An Ever Changing One: ‘Two Spirit’ Limitations

One of the things I probably have not thoroughly discussed since I have had this blog is my English “gender identity”. I emphasize ‘English’ because there is a specific cultural, spiritual, socio-political identity within Diné ontologies that I am perceived and that I identified with. As I have shared in a past blog post, my Diné ancestors would tell me that I am nádleeh, which roughly translate in English to ‘changing one’, or ‘one that is constantly changing’. This is a specific cultural identity within Diné ontologies. 

Within the English language, I identify as a non-binary person, who uses they/them English pronouns. For those who may not know what that means, I do not identify as a man or womxn within the English language.

I use the neutral or inclusive English pronouns they/them because, and I would argue this very strongly, Diné bizaad (the language of the Navajo) does not use possessive pronouns as they are expressed in English. The Diné  language uses more possessive indicators/references than pronouns. 

A prime example of this, imagine that there is a boy, named Nez, who uses he/him pronouns in English. When referring to Nez’s mother, it would translate to Nez bimá – which translates to Nez’s mother. ‘Bí’ is the possessive indicator. In English, it roughly translates to his, hers, or even they, depending on the person’s perceived and known social position. 

Historically, it has been detailed by many anthropologists studying Diné people about what the changing ones mean. There have been many misconceptions and (mis)representations of this community, yet were cleared up by an attempt of Dr. Wesley Thomas in his doctoral thesis, Gendering Navajo Bodies: A Personal, Political, and Philosophical Treatise (1999). Dr. Thomas advocated that there is a social context of ‘gender’ conceptions within Diné philosophy, and provided a four English translated gender system (that unfortunately still operated under a settler colonial logic): Asdzáán (womxn), Hastiin (men), Nádleeh (male-bodied womxn), Dilbah (female-bodied men). 

The limitations of these descriptors are that describing concepts of ‘gender’ in English have been catered to a settler colonial understanding. Through their translation, they have been implicated in reinforcing the limited Western understandings of ‘gender’. I have not read the entirety of Dr. Thomas thesis, yet the lack of providing the social responsibilities of these specific cultural socio-political positions negates the complexity that is integral to Diné ontologies. 

There have been attempts to challenge settler colonial logics of ‘gender’ through the creation of ‘two-spirit’.  The phrase originates from a 1990 summer gathering of Native lesbians, bisexuals, gays, trans, queers, etc. The intention behind ‘two-spirit’ was a means of unifying various ‘gender’ identities and expressions of Native/Indigenous folx. It was not to be a specific definition of ‘gender’ and/or sexuality, rather it was a meant to be a pan-Native term to communicate identities that were erased, demonized, and/or ignored historically and presently among Native communities. 

In the 2009 film Two Spirits, the phrase ‘two-spirit’ was explained that non-Natives who encounter Native knowledge(s) did not have the capacity to understand Indigenous complexity because they lack the cultural knowledge. ‘Two-spirit’ was coined to communicate the complexity.

Wesley Thomas (1999) wrote that the current usage of ‘two-spirit’ encompasses a wide range of ‘gender’ diversity within and across Native communities, while also incorporating Western notions of sexuality and ‘gender’ identity. This continues today. 

The unfortunate reality is that despite the decolonial effort of ‘two-spirit’, the phrase operated within a binary of gender (Man & Womxn, boy & girl, feminine & masculine), and negated ‘gender’ identities such as gender non-conforming, non-binary, and agender

I myself do not identify as ‘two-spirit’ because of the limitations of such an identity that I perceive. It does not adequately describe who I am, or my ‘changing ones’ community. Personally, ‘two-spirit’ erases the essence of what it means to claim the ‘changing one’ identity. ‘Two-spirit’ emphasizes and privileges the gender-binary, and reinforces transphobia and the violence against gender non-conforming, non-binary, and agender Natives in nuanced ways. 

It is important to be cautious when ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ become conflated into a singular identity. Yet, I recognize the empowerment from a conflation, because it showcases the innate complexity of Native ontologies. The limits of colonial thoughts are its commitment to simplifying identity and compartmentalizing conceptions of selves. 

All of this is not the fault of natives. Yet, it is important to disrupt continual erasure of GNC, non-binary, and agender folx, as well as the simplification of what it means to be a ‘changing one’ in the 21st century. 

Which is probably what stumps me the most, envisioning a liberatory Indigenous future requires that I ask myself of where will I be in this future? In considering the continual erasure and violence against trans, GNC, non-binary, agender, and/or ‘changing one’ identifying folx, is there even a space for us in this future?

The knowledge(s) of being an Indigenous GNC, non-binary, and agender were violently silenced and erased from our ancestral stories and histories. Even speaking of identifying as a changing one is tabooed for the stories of this community are on the brink of forgottenness. 

There is a lot of reclaiming and re-discovering of what it means to be GNC, non-binary, agender. To add a complex identity such as sexuality onto that definition makes the corn pollen path difficult. 

The stories of who we are as people and as individuals are not as widely told, shared, or even listened to as they used to be.

The very question of what it means to be a Diné in the 21st century is a complex and almost impossible question to answer, because of the plethora of social and cultural boundaries and damages that have been cultivated the past 500+ years. 

Like any other cultural specific identity within the Diné sense of selves, there are political and social responsibilities and specific tasks that one must complete to be able to claim such identities. There are ceremonies that need to be done, stories to be shared, and voices to be heard. 

Native/Indigenous aesthetic(s) must go beyond settler colonial understandings of selves. It requires the active reclamation of identities and social responsibilities denied to us. 

It has taken me a year to recognize and accept that I am a creation of divinity and mortality, a sacred being whose identity is fluid or even non-existent. Reclamation and restoration of denied identities are an untapped source of empowerment and strength that I only hope shifts the conversations in ‘gender’ identities and sexuality for Natives.  

Self-portrait. A Diné person gazing to the northeast, taken March 2017.

In my body resides a tale as old as time. 
Inscripted and encoded between a path of two.
Neither male nor female. 
I exist in the divided middle. – It’s Not Enough by Charlie Scott (2017)

P.S. I have an entire Twitter thread of notable lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, & two-spirit Native folx. Check it out. 

Leave a Reply