My Diné Child Will Hunt, Bead and Everything in Between

“You girls are the talk of the ice-fishing derby!”

I get that a lot. When we’re out hunting or fishing, my wife Suzanne and I are frequently the only women (much less queer women) present. In this case, we were a group of five queer and non-binary friends, competing in an ice-fishing derby in rural Colorado. People were understandably curious about us.

I’ve been surprising people this way since I was a little girl. Suzanne and I were both more likely to be found climbing a tree or digging in the dirt than playing with Barbies. I always went hunting with dad and my brothers. And I learned a lot of things on my own that they couldn’t teach me – things like menstruating in the woods.

I grew up to be the person I am, regardless of the gendered socialization imposed on me by the world. But sometimes I wonder if I missed out on some really important stuff.

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One side of my family is Diné. I spent a lot of time with women in my family since I was blessed to have five generations of women alive at once – experiences my childhood peers did not understand. I learned so much from my mother and my grandma about what it means to be a woman. Navajo is a matriarchal culture and yet it’s also been colonized and influenced by patriarchy. Still, my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother, they all taught me that being a woman is important to our culture and to the generations that will come after me. I remember my Kinaaldá ceremony – a coming of age ceremony for young women who begin their flow. The ceremony is a multi-day ceremony, testing a young woman’s physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance. Being a Diné woman is the core of my identity, and those lessons from my grandmothers are some of the most valuable I’ve ever learned.

But the other side of my family, my dad’s side, is white. Irish, specifically. They have their own cultural traditions around connecting with nature through hunting and fishing. I insisted on learning from him, and he was eager to teach. He taught me how to bait a hook, how to gut an elk, and how to clean a fish. These are things Navajo girls are not traditionally taught. In fact, some would even look down on Navajo women being involved in these practices. For me, I believe every child should have a person in their life that takes the time to teach them valuable skills and how to respect wildlife – no matter their gender.

Suzanne and I are starting to think about making our own family one day. We’ve even begun building our own cradle board and beading little moccasins. When I imagine our little one, I want the world for them. I don’t want them shut up in a box of gendered expectations and limitations. I want all the richness of every cultural tradition in their background to be available to them, every opportunity available and every door open.

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Growing up bi-racial, I found myself answering a lot of questions about my skin that other little kids didn’t have to answer. Am I white or am I Indian? For a long time, I often thought of myself as never being enough. I’m never white enough to be white and I’m never Indian enough to be Indian. But as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve found resources like the Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People, I now recognize that I’m more than enough. My life is extraordinarily rich with identity and culture – and our baby’s life will be too! Being forced to choose one identity over another is a limitation I never want our kids to face. In our home, our kids never have to choose between performing “girl” or “boy” – they will have the full range of human emotion and experience available to them.

We’ve started to talk to our friends and family about it already. We’ve got to start early, because I never want to hear the words “that toy’s for boys!” uttered in my home, even if it’s not coming from me or Suzanne. Far more than biology, it’s the attitudes of the people in our lives that will shape our kiddo’s understanding of what it means to be who they are – boy or girl. And so far, our community has been very open to and supportive of us. Actually, the trickiest part has just been starting these conversations. How do people like us – people who don’t fit typical gender stereotypes – start a conversation about the harm of gender norms?

The most genuine place to start is to share our own experiences and that can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. People don’t always know how to react when I talk about the glares my gender non-conforming wife gets when she walks into public restrooms, or the misogynistic remarks from the guy across the counter when I buy my annual hunting license.

I recognize that we can’t protect our baby from a world that genders literally everything. There is a scientific consensus that says even the toys we give our kids to play with shape their development to an extreme degree. Kitchen sets promote language skills and cognitive sequencing. Legos and blocks build spatial skills needed for math and science. Dolls promote empathy and care-taking. Cars, planes, and plastic powertools encourage development in mechanics and problem-solving. Superheroes and sports gear promote physical health and activity. Every child needs a healthy balance of all of these skills. Sticking to blue toys or pink limits a child’s stimulation, experiential learning, and overall skill development. Gendered toys and gender norms actually harm the way children think.

Enforcing gender norms is a kind of violence. Men have shorter lifespans on average because of cultural expectations that drive people assigned male at birth to take physical risks and avoid doctors. People of all genders who defy the binary or transition genders have even lower life expectancies. Women and girls are pressured to harm themselves by unhealthy societal norms of body shaming.

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If the kids we have one day are anything like us, there’s a good chance they will be gender non-conforming. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure they get to grow up exactly as they are, following their passions and interests wherever they lead, without limitation. No matter their gender, I look forward to taking them to our family hunting spot and climbing an old pine tree that overlooks a valley of aspen that I know as well as I know myself – taking a pocket knife and helping them carve their name into our decades-old elk stand. And waiting for the birds to chirp, the squirrels to wake and the sounds of nature to fill the day.🌲

edited by rachel.

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Nellis Kennedy-Howard is the Sierra Club’s Director of Equity, Inclusion and Justice where she leads the effort to transform Sierra Club into an organization that welcomes and values people from all walks of life. Nellis is an attorney with certificates in Federal Indian Law and Natural Resources Law, and previously served as Senior Campaign Representative of the Beyond Coal campaign in the Southwest region. Prior to working for Sierra Club, Nellis spent four years working alongside Winona LaDuke as Co-Executive Director at the national Native environmental non-profit organization, Honor the Earth. She became an environmentalist after she learned of the country's largest uranium spill, which took place just miles from her family's home on the Navajo Reservation and which has been poisoning generations of her family ever since.

Nellis has written 1 article for us.


  1. I just wanted to say I really, really liked this bit, and that I was so shocked and delighted to see something on this site inclusive of a rural point of view!! I learned to hunt and fish and camp and all those things, and I think that sort of country upbringing I had shaped so much of who I am, the way I see myself, and often i feel so alone in the community, where there seems to be one narrative that exists regarding rural life.

    Thank you so much for writing it and publishing it!

  2. Great essay! Thank you and best of luck with the little ones. My own experience taught me that the gendered world always finds a way to influence a child’s self-image. It’s the kind elderly neighbor showing up with the gift of a Barbie doll, the kids who bring gender baggage to school, and the media filling a child’s mind with ideas about “proper” behavior and presentation. It’s a battle, but one well worth the fight.

  3. Thank you for writing and sharing this. The way I spent one on one time or had meaningful conversations with my dad was out hunting or training bird dogs. But as much as I loved the time with my dad and felt at home in the fields and woods, I couldn’t escape being “the girl going hunting” and how much the fact of my girl-ness was what made my interest in hunting different and surprising. I’m not a great shot but I still miss crisp mornings in the field with the dogs and my dad, and if I ever had a kid that’s something important I’d want to pass on. Even growing up in hunting culture it’s so easy to vilify – but my dad is a passionate environmentalists, loves his dogs and respects the birds they hunt together. I’m so glad our generation can work on reclaiming that form of connection to our pasts and the land and our cultures, and actively work to reject the harm of patriarchy, colonization, racism, ableism…the list goes on

  4. It goes a long way when an adult gives a child space to be who they are and support them in their interests. Thanks grandpa for seeing me. It made all the difference in the world.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I always wished I had learned more of the skills my brother was taught in boy scouts, not that I don’t love embroidery and gardening and all the other hobbies I’ve developed. I’ve begun thinking about raising children (far, far in the future!) and how to raise them with access to every ‘gendered’ activity, and this essay rings very true.

  6. Thank you for this essay! Great to see a hunter’s perspective here. (And a beader’s too!)

  7. This was so great! I am greedy for more… article series? Novel? Memoir?? I need to know everything about that ice fishing derby!

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