Melanie K. Yazzie, Ph.D.
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is pleased to launch a new online series of essays that focuses on Native justice. With generous support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), First Nations invited multiple experts to discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.
What does Native justice mean when we center Indigenous women and our LGBTQ2+ relatives? Dr. Melanie K. Yazzie, a scholar and activist specializing in queer Indigenous feminism at the University of Minnesota, explores the answer to this question.
In this essay, Yazzie outlines some of the major ideas and debates surrounding Indigenous gender and sexuality. Specifically, she compares and contrasts matriarchy and queer Indigenous feminism, two overlapping, and at times conflicting, theories on Indigenous gender and sexuality.
Focusing on the Navajo Nation, Yazzie argues that current matriarch movements, while more popular, have the potential to exclude and discriminate against some tribal members. She firmly maintains that queer Indigenous feminism is “a more flexible and comprehensive approach” to Indigenous law because it incorporates justice for Indigenous women and LGBTQ+ relatives.
About Dr. Melanie K. Yazzie
Melanie K. Yazzie (Diné) is assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota‑Twin Cities and coauthor of “Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation” and “The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save the Earth,” both of which came out in 2021. She co-hosts and produces the podcast “Red Power Hour” and serves as lead editor for the open access journal “Decolonization.”
By Dr. Melanie K. Yazzie
In her groundbreaking book “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America,” Muskogee jurist Sarah Deer argues that “rape should be the number one priority for tribal nations” because “all other challenges faced by tribal nations are linked to the history and trauma of rape.” Deer also states that tribal rape laws are strongest when they seek “to address gender issues in a distinctly Indigenous way” by “reclaiming their own tribal perspectives on gender.”
In this essay, I want to build on Deer’s assertion by arguing that justice for gender and sexual violence of all kinds should be a priority for tribal nations. Like Deer, I believe that tribal nations are strongest when their laws are based on tribal perspectives. The restorative justice practice of peacemaking, which is a centerpiece of tribal law in my Indigenous nation, the Navajo Nation, is a well-known example of law that is distinctly Indigenous. However, Indigenous law—or what Navajo Chief Justice Robert Yazzie calls “traditional law”—is not infallible, especially when it comes to justice for gender and sexual violence. This is due, in part, to differing interpretations within Indigenous nations about what constitutes a tribal perspective on gender and sexuality.
In the Navajo context, there is great debate about the most accurate interpretation of gender and sexuality from a tribal perspective. There is also debate about how tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality should influence the conceptualization and application of traditional law and justice.
The Diné Marriage Act (DMA) of 2005, which prohibits marriage between persons of the same sex, is a prominent example of this. Advocates seeking to repeal the DMA have consistently used tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality to remove the law, claiming it is, in part, not traditional. Advocates seeking the continuation of the DMA have also used tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality to keep the law in place, claiming that it is consistent with Diné traditional law. Given ongoing debates about the DMA, it seems there is a need for analysis when it comes to the intersection of tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality, and the conceptualization and application of traditional law and justice.
In this essay, I want to explore two areas that I believe warrant further analysis. The first is the erasure of gender and sexual violence within certain definitions of matriarchy, which is a term often used (and celebrated) as a composite of tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality. The second is the cis heteronormativity that informs these same definitions of matriarchy. To celebrate matriarchy while my nation doubles down on laws like the DMA that discriminate against LGBTQ2+ relatives suggests that cis heteronormativity still dominates most interpretations of gender and sexuality from a Diné perspective.
But I do not believe Diné or other tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality need be limited to cis heteronormative interpretations. I use queer Indigenous feminism to analyze and critique the framework of matriarchy, and then offer preliminary suggestions for new directions in traditional law and justice that build on a more inclusive queer Indigenous feminist approach.
Matriarchy and the Erasure of Gender and Sexual Violence
Venaya Yazzie, who is a well-known and well-respected Diné artist, wrote an op-ed in the October 25, 2018, edition of the Navajo Times, the Navajo Nation’s popular tribal newspaper. The op-ed, which was entitled “Feminism is Against Our Culture,” made a case for why Diné women and men should reject feminism as a framework for interpreting gender and sexuality.
In that piece, Yazzie argued the following:
White feminism has infiltrated the arid desert lands of Navajo. Like the monsters that the Hero Twins battled against, I believe that the “f-word” monster roams like Coyote among our people.As Diné Asdzááni and Diné Hastoi, we collectively must be vigilant against the negative effects of the still lingering colonialism within our lands, in this case feminism. …We, women and men, have been created to complement each other physically and spiritually. It is taught in our spiritual ways that we must recognize and respect each other. How then, I asked, can we as Diné women be counteractive against our Navajo matriarchy? From the beginnings of Euro-American feminism, individualistic selfish attitudes drive feminism. So I ask, how can we, as members of extended, communal families call ourselves feminists?
… Recently I have witnessed modern Diné women labeling themselves “feminists.” I am not a feminist. That term is a germ in my opinion and has no place in our Diné culture.
… In our conscious assimilation, we are allowing white Euro-American pop culture to dictate who we are as Diné human beings. We are allowing the colonizers to (re)create us. We are allowing our sacred epistemology of Diné Iiná to be trampled upon as we take hold of the newest trends and social movements. Navajo girls, Navajo women, live in the spirit of your grandmothers, great aunts, mothers, and sisters: Be matriarch, not feminist.
At the 21st Diné Studies Conference at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, that same month, Yazzie presented a talk entitled, “Be Matriarch, Not Feminist: Perpetuating Diné Adzaa” that expressed many of these same sentiments. The combination of the Navajo Times op-ed with a formal presentation at an academic conference centered on Diné studies is telling. It signals that Yazzie considers this perspective on gender to be authoritative, or at the very least wants to persuade others to accept it as authoritative. It is also clear that Yazzie wishes to position this theory of matriarchy as a direct challenge to Indigenous feminism.
Indigenous feminism originates in the work of Indigenous women and LGBTQ2+ relatives to stop the violence they face because of colonization. As Deer and other Indigenous feminists so powerfully point out, rape and other forms of gender and sexual violence are a “settler tradition” that is “integral to conquest of the land and of Native people.” Indigenous feminism seeks not only justice for this violence, but the restoration of traditional laws that might put an end to the targeting of Indigenous women and LGBTQ2+ relatives at a societal level, and the reinstatement of customary authority for these relatives.
Indigenous feminism takes an uncompromising stance against colonial violence and envisions a future for all our relations that reflects the equality we all—LGBTQ2+, women, land, water, mountains, and otherwise—hold within the complex practices of kinship and mutual responsibility that structure our ways of life. Indigenous feminists understand that the health of our nations depends on how we respond when Indigenous women and LGBTQ2+ relatives are degraded. Indigenous feminists stipulate that only when our women and LGBTQ2+ relatives who face the most danger are once again valued, protected, and respected can we claim to be following traditional law. Indigenous feminists remind us that we must outsmart colonial knowledge to protect Indigenous lifeways, which is why Indigenous feminists critique the way tradition is sometimes used to uphold colonialism by reinforcing heteropatriarchy in tribal institutions.
Because it recognizes the ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous people, Indigenous feminism urges us to account for gender and sexual violence in our concepts and practices of traditional law and justice. Aside from demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of Indigenous feminism, Yazzie’s assertion that Indigenous feminism is colonial downplays gender and sexual violence, particularly the disproportionate violence Indigenous women and LGBTQ2+ relatives experience for simply embodying gender identities and sexualities that are seen as threatening to colonial order. This creates an environment in which protections for the dignity, safety, and human rights of Native women and LGBTQ2+ relatives are seen as contradictory to tradition, which is the case with those who defend the DMA.
However, I believe traditional law should function as protection in the face of unequal harm and danger to our relatives. Justice for gender and sexual violence, specifically, and not just generalized tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality, should therefore be central to the legibility and efficacy of tribal laws and concepts of justice informed by tradition.
Matriarchy and the Erasure of Gender and Sexual Diversity
The minimization of gender and sexual violence in Yazzie’s definition of matriarchy is not the only aspect of this perspective on gender and sexuality that troubles me. I also object to the implication that matriarchy is the only correct or comprehensive Diné theory of gender and sexuality. I fully support rematriation efforts and movements, and as a Diné woman, I embrace the beauty and power that lies in being a Diné matriarch.
However, many of our relatives do not identify within the strict gender binary of what I am assuming are a cis-hetero man and a cis-hetero woman at the center of Yazzie’s definition of matriarchy. Nor do many of our relatives believe in or practice partnerships or sexual intercourse that happen exclusively between a cis-hetero man and a cis-hetero woman. Such a definition of gender and sexuality is called heteronormativity. Heteronormativity assumes that a person’s gender identity is consistent with their sex assigned at birth (this is what the prefix ‘cis’ refers to) and that they are attracted to or have sexual intercourse exclusively with someone of the opposite sex (this is what the prefix ‘hetero’ refers to).
Heteronormativity structures everything from coupling and marriage to property and family arrangements, making it seem like cis heterosexuality is normal and superior to other kinds of gender and sexuality. When proponents of the DMA seek to prevent same-sex marriage, they invoke a heteronormative interpretation of traditional Diné attitudes on gender and sexuality, thereby reinforcing a limited concept of justice. Yazzie does the same with the definition of matriarchy that guides the op-ed.
Heteronormative interpretations of tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality run the risk of excluding Indigenous relatives who do not have heteronormative gender identities and sexualities. This includes Indigenous transwomen and transmen, lesbian, gay, and bisexual relatives, and all other relatives with queer genders and sexualities; essentially, all our relatives who identify as LGBTQ2+.
Exclusion opens the way for vilification and discrimination, which simply amplifies the harm and danger these relatives already experience due to homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia, thereby exacerbating gender and sexual violence. Indigenous women who cannot or do not have children are also excluded from such interpretations of matriarchy and, in some cases, harshly judged for seeming to fail in their role as a matriarch. Heteronormativity perpetuates the presumption that biological reproduction is the basis of gender and sexuality, particularly in definitions of Indigenous womanhood.
Extreme traditions of heteronormativity even stipulate that heterosexual marriage and intercourse should occur only for the purposes of procreation, and that the labor of social reproduction in the home, like childrearing, should be handled only by biological mothers or parents. While procreation is obviously important for the social reproduction of Indigenous nations, Indigenous women’s contributions to social reproduction—and therefore their gender identity, and sexuality—are not limited to biological reproduction or childrearing. Indigenous women contribute to the social reproduction of our nations in diverse ways; tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality—and traditional laws and forms of justice—should reflect this fact.
It is also important to note that social reproduction in kinship-based societies, like Diné society, is performed by several people (and several generations) in the extended communal families Yazzie speaks of in the op-ed, not just biological mothers or parents. We must, therefore, be careful not to assume that the gender identity and sexuality of our relatives who perform the labor of childrearing in our extended families naturally corresponds to a heteronormative frame of reference that privileges biological definitions of gender and sexuality.
Because of its heteronormativity, the definition of matriarchy that Yazzie proposes conflates gender with sex when it uses the terms “man” and “woman” to mean that one’s gender is consistent with their biological sex assigned at birth. I suggest we shift our understanding of gender away from biological definitions to social definitions. Instead of using the terms “man” and “woman,” perhaps we can use the terms “male” and “female,” and take care not to automatically attach either gender to a person’s biology.
I appreciate Deer’s term, “nonbinary complementary dualism,” which sees gender in terms of the labor of social reproduction, rather than biological determinism. Nonbinary complementary dualism is premised on all relatives having “valued roles and duties, which balance one another,” but these roles and duties are horizontally, not vertically, arranged, thus checking the tendency to think cis heteronormativity is the superior or ideal form of gender and sexuality.
Nonbinary complementary dualism also seems consistent with a kinship-oriented understanding of gender and sexuality because it places emphasis on the balance between gendered roles and duties, rather than the biology of those performing these roles and duties. It thus clarifies the difference between gender and sex and opens more flexible and diverse tribal interpretations of gender and sexuality that are not premised on biology, whether this be sex assigned at birth or procreation. And it puts an end to the exclusion of women and LGBTQ2+ relatives from traditional laws and forms of justice who do not fit into narrow interpretations of gender and sexuality that privilege cis-Indigenous people who have heterosexual intercourse for biological reproduction.
Robert Yazzie reminds us that, for Diné, “everyone knows the law” because the law is based on stories, traditions, and ceremonies that are widely practiced throughout Diné society. A central element of this law is the duality of female and male energies, which are understood to structure our origins and very existence.
The Diné worldview seems to be consistent with Deer’s observation that tribal perspectives on gender are often part of a larger gendered epistemology. If we consider the gendered duality that animates the Diné worldview, as an example of a gendered epistemology (which I think is appropriate), then it follows that traditional law and justice, and tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality are, in fact, one and the same; law and justice are only legible through tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality.
While Deer is not directly speaking about Diné perspectives on gender, her insights are helpful for understanding why there is a great deal at stake in how we, as Indigenous people, understand and interpret tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality. Our very concepts of law and justice, and how we apply these concepts, profoundly depend on the perspectives on gender and sexuality we adopt and use.
I believe queer Indigenous feminism offers a perspective on gender and sexuality that can help shape more inclusive laws and forms of justice in tribal communities that reflect the actual diversity of our nations. Queer Indigenous feminism embraces a traditional perspective on gender and sexuality that respects the duality and balance of the male and female without presuming this duality is attached to set biological attributes. Queer Indigenous feminism rejects cis heteronormativity as the measure by which all gender and sexuality is determined, instead embracing the reality of gender and sexual diversity.
This framework also values all our relations equally and seeks to restore those who have been systematically devalued by colonialism to their customary roles and duties within our nations and families, most especially Indigenous women and LGBTQ2+ relatives. While matriarchy is undoubtedly important, it may not encompass other key elements or considerations for tribal perspectives on gender and sexuality.
Queer Indigenous feminism, on the other hand, encompasses (and values) matriarchy, but does not limit definitions of gender and sexuality to a matriarchal perspective. Queer Indigenous feminism is certainly less popular than matriarchy as an Indigenous theory of gender and sexuality, but it provides a more flexible and comprehensive approach because it insists that traditional laws center justice for gender and sexual violence and acceptance of gender and sexual diversity.
I therefore suggest we consider a queer Indigenous feminist approach to guide the philosophy and application of traditional law and justice within contemporary tribal institutions.
 Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), xv.
 Deer, The Beginning and End, 30.
 Robert Yazzie, “Healing as Justice: The Navajo Response to Crime,” in Justice as Healing: Indigenous Ways: Writings on Community Peacemaking and Restorative Justice from the Native Law Centre, ed. Wanda D. McCaslin (St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2005), 121.
 Venaya Yazzie, “Feminism is Against Our Culture,” Navajo Times, October 25, 2018, https://navajotimes.com/opinion/letters/letters-feminism-is-against-our-culture/.
 Nick Estes, Melanie K. Yazzie, Jennifer Nez Denetdale, and David Correia, Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation (Oakland: PM Press, 2021), 62.
 Deer, The Beginning and End, 19.
 Deer, The Beginning and End, 19.
 Yazzie, “Healing as Justice,” 126.
 Deer, The Beginning and End, 19.