Lydia Nibley's "Two Spirits"
November 10, 2011 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Fred Martinez was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture. He was one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at 16. Two Spirits explores the life and death of this boy who was also a girl, and the essentially spiritual nature of gender. (previously)
posted by Trurl (14 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Folks interested in this (which I read about in undergrad referred to as berdache tradition) [link to random lecture notes via Google] might enjoy Indians in Overalls, a somewhat eccentric ethnography by a somewhat eccentric anthropologist , Jaime De Angulo.

You can sample his style via a PDF of his short piece Achumwai Sketches (pub. 1974) -- not directly Berdache related.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:46 PM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also see this 1991 documentary Two Spirit People, on the web thanks to distributor Frameline.
posted by Theta States at 7:06 PM on November 10, 2011

Is there a way to watch this online?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:35 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Man, I have been doing so much reading this semester on how two-spirited/androgyne/transgendered/intersex individuals present such a huge challenge to feminisms that are trying to structure themselves around gender as a stable identity. The indigenous tradition of two-spirited people can be seen as part of that challenge.
posted by hepta at 7:39 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw this on PBS a few months ago, right around the time the media was talking about the tragic case of Kirk Murphy, and I was really struck by how differently these children were treated by their respective cultures.
posted by homunculus at 7:46 PM on November 10, 2011

That documentary was on PBS a couple months ago; I really appreciated it. It's fairly depressing, but enlightening. It's still on the DVR, and it's tempting to watch it again, but with the Transgender Day of Remembrance coming up, it might all be too much.

FYI, snuffleupagus, "berdache" is a pretty problematic term to use. Two-spirit is generally considered the best term to use if you're going to lump all these Native American traditions into one basket. (And wow, is that reading problematic. "Berdaches 'gradually became women,' which underscores the notion of woman as a social category rather than as a fixed biological entity." Excessive concern with 'biology', labeling two-spirit people as male, putting their gender identities in scare quotes because the author disagrees with them... yeesh.)
posted by jiawen at 8:00 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

@odinsdream - I don't have my syllabus here at home but what has made the biggest impact on me so far is Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble" (1990 book) which aims to trouble the notion of gender as a stable essential category around which feminism is organized. Articles such as Linda Alcoff's "Cultural Feminism vs. Poststructuralism: The New Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory" also delves into the differences between feminism that essentializes women as their gender and feminism that tries to take a more inclusive and critical approach. I am actually currently writing on how this essentialist vs deconstructionist divide is present in both the feminist and gay and lesbian social movements.

One of my profs has also written on feminism and the transgender movement in articles such as "Critical Identities: Rethinking Feminism Through Transgender Politics", from Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal Special Issue on "Sexualities and Feminisms Fall 1998 (by Eleanor MacDonald).
posted by hepta at 8:06 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A major part of colonization was forcing this huge variety of cultures into a Christian male/female marriage framework, and it took a lot of work. I like James C. Scott's description of this process of erasing difference as enforcing "legibility"; for the state-maker, keeping track of 100+ different notions of what constitutes a gender or a relationship or family or property or community (etcetera) was just a non-starter (especially when you had to manually write all this shit down in a book), so conformity was the name of the game. Not only did a lot of indigenous cultures have a broader sense of gender categories, they also had very different styles of long-term relationships; pair-bonding was often not for life, and could be terminated in a non-negative sense, or simply lacked monogamy as part of the obligation. Often women had a great deal of autonomy, which was foreign to Europeans in the 18th century to say the least. It's incredible how quickly European explorers identified this stuff as a threat and came up with trading strategies to disable it: eg. by refusing to trade with anyone who wasn't obviously male, they rendered those outside of that gender category dependent on men, in a forced doubling of their own culture.

Fascinating stuff.
posted by mek at 8:18 PM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Currently-running UK show My Transsexual Summer (which is actually pretty good, despite the inevitable niggles I and every other trans person in the universe have with the editing and such) features a trans guy who describes himself as two-spirit, although from talk of the participants outside the show I believe it doesn't really get into it; apparently the most interesting (from a non-trans101 POV) conversations didn't make the cut.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 9:55 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not only did a lot of indigenous cultures have a broader sense of gender categories, they also had very different styles of long-term relationships; pair-bonding was often not for life, and could be terminated in a non-negative sense, or simply lacked monogamy as part of the obligation.

A long time ago I read something along these lines, but can't for the life of me remember where. Mek, do you have any titles to recommend? Both for gener categories and for relationships in indigenous cultures.

Thanks, and thank you Trurl for this post - what a fascinating concept to discover.
posted by miorita at 3:11 AM on November 11, 2011

Regarding the European colonial influence - much of it voluntary and calculated, yes - on Native American views of gender and kinship, one of the best books I've read has been Karen Anderson's Chain Her By One Foot: The Subjugation of Women in Seventeenth-Century New France. It focuses on the French Jesuit influence on Huron and Montagnais cultures over a very short period of time (several decades). It's interesting (in a terrible way) because in their particular case, other outside influences, from warring tribes, food shortages, disease, et cetera, accelerated the effects. It's like looking at a distilled, focused portrait of what went on over longer periods, more gradually and insidiously for other Native American tribes. It does posit "men" and "women" as separate genders since that's precisely what the European influence aimed to do, notwithstanding a non-binary view of gender within the tribes.

It's also important to keep in mind that though there was great destruction, there is also survival. For instance, Iroquois (Six Nations) tribe artwork, when you can find it, is incredibly mind-opening. The basis of their worldview is inclusive, and this gives rise to an incredibly rich expression of diversity and oneness... that's the best, though admittedly weak summary I can give. Check Iroquois museums, works are really best viewed in person (many play on the volumes of longhouse forms, which are a worldview symbol unto themselves), with the appropriate context to help comprehend.
posted by fraula at 5:31 AM on November 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Indians in Overalls, a somewhat eccentric ethnography by a somewhat eccentric anthropologist , Jaime De Angulo

Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were both huge fans of his recastings of native folklore.

The story goes that someone asked Pound how to become a writer and he replied, "Read Indian Tales by Jaime De Angulo. That is how."
posted by Trurl at 6:26 AM on November 11, 2011

I have a good friend, Qwo-Li Driskill, who is Two-Spirit and has done a lot of scholarly work on the subject.

S/he has two new edited collections just out on the subject. Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature is a collection of scholarly essays, and Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two Spirit Literature is creative writing. I have the first one but haven't gotten the second one yet.
posted by Tesseractive at 7:44 AM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

At risk of annoying those here who liked it, I saw this documentary a few months ago and thought it stood out as one of the weakest in recent memory (I watch a lot of docs).

I'm on board with the whole concept of sexuality being a continuum, and the specifics of the Navajo case are tragic indeed. Just didn't think this doc was the bees knees.
posted by intermod at 10:05 PM on November 11, 2011

« Older Purity tests - just how pure are you?   |   Hell, Grover can't kill ya. He can't burn down... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments