Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality

In Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality, Wesley Thomas discusses Navajo gender systems, gender adaptations, relationships, and politics of location.

To begin, Thomas explains multiple genders as part of the norm in Navajo culture before the 1890s. Following this time, exposure to pressures from Western culture and the imposition of Christianity caused individuals who deviated from Christians norms to be discrete about their identities. The acculturation and assimilation of the past still cause pressure to persist today.

Navajo culture recognizes five genders:

1. Woman: the primacy gender of the Navajo is asdzaan, meaning woman. The female gender is primary in Navajo origin stories, and it is considered to be the most important gender.

2. Man: the next gender is hastiin (man).

3. Nadleeh: the third gender category is nadleeh/hermaphrodite. Nadleeh is a Navajo term, and hermaphrodite is a Western medical term. Western definitions of hermaphrodites have been applied to Nadleeh. The Navajo view nadleeh as individuals who demonstrate characteristics of the opposite gender. Individuals who identify as nadleeh are further classified as female-bodied nadleeh or male-bodied nadleeh. The third gender category of nadleeh reflects the Navajo tradition of accepting gender diversity and rejecting the concept of gender dysphoria or a dyadic system of gender.

4. Masculine female: the fourth gender category is masculine female, or female-bodied nadleeh. Navajo culture views masculine females separate from other female-bodied people because their role in society is difference from primary gender women. Today, masculine females occupy some roles usually associated with men. Historically, female-boded nadleeh had specific ceremonial roles.

5. Feminine male: the fifth gender is the feminine male, or male-bodied nadleeh. Feminine males identify with gender diversity, and they typically performed work also performed by women.

Navajo culture has adapted ideas from other cultures including the Euro-American concept of gay and lesbian identities. Many young Navajo individuals identify as gay or lesbian and do not connect with traditional cultural concepts such as nadleeh.

Within Navajo tradition, relationships are viewed as gender issues first and sexual issues second. For example, a relationship between a female-bodied nadleeh and a woman or a male-bodied nadleeh and a man are not considered homosexual relationships. However, relationships between two women, two men, two female-bodied nadleeh, or two male-bodied nadleeh are considered homosexual. Navajo cultural constructions maintain how the gender relationship system functions.

The five gender categories described above arrive from an emic understanding of the Navajo gender system. Thomas develops a heuristic device to analyze Navajo cultural from an etic perspective with the creation of five categories that characterize gender diversity across a continuum:

1. Traditional: a traditional individual lives on the reservation matrilocally. They are also usually involved in religious ceremonies, and they are defined on the basis of their occupational position or social role.

2. Transitional: a traditional individual lives on or off the reservation but maintains strong family ties. Transitionists retain some religious beliefs, but they are not as involved in traditional culture. Some transitionists associated with Euro-American gay and lesbian identities. They have more exposure to Western culture, and they have more Western education.

3. Contemporary: a contemporary individual has some or little knowledge of Navajo culture, religious beliefs, and occupational positions. A contemporary individual has some or little connection with reservation life, and he/she identifies with urban gays and lesbians. Some contemporary individuals who identify as gay or lesbian might also identify as two-spirit.

4. Acculturated: an acculturated individual has lived away from the reservation for several generations and has little to no knowledge of Navajo language. However, they are aware of their Navajo tribal heritage.

5. Assimilated: an assimilated individual has lived away from the reservation for several generations and has little to no knowledge of Navajo language. Unlike the acculturated individual, assimilated individuals are not aware of their tribal heritage and do not acknowledge it.

One of the things I found most fascinating about this reading was how it related back to Adrienne Rich’s concept of the politics of location. One’s connection with or proximity to the reservation has a profound effect on how they will navigate the Navajo gender system, is at all. The environment of someone’s location often determines how they negotiate their identity, and one’s negotiation of their identity effects how well they will relate to their immediate surroundings. I found it interesting that the cultural continuum of gender diversity in Navajo tradition influences what can be called situational gender identity. A Navajo-identified person might identify as gay, lesbian, or even two-spirit if they grew up in an urban area, and they would probably refuse a nadleeh identity because they do not relate to that concept of gender identity.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. “Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality.” In Two-spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, 156-73. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

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