Recently, a beautiful Indigenous woman, Sharnell Paul, was barred from being featured in the Women of the Navajo calendar for being transgender. According to Paul, the founders called her after finding out she was transgender, and informed her that, “ … This is for real women and you’re not a real woman.” While the founders stumbled through a true account of this interaction, Paul has remained firm that this was blatant discrimination. Bodies are sovereign and must be respected as such. All Indigenous people have the right to self-determination.
Across our country, there were several stories. I believe in stories and their ability to transmute and create meaning. Some nations recognized five genders, others three, and it was difficult to retain those stories post-contact and colonization. There are several activists working against historical erasure and dispossession. Saylesh Wesley writes in her work on being a Sts’ iyóye Smetstíyexw (Twin Spirited Woman), “Although the Canadian Government made a very successful attempt to erase Sts’ iyóye Smetstíyexw, some of us live on to tell new stories and to re-generate an entire gender and sexuality category that has been put away for so long. I invite other self-identified Sts’ iyóye Smetstíyexw to pray together, laugh together, and weave our stories into a theirstory.” West’s narrative isn’t unlike Paul’s. Both are working toward active reclamation. Both women are carrying a personal narrative we should regard with respect and recognition.
Had Women of the Navajo calendar founders included Paul, they would have been working against historical erasure, reclaiming the stories within their own inclusive cultural roots. Their discriminatory acts speak of lateral violence within our own communities. Oppression works laterally and vertically. Their acts against Paul are acts against cultural reclamation and Indigenous sovereignty. It’s time to give our people voice. Our bodies and our stories have the right to acceptance and recognition. Women of the Navajo had the opportunity to empower culture, identity, and acts of reclamation. Granted, it would have been late to the game, but it’s better to be late than never arrive at a political occasion that is inevitable. All Indigenous bodies are sovereign, deserving of protection, respect, and recognition. What are they scared of? Whatever phobia they invite, it is no doubt the product of boarding schools, assimilation, and other genocidal acts put upon us.
For too long our nations and bodies have been subject to the Crown, the Government, and systems that do not protect our lands or bodies. As a sovereign people we did not surrender our lands or our bodies. In order for any nation to have sovereignty we must come together as a people against the things pulling us apart. A slight against one of our weakest or strongest members is a slight against the collective.
The stories where I’m from are gone. There is no pre-contact narrative of people who identified as anything beyond the gender binary. There are only a few stories of sexuality and gender, let alone any that speak of gender roles. Our ceremonies and stories were forbidden. Only within the past few generations have people been able to stand and bear witness. There is something from the past that still resonates: that our stories can be erased, and our bodies forbidden. If we do not claim our people, and their identities, and their stories, and their struggles, they will be erased from the continuum, just like everything that has been stripped from us. Their beautiful faces and struggles will not thrive if we don’t lift them up now, to praise their clarity and power.
What we can do as a people to encourage the sovereign body’s rights within our communities is respect how one identifies. Carry their stories, and respect the pronouns in which they wish to be referred. Let our people be self-determined. Defend their rights within our communities. The power we carry individually to hold each other up should be recognized. It isn’t simply an effort to be on the right side of history for Native people. It is the reclamation of a history and the retention of story we should be fighting for. We invite erasure when we negate the voices of our people––any of our people. The voices against transgender people are the resounding voices of assimilation, which splinter us and weaken our unification. It is the tool of white supremacy that keeps us from understanding one another. Reclamation is beautiful and so are our people and the diversity of their beings.
In high school I had a beautiful Native friend who was transgender. She had long, black hair, a wide smile, and lots of cavities like me. Once I was with her and my best friend Thomasina at an arcade during lunch break, where most of us were segregated: Native and white. She dared to walk across the room, swaying her long hair, smiling at the white boys. It wasn’t long before two boys pushed her down. I couldn’t see her body, only the boys’ ugly cowboy boots and tight jeans above her hair. When she emerged, her face was scratched, and she refused to speak. The next day she got a school check from her tribe. Thomasina and I went out for lunch at the finest establishment in town: The Cariboo Lodge. We ordered burgers, and a white server begrudgingly refilled our drinks while we giggled. I asked the girl if she was okay after the arcade incident. She said, “Don’t matter anyways. I’m okay.” How many times had I heard that from people who were anything but okay. The world refuses to acknowledge their grief, and tells them it is their fault for being ‘that way.’ “Don’t wear your hair like that,” a girl told her. Thomasina and I knew. We knew to love her as she was, and stand close to her at lunch. She’s become estranged from me, living a life I hear is harsh. I carry her story in my heart when I say we must treat each other humanely, and none of us have much time on this earth to do right, so we must do it today.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, The Offing, and The James Franco Review. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.