The name for a Navajo two-spirit, in real life and in legend, is nadleehi. Nadleehi literally means “one who changes.The legends surrounding nadleehi are among the richest regarding queer figures in Native American cultures.
“Two-spirit” is a modern term created by LGBTQ Indians for androgynous or gender fluid people in Native American cultures. Nadleehi is sometimes spelled nadleeh or nutli in the literature. They play an integral part in the emergence legends of the Navajo as well as in their conflict of the sexes story. Different Navajo (or Dine, as the people call themselves) storytellers placed varying degrees of focus on the nadleehi. Some times these storytellers gave different names to the same characters. What is clear across storytellers is that gender fluid figures often take very helpful actions. But first it’s helpful to understand the actual nadleehi’s historical and current role in Navajo culture.
Nadleehi in Traditional Navajo Culture
Nadleehi is the Navajo term most often used for biological males who adopt at least some of the clothing, manner and work of women. (Nadleehi can also refer to women who do the reverse, but such women are found far less often in the existing historical literature.) The term “one who changes” is an apt description of a young Navajo boy’s transition into a predominantly feminine role. A nadleehi typically cooked or wove as women did, as well as cared for children. Nadleehi are still present in contemporary Navajo culture.
It is oversimplification to suggest, however, that the nadleehi is simply a man who has adopted a woman’s role. In a number of ways, the nadleehi occupied an intermediate role between conventionally gendered men and women. The Navajo traditionally valued a nadleehi because she could do both the work of women and men. As such, they felt she was likely to bring wealth to any household to which she belonged. They often excelled in crafts and ceremonial activities such as chanting.
A nadleehi might serve as a mediator in disputes between men and women, or as a go-between in facilitating a romance. A nadleehi was allowed to marry a conventionally masculine Navajo man, though perhaps was more often sexually free. As the rich role the nadleehi played in legend will attest, traditional Navajo culture gave this gender-variant role considerable respect.
The Nadleehi Twins
Most Navajo storytellers agree that a pair of androgynous twins were the first born of First Man and First Woman. First Man and First Woman went on to give birth to more conventional pairs of twins, one boy and one girl, who ended up marrying each other and collectively producing the Dine, the Navajo people. The androgynous twins did not marry, however, as they were barren. Sandoval, a Navajo elder, gave their names as Ashon Nadleeh and Yolgai Nadleeh, that is, the Turquoise One Who Changes and the White Shell One Who Changes.
The people began farming, but were afraid that enemy tribes might try to destroy their crops. They set the two nadleehi twins on guard, one at the dam and the other at the bottom of the field. The one who was at the dam ended up inventing pottery of all kinds. The other nadleehi invented the water bottle. Indeed, the nadleehi twins are credited with making all manner of useful devices, including a metate for grinding corn, stirring sticks for cooking and a brush for combing hair.
Nadleehi and the War Between the Sexes
Not long after the birth of their children, First Man and First Woman got into a serious argument. Hunting had been bad for the men for some time. First Woman, who tended to the fields, questioned whether she needed her husband for anything at all. Upset, First Man sequestered himself in his hogan and wouldn’t come out.
The people became concerned. They sent for Nadleehi. (In this section of the narrative, she/he is regarded as one person rather than a pair of twins.) Nadleehi was well regarded both for his/her senior status, “being a person of rank,” and his/her ability in working out conflicts between men and women. The men referred to Nadleehi as “my grand-uncle, my grandmother. Doing so shows their respect but also amply demonstrates his/her androgyny.
When Nadleeh went to visit his chief, First Man was very hungry. He asked Nadleehi to cook a meal for him. Impressed with the results, First Man asked Nadleehi what he/she could make all by him/herself.
Nadleehi’s reply is included by most storytellers. Nadleehi answered that he/she could make pottery, jugs, brooms, baking stones and more. Nadleehi informed First Man that he/she knew how to plant all manner of seeds and could cook all of the traditional Navajo dishes. In short, Nadleehi was saying that he/she could do all the things that women could do.
First Man called a great meeting in which the men and the animal spirits all met. One version suggests that the meeting was held in Nadleehi’s hogan. So many people came that Spider-Woman had to blow on the walls to make the place larger so everyone could fit in. The men debated the merits of leaving the women behind. They wondered with whom Nadleehi would go if they did. After all, he/she was both male and female.
First Man put the question to Nadleehi. After some thought, Nadleehi said he/she would go with the men. With this knowledge First Man decided the men and women would separate.
The men crossed a river and took their male children with them. Nadleehi filled a deer udder with warm broth to nurse the babies. Nadleehi also showed the men how to plant corn. Subsequently, Nadleehi ground corn, cooked for the men and took care of the children. The men prospered, while the women suffered.
The men heard the hungry cries of the women, who apparently neglected their fields. It was said they indulged in sexual activities such as masturbation instead. (This according to male storytellers, of course.) The men wondered if they should ask the women to rejoin them. Nadleehi, exhausted from all the work he/she was doing, encouraged the reconciliation.
The women underwent healing sweat baths. Then, in a special ceremony, Nadleehi and his/her assistant, Beetle the Pot Carrier gave the women one set of dishes in each of the four traditional Navajo colors.
Nadleehi’s Role as Mediator and Culture Hero
The story of the conflict of the sexes warrants further comment. It seems designed to explain, among other things, how men came to be farmers and women were relegated to primary cooking and child-rearing tasks. The Navajo were originally a hunting people who migrated to the Southwest where they were introduced to farming by their settled pueblo neighbors. It appears that women originally did the farming while the men initially continued to rely on hunting. The legend seems to suggest that at some point men co-opted the farming chores from the women.
It makes sense that Nadleehi was the one who taught the men to farm. As a man-woman, she/he both knew women’s skills but felt a loyalty to the men. Further, among the Zuni and Hopi, dress-wearing male kachinas are associated with the fertility of corn. They distribute seeds of corn to the people during festivals.
Soon after the reconciliation of the sexes, a great flood arose. In some of the Navajo narratives, it is a nadleeehi who used the giant male reed and the giant female reed to help the people to escape, climbing up through the reeds into the new world in which the Navajo still live today.
Wrapped in a Rainbow and Other Nadleehis
A Navajo elder named Klah was said to be a nadleehi. In the 1920s, Klah said that the nadleehi who helped the men during the separation of the sexes was named Kay-des-tizhi, literally “Wrapped in a Rainbow.” Klah’s picture is featured at the top of this post. He suggested that it also was Kay-des-tizhi who hid the sacred male and female reeds beneath his rainbow cloak to rescue the people from the flood. Other traditions attribute this to Coyote or Turquoise Nadleehi and White Shell Nadleehi in a joint effort. Even the sacred reeds themselves, which were called the Alke’na ashi, may have originally been androgynous. It was said the reeds were only later cut up and rearranged into conventionally gendered men and women.
After the flood and safe emergence, the creation of this final world continued. There is considerable disagreement among elders as to who became the bearer of the moon and the bearer of the sun. Sometimes the individuals appointed as bearers were nadleehis. White Shell Girl and the androgynous Bego chidii have both been called the moon-bearer. Sandoval suggested the sun-bearer was Turquoise Boy, which is sometimes given as another name for Turquoise Nadleehi. .
What is clear is that the sun and the moon demanded the death of mortal men and women as payment for their trek across the heavens. It was in this way death became a part of Navajo life. This legendary demand of the sun and moon may reflect a long since disgarded practice of human sacrifice. Centuries ago, human sacrifice was known to Indian peoples to the south in what is now Mexico.
The first person among the Navajo to die was often identified as a nadleehi, sometimes as one of the two nadleehi twins. Even when not identified as such, the dead man’s preoccupation with brushing his hair and cooking utensils suggests a two-spirit figure. The Navajo shaman, Hatali Nez, gave the name of the first dead person as Natliyilhatse, which loosely translated means First Nadleehi. Hatali Nez declared that First Nadleehi was the chief of the land of the dead, where Navajos believed dreams originated.
Parallels to Other Legendary Two-Spirits
There are a number of similarities to these legendary nadleehis and cross-dressing figures found in the rituals of neighboring peoples. The Hopi Kwasaitaka and the Zuni Kyanakwe are both cross-dressing figures intimately involved in the growth of corn. Another cross-cultural influence is further suggested by Maasaw, the gender-variant Hopi god of death. Maasaw may have been a model for Natliyilhatse.
It is the Navaho’s early roots in hunting that seems to be the basis for the nadleehi called Bego chidii. His habit of grabbing the testicles of hunters just as they’re about to shoot seems much more in line with the trickster figures most often found in hunter and gathering cultures. In Hosteen Klah’s creation account, Bego chidii plays the largest role of any nadleehi in existing Navajo accounts. Some suggest Klah’s own status as a nadleehi led him to overemphasize Bego chidii’s importance. But it is also possible Klah was tapping into more ancient versions of Navajo tales from when the Dine were a hunting/gatherer culture.
Navajo legends provide a fascinating opportunity to observe the differences between a hunting two-spirit (such as Bego chidii) and a farming two-spirit (as represented by Nadleehi’s role in planting and cooking corn) in a single culture. Most noteworthy seems to be the shift from Bego chidii’s trickster/disrupter role to Nadleeh’s predominant role as a cultural innovator and mediator.
Goddard, Pliny Earle (1933). Navajo Texts. New York: American Museum of Natural History, p. 129.
Haile, Berard (1978). Love-Magic and Butterfly People. Flagstaff, AR: Museum of Northern Arizona, pp. l, 161-68.
Haile, Berard (1981). Upward Moving and Emergency Way: The Gishen Biye’ Version. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, pp. 40-42, 48, 53, 62, 93-95, 98.
Haile, Berard (1979). Women versus Men: A Conflict of Navajo Emergence. Flagstaff, AR: Museaum of Northern Arizona Press, pp. 18-23, 30-32.
Hill, W. W. (1935). The status of the hermaphrodite and transvestite in Navaho culture. American Anthropologist, 37, 273-79.
Klah, Hasteen (1942). Navajo Creation Myth: The Story of the Emergence. Santa Fe: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, pp. 39-40, 47-48, 76-77, 221.
Matthews, Washington (1897/1994). Navaho Legends. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, pp. 69-72, 77-78, 217, 220.
O’Bryan, Aileen (1956/1993). Navaho Indian Myths. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., pp. 5-10, 14-16, 31-32 (per Sandoval in 1928).