Does this viral photo mean what you think it does?
BY HANNAH ABELBECK, JENNIFER DENETDALE, AND DEVORAH ROMANEK
More than a hundred and fifty years ago, probably in 1866, a photograph was taken of two Navajo men during a deeply traumatic event for the Diné: the Long Walk, when the United States imprisoned over ten thousand Navajo people (click on the image above for full size).
This photograph is from a set of portraits within a bound album, now in the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, known as the Souvenir of New Mexico album. The two men sit close together. One wraps his arm around the other, who, in turn, rests his hand on the first man’s thigh. They clasp hands, suggesting an intimacy that we do not commonly see between men today.
You may have seen this image published on Facebook or Instagram, shared as evidence that Indigenous societies have and had multiple gender categories and greater acceptance of gender difference and same-sex relationships than is common today. Many 2SLGBTQI (Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex) people and their allies celebrate the photograph as proof that the Diné, at the time the photograph was taken, recognized and accepted people with nonbinary genders as important contributors to the spirit and revitalization of their communities. Such a message is indeed welcome and much needed during a time when 2SLGBTQI people continue to experience discrimination, homophobia, and racism, both within and outside of their communities.
The ubiquitous use of this image as the all-time “Two Spirit” icon likely has its origins in the 2009 documentary Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez by filmmaker Lydia Nibley. However, in this important narrative about a hate crime against a young Two-Spirit Diné, Nibley used this photo inaccurately.
Since 2009, this photograph has appeared in Indigenous publications, including a 2017 Indian Country Today article, “8 Things You Should Know About Two Spirit People,” and a Diné-language Wikipedia page. It circulates on non-Native American sites as well, both in the United States and globally: on an Australian sociologist’s personal webpage and an Italian Pinterest page.
Yet any caption that claims these two men are Two Spirit or Ná’dleehí (a Diné word for a third-gendered person that has multiple meanings both historically and as a reclaimed 2SLGBTQI term) is misleading. The interpretation of intimate touch as sexual says more about contemporary American understandings of gender—specifically masculinity—than it says about the two men in the photo. Discomfort about any type of physical intimacy between men is a legacy of influential Eurocentric notions about gender and sexuality in the late-nineteenth century and across the twentieth century.
The word homosexuality itself was first used in 1869, and the concept was popularized beginning in 1886. The photograph was taken prior to this time and prior to twentieth-century concepts, including sexology, Freudianism, romantic marriage, eugenics, the heterosexual nuclear family, McCarthyism, and the lavender scare, all of which transformed Americans’ beliefs about human sexuality and behavior. The contemporary, mainstream understanding of American masculinity developed from a legacy of homophobia and definitions of extended family and kinship that are not universal. Limiting our understanding of intimacy and familial organization to a particular, heterosexual nuclear family model obscures other social and historical ways of relating. When images of masculinity from the past are read backwards through this particular lens, they can be misunderstood as queer (gay), when they are merely queer (different).
Misrepresentations that obscure historical truths inflict further injury upon the Diné, who continue to resist both inaccurate portrayals and American colonialism.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council debated and then passed the Diné Marriage Act resolution. Like the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the 2005 act became known as the “same-sex marriage ban” because it claimed that “marriage” is only a sacred act between a man and woman with the specific
purpose of procreation. In the days before the Council cast votes on the legislation, the Diné 2SLGBTQI community, along with their allies, voiced their opposition. They argued that the law constituted gender discrimination against the Diné whose identities didn’t fit within the normalized binary oppositions of male/female or masculine/feminine. Furthermore, they asserted that the law failed to recognize the traditional Diné concept of Ná’dleehí.
2SLGBTQI Diné point to the “Separation of the Sexes” story as evidence for the presence of multiple genders, which, by some accounts, can include anywhere from three to four genders that fall along the feminine-masculine spectrum. According to the story, men and women had a dispute about whether males or females were superior, and the arguments became so intense that both declared that each sex could live alone and separated. The Ná’dleehí, who dressed in a feminine way, took their cooking implements and went with the men. There among the men, the Ná’dleehí fulfilled women’s domestic duties. After a time, the women and men realized their folly and, with the Ná’dleehí as mediators, reconciled, for they could not survive without each other. From this time, the People acknowledged the Ná’dleehí as valuable relatives who were crucial to their survival. They also carried ceremonial knowledge and skills, such as weaving. Contemporary 2SLGBTQI Diné and their allies see “Separation of the Sexes” as an affirmation of their place in society. They also draw upon the Diné concept of K’é, a network of relationships based upon kin, to guide their sense of belonging and their relationships within the Navajo Nation and the Diné communities.
Combined with the traditional stories, the tacit implication is the type of relationship the image depicts predates American colonial invasions, perhaps Spanish colonial invasions too, and originates from the time of creation for the Diné. However, this photograph simply does not offer proof of this idea. In fact, Navajo history under American invasion and occupation indicates that the pressures of colonization were strong, and that Navajos were unable to continue, completely unchanged, relationships that did not fit within white American sensibilities. Certainly, white Americans were alarmed at the Diné practice of plural marriages, and suppressed them. White Americans subjected the Diné to surveillance, policing, pressures, laws, policies, enticements, rewards, and punishments intended to transform everything about and around them.
This is not to say that there is no evidence for non-binary gender roles among the Diné people in the nineteenth century. It does not say whether and how such relationships were negotiated and recognized. Instead, the support for and opposition to the 2005 act highlights how deeply contemporary, mainstream American ideas set the terms for the debate, even as both sides drew upon interpretations of traditional beliefs to explain their positions. Amid the disappointment of the outcome, it’s worth highlighting that the Diné Marriage Act and the photograph catalyzed the Diné and Indigenous 2SLGBTQI and allies in visible and viral ways to call for an end to same-sex relationship discrimination, to highlight ongoing struggles over sex and gender discrimination, and to express the need for an acceptance of gender diversity.
All the earliest known photographs of the Diné people, including this one, were taken during a series of military campaigns the United States led against the Diné, escalating into their forced relocation to and incarceration at Hweéldi (Bosque Redondo). These earliest Long Walk photographs include outdoor shots at Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo, perhaps taken in 1865 or early 1866 by William Hemphill Bell, J.G. Gaige, and/or another photographer hired by the army. The now-familiar images—of vast fields of adobes, people husking corn, people waiting for rations or posed outside their homes in a desolate landscape—were both sold to individual army officers and kept as military records.
The Souvenir of New Mexico album contains these scenes as well as a set of studio portraits of the Diné, probably taken later in 1866. Our research suggests that Constant and Victor Duhem were the mostly likely photographers of the album’s portrait series. The brothers were French immigrants and San Francisco photographers who came from Gold Rush California during the Civil War, arriving in New Mexico Territory with the California Column in 1862. They served under U.S. Army Brevet Major General James Henry Carleton, a champion of “soldier-miner” types like the Duhems, who would take up arms, seize Indigenous territories, open them for American settlement, and remain insatiable in their desire to exploit the land’s bounty.
The Duhem brothers maintained an active photography business throughout their enlistment. In August 1866 they were transferred from Fort Bliss, Texas, with their commanding officer David Hammett Brotherton to the small army post in Albuquerque. While the number of known photographs the Duhem brothers took in Albuquerque are few, they photographed both Kit Carson and Brotherton before the summer of 1867. Stamps on the reverse of these cartes de visite, small card-mounted photographs popular in this era, advertise the brothers as “Photographers, On the Rio Grande.”
The two Diné men were most likely US prisoners of war being transported to Hweéldi. The Albuquerque post was a major stop on the Long Walk routes between Fort Wingate and Fort Sumner. The photograph is best understood as a souvenir of a military campaign, or perhaps as a trophy image of most wanted fugitives or of high-value detainees, taken by the very men who held them captive. The only known nineteenth-century copy of the portrait is in the Souvenir album; we believe all copies in circulation today derive from this single print. Yet the only caption the creator, compiler, or owner of the album inscribed upon it was brutally simple and dismissive: “Navajo Thieves.”
We don’t know what the pair were accused of stealing, but some possibilities are more likely than others. In 1866, there was not enough food in Dinétah, Canyon de Chelly, or at Hwéeldi. At Fort Sumner, the army imposed a rationing system to manage distributing too little food to thousands of people. They issued paper tickets, easily counterfeited by those who wanted to eat, and later, metal coupons, which could also be forged. Other possibilities involve property disputes. In 1866, for example, Navajo translator Jesus Arviso was accused of orchestrating the theft of his own horse and mule from government herds at Fort Bascom.
There’s a power in the ability to create images, to name images, and to circulate them. Yet that naming can, purposefully or inadvertently, conceal other potential meanings. Writing “Navajo Thieves” obscures the violence of American colonialism. Circulating this photograph as a Two Spirit image—as an authentic, uncomplicated symbol of Indigenous gender and sexuality—can do the same.
If the men’s vulnerability and intimacy appears powerful, there are explanations other than that they are a couple. White photographers of the era positioned their Indigenous subjects in studio poses to which the photographers were accustomed. The photo featuring a group of Diné women demonstrates the ability of the photographers to impose their aesthetic preferences on Diné subjects. Significantly, Two Spirit relationships have not been projected onto similarly sentimental and romantic poses among women in the same album.
Nineteenth-century photographers would likely not have seen the pose as indication of a queer or homosexual relationship, but rather a close one. Many photographers of the day learned their trade while serving in the army, and they lived in a world of men. Their interactions involved much more bodily intimacy than is typical today. When enlisted men of this era sat for photographs together, they frequently posed on each other’s laps, as in this mid-1860s group portrait from Santa Fe photographer Nicholas Brown. Even if not related, they considered themselves a band of brothers, and close men—back then—touched each other. Even today, in specific settings, like amid the camaraderie of sports teams, a certain amount of male intimate touch is acceptable in ways it would not be outside of that context.
Siblings, in particular, were often formally posed with gestures and touches that memorialized their closeness and intimacy through touch. Brothers might clasp hands or rest a palm on their sibling’s thigh.
Additional context further demonstrates why the portrait probably does not represent a Two Spirit couple. One compelling possibility is that the identity of one of the two men in the photograph is El Ciego (“the Blind One”), one of Manuelito’s brothers. Manuelito, an important headman, appears in the album, posed alone and shirtless. We suspect the Duhems could have photographed him in early September 1866, as soldiers marched Manuelito from Fort Wingate to Hweéldi within a week or two of the Duhems’ arrival in Albuquerque. Until then, General Carleton had pursued Manuelito and his band until he, wounded, surrendered on the first of September near Fort Wingate. Twenty-three Diné surrendered with him. While Manuelito eluded the American military, he was travelling with his own clan relatives and his wife’s relatives. Two separate written Army accounts of the era indicate that the only ones left in Manuelito’s group by fall of 1866, before their surrender, were Manuelito, his older brother, El Ciego, and their families. In the army documents, only men and their relationships are named, not women and children, though the group was composed mostly of women and children. As a result, the relatives Manuelito was traveling with could have appeared in the album, too.
The man kneeling in the photograph, with a bandana on his head, appears as if he may be missing his right eye. While it is hard to see this in this photograph, another group portrait from the album depicts the same man. In that image, he is on the lower left, and it is much more noticeable that he may be missing an eye. Since the nickname El Ciego could be a reference to physical characteristics, this man could be El Ciego himself. Furthermore, if the double portrait is a photograph of El Ciego and another relative, the two men depicted in the photo could be directly related through Navajo kinship. It is not only possible that the photographers posed the men like brothers; it is also quite possible that the men were brothers.
Just as the concepts embedded in a contemporary term like LGBTQI can fit uneasily within mid-nineteenth-century notions of gender and sexuality, a contemporary, pan-Indian term like Two Spirit also incompletely describes the relationship between past and present gender roles within Native American communities. It was coined about thirty years ago to help Indigenous people from many different cultures who may identify as LGBTQI collectively address queer identity in twentieth- and twenty-first-century life. The term was also meant to communicate the complexity of translating non-binary Indigenous roles that have been misunderstood, erased, ignored, or demonized into a concept recognizable to but distinct from mainstream LGBTQI identities. It was not meant to erase specific historical and contemporary practices of gender and sexuality in diverse Native American communities, though it has often had these unintended consequences.
Some historical photographs have ongoing lives, and the misrecognition of this photograph as a Two Spirit image has given it a new one. As it circulates through contemporary media, it demonstrates how narratives that travel with images can be transformed, sometimes deviating greatly from their original context. For communities who inherit the struggle for their autonomy amid ongoing colonialism, confronting misrepresentations of their history—then and now—is an ongoing, tedious, and unwelcome mission.
Ethically viewing and responding to historical photographs comes with a responsibility to carefully and accurately consider history’s complexity. A recognition of the portrait’s brutal context is imperative to prevent the minimization and obfuscation of imprisonment at Hwéeldi and its consequences. The men in this photograph are not Two Spirit just because they are holding hands. The photographer held the authority to position the men, thereby imposing meaning. (The Diné tradition holds that intimacy is not demonstrated in public, even by couples. However, military documents do include observations that when arriving the Diné prisoners met their relatives as Hweédi, they embraced, cried, and held each other.)
Thoughtful consideration of how historical and contemporary people negotiate social roles and organize their relationships can disrupt simple, binary understandings and stereotypical ideas about gender and sexuality in ways that are not easy to resolve. To take for granted that the dominant culture’s sensibilities do not always align with another’s, instead of treating such a thing as an exception, supports Indigenous self-determination and cultural integrity.
Jennifer Denetdale (The Diné) is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She is from Tohatchi, New Mexico. Hannah Abelbeck is the Photo Archivist at the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. Devorah Romanek is an anthropologist, and curator of exhibits at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.