When Navajo Nation Council Delegate Nathaniel Brown came out to his dad, he was terrified.
“He’s such a macho man, he doesn’t speak English, very hardcore traditional,” Brown said. But when Brown told him he was nádleehí, a third gender in Navajo culture, he was surprised by his father’s reaction.
Earlier this month, the Navajo Nation celebrated its fourth annual Pride Week — the largest Indigenous Pride in the country — with a series of virtual gatherings culminating in its first official pride parade on Saturday.
Brown was among speakers who addressed attendees at one of the Navajo Nation’s first public events since covid-19 restrictions have begun to lift. In front of the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., organizers and public leaders reaffirmed their commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ2S+) community members and to overturning policies like the Diné Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage in Navajo Nation.
Navajo Nation Pride began as a small event hosted outside the offices of a feminist collective in Window Rock’s Ch’ihootso Indian Market Place four years ago. Since then, the annual event has grown into the country’s largest Indigenous Pride — peaking at an estimated 7,000 attendees in 2019 — with year-long programs and scholarships dedicated to supporting LGBTQ2S+ youth and leaders.
This year, Pride came as the Navajo Nation, which suffered some of the worst effects of the pandemic, leads the country in vaccinations. Cars adorned with gay and trans pride flags, signs reading “Diyingo 'Adaanitsíískéés” — Navajo for “We are sacred” — and rainbow streamers paraded from the Navajo Nation Museum through central Window Rock and to the Navajo Nation Council Chambers.
There, attendees settled in folding chairs spaced six feet apart to hear speakers address movements to reclaim Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ identity, the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis among American Indians and Alaskan Natives, and the work to pass inclusive legislation such as the Navajo Nation Equality Act. The theme of the year was “the sacred resilience of Indigenous womxn.”
“This year is our fourth year and in Diné culture we understand that the number four is a very sacred number,” invoking the four directions and the four sacred colors, said Navajo Nation Pride’s youth director Geronimo Louie (Navajo). “We are a matriarchal society at heart and through our teachings and understandings and our origin stories, women have always been leading and paving the way for all of us as Indigenous people.”
Navajo Nation Pride Executive Director Alray Nelson (Navajo) added that the choice to honor Indigenous women came as the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, especially “missing transgender women in our communities and border towns” reached a peak during the pandemic — and as many matriarchal households lost grandmothers to covid-19.
“We wanted the community to hear a message of the hardship that we went through as a people with covid and how this is our way of standing back up and saying we're here, we survived and we're going to be okay,” said Nelson. “And especially letting our gay kids know, especially when we see an increase of suicides and violence be perpetuated within various communities on Navajo and around Indian Country, specifically toward our LGBTQ community members.”
“It means a lot to have community and coming together because we’ve just endured so much,” said Pride academic director Nicole Johnny (Navajo), who noted that hosting Pride at the legislative council is the equivalent of being on the Senate floor.
Although many Navajo Pride-goers understood Native identity to encompass and cherish LGBTQ2S+ identities, they added that the Navajo Nation government still does not recognize same-sex marriage. In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council passed legislation banning same-sex marriage, and the law remained in place even after the U.S. federal government legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
“With settler colonialism, a lot of those traditional teachings, those different gender roles and community roles, had to be hidden,” said Pride program director Josie Raphaelito (Navajo). Then, with “the boarding school era, where our children were taken away from their families, taken away from their culture” those traditional understandings were erased.
In 1990, Native American and First Nations organizers gathered in Winnipeg, Canada, for the third annual Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference where attendees coined the term “two-spirit,” to describe individuals who identify as having both a masculine and feminine spirit. In some cases, the word has been used as an umbrella term to describe a range of same-sex attraction and gender nonconformity, especially in Native communities where the Indigenous words to describe LGBTQ2S+ identity are no longer known.
Reclaiming language, organizers say, is an example of overturning colonial influences; so is repealing the Diné Marriage Act.
“It’s the only law on the books that discriminates against us openly,” Nelson said. But it also “redefines how couples, especially those living on Navajo land, how they’re treated by family members and the government.” Because same-sex marriages, even performed off the reservation, are not recognized by the Navajo government, couples cannot adopt Navajo children, have joint guardianship or joint home site leases.
Raphaelito, who lives with her wife in New York, says that their “marriage not being recognized, not being acknowledged,” is a factor they’re considering in whether to move back to the Navajo reservation. “It’s hurtful. It would impact every single part of who we are, what we bring to a community. And I think there’s so much room for growth, and acceptance.”
Nelson says his team is proud to have grown to include representatives from other tribal nations, this year the Apache. The hope is to inspire Indigenous activists and leaders to lead movements in other nations, and Nelson says they’ve already witnessed tribes sponsoring legislation recognizing Pride Month.
Meanwhile, on the Navajo Nation, Council Speaker Seth Damon signed legislation — sponsored by Brown — designating the third week of June as Navajo Nation Pride Week. The next step, Brown says, is passing an equality act and repealing the Diné Marriage Act.
“It’s time,” Brown said. “I think the Holy People, when they see there is equality on Navajo land, the rain’s going to come back.”