A nadleehi (nod-lay) is the Navajo word that refers to an individual who was born a male but encompasses both the male and female traits to represent a harmony between genders. Lydia Nibley’s documentary Two Spirits analyzes the importance of this traditional Navajo concept and contrasts Fred Martinez’s cultural identity to his brutal murder in June 2001.
On the outskirts of Cortez, Colorado, there is a small band of native Navajos who remain in touch with their heritage. One very prominent concept that they believe in is accepting different types of sexuality; a “nadleehi” is considered equally as important compared to a man or woman. As director Lydia Nibley describes it, “American tribes have these rich traditions where people are honored for their gender and sexual expression rather than tormented, harassed, and killed.”
Growing up, Fred Martinez quickly realized that he was attuned to both the feminine and the masculine norms and was comfortable with this realization. It was a part of him and he embraced it.
In June 2001, the boy who dreamed of going somewhere — of being on the stage, of having articles about him in People magazine — was violently beaten to death for embracing his sexuality rather than hiding from it; he was killed for his courage.
“Becoming acquainted with what happened to Fred really felt like a responsibility to tell his story because otherwise it wouldn’t be told… because he’s poor, in color, and seen as being trans,” Nibley said when asked why she decided to center her documentary on Martinez. “We felt like we had a responsibility to tell his story in a way that would make change.”
Two Spirits, which took five years to make, won the Monette-Horwitz award in 2008 for combating homophobia, and it is up for the Social Justice for Documentary award which will be presented later this week.
The film itself debuted on Saturday night and had a powerful effect on both the audience and myself. It’s a powerful documentary on an increasingly relevant subject that portrays sexuality in a unique and gripping way.
“You can talk about policy and you can talk about legal rights and you can talk about fairness but it’s stories; it’s people seeing other people’s lives from the inside that really changes other people’s perspectives,” said Nibley
One can visit twospirits.org or join the Two Spirits group on Facebook to see more information and help spread the word that, as Nibley put it, “we all have much to gain from embracing this far-more humane perspective.”
While Fred Martinez wasn’t able to realize his dreams of being on the stage or read the article in People following his murder, Two Spirits demonstrates that his life doesn’t have to end with his death.