by Walter L. Williams and Toby Johnson
You will never look at life the same way after reading this book. Writer W. Randy Haynes says about this fascinating novel, ” ‘Two Spirits’ is a spectacular tale based on the 1860s eviction of the Navajo people from their sacred homelands…. ‘Two Spirits,’ a treasure to read, is a rare combination of historical fiction and spiritual wisdom at its absolute finest.”
Winner of a historical fiction award from the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, this novel from gay spirituality Lethe Press centers on a love story between a Native American male and a caucasian male. The main character is a Navajo (Dine’) Indian who is a “nadleehi” which is the Dine’ word for berdache or Two Spirit person. Anthropologist Walter L. Williams wrote the classic academic study of this subject: “The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture” (Beacon Press), and now he has teamed up with award-winning novelist Toby Johnson to produce a fictional treatment of this theme. Their collaboration is a model for an academic scholar to provide the historical and ethnographic accuracy about a subject, which in the skilled hands of a fiction writer like Toby Johnson results in a fascinating story that is difficult to put down.
Two decades ago Williams’ book had a huge impact on gay self-acceptance by showing examples of cultures where androgynous homosexual people were highly respected and held leadership roles in their native cultures. This novel is likely to have an even greater impact than Williams’ academic book because it is written within the context of an exciting drama.
The setting is the Civil War era, and a young Virginian is forced to leave his home when his fundamentalist Christian father discovers him having sex with his boyfriend. He manages to escape to the frontier and be appointed as government agent to the Navajo Indians, only to find that the Navajos are being kept as virtual prisoners on a barren reservation far from their homeland.
The plot of the novel carefully follows the reality that actually happened to the Navajos in the 1860s, when the U.S. Army conducted a genocidial war against them and literally starved them into submission by destroying their food supplies, farming fields, and animal herds. Once the Indians surrendered they were put into concentration camps and then forced to march on a 325 mile journey where over 2,000 Navajos died. More deaths followed as people wasted away on the barren desert reservation.
After falling in love with his Navajo partner, the Virginian decides to help the Navajos escape their prison so that they can return to their homeland. The adventures which they undergo, in which they almost get killed several times, finally result in victory. As actually happened in 1868, by a fantastic sequence of events the Navajos are allowed to return to their beloved homeland and resume their indigenous way of life. As a result of this return, the Navajos were able to survive as a culture when many other Native American groups became extinct. This is real history, as dramatic as any story in World History.
In the process of helping the Navajos, this Virginian learns much about Navajo philosophy of life. This is a model for a positive way to approach one’s life, and there are many insights that can be drawn from Navajo wisdom. Navajos respected the important role of eroticism in life, and recognized that people we would today called transgender or androgynous are extraordinarily gifted. Editor Bo Young, of “White Crane Journal” says “With its sweet and triumphal love story, ‘Two Spirits’ is a welcome addition to the literature of the real West and the hidden history of same-sex people. It gives a whole new meaning to ‘how the West was won.’ ”
If you want an exciting read, as well as insight for how to best live your life, this is the book for you. I highly recommend it, for young GLBT people just coming out or for mature readers who want a guide to a higher plane of existence. As an additional bonus, there is also an interesting Afterword by gay Navajo anthropologist Professor Wesley Thomas. He gives personal testimony for the continuing impact of those events in the Civil War era among Navajo people of today, and comments that a same-sex marriage might have been the saving grace for his people’s very existence.