We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Navajo Wedding

This is our first guest blog post! Welcome to the next phase of the Chumash Science Through Time blog where we will feature guest blogs from Indigenous writers talking about Indigenous Science. The following essay from Nazbah Tom gives us a chance to reflect on the ways that ceremony and kinship are key parts of Indigenous ways knowing and being. Ceremony and kinship practices are sites of knowledge transmission– from specialists to the community and across generations.


 

The Hogan – a Navajo dwelling – where my wife and I had our wedding was the same Hogan I helped build when I was six years old. I remember the trucks pulling in long logs of trees felled in Colorado and driving the three hours journey to our home in Arizona on flat bed trailers. My job, along with my cousin, was to shave the bark off with our small hatchets until its structure of brown roof and smoke hole was complete. Later we helped with the plastering to form a log cabin style eight-sided Hogan resembling straightened interlaced fingers patiently waiting or listening to the whispers of the desert around it. It took our community of kin to create this dwelling, and it took a community of women to defend our use of it for our queer wedding ceremony. Just as the women work hard to make bread and butcher for such gatherings, it was the women who fought for our right to have the first two-spirit ceremony on our reservation since colonization.

Growing up, I was tomboyish. With my cousins in my peer group being mostly boys I preferred t-shirts and jeans. This annoyed my mother who tried for several years to get me to like dresses and stockings. My mother eventually let me wear what I wanted to wear. It was obvious in the way I walked through the world that I was different. My extended family also knew before I did that I was queer, so the news of my wedding was not surprising. It wasn’t surprising that we would be faced with conflict over hosting the wedding at the Hogan either. And it wasn’t surprising that the women of our family stepped up to protect us from homophobic backlash and protect our culture’s respect for two-spirit partnership and medicine.

Out of love and acceptance, my mother managed to put together our wedding in just one day. She pleaded with my uncle, a medicine man, to officiate the wedding. She drove around to various locations to collect supplies and food for the event. And just before the ceremony, my mother pushed back on my eldest brother who felt our wedding ought to be held in some other location and not at the Hogan.

“It’s not traditional,” my brother argued.

“You have two choices,” my mother told him plainly. “You can show up and support your sibling tomorrow, or you can leave like you always do without a word to anyone.” He showed up the next morning and helped to assemble the canopies.

My sisters confronted cousins who showed up to the wedding uninvited.

“You are welcomed to be here with us but know that we will ask you to leave if you say anything homophobic,” my eldest sister said, firmly. She added, knowing the cousins’ religious affiliations and political views, “We know where the Mormon church stands regarding queer people, so don’t try anything.” To add heft to their argument, my sisters brought our eldest aunt who is active in the Mormon church and came in the spirit of Ké, or kinship. Our cousins laughed nervously but understood the boundary that was drawn.

Another boundary was drawn by my uncle’s wife. Being the partner of the medicine man and officiant to our wedding, she spoke with confidence and authority when another uncle interjected during our ceremony.

“Are same-sex unions done traditionally?” the uncle smugly asked, mocking our sacred moment.

Without hesitation, she offered a teaching to the guests inside the Hogan about the wedding basket, keeping traditions alive, being open to challenging what is common practice. She reminded this uncle that all of our traditions and practices are for everyone regardless of sex or gender. It’s the practice that we all must keep alive if we are to continue on as a people. These traditions are older than United States of America. Older than the armed forces many of the veterans in the room had participated in. And fighting our ceremony, would go against Ké, kinship. Needless to say, he sat with a tight face and crossed arms having been put in his place by a woman.

Their fight for us was not in vain. Just as the Hogan is sealed and patched up over and over again to maintain it against the harsh desert wind, the women’s work is what helped us observe our beautiful ceremony against the winds of disapproval.

It felt like coming home in a different way, to be seen and held in my full self in front of both family and friends as we went through the motions of our wedding. A wedding basket was filled with corn mush, which my wife and I shared as a symbol of our union. We washed our hands using a water jug as a symbol of us cleansing off the old and joining together in our new life.

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My brother, who once expressed his disapproval of our marriage, took a moment to say a few words of support and encouragement during dinner when folks were invited to share a few thoughts. Our aunties contributed blessings and gifts to my new wife. After the wedding, we moved outside to feed our guests in the warm evening. Folks lined up and eagerly consumed the stewed meat and frybread. It was in this warm evening with full bellies and easy laughter that relatives and friends made toasts to us as a married couple. Aunties, siblings, and cousins all wished us well. My mother was the last to speak and she reminded us that this whole occasion is in support of both of us, that my aunties respect both of us, and love us very much.

As she was speaking this, my line of sight takes in the many people who are with us, family and friends, as well as the Hogan that has witnessed so many ceremonies. Behind the Hogan, about 50 yards away is the house I grew up in. There is nothing left but the outline of where the house used to be, an old tree that my father planted long ago, and disconnected power lines dangling from a wooden utility pole. Just as both homes show, what you take care of, mend, and tend to is what you keep alive. We are each other’s Hogan, each other’s ceremony. It is the woman who have done this for many generations. Our people have lived here through attempted genocide and relocation of our people by the Spanish and later the U.S. government. We are still here also through such laws as the 2005 Marriage Act that the Navajo Nation passed declaring that unions such as ours are illegal. We specifically chose to enter into a traditional Navajo wedding to let our relatives know, in this realm and in spirit world, that as long as we pledge allegiance to the earth, to our traditions, and to each other, no westernized law will match us in its vision and longevity.

One of my other aunts told us how after my grandmother passed away several years ago, that the Hogan sat unused. Family didn’t visit with each other and what could be called depression set in for many. It was my cousin who suggested that the family get together for one of the holidays inside the Hogan after she noticed what was happening. They cleaned up the Hogan, repaired it, and slowly over the years returned to the Hogan with holiday celebrations, seasonal ceremonies, and now, weddings. My aunt wiped tears from her eyes as she told this story. She was happy that the Hogan was back in our family, holding all of us in our journeys through this world, just like a mother does.

My mother, sisters, my aunties, all have an allegiance to the preservation of life. They understand what it means to fight hunger, sickness, and cold every day. Their battle is to bring life and to sustain it at all costs. My allegiance as a queer person who is choosing to redefine masculinity is to pledge my allegiance to the women in my life, these women who fought for me to be me and love who I love, to the feminine, knowing they have been sustaining our ways of life since before first contact.

Now, it is my turn to maintain this Hogan, this ceremony of life. As I write this, we know of some friends who are also hoping to have a traditional Navajo wedding on the rez next year. We are asking our uncle if he can officiate as they have been unsuccessful in asking folks they know to officiate. He is taking time to think about it. My wife suggested that I should learn how to officiate weddings so that we can support others. This is not surprising to hear since she also shared her gratitude and introduced herself to her new family at the wedding during the toasts. She reminded us all that as queer folks one of our jobs is to challenge what has been considered traditional and to fight for our place in our community. I am proud to be making a life with her. In this spirit, I will ask him what I need to do and learn in order to officiate in the future. I am that child again, six years old, shaving off bark with a small hatchet, helping to build a future in which love in all shapes and forms is recognized over the intricate patterns of a Navajo wedding basket. This is our next step as we reclaim our traditions and practices.

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Nazbah Tom, a queer Diné. They believe we are always moving towards healing and their work supports that process using somatic theory, practice, and hands on bodywork. As a writer their work focuses on poetry, prose, and film. They are a part of a few anthologies and online journals. They do their best to capture poems and stories haunting them at all hours of the day. As a guest on this land in Tkaronto, their goal is to continue to build community and power with local Indigenous folks who have taken care of this land for thousands of years.


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