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Navajo Nation's LGBTQ pride event celebrates a return to the culture's history

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As the sun dips below the horizon, the colored lights turn on -- bathing the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in rainbow hues as the crowd cheers.

On June 28, the Navajo Nation kicked off Dine Pride, a two-day event in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo reservation.

   Geronimo Louie dances in a rainbow-themed shawl in front of the Window Rock park at Dine Pride. Half Navajo and half Apache, Louie spoke about the experience coming out as gay within those two cultures.Cayla Nimmo for NPR

Dine Pride coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when patrons at a historic gay bar in New York City fought back against violent police raids in 1969. The protests are widely credited with springboarding the modern gay civil rights movement in the U.S.

This year's Dine Pride is infused with that history, themed Sacredness Before Stonewall -- focusing attention on honoring transgender women of color and their history in indigenous culture.

 

Master of ceremonies for Dine Pride, Mattee Jim, is a transgender Dine woman and an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. She also works to educate trans populations about their health care rights. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

"Since our creation, the Dine people have acknowledged and revered LGBTQ and especially the trans community in our leadership," said Alray Nelson, founder of Dine Equality and board member for Dine Pride. "Our theme, Sacredness Before Stonewall, is just a way that we are decolonizing and indigenizing Pride for us."

 

Top: Alarm Nelson (left) joins Arlando Teller in a livestream from Dine Pride. Nelson is the founder of Dine Equality and co-founder of Dine Pride, while Teller is the Arizona state representative for District 7. Left: Geronimo Louie shows off their rainbow manicure. Right: Carnelise Henry wears a cowboy hat with pro-LGBT buttons. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

During a panel discussion on visibility for indigenous trans people, Mattee Jim discussed her dual identities: "I am Dine first and foremost. I am of my people," she said. "A lot of our traditional teachings from precontact have been lost to westernization and Christianization."

Currently, there are no anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws on the reservation, and same-sex marriage is illegal, per the 2005 Dine Marriage Act. Beyond the rainbow colors and drag performances was a core theme of returning to traditional Dine teachings about identities that would roughly be considered LGBTQ in contemporary Western culture, specifically transgender people.

 

Te Titla, reigning Miss Apache Diva (left), stands outside the Navajo Nation Museum before joining a panel on trans visibility. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

    

The Navajo Nation flag flies alongside LGBT and human rights flags in a historic first outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

Jim and other speakers throughout the weekend referenced the traditional Navajo story of the nadleehi. In this story, First Man and First Woman were at odds, causing men and women of the world to split into separate camps. The nadleehi were a third gender.

According to the story, the nadleehi stayed with First Man, performing traditionally feminine tasks. They were essential in bridging the divide between First Man and First Woman, bringing peace to the land.

Left: RaeLee Smith, 7, sits at her mother's booth at the Navajo Nation Museum. Right: Lady Shug performs during a drag show in front of the Navajo Nation Council Chamber. Bottom: Mattee Jim, master of ceremonies for Dine Pride, waiting inside Navajo Nation Council chamber in her sequin panda outfit waiting to be introduced. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

The Navajo language includes references to at least four genders: asdzaan, a feminine female; hastiin, a masculine male; dilbaa, a masculine woman; and nadleehi. For indigenous LGBTQ people throughout North America, the term Two-Spirit has gained some popularity as an umbrella term recognizing the third gender and the beliefs associated with it.

"Before Europeans came, we were considered sacred people because we had strong medicine. Because we carried the spirit of both male and female, so we were very honored along with medicine people," says Oriah Lee, who identifies as Two-Spirit Dine. "That tradition has disappeared because it is so Christianized here."

Maggie Brown uses her phone to film drag performances. Brown and her family watched from their car. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

   

Chanel Ticey uses fans to try and beat the heat at Dine Pride. Ticey is originally from the eastern agency of the Navajo Nation but relocated to Albuquerque, N.M., where she found her "chosen family" through drag. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

Lee is from the eastern agency of the Navajo Nation and performs drag under the stage name Chanel Ticey. He watched the Navajo Council Chamber light up in rainbow colors over Facebook Live."It really did warm my heart just to see those colors on there," Lee said. "Just the fact that this small building stands with many other monument buildings in this country."

On Saturday, the highlight was the marriage of Ophelia Shondee and Bonnie Gillespie. Shondee is Dine from Ganado, Ariz., and wanted to be married in her homeland.

Although their ceremony was performed in Window Rock, the couple had to get their license through an Arizona court off the reservation.

  

Ophelia Shondee (left) and Bonnie Gillespie kiss during their marriage ceremony at Dine Pride. Same-sex marriage is illegal through Navajo courts, so the couple, who have been together for 13 years, had to get their marriage license through an Arizona court, outside the reservation. Cayla Nimmo for NPR

Cayla Nimmo is a freelance photojournalist based in Gallup, N.M.