Eiteljorg Musuem Blog

TWO SPIRITS film about the short life and murder of Navajo teen to be screened at the Eiteljorg

by DeShong Perry-Smitherman, Eiteljorg public relations manager | Aug 07, 2013

Two Spirits
In June 2001, the body of 16-year-old Navajo teenager Fred Martinez was found on a dirt road in the Southwest Colorado town of Cortez. Martinez had been bludgeoned beyond recognition by a man who had bragged about the crime, according to an anonymous tip.

Martinez was the victim of a hate crime. He never considered himself gay or transgendered. Instead, he identified himself as nádleehí (nod-lay), which is a Navajo term defined as a male-bodied person who has a feminine essence. That term in English is “Two Spirit.”

On Saturday, Sep. 28, the documentary "Two Spirits" will be viewed at the Eiteljorg, followed by a panel discussion. The film is about Martinez’s brief life and tragic murder. We talked with director Lydia Nibley and Out West curator Gregory Hinton about the film and why they’ve chosen the Eiteljorg to show it.

EITELJORG: What does the term “Two-Spirit” mean?
LYDIA: On nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated people who have more than two genders. Terms such as “transgender” and “gay” are strictly new constructs that assume there are only two sexes (male/female), just two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).Yet hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or even more genders.

Fred Martinez, the subject of the film "Two Spirits," was not a boy who wanted to be a girl, but both a boy and a girl. Most Western societies have no direct correlation for this Native Two-Spirit tradition, nor for the many other communities without strict either/or conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender. Worldwide, the sheer variety of gender expression is almost limitless.

The term “Two-Spirit” was recently created by Native people as a short, useful phrase in English that could begin to represent concepts that are much more nuanced and complex, and that are represented in over 200 Native languages.

EITELJORG: What will people learn from the film?

LYDIA: We hope people take away a new appreciation for the richness of gender. Fred was considered to have a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture. If he had lived, he could have participated in multiple roles in sacred ceremonies, counseled couples, offered insight as a matchmaker, expressed gifts as a medicine person. But the place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to live, and Fred became one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at 16. "Two Spirits" interweaves the tragic story of a mother’s loss of her son with a revealing look at a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female and many Native American cultures held places of honor for people of integrated genders. We hope the story of Fred and other Two-Spirit people in history and in contemporary life inspires people to think and feel differently about what is possible. To embrace all of the human family because as the Navajo/Diné say, “we’re all the five-fingered people.”
EITELJORG: Why show "Two Spirits" at the Eiteljorg?

GREG: The Eiteljorg is a great place to have complex conversations. With its innovative public programming, your museum is a leader in offering socially relevant programs that expand imagination and promote respectful, intellectual discourse. The film team is thrilled to screen "Two Spirits" in this legendary institution as a way of linking the past and present, and we hope that having sophisticated conversations around gender can help us all shape a more equitable and humane future.

EITELJORG: What does this film do for LGBT or Two-Spirit teenagers who are at risk for bullying or violence?

LYDIA: We hope "Two Spirits" moves attitudes from mere tolerance, or acceptance, to a celebration of LGBT and Two-Spirit people. The film demonstrates how people who express multiple genders contribute to their families, friends, and communities not in spite of, but because of who they are. That’s a big change. It’s about same sex unions having been honored for thousands of years. It’s about a natural spectrum of gender. It’s about respecting who people really are and what they have to contribute. Like when a young person comes out to their traditional Native grandmother and her response is, “Oh, my friends will be so jealous!” That’s what we hope people experience: that shift.

EITELJORG: How does "Two Spirits" open hearts and minds?

LYDIA: It’s one thing to learn that many tribes have multiple genders and much more connective to see the story of one particular life and to feel empathy and understanding for someone like Fred while seeing him through the eyes of his mother. Any time we can get out of our own heads and into someone else’s experience, our own understanding expands. Perhaps that’s why "Two Spirits" was the highest-rated film of the 2010-2011 season, and received the Audience Award from PBS-Independent Lens. The film introduces viewers to the amazing ways traditional Navajo people express gender, takes them into the world of contemporary world of Two-Spirit people, and shows how this richer view of gender has always been with us and can be reclaimed.

EITELJORG: What is the lasting message this film leaves for its viewers?

Between tradition and controversy, sex and spirit, and freedom and fear, lives the truth—the bravest choice you can make is to be yourself.

EITELJORG: Is there an opportunity for people to get involved in getting the message out?
LYDIA: We’re working to place the film in more colleges, universities, high schools, and libraries and are seeking funding from individual philanthropists and foundations to make that possible. Any help is welcome! Imagine a world that isn’t simply divided into male and female, where it’s safe for people to be who they are. Please join us to make the film more widely available by making a contribution and by sharing it in person, online, and in every way you can. 

About Out West
Out West was conceived by author and independent curator Gregory Hinton. Hinton created the program series to illuminate positive contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community to the history and culture of the American West. 

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Help support the screening and discussion of the powerful film, TWO SPIRITS, an acclaimed PBS Independent Lens documentary that tells the story of the brief life and tragic murder of transgender Navajo teen, Fred Martinez. The film, including a panel discussion, will take place at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 28.

To donate to this project, click Power2Give.  Chase Bank will contribute one dollar for every dollar donated. To learn more about the film visit the website:


12:30 p.m.                Welcome by Gregory Hinton, Out West founder
12:45 p.m.                "Two Spirits" film screening
1:45 – 3:30 p.m.       Panel discussion
3:30 p.m.                  DVD/book signing Eiteljorg Museum Store

Moderator: Jodi A. Byrd, Ph.D. (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma), associate professor of American Indian Studies and English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Lydia Nibley, director, "Two Spirits"

Brian Joseph Gilley, Ph.D.
, associate professor of anthropology and director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, Indiana University Bloomington; author of Becoming Two-Spirit

Wesley K. Thomas, Ph.D., chair/professor, School of Diné Studies, Education & Leadership, Navajo Technical College (Crownpoint, NM)
Photo credits:
- "Two Spirits" poster from film festivals
- Navajo same sex couple, photographer Bosque Redondo 1866, Museum of New Mexico
- Two-Spirit dancers prepare
- Lydia Nibley's headshot
- Photographs were given to us by Lydia Nibley


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