In the Name of Solidarity (Queer and Indigenous)

I continue to think about our upcoming panel at the Transnational American Studies Conference at the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut (January 6-8, 2014).

Indebted to conversations with Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) and Kehaulani Kauanui (Kanaka Maoli), though I take full responsibility for the problems here.

One of the most difficult political issues of solidarity between lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (herein queer) and indigenous communities in the United States and Canada concerns the politics of identity.
Two quick qualifications—or deferrals—that matter. 1.) Queer and indigenous are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories of identity and experience: of course, there are queer indigenous. 2) The politics of identity associated with queer appropriations of indigenous cultures—teachings, spirituality, and ceremonies—is the usual direction of these kinds of musings.
My comments for here are written to queer allies of indigenous peoples in their struggles against the heteronormative imperial formations of U.S. and Canadian society.
 
What I am concerned with is how the politics of identifying and being identified as queer is often conflated with the politics of identifying and being identified as indigenous in ways that presume sameness and solidarity. These presumptions seem to lead to the obfuscation of historical and social understanding and can undermine the kind of ethics of cultural relationship and responsibility needed for any viable practice of queer solidarity with indigenous communities.
ID Queer
Historically and socially, identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer has been dangerous in a legal system and culture predicated on criminalizing, eradicating, and harassing queer people. It has come with great personal expense to one’s sense of belonging and well-being. It has come with hate, despise, and confusion. It has resulted in public and interpersonal rejections, denunciations, and bullying. Fred Martinez, Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, Scott Jones, Luke Fleishman and too many others have been beaten, set on fire, tortured, raped, murdered, and incarcerated because of who they are (and are not).
In some ways, what these experiences have meant for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer is a strong sense of the right and the risk in identifying and being identified. Identity, in other words, is not easily claimed or lived. It takes a lot to say and be who you are.
These experiences have also meant deep empathy for those who chose not to identify and genuine disgust for those who are queer and publicly condemn homosexuality for the sake of their careers or status.
ID Indigenous
Historically and socially, identifying or being identified as indigenous has been dangerous. Policy-sanctioned (and financially compensated) public murders of indigenous people occurred throughout north America. Physical and sexual violence against indigenous people occurred without consequence and were often popularly condoned. Indigenous peoples have been beaten, tortured, raped, murdered, and incarcerated because of who they are (and are not). And this is not something of the past. Vern Traversie, a blind and elderly Lakota man of South Dakota, was branded with “KKK” by a Rapid City surgeon. Patty Dawson, a Navajo/San Carlos Apache woman, was beaten on a public street to unconsciousness by a woman in Fresno, California.
At the same time, people have falsely and fraudulently claimed to be indigenous in order to gain access to indigenous lands and resources and to undermine indigenous governance. The zenith of this kind of fraud is conventionally understood to have occurred during the allotment period (1887-1930), but it occurred before then and has continued through today—as non-indigenous people attempt to secure revenue shares and property rights in and on trust lands and away from indigenous people.
In some ways, what these experiences have meant for indigenous governments are stringent citizenship (membership) criteria and the preservation of extant genealogical documentation to ensure that only those individuals who are verifiable lineal descendants are extended citizenship status (enrollment).
In other ways, while many indigenous people have much empathy for those who cannot enroll (for all kinds of reasons, including corrupt leadership), there is a genuine concern about those who claim to be indigenous and yet have no lineal ties to the community with which they identify. No immediate family, no extended relations, no one who recognizes or claims them to be related.
Some Differences That Matter
Lots of issues here, but I want to focus on the queer politics of indigenous alliance.
It can be the case that presumptions of the historical and social dangers of identifying and being identified as queer can be read in problematic ways into the historical and social dangers of identifying and being identified as indigenous. Not being claimed or recognized by your family because you have identified yourself as queer is not the same thing as not being claimed by a community or family that you have identified yourself with as a member or descendant.
One of the important differences concerns lineality. Not genetic inheritance, not DNA, not blood quantum, not enrollment status. Lineality as in a relationship of/to belonging. Lineality as being related to (descended from)—by birth, by naturalization, by adoption. As in being claimed and known; as in belonging; as in a set of relationships and responsibilities to one another (family, citizenship, ceremonial).
Another difference is ethics. The ethics of the closet are not the ethics of affiliation.
For queer people, identifying and being identified can be understood as an individual right that puts at risk one’s familial and interpersonal relationships. Deciding not to come out, and deciding to come out, is about how an individual navigates these risks. (This is not to suggest that everyone experiences “being out” in the same way or as an option.) Much outrage exists for those who do not come out and who work to conceal their sexuality by denigrating “homosexuality.” Much empathy exists for those who do not come out and project asexuality or allow themselves to pass for the sake of survival in an environment of violence, hate, and misunderstanding.
These negotiations are not the same for indigenous peoples.
The expectation among many indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada is that an individual who identifies a group in parenthesis after their name—“Jane Doe (Cherokee)”—is claiming to be a citizen or member of one of the Cherokee nations (i.e., the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina). An individual who identifies “as a descendent of” a group—“John Doe is a descendant of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma”—is claiming genealogical lineage but also that they do not possess official citizenship or membership in the group. The distinction between enrollment and descent is a legal one but both point to lineal relations to a specific community. In these examples, both Does are claiming a lineality as Cherokee that implies a set of cultural relationships and responsibilities to a specific Cherokee community (a “tribe”).
These identifications—of enrollment, of descent—matter in the context of a four hundred year old history of struggle against European and American genocide, dispossession (removal), and forced assimilation programs aimed at eradicating all things Cherokee in order to secure Cherokee lands, resources, and labor. They also matter in the context of the rampant fraud of claims to being Cherokee in order to secure access to Cherokee lands, resources, and revenue. Cherokee nations have their own criteria and protocols for identifying lineality (represented in the differences between claims of enrollment and claims of descent).
And, of course, there is a swirling mess of social and interpersonal politics in how Cherokee nations and citizens have developed and enforced their enrollment criteria—often as a substitute for their cultural protocols and often in violation of their treaties. But those messes do not trump their sovereignty: it is not an issue of whether or not the Cherokee are sovereign but what kind of sovereignty they define for themselves in practice.
Solidarity
 
Some questions for discussion:
  • Can queer allies ignore or deflect without suppressing concerns about an individual’s claimed affiliation with an indigenous group (enrollment or descent, lineality)?
  • What responsibilities do queer allies have to the politics of indigenous identity, to the politics of enrollment and descent, to the politics of lineality?
  • Do queer allies unwittingly endorse or condone histories of colonialism (genocide, dispossession, forced assimilation, fraud) by embracing those who claim to be and are not in the name of solidarity?
  • What ethics are possible for queer allies in the relation that they have to ongoing histories of colonization by identity fraud?
  • What responsibilities do indigenous peoples have to inform queer (and other) allies about fraudulent claims to enrollment, descent, affiliation?
  • How do the politics of “identity policing” frame, or hinder, effective political solidarity?

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