Kayla Shaggy

Diné and Annishinabe, Artist

My name is Kayla Shaggy and I’m a Two Spirit person of Diné and Annishinabe heritage. It’s Pride month and I would like to talk about a subject dear to me: Two Spirit people within Diné culture.

Within the Diné language, the term would be Nadleehi. A Nadleehi is a person of both masculine and feminine energy, hence the rough English term, Two Spirit. Nadleehi have been around since the formation of Diné culture, and our presence and creation are mentioned in the origin story.

Nadleehi can present as either male, female, or neither. Sometimes a Nadleehi person would be trans, as in, denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

However, colonization and forced assimilation have destroyed and erased much of Nadleehi culture, stories, and history. The boarding school era, in particular, prevented Nadleehi children from presenting and living the way they wanted to, as Western, Christian culture demanded and enforced a strict gender binary.

You were either a man or a woman. Any resistance would be met with physical abuse. I suspect that many Nadleehi elders who could be alive today are gone due to the intentional violence of boarding schools.

In modern times of today, I see the effects of assimilation and the boarding schools: I see Diné people who are trans, nonbinary, or Nadleehi—bullied and ostracized by fellow Diné.

Growing up, I would hear relatives mock and misgender relatives that were trans, refusing to use their pronouns. At school, I would work very hard to present as a “normal girl”, in fear that I would be labeled a slur or called gay.

If I presented any masculine qualities, I would be misgendered and called a guy by people who thought I wasn’t performing the “female role” correctly. I would sometimes be beaten by the boys in class and called “it” because I didn’t “act like a girl.” The bullying would not end until I had left for an out-of-state college.

While I understand that many Diné people think that being gay is “a white man thing”, the truth is that gender non-conforming people have been an integral part of Diné history. Nadleehi would work as mediators, leaders, perform both masculine and feminine roles and actions to help their communities.

The origin story states that the Nadleehi were created by the Holy People in order to help bring the men and women together who, at the time in the story, were separated. The Nadleehi were successful, and since then, have been a part of Diné culture. This section of the origin story is often omitted or ignored because it doesn’t fit in with the conservative Diné crowd that wants only certain parts of our traditional stories kept and circulated.

I understand that assimilation and having the Christian doctrine forced on our people was out of our control, but I don’t understand why Diné people continue to uphold and spread the idea that gender non-conforming Diné never existed, and, worse, are a “bad thing.”

I have read of instances in the past where, when a Nadleehi was born into a family, a celebration involving other families would be held, as having a Nadleehi child was considered to be a great event. Then, in modern times, I see LGBTQ2S Diné and Nadleehi people today who were kicked out of their families, bullied viciously, or in the case of Fred C. Martinez, murdered.

I would not learn any of this until I went to college and started researching Nadleehi and other tribes that had Two Spirit people. When I first read about Fred C. Martinez and what happened to her, I wept. She was accepted by the matriarchs and women in her family as Nadleehi, yet would be bullied at school and sent home by officials for “wearing feminine clothing.”

Her life would come to a tragic end when she went to a party and left with Shaun Murphy. Her body would be found a week later and it was never charged as a hate crime.

Martinez’ case happened in 2001, when I was roughly 6-years-old. I would not come into my own identity as Nadleehi until I was in college in 2013, at 19-years-old. Martinez died at the incredibly young age of 16, and I sometimes think what could’ve happened if she had lived. She could have been a Nadleehi elder to many.

She would have been 36-years-old this year if she wasn’t murdered for being herself. If one wants to learn more about Martinez, there’s a PBS documentary, “Two Spirits” you can watch.

I would like to think things have changed since then, for Nadleehi and Two Spirit people, but there are times I encounter hatred and ignorance from people of my own tribe and other Indigenous people.

A week ago I received a message from an Indigenous man who had read my other Op-Ed piece, calling me “retarded” and a “liar” for saying I was Two Spirit. It was less inflammatory than the hateful statements I’ve heard in my life, but it made me think about how the Diné people still have such a long way to go to support the Nadleehi community.

(Related: The monster that lurks in Indian Country: Anti-Blackness - By Kayla Shaggy)

Nadleehi are beautiful, creative people, so full of love and support for their Diné people that they go through the abuse and hate flung their way because to be Nadleehi means to help your community.

And they shouldn’t have to go through that abuse and hate at all, and by no means am I saying that it's a virtue to do so. To support the Nadleehi in your life is to help eradicate hate in your community as well as dismantling colonial violence. To know a Nadleehi person is a gift, and to have a child that could be gender non-conforming is a blessing.

As a Nadleehi person myself, I hope you learned more about us from this piece, and that you go out of your way to learn more. As Nadleehi, we know our identity is not just our presentation or gender, it's one of a ceremonial role where we help our communities. I can only hope that Nadleehi, and other Two Spirit people from other tribes, will be recognized and accepted into modern Indigenous society fully.

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