Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Two Spirits


From the Twentieth Anniversary Issue of White Crane:

A Dialogue With Filmmaker Lydia Nibley

About The Documentary Two Spirits

The eagerly awaited documentary Two Spirits premiered at the Denver Film Festival in November 2009 and is rolling out to film festivals worldwide, with broadcast, educational distribution, and release on DVD to follow. The film interweaves the tragic story of a mother's loss of her son with a revealing look at the largely unknown history of a time when the world wasn't simply divided into male and female and many Native cultures held places of honor for people of integrated genders.

Fred Martinez was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature—a special gift according to his traditional Navajo culture. He was one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at sixteen by a young man who bragged to friends that he had "bug-smashed a fag." Two Spirits explores the life and death of a boy who was also a girl and the essentially spiritual nature of gender and sexuality. The film makes the case that in the twenty-first century we need to return to traditional values.

White Crane recently interviewed Two Spirit director Lydia Nibley.

White Crane: What drew you to connect two-spirit history and the story of the murder of Fred Martinez?

Lydia Nibley: When I spoke to Fred Martinez's mother in the depths of her grief and she asked, "Why are people killed for being who they are?" I was haunted by that question and the challenge of answering it, or at least looking at it as deeply as I could. The fear of "the other" is so much a part of the discussion of sexuality and gender in this culture, and I hope that Two Spirits provides support to people of goodwill who are fighting the culture war in the trenches—in their own families, schools, congregations, and at work. Fred's mother knew just enough about the Navajo nádleeh tradition to tell him that at one time there had been a place of honor for someone like him, but she didn't know more and couldn't set him on the path to understanding the cultural heritage of his own identity.

White Crane: Many of our readers know that the term "two-spirit" was created by Native activists to describe, in English, the spectrum of gender and sexual expression that are more nuanced in their own languages. How does Navajo belief in particular fit into the narrative of the film?

Lydia Nibley: In Navajo culture, features of the natural world are genderized. High-peaked mountains are masculine, undulating hills are feminine, and so on. The Navajo creation story explains that both the feminine and masculine were created at the same time, with primacy given to the feminine, but with the understanding that to maintain harmony there must be a balanced interrelationship between the feminine and the masculine within the individual, in families, in the culture, and in the natural world. That's a profound difference from the dominant interpretation of the Judeo-Christian view, which has led to genocide, the forced imposition of religion, and other kinds of subjugation that have resulted in many tribal communities very nearly losing touch with their two-spirit traditions. The Navajo have four genders—feminine woman, masculine man, nádleehí, which is a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, and dilbaá—a female-bodied person with a masculine nature. I want the film to be experienced as a sort of intellectual and emotional release from binary notions of gender, so that the audience can imagine what it would be like to simply accept people as they naturally show up in the world—along a spectrum of gender and sexuality. Wesley Thomas, the foremost Navajo authority on third gender—and a nádleehí himself—says in the film, "We're all human, we're all the five-fingered people."

White Crane: Wesley Thomas has been published in this journal, as has Mark Thompson, who also appears in Two Spirits.

Lydia Nibley: Mark does a great job of explaining the connection between Harry Hay's years living among the Navajo and Pueblo peoples, and studying their teachings about sexuality and gender as part of the emergence of the gay spirituality movement. It was very important to send a clear signal that two-spirit people encourage everyone to know and value the Native traditions of this continent, but they also want everyone to explore their own history. Mark Thompson describes the Mattachine history in Europe in the Middle Ages as one example of a similar cultural tradition. Native LGBT people don't want to see their culture appropriated by non-native people running around calling themselves "two-spirit. " And of course, it's fascinating that the gay rights movement has been very empowering to two-spirit people in reclaiming their rightful place in their tribal communities. I'm interested in the handoff between cultures and how many people gravitate toward an expression of traditions that are sane and humane, and reject those that are not. I'm also interested in the way we create new rituals when what we need is lacking in our own cultural or spiritual heritage. We've got to approach gender and sexuality from a more sophisticated perspective in this culture, achieve full equality for LGBT people immediately, and shore up those rights so that they can't be lost in the future.

White Crane: Is that why you made Two Spirits, to try and contribute something to that discussion?

Lydia Nibley: My husband and co-writing and co-producing partner Russell Martin and I are both fascinated by cultural and religious ideas about the masculine and the feminine. We're also often disappointed by the discussion of gender and sexuality in the mainstream media. The focus is frequently to cynically use sex to sell the worst sort of superficiality, or a giggling adolescent sort of titillation rather than a meaningful adult exploration. Or even worse, the Puritan anti-sexual and patriarchal roots of this culture can suffuse things so much you can practically smell the fear behind a discussion of sexuality and gender. But these are some of the most complex and interesting things life throws at all of us. And of course, spirituality can be richly entwined in any personal, coupled, or societal exploration of that fecund part of life. We wanted to make a film that could help shift attitudes and reshape beliefs and add one more reasoned argument for gender and sexual equality.

White Crane: Two-spirit activist Richard LaFortune says in the film, "The place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to be." Is the two-spirit population particularly vulnerable to homophobic and racial violence and also to self-inflicted violence and suicide?

Lydia Nibley: Sadly, yes. And Native LGBT teen suicide is a particularly urgent issue. 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, but they don't know about this heritage and don't feel a sense of empowerment or pride. In many cases, families are so acculturated to western "values" that they've rejected their own children. Fred's mother is an exception in many ways. She tried to give Fred a powerful sense of himself and she stood up to her family when they told her to get Fred in line, because he was bringing shame on the family in way he dressed and expressed himself. In Two Spirits, Fred survives a suicide attempt at a time when he was in the depths of despair, thinking people hated him. After that he flourished and became a person who could express himself fully. Tragically, he was murdered shortly after this transformation, when he was just sixteen.

White Crane: Very few people understand, and of course most people in the media don't understand either, that many indigenous peoples have complex gender systems that can provide an anchoring sense of purpose to someone like Fred.

Yes, and two-spirit people have played important roles historically as ambassadors and negotiators, matchmakers, counselors, healers, and people who have been seen as contributing to their communities not in spite of, but because they could represent multiple points of view and from a more nuanced perspective.

White Crane: How did you go about researching material in the film?

Lydia Nibley: It began for me with a quote I haven't been able to find again. I think it was Jung, and what I remember is something like, "At some point Western culture will have to approach the masculine and feminine with much more sophistication because this is desperately needed, but it probably won't happen in my lifetime." I hope to stumble across that dog-eared page again, because it made me realize that it will take many more lifetimes unless we insist that the time for this work is now. And of course, the writings of Wesley Thomas were very important, including his soon-to-be-publishe d book Navajo Third Gender, and also Will Roscoe's seminal book Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. For the sake of masculine-feminine balance, perhaps we should say that Wesley and Will's works are both seminal and ovarian. They're both friends, so they won't mind a gender tease.

White Crane: What's next for Two Spirits?

Now that the film is finished, my focus will shift to making sure it is seen by many different kinds of audiences. I think the dual responsibility of a filmmaker with a project like Two Spirits is to make the best and most artistic film possible with the resources available, and also to ensure that the film accomplishes its work in the world. Over fifty non-profit, education, religious and governmental organizations have signed up as outreach partners, but, of course, that just makes a dent in the places where the messages of the film are needed. The partners in the project are working to raise more money to expand the education and outreach aspects of the work, so that the film can be used more widely throughout the U.S. and Canada and throughout the world. There's a great deal of interest in Europe right now and I'm hopeful that the film will have a long life and that we'll succeed in reaching large audiences.

White Crane Readers are invited to watch the Two Spirits trailer and track opportunities to view the film at www.twospirits.org

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