By A. Sebastian Fortino
“That’s who you are, what you were born into, nobody has the power to derail you from that, not even yourself,” stated Wesley Thomas, a Navajo scholar in Arizona. As a small boy he was taken to a ceremony normally attended only by women. Like Martinez’s mother Thomas’ grandmother recognized he was nadleehi.
The nadleehi were not shunned in tribal society. Rather, they were respected for having both genders within one person. They were herbalists, healers, counselors, and foster parents of orphans. They also used the gifts of both genders to serve as mediators. One notable nadleehi was We’wha, who was sent to Washington on behalf of her Zuni tribe as ambassador during the administration of Grover Cleveland. She was quite respected in the capital as well.
However fluid gender–and gender expression–is in the traditional Native American world it was met with confusion by Western colonists, clerics, and the like. Early conquistadors went so far as to throw living nadleehi to their war dogs, to be torn limb from limb.
“Western society was not comfortable with our complex gender expressions,” said Richard LaFortune an Eskimo descendant and Two Spirits activist who appeared in the film.
The repression of the two “additional” genders seems to have occurred more recently than the 1500s. The Americanization of native tribes was especially strong from the late nineteenth century through 1920s. Children–sometimes forcefully–were placed in schools by the American government. They returned home not understanding the language of their families, and ultimately cultural information was lost. As more native peoples became Christian they lost touch with core cultural elements.
The nadleehi was gradually removed from importance.