Making the film TWO SPIRITS began when I sat with Fred’s mother at his grave and she poured out her heart to me.
The experience transformed me from someone who had very little awareness, to someone who fully embraces gender diversity, because I see how much it adds to all of our lives.The tragic story of a mother’s loss of her child to a brutal murder has challenged us to answer the question she raised, “Why are people killed for being who they are?” And learning that there was a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female, and that there is a place of honor in many Native American cultures for people across a spectrum of sexuality and gender expression, has been a gift. Read more »
Many people who have seen TWO SPIRITS want to learn more about the important historical figure We’wha (WAY-wah).
In 1886 Washington, D.C. was emerging as the metropolitan capital of a growing nation. The trauma of the Civil War was past; industrialization and urbanization were in full swing. In the West, the last Indian tribes had been defeated. America had achieved its so-called “manifest destiny.” Now it was beginning to face the consequences of rapid growth and settlement. In Washington, a new generation of young professionals was eager to tackle these problems, especially the exploration of the West and its resources, including understanding more about its vanishing native people. Prominent among these were the anthropologists Matilda Coxe Stevenson, one of America’s first women scientists, and her rival, Frank Hamilton Cushing, an eccentric young man fascinated with native people since his childhood.
Four years earlier Cushing had brought a delegation of Zuni Indians on a much-publicized tour of the eastern United States. Stevenson decided she had to keep up, and so early that year she brought a remarkable cultural ambassador to the nation’s capital.
The Zuni “princess” We’wha (WAY-wah), as the local papers dubbed her, was an instant celebrity. Throughout the spring of 1886, she mingled with politicians, government officials, politicians, and the local elite. She befriended the speaker of the house and called on his wife. She demonstrated Zuni weaving on the Mall and worked with anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution. She even appeared in a charity event at the National Theatre before an audience of senators, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and the president. Finally, in early June, she paid a personal call on President Cleveland himself.
At six feet, the Zuni “princess” was one of the tallest and, according to Stevenson, strongest members of her tribe. No one in Washington doubted that the visitor from Zuni was a woman, but, in fact, We’wha was born a man. We’wha grew up as an individual who combined male and female traits in a socially-recognized third gender role. Two-spirit people often held honored and influential positions. We’wha was an accomplished potter and weaver, and a recognized expert in Zuni religion. That such an individual could become a representative for the Zuni tribe underscores the degree to which individual differences in gender and sexuality were accepted at the time. In most tribes the ability to combine male and female skills and qualities was not viewed as a liability but as a gift. It came as no surprise to the Zunis that We’wha would travel thousands of miles, overcoming the obstacles of language and culture, to live and mingle with the leaders of a powerful nation. Someone like We’wha was expected to be extraordinary.
Read more in the book The Zuni Man-Woman by Will Roscoe, recipient of the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association and the Society of Applied Anthropology, and a Lambda Literary Award for nonfiction.
The American Library Association (ALA) has recognized TWO SPIRITS in its 2011 list of Notable Videos for Adults, a list of 15 outstanding films released on video within the past two years that make a significant contribution. Other films on the list include: Food, Inc., The Art Of The Steal, Garbage Dreams, and We Live In Public.
The ongoing success of the annual International Two-Spirit Gathering, the higher profile for Two-Spirit issues in the media, and the national and international release of the documentary film Two Spirits are raising the visibility of Two-Spirit people and their contributions to society. Many indigenous peoples recognized centuries ago the natural complexity of sexuality and gender, and have identified multiple genders and held an honored role for people now described as “LGBT” as ambassadors, healers, counselors, matchmakers, parents to orphaned children, artists, and medicine people who are seen as having special gifts to contribute to the society because of their Two-Spirit status.
Native American scholars are reclaiming ancient beliefs about gender and sexuality that are found in Native cosmology, traditions and ceremonies, and cultural stories. Unfortunately, the research conducted in scholarly circles rarely, if ever, reaches the general public or the media and therefore has not been a focal part of the public advocacy done on behalf of LGBT and Two-Spirit people. For example, in the public debate surrounding marriage rights it has been common to hear unquestioned references to “traditional” marriage without including the voices of Native people who could explain that recognized partnership between people of the same gender has been a part of traditional life on the North American continent for thousands of years. There are critically important lessons to be learned from the way many indigenous people have successfully attended to issues of gender and sexuality, and exploring these ideas will help shape more progressive and humane attitudes and behaviors.
Raising Awareness About Two-Spirit Issues
The Two-Spirit community wants to ensure that Native spirituality is included in interfaith discussions and in the dialogue around LGBT issues taking place in communities of faith. Two-Spirit leaders are working to have Native spirituality included in interfaith coalitions and in the national dialogue taking place between the LGBT community and people of faith to include nature-based cosmologies that respect the variety of ways in which human beings naturally manifest their sexuality and express a range of gender. This information is a welcome addition to the ecumenical dialogue around LGBT issues.
Native Two-Spirit people are more vulnerable to homophobic violence and also to self-inflicted violence and suicide than the general LGBT population. Native LGBT teen suicide is a particularly urgent issue, and clearly a major contributing factor is that many two-spirit youth lack a sense of connection to the inherent dignity and respect that should rightly be afforded Two-Spirit traditions and values. Many Two-Spirit people live in geographic isolation from LGBT resources and/or in cultural separation from their two-spirit traditions. Native LGBT people want to be more connected to each other, and they also want to be more involved in making a difference to LGBT equality work locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Some issues of greatest concern and where more support is needed include: violence reduction, safe schools initiatives, suicide prevention programs, LGBT equality work, religious inclusion efforts, youth at risk programs, marriage equality efforts, anti-discrimination programs in the workplace, racial equality and civil rights work, human-rights initiatives, advocacy for policy change at the local, state, and federal level.
Building On Strengths and Meeting Needs
Two-Spirit people want to be more connected to each other and to their heritage, and to be more involved in making a difference locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. For thousands of years, many indigenous cultures had traditional roles of authority and leadership for women, same sex relationships were celebrated, transgender people were respected for the contribution they made to society, and there was a place of honor in the culture for people who expressed multiple genders. On the North American continent, people from many tribal traditions have lived for thousands of years in the fully equal kind of life that present-day civil- and human-rights activists are striving to achieve for LGBT people. It is important to bring this history forward to positively influence the future.
The intersection of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and social justice is deserving of special attention by foundations and individual philanthropists. There has been a long-term lack of funding for the organizational development and capacity-building of individual Two-Spirit groups nationwide, and this lack of funding continues to weaken the Two-Spirit community’s collective ability to meet its own needs. The majority economic profile of LGBT Native people is poor or working poor and this status is unfortunately reinforced by the lack of opportunity afforded Two-Spirit people as they face discrimination in their own tribal communities and in the culture at large. It is essential that that the Two-Spirit community finally receive the funding and organizational development and capacity-building support necessary to address basic needs and to establish the ability of the community to meet its objectives of health, stability, and cultural revitalization.
The leaders and activists of the Two-Spirit movement are working to shape more progressive national attitudes toward gender and sexuality with the general public and within tribal communities. Two-Spirit people are making the most of the increased awareness generated by the film Two Spirits and other resources to build the framework for long-term development and by working with public sector partners, foundations, philanthropists, and tribal leaders. Thank you for your help in raising awareness and visibility and for sharing the information and stories that make a difference.
When Fred Martinez’s savagely beaten body was discovered in a shallow canyon on the southern edge of Cortez, Colorado, five days after he had disappeared from a rodeo carnival, news of his murder shocked and outraged friends of mine in Cortez. I also struggled to come to terms with a crime that seemed incomprehensible, particularly because I had grown up in Cortez forty years before. For me, too, the annual visit of that same traveling carnival was an event I eagerly anticipated—providing me, as it did Fred, a raucous and brightly lit glimpse into the world that lay beyond the high mountains that ring the isolated town. Yet when I returned to my hometown to help make Two Spirits, I discovered a community that no longer seems separated from the larger society, one now as multicultural and multifaceted as any American place, one where national celebrities build expensive vacation homes, but where poverty and despair remain endemic; a place where gay immigrants are welcomed and integrated readily in the community, but also where a terrible hate crime took the life of a beloved young man on a celebratory summer night.
Like the Diné—the Navajo, who believe they first entered the world through a reed high on a mountain that shadows Cortez, I entered the world there as well, although, in my case, via the rather more commonplace route. I was young in Cortez and optimistic and impatient to make my way out into the world at large, just as Fred had been. Like him, I was a teenager who was eager to fit in, yet I was similarly aware that something about who I most deeply was meant that I never could do so completely. The high school from which Fred repeatedly was sent home to put on boy’s clothes was the same school where a job-weary Army sergeant who headed the ROTC squadron long ago ordered his teenage soldiers-to-be to beat some sense into me, a wannabe hippy who wore long hair and openly argued against the war in Vietnam. Both Fred and I were regularly taunted and teased and sometimes felt the blows of our adversaries’ fists; both of us had circles of friends who, we knew, would defend us, as well a godsend teacher or two who did their best to assure us that we mattered and that high school really could be survived.
But our boyhoods differed in dramatic ways as well. I was raised in a modest red-brick, ranch-style house fourteen blocks from the trailer park where Fred and his family lived, but the distance might as well have been a world away. I had many advantages he did not, and I personally knew nothing of the racism, classism, and genderism that shaped his days. And I’m made forever uneasy when I note as well that I successfully departed Cortez, went to college, and made my way safely into middle age; by now I’ve seen much of the world he could only long to discover. My history troubles me because it stands in such sharp contrast to the reality that Fred’s life was cut outrageously short, that it came to a close in only his sixteenth summer, at the rim of a trash-littered sandstone outcrop just a quarter-mile from his home. Life doesn’t offer each of us equal destinies, of course, and a search for fairness is likely as futile as the hunt for any other absolute, yet during the making of Two Spirits, I’ve thought at length about the magnetic poles of privilege and poverty, the terrible blow of intolerance, the essential nature of the masculine and the feminine and the exquisite interplay between them that metaphorically and quite literally gives us life. I’ve wondered too about the meaning of home, about the strong and securing gift of place—that Four Corners country, in particular, which the Navajo believe is the beautiful locus of the world—as well as the vital gift of getting away from a place that feels too small to contain the life you want to live. I’ve considered as completely as I could murder’s true meaning and the violence it visits on the living as well as the deeply grieved dead, and I’ve considered whether a killing ever can be redeemed.
It was an enormous honor for me to help bring this film into being. It’s a movie that’s inextricably linked to a place I never truly can leave. I am bound to Cortez and the emotive landscape surrounding it in precisely the way a child powerfully and forever loves a parent, yet in the time since I was roughly Fred Martinez’s age, I have brought to it a dozen other emotions as well including anger with those in my hometown for whom anything “different” is somehow dangerous and probably virulently contagious as well, rage at those who twist their own deep wounds into reckless and catastrophic violence. Yet I remain enchanted by the feel and pungent aromas of the region’s ragged forests of piñon and juniper trees; I love the cliff-line of Mesa Verde gone red at almost every sunset; the certain paradise of cool summer mornings. I’m strangely buoyed by the site of men in irrigating boots leaning against the bed of a battered pickup, their important conversations sometimes virtually wordless; I’m hugely comforted by the deepening lines in the faces of people I’ve known for fifty years as well as their strong embraces; and my heart rises with a kind of solace I can’t explain when someone from far away discovers the region around Cortez and decides to stake a claim to it, making a new and true home out of the place that became home to Fred Martinez and me without our ever having chosen it.
“These things happened a long time ago,” a Navajo storyteller often will say as she begins to spin her tale, meaning, without saying so, that it magically remains as potent today as the touch of the sun on your skin. Like hers, Two Spirits tells a story that is as current as each new dawn, a tale about a remarkable—some said blessed—boy with an enchanting smile and singular ways who touched a vital place in the souls of many people. It’s a story that affirms, too, that each of us possesses—in our unique ways—both the male and female halves of the divinely mysterious whole, and that in combination they offer us the vital thing in our lives that the Diné label balance.
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The Fred Martinez Project, PFLAG Chapters in Colorado, and other friends of the film have raised funds to provide a headstone for the grave of Fred Martinez. Fred’s mother visits with such regularity that two depressions can be seen where she kneels to talk to him in Navajo and English. She leaves gifts for Fred, including the plastic key chains he liked to collect, one of which reads, Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful.