Gender Diversity: Nadleehi and Dilbaa

The traditional culture of the Diné (commonly called the Navajo) has four genders. Although nadleehi and dilbaa are commonly used as examples in articles explaining two spirit expressions, they are specific to Diné culture.

I have been suspicious of how Diné gender identities are often described online and I had the opportunity to sort it out with Nick Manchester as we were preparing his article for OtherWise Christian 2: Stories of Resistance:

My ancestral society is matriarchal, so our primary, or first, gender is feminine female, or asdzaan.

The second is hastiin, or masculine male.

Third comes nadleehi, which is similar to a femme man, transgender woman, or person with visible intersex variations, but quite fluid in expression. Nadleehi actually translates into English as “changing one.”

Finally, the fourth gender is dilbaa, which is similar to a butch woman, or a transgender man, but not exactly either of those identities. Dilbaa is a word that is rarely used anymore. While this is an ancient term, we do not know its English equivalent to provide a literal translation. This fourth gender is also fluid in expression.

Many Diné use nadleehi for both the third and fourth genders, while sometimes we are broken down into five genders by dividing nadleehi into three subgroupings, including a more androgynous intersex variation.

Nick Manchester in “Doctrine”
in OtherWise Christian 2: Stories of Resistance
(forthcoming in spring 2020)

In chapter 3 of OtherWise Christian, I use nadleehi as a prominent example of how the term “two spirit” is an important but sometimes misleading intervention. The term “two spirit” is not universally embraced by all of the indigenous nations of North America, because it is not universally compatible with every traditional and culturally-specific understanding of gender. Encounters with Western culture and language continue to be fraught with misunderstandings and misrepresentations, even (and often especially) when two spirit identities are being celebrated.

Nadleehi (“changing one”) does not have the connotation of two-spirits-in-one, nor the trans-feminine implication of “feminine male,” as it is often described in many articles online. Rather, it suggests someone who is constantly in transformation, without a static expression.

Nadleehi appear prominently in Dine creation stories. The first born of First Woman and First Man were twins: turquoise nadleehi (sometimes turquoise boy) and white shell nadleehi (sometimes white shell girl or dilbaa). The first nadleehi made breakthroughs in technology and also served as mediators between men and women.

Additional Resources

  • Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (2000) includes a chapter on the nadleehi.
  • Fred Martinez was a nadleehi who was murdered in 2001. The feature-length, documentary film Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez was released in 2009 and picked up by PBS’s Independent Lens in 2011. The PBS screening across the country did much to raise awareness about two spirit existence. This clip on the PBS website includes a brief description of the Dine anthropology.
  • Gender Diversity around the World

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on January 5, 2020. With much gratitude to Nick Manchester for grappling with all of the important nuances of this dialogue.

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