Navajo) teenager Fred Martinez was brutally murdered. His body was found near the sewer ponds south of Cortez, Colorado, by two young boys playing around the area. He was only 16 years old when this hate crime ended his short life. Martinez was also openly gay, labeling himself “Nádleehí-Two-Spirited.”


Nádleehí — translated in English to “one who constantly transforms” — is a gender the Diné/Navajo people have utilized to distinguish a male-bodied person with feminine nature. It is a multi-dimensional social role, not a biological identifier, that held a revered space in the community. In 2011, PBS aired a special titled Two Spirits that both commemorated the poignant life story of Martinez and revealed a traditional Diné gender system to a mainstream, heteronormative society. This was only the tip of a very complicated iceberg.


In western ideology, things tend to fall into a binary: gay or straight, male or female. These perceptions of sexuality and gender, along with all their respective expectations, are pervasive and limiting factors in our society today. We’ve witnessed tragedies such as the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting targeting queer communities. We’ve seen a nationwide boycott of Target after the company announced an inclusive transgender bathroom policy. There are boy toys and there are girl toys.


The traditional Diné gender system instead embraces a spectrum of identities. There are four basic genders: asdzààn (feminine woman), hastiin (masculine man), nádleehi and dilbaa (masculine woman). Two spirit individuals are believed to contain both feminine and masculine spirits, abilities, and perspectives. Their unique circumstances make them better suited for certain positions, such as medicine people due to their extraordinary balance between the two sexes. How and when they express these spirits vary.


It is important to note that two spirit does not translate neatly into homosexual — the label “gay” or “lesbian” falls short of nádleehí and dilbaa because it misses the important nuances of a precolonial, Indigenous dogma. These genders are in no way synonymous to biological sex or sexual roles, making the sexual preferences of the two spirited irrelevant to their identities.


It’s confusing to speak about in English words and to contextualize in a culture that for so long has erased these beliefs — even the concept of transgender identity doesn’t quite satisfy the holistic philosophy of nádleehí and dilbaa. It is a concept that spans across many Indigenous communities and nations, an immemorial ideology incorporating respect and love for those who are gifted with something extra.

With projects such as Two Spirit and Frameline’s Two Spirit People, alternative gender awareness is growing so that Indigenous people like Fred Martinez are better understood. Western society would benefit from this profound love and acceptance.

Beadwork and Ceremony

The beautiful bright purples, yellows and reds of the Nez Perce. The yellow, red, black and white of the traditional medicine wheel. The lilac and blue of the camas flowers of Kalispel art. The muted pink, teal and green of the Crow. Whether made on a loom or stitched using the single or two-needle method, Native American traditional beadwork is a sight to behold. Each artist has his or her own style and artistic flair, yet each also bears the memories, patterns and designs of grandmothers and grandfathers of generations past, and tribal designs that exist in memory ancient and perennial. Beadwork can be utilitarian – a necklace to be worn, an Eagle feather, beaded around the stem, for a graduation cap or a ceremony, a barrette to hold the hair back. Yet all these things are also ceremony, and the passion and power put into beadwork is also ceremony and craft as well as art. A woman beads dance regalia for her nephew and he dances in the traditional tribal dances of a hundred years, powwow after powwow, weekend after weekend. Another woman beads a bird, and posts it to her social media. Other people see it, and admire its beauty, her artistry, and her craft. Both men and women bead, for any number of reasons, both ceremonial and utilitarian. The art itself will always be important, but the ceremony of creating the art is equally important, and can be spiritual for those who find it so.

If you’ve always wanted to start making Native beadwork, now may be a good time. You will need a ream of thread and 11-13 size needles. You will want thick-backed, burlap-esque material from the fabric store to back your beadwork. Start by printing off a picture of what you want to bead. It’s better to start small for new beadwork artists. Then sew the piece of paper directly onto the burlap backing, trim around it, and lightly glue the edges with Elmer’s glue to prevent fraying. Using one needle, string good-quality Czech beads onto your thread, and use a second threaded needle to tack them down. Repeating this process can be soothing and peaceful, and as the design in front of you comes to life. It can, adversely, be frustrating, irritating and time-consuming, but ultimately, the practice can have relaxing and meditative qualities. 

When your beadwork is finished, take a hot glue gun and glue your piece to a brown-paper bag, iron it with the beads facing down, and cut around it. Then you can sew it onto a hat, a piece of leather, or make it into a barrette, necklace or medallion. 

Indigenous beadwork takes time to create, and that makes it all the more precious to those who wear it, whether in ceremonies or in their daily lives. 

On Skirt Shaming

Windspeaker.com recently featured commentary by Drew Hayden Taylor entitled, ‘The Shame of Skirt Shaming,

In it, readers are forced to endure the bitter tirade of a male author who seeks to shame traditional practitioners of Native ways, including elders and medicine people, for strictly adhering to centuries-old ceremonial protocol that requires women to cover themselves while participating in sacred rites passed down over millennia.

In a rather patriarchal tone, Mr. Taylor decided that he must speak for Native women who, he feels, are being inconvenienced by having to change clothes pre-sacrament. He refers to our sacred women’s teachings as “controversial” and a “dress code” of “rigid etiquette.” From his stance, “skirt shaming” is a downright epidemic and Native women should take a page from white feminists and be up in arms, rebelling against the very ceremonial circles their own grandmothers fought and died to protect.

He makes a variety of assumptions, equating covering ourselves during ceremony to assimilation, residential schools and Christianity.

In my opinion, this is assimilationist trash. For one, in order for the standpoint carry validity, it should have been written by a Native woman. Mr. Taylor is not a Native woman, nor a Two Spirit. The wearing of skirts and dresses in ceremony does not impact him directly, nor is it part of his spiritual instruction as a man.

His piece comes across as a hetero-patriarchal westerner examining traditional Native practices through a colonial lens. Also, the topic of modesty, especially in day-to-day dress, should be addressed separately from ceremonial dress. I am Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), Dakota and Lakota. I practice traditional ways. Medicine people or even random Dakota/Lakota men have never said anything negative about how I dress, and believe me, outside of ceremony, I wear whatever I want.

At Dakota/Lakota ceremonies, women who come wear skirts or dresses. If women want to come and don’t have a skirt or dress, another woman in the circle borrows her one. I’ve done it a dozen times, at least. Towels and wraps can also be worn to some ceremonies instead of a dress or skirt. I wore a towel wrapped around my waist during my name giving ceremony. For inipi (sweat lodge), I wear a skirt.

Wearing a skirt has nothing to do with patriarchy. Feminists can miss me with that. Our grandmothers wore skirts and dresses in ceremony long before Native children were stolen and placed in residential and boarding schools to kill the NDN and save the man. It’s about honoring the power of a woman. We have our own medicine, and it is stronger than any medicine that men possess. We have been given the power of creation. Within our wombs is a door to the other side.

Among my People, woman have their own ceremonies too, where men don’t even enter in. It’s about respecting our ancestors and ourselves. We also have rules about the menstrual cycle. It should also be noted that according to our belief system, women don’t have to go to sweat lodge ceremony. We have our own internal means of purification.

Men, women and children do attend sweat together sometimes these days, and being clothed is important to avoid misconduct or allegations of misconduct. If anyone tells you to enter a sweat with others while nude, run. There are fake shamans and charlatans who prey on those who are new to ceremony. In a recent piece I did for Indian Country Today Media Network, I exposed one such individual who was not only lying about being a Lakota medicine man, but also about being Native altogether. This man and his “church” have since been condemned as false by the real Native American Church, and it was also uncovered that he was involved in a prostitution ring where he used ceremony as a cover for his acolytes to turn tricks.

On a personal note I also believe there is something to be said for humility and obedience to our sacred rites and what White Buffalo Calf Woman taught. Our sacred rites and instructions were not given to us by a man, Mr. Taylor. They were entrusted to us by White Buffalo Calf Woman herself, who also wore a dress. She even vaporized a man for looking at her disrespectfully. I follow her. If I walked into a ceremony and saw people dressed inappropriately I would assume that the ancestors won’t come and I would leave.

If outsiders don’t approve of our ceremonies and refuse to keep protocol, they are welcome to leave and practice something else. Assimilationist men like Mr. Taylor who sit in judgment of traditional Native women with a condescending attitude serve as a reminder of why we are so hesitant to share our ways with others. You will not colonize and exploit our ceremonies to serve your own ego.



“#WhitePrivilegeMeans ignoring the fact that the “functional” society u built is on the blood ofslaves/stolen land.” -@TheSwallowcaust

“#WhitePrivilegeMeans not feeling obliged to speak on racism because it doesn’t apply to you.”

“#WhitePrivilegeMeans you don’t get followed around the store and randomly searched bypolice.” -@MADBLACKTWINK

While these may all be true, I can’t help but think it can mean something else… I know it can mean something else.

I know because my skin may be golden brown as I write this, but in three months I’ll be closer to snow white.

I know this because I was raised – white.

And because my Mother’s skin is white, her privilege shielded me for the first part of life. Having white privilege is seen as extremely negative – but I’ve seen the positive.

To me, #WhitePrivilegeMeans my elementary school not only listening, but apologizing when my (white) Mother stormed in and called them out for putting their only brown student (me) in every “brown” role in a school play.

#WhitePrivilegeMeans my (white) cousin yelling at someone for ridiculing a (brown) family’s use of food stamps.

#WhitePrivilegeMeans means my (white) best friend and her (white) siblings openly calling out racism at my husband’s and I’s wedding…even if it was my Grandfather’s girlfriend.

#WhitePrivilegeMeans going out of your way (as a white couple) to film (and secure outside funding) a documentary from an Indigenous perspective…when you could’ve easily made money instead.

#WhitePrivilegeMeans my childhood friend going out of his way to learn about Indigenous issues with the soul purpose of combatting ignorance.

When used correctly, #WhitePrivilegeMeans working to eradicate – white privilege.

Four Reasons Native Girls Aren’t Going to School

Native students, especially young women, are not going to school – and it’s not for the reasons you think. School administrators who are grappling with this enormous problem of absenteeism should understand two points about why Native girls are missing class. First – many of the students want to go to school. However, factors beyond their control are preventing many of them from doing so on a consistent basis.

In other words, absenteeism in the case of Native girls isn’t necessarily indicative of their disinterest, but rather, the number of obstacles preventing them from attending school on a consistent basis.

At Risk For Missing Out

Fifteen years ago the United States Department of Education identified four main risk factors conditioning children’s academic success: living in poverty, living in a single-parent family, having a mother who did not complete high school and having parents who have a primary language that is not English.

Native school-age children, both on and off reservations, typically have at least two of these risks. 27 percent of Native families live in poverty (more than double the general population’s rate of 13 percent living in poverty), and the second highest rate of single-parent homes among the country’s other races and ethnic groups. Over a quarter of families speak a Native language at home. Native students have the highest rate of absenteeism by the 8th grade, and the lowest high school graduation rate at 67 percent.

Still, risk factors are not sentences; American Indian children demonstrate the same motor and cognitive competencies at nine months as children from other racial/ethnic backgrounds. By two years of age there is a small gap, and by age four an observable discrepancy in a Native child’s mathematical (counting, shapes, patterns, operations) and literacy skills (letter recognition, phonetics, early reading). Native students start from the same academic playing field, and early intervention is key to keeping their skills on par with their peers.

So what’s keeping girls from getting to school?

Can’t Get a Ride

Lack of reliable transportation is a significant obstacle impeding a student’s ability to get to class on time, if at all. If the family does own a functioning vehicle, it is often shared among the household. The person or persons using the vehicle to commute to jobs are prioritized and if this schedule conflicts with the student’s transportation needs, the need for a paycheck wins. Girls are sometimes told to stay home and babysit younger siblings while the parent is at work.

Even if the family does own a vehicle with the intention of bringing their children to school, it might be old, malfunctioning and unreliable. The alternative is public transportation. But these schedules can also be erratic, and more importantly, often the bus, subway and light rail stops are still some ways from the house. If you can’t even get to the bus, how can you ride it to school?

Oh, and that’s assuming the community has a public transportation system. Students living in rural areas do not have this option at all.

Access to Learning Tools

Students are also skipping school because they cannot complete assignments. Instructional technology has evolved significantly, such that computers, tablets and even smartphones are now part of students’ learning process. But what happens when you don’t have one or more of these devices in your home? Only 78 percent of 8th grade American Indian students in public school have access to computers at home, the lowest rate of any racial/ethnic group.

And while schools and libraries offer computers, tablets and other learning devices, these tools are often shared among multiple persons with time limits, and this assumes the student can commute to the facility to use them.

Perhaps more important than learning technology, there is also a need for improved recruiting and retaining skilled educators. Schools with large Native student populations have a difficult time finding and keeping talented teachers due to lack of resources, remote locations and challenging working conditions.

Additionally, teachers of Native students need an increased training in integrating Native languages and cultures in the classroom. When students come from homes where the primary language is not English, parents and other community members are less able to assist students at home with their schoolwork.

Parental involvement is one of the predictors for a child’s academic success, and the cultural barrier precluding their direct participation is a considerable obstacle. If the adults in the house are not engaging with the student and the learning material as well, they are less likely to prioritize helping their students with reliable transportation to school; access to learning tools, devices and facilities; and with homework assistance and tutoring.

A Monthly Obstacle

One in three American Indian children live in poverty. For women and girls, sometimes this means that feminine hygiene products are prohibitively expensive. The average age for girls to begin menstruating is 12, but it is becoming more common for some to start before the age of 10. Tampons and pads are not covered by food stamps. Considering that a box of 36 tampons costs around $7, and a girl needs at least a box to get through one cycle, that’s over $80 a year for supplies. That is for just one person, so if there are multiple females in the home the cost doubles or triples.

And this does not include the cost of other supplies that might be essential for managing a menstrual cycle: pads, panty liners, OTC medication for cramps and new underwear or clothing to replace stained items.

Some girls are not making it to school every single month because they do not have the supplies to manage their period in a private and sanitary way, or they are unable to afford medicine to deal with cramping, headaches and body pains.

Health, Wellness, and Family Support

The issue of students missing school is also related to a stable home life.

Are they moving often, or in danger of being forced to leave their home? If not, is their home in a safe location, proximate to the school and has a space conducive to studying?

Is the family struggling to eat? When money is scarce, so is food. Lack of adequate nutrition makes it difficult for students to concentrate in class and vulnerable to illness, causing them to miss school.

Does the student feel safe in her home? Is she or any of her family members addicted to one or more substances?

Single-parent families where the mother is not a high school graduate are a double predictor for students struggling in school – and especially for their daughters. Native women have the highest birth rate for ages 15-24. The lack of sex education and reliable healthcare means young women are at risk for engaging in sexual activity, becoming pregnant and not being given a variety of options about how to proceed next. Then they watch the same thing happen again with their daughters.

The First Step

Encouragingly, recent reports show that the number of Native students going to college has doubled in the past 30 years, with tribes controlling more than 32 higher learning institutions in the country. Many students are choosing to major in business, followed by education.

Native girls are not going to school because they can’t cut it in the classroom (they can) or they don’t want to be there (they do). If we want to see young women graduate from high school and have the option of enrolling in college, we need to make it a priority to get girls to class from the youngest age.

Transportation can be solved with carpools, while lobbying school boards for bus services or subsidizing public transportation costs. Increased funding is needed to equip classrooms with enough learning tools and devices for students to use – and ideally take home to work with. Schools can connect with an established organization or start their own drives to collect and circulate feminine hygiene products to the students who cannot afford them. There are now several grassroots efforts to connect women and girls with the feminine hygiene products they need, including The Period Project and Tampon Tuesday.

Most importantly, schools need to have either in-house or a close partnership with family support services offering assistance with housing, food, substance abuse counseling and college and career training.

Let’s help our girls get to school – they are smart enough, talented enough and hardworking enough to succeed once there.

Fuck Your Disenrollment Bullshit

In 2011, my uncle, aunt and two cousins were disenrolled from the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe by an apparent majority vote after a year-and-a-half of politically motivated votes, debates, arguments and Council after Council meeting. It is all on film, one relative after the next defending or objecting to my uncle’s, and by proximity, his children’s tribal membership. 

The story is not uncommon. My grandfather, enrolled, fell in love with a young Native American woman with a baby in her arms and adopted the child, my uncle, putting his own name on the birth certificate. It was long past my grandfather’s death before my uncle learned of his biological parentage, and in a quest to learn of his identity as an Indigenous man, he sought to find the man who was his birth father. So doing upped his blood quantum from fifty to nearly three-quarters percent, and blood quantum math matters when people begin to speak of disenrollment. On the logs as a naturalized member of the tribe, and recognized by the Elders and Ancestors as such, my uncle served as Vice Chair of the General Council for more than 20 years, bringing in businesses, raising his children among the gooseberry bushes as Shoalwater Bay Indians, on the cul-de-sac of Shoalwater Bay Drive, where he had lived his whole life.

Then it happened. My uncle was blindsided in a weekly Council meeting. Someone said, “We need to talk about this. And it’s awkward. But it has to happen. He is not Shoalwater Bay.” 

Disenrollment is not an issue that plagues the Shoalwater Bay Tribe only. From coast to coast, disenrollement of members, both living and dead, has left Tribal Members feeling shaky and uncomfortable. Who gets to decide who is Tribal and who is not? Is it a matter of logs, paperwork, blood math that can be brought up at any moment by a disgruntled family in power when another family’s political position makes them unhappy? Or is it truly a move for sovereignty? In Washington state, 306 members of the Nooksack tribe were faced with disenrollment, apparently for being unable to prove their ancestry. They were informed of this over a letter, and given almost no recourse, but they continue to protest to this day. “Tribal membership completes the circle for the member’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of human life,” one court stated, as referenced in the Highland Times. For many Indigenous people, our health benefits depend upon our Tribal Membership. For others who live directly on the reservation, our ability to stay in our very homes is on the line. 

My tribe voted to disenroll my uncle, two cousins and aunt, and immediately, those who met blood quantum requirements offered to adopt them back in. This effectively unseated my uncle from his position as Vice Chair of the tribe and so sickened him due to the years of ostracization and vicious personal attacks that he chose instead to move across the state.

When my aunt, who was 16 at the time, was disenrolled, she lived far from the reservation, though she had visited and sold fireworks there her whole life. She told me tribal membership was like having access to an online website she never used. Useful, but ultimately worthless. Indeed, it can feel worthless when a tribe is so willing to part with its future nation-builders.

Sherman Alexie summed up the entire situation in one tweet, refusing to parse words. He took a selfie, middle finger high, and held up a post-it note.

“Fuck your disenrollment bullshit,” it read.


Racism Can Cause PTSD

When I was twenty years old on the rez, my cousin, with his long hair and deep brown skin, told me about the wristbands he always wore. They were the rubber jelly kind to raise awareness for Lance Armstrong’s foundation or other such things. He never took them off. Then one day, they broke off. How, I asked. Oh, the handcuffs, he told me, the handcuffs were too tight on my hands. He went on to tell me about being shoved into the back of a cop car and beaten, brutally, savagely, while restrained. He fought back, but they had to drop the charges, he told me. Still, he missed those bracelets.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an increasingly common mental health difficulty that can be faced by soldiers returning from war, battered women and individuals who have experienced mental, physical or verbal assault or abuse as children or adults. An experience of racism like my cousin’s could also cause PTSD. But under changing definitions of the disorder, we are learning that more subtle racism can also cause the same symptoms and therefore be classified as PTSD. 

Under the previous definitions of PTSD, one specific, or many concurrent localized events of fear, gripping horror or trauma were required to have occurred in order to be diagnosed. The definition now removes the localized event, allowing for broader experiences of subtle racism to be actualized in something not unlike the “battle fatigue” a soldier endures, causing anxiety, stress and, yes, PTSD. Dr. Jose Soto puts it like this: “While the term [racial battle fatigue] is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments.” 

This brings to mind the many articles, memes and social media posts about growing up Black. Black children are taught differently than white children. They are taught to walk a certain way, to be meeker to authority figures, to speak in a dialect that may not be their own in order to be perceived by a White Supremacist society as being non-threatening, and even this so-called “respectability” is not enough to save them. Tamir Rice was a child playing with a toy gun. Trayvon Martin was a boy walking home with Skittles in his bag. Even if you don’t experience this racism head-on, witnessing it around you, and being in fear for your life when you go to the grocery store, is a form of PTSD. It is no different for Native Americans like my cousin or myself. If you are constantly faced with racism on a daily or near-daily basis, you can become so worn down that PTSD is not too strong a term for the mental health pain that you suffer.