When Did the Indians Become Straight?: A Review
Mark Rifkin shows how the “romance plot” of “normal” heterosexuality and the nuclear family was used to justify destruction of the fabric of Indian life and set the stage for settler claims on Indian territory.
Sallustius wrote of the myths of Attis that, “This never happened but it always is.” It’s appropriate for Mark Rifkin to open his literary exploration of When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty with a quote from an emerging American myth-maker, former Senator Rick Santorum: “It’s common sense that a marriage is between a man and a woman. I mean, every civilization in the history of man has recognized a unique bond.” Rifkin shows that the operative word in Santorum’s statement is “civilization,” which Santorum and others have defined as based on “heterocentric” nuclear families consisting of mom, dad, and dependent children. People with different family structures, such as Native Americans prior to the 20th century, are inherently “uncivilized” and thus subject to deprivation.
Rifkin, Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, does not use the word “myth.” His book is in the vernacular of contemporary Marxist academia, where the words “interpellation,” “tropes,” and “topos” can all appear in the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence. Instead of myth he writes of a “romance plot” — a “narration of native communities as properly divided into distinct households each organized around conjugal couplehood.” This romance plot is set against the reality of native “kinship,” which recognizes a much wider spectrum of possible familial relationships, including certain same-sex relationships. Rifkin shows how the romance plot was used to justify destruction of the fabric of Indian life and set the stage for settler claims on Indian territory, just as Santorum and his ideological kin deploy their myths to try to diminish the lives of some people today.
When Did Indians Become Straight? contains an examination of selected works of fictional and semi-fictional American literature from the 17th – 20th centuries, supported by a smattering of ethnological reports as well as primary and official documents. The heavy lifting of factual material has already been done by researchers including Jonathan Ned Katz (Gay American History, 1994) and Will Roscoe (The Zuni Man-Woman, 1991) who have freed Rifkin to analyze the philosophical basis for the actions of government, settlers and natives. Rifkin assumes his readers are familiar with the role of LBGTs in Native American culture, so little of that background is provided. Rifkin also assumes familiarity with his literary sources, and I wish I had read them prior to embarking on When Did Indians Become Straight?
James Seaver’s Narration of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) is Rifkin’s initial focus. It’s the first-person account of a 15-year old white female settler who was taken captive in 1755 and then adopted by the Senecas. She adapted to Seneca life, married a Delaware Indian, and became fully integrated into their kinship system – as much an Indian as if she had been born into it. After being widowed, she married a Seneca, becoming a “clan mother” and negotiator for the Senecas in their dealings with the U.S. To Rifkin, the most interesting part of the story comes toward the end, when Jemison, then in her eighties, was persuaded by powerful speculators, operating as the Ogden Land Company, to sell some of her property on the Gardeau reservation. As an Indian, she did not have the right to do that, so she had to arrange to become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Rifkin quotes Ann Laura Stoler saying, “the question of who would be a ‘subject’ and who a ‘citizen’ converged on the sexual politics of race.” In the end, Jemison’s “whiteness” outweighed her Indian kinship, she was granted U.S. citizenship, and sold the reservation lands. Through this conversion (or erasure) of assumed identity, and reversion to the identity produced at her conception, the treaties and agreements protecting the Indians were circumvented. The overgenerous Seneca system of kinship was trumped. The story echoes themes in Rifkin’s 2009 monograph, Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space, which also explored the use of legal narratives to undermine Native American constructions of space and protests against this.
Next up is James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans (1826) which, to Rifkin, “can be read as part of a process of hegemony . . . providing a way of narrating the emergent war of position that recodes political conflict as less the result of imperial imposition than the natural laws of family formulation.” Geopolitics, he notes, are converted into biopolitics. Once the conversion occurs, sexuality becomes the basic political and economic marker. Maybe true, but Cooper would no doubt be amused to learn this. Rifkin glosses over the homoerotic nature of the relationship between the white-blooded deerslayer Hawkeye and his red-blooded companion Chingachgook and pays more attention to their racial loyalties – white hero and minority sidekick – which are portrayed by Cooper as ultimately insurmountable factors, even as the novel fades out on their happily ever after togetherness. In Cooper’s novel, according to Rifkin, blood is always thicker than other bodily fluids.
The historical romance Hope Leslie: or Early times in the Massachusetts (Catherine Maria Sedgwick, 1827) features, in Rifkin’s description, “networks of care and concern that not only breach the increasing nuclear insularity of bourgeois homemaking but create lateral bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood defined in terms other than those of literal biological relatedness.” He asks, “Might we describe such an effort to decenter the conjugal imaginary as a project of queering family?” I suppose we might, if we define “queer” as any deviation from strictly Euro-American heterosexuality, a position Rifkin appears to agree with.
In 1889, Thomas J. Morgan, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, issued his Supplemental Report on Indian Education, a terrifying blueprint for solving “the Indian Problem” by destroying all vestiges of their traditional life. 15,000 Indian children were removed from the reservations and sent to boarding schools to learn to be “individuals.” As Rifkin points out, “monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, and privatized homemaking are necessary conditions for the ideological and material (re)production of this generic individual.” Gender specific manual training defined their roles as men or women. Commissioner Morgan wrote, “The reservation system is an anachronism which has no place in our modern civilization. The Indian youth should be instructed in their rights, privileges, and duties as American citizens; … should be imbued with a genuine patriotism, and made to feel that the United States, and not some paltry reservation is their home.” Conveniently, Morgan’s plans released “millions of acres of ‘surplus’ land for settlement and development.” Property, it seems, was what it was all about. Even the Indian names had to be changed to conform with the American system of assigning a man’s name to his wife and children, to avoid “needless confusion” regarding the inheritance of their newly individualized property.
Three quarters of the way through When Did Indians Become Straight?, Rifkin shifts his attention from various forms of kinship, to the second element of his subtitle, sexuality. Harry Hay’s promotion of the “Radical Faerie” gatherings with their notable identification with American Indian tradition, fits well here. Following his pioneering gay rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, Hay’s research into Native American culture led him to discover the important role of the Two-spirit (sometimes called berdache) in Indian society. These men who occupied traditionally female gender roles, or women who occupied male roles, were respected and in fact specially honored members of the clans. Hay recognized the unity of modern LBGT people with “Third Gender Brothers” in cultures of the “Third and Fourth Worlds.” There he found the acceptance lacking in the First World of America and Europe for those who are neither entirely male or female.
Finally we reach the 1960s-90s via Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Drowning in Fire : a Novel (01 Edition) (2001) by Craig Womack. Feinberg’s novel follows Jess Goldberg, a differently gendered Jewish girl as she finds herself among the Mohawk and Seneca women working in Buffalo’s factories during the 1960s. Womack’s sensual coming-of-age story centers on two Creek boys who find sanction for their love in the traditions of their heritage.
The ideas contained in Rifkin’s book are fresh, provocative, and vital to understanding the American past, present and future. It is a scholarly work, perhaps not suitable for many non-academic readers. At times I felt I was in a post-graduate echo chamber – the bibliography lists over 400 “works cited”, almost all of which are from university presses or scholarly journals. The style is dense and sometimes overwrought. I would welcome a popular book on this important topic.
Rifkin’s presentation is at times overconfident. On more than one occasion he draws significant conclusions from what is “missing” from his source texts, without demonstrating that the material was intentionally elided. For instance, Zitkala-Ŝa is criticized for leaving “winktes” (Lakota Two-Spirits) out of her American Indian Stories. Of course, queers have been often left out or hidden from history, but Rifkin does not convince the reader that these particular omissions were intentional or meaningful.
Like many books, this one cannot be judged by its cover. A stocky stoic Indian warrior in full battle dress is shadowed by a slim, sultry queer male Indian in a fur boa. The text inside is nowhere near as salacious. Subtitling the book “The History of Sexuality” is unjustified, since sexuality plays a relatively minor role. (“First study to combine queer theory and Native studies in ways not focused on ‘two-spirit’ or ‘third gender’” proclaims the OUP page.) As near as I can tell, the title question, “When did the Indians become straight?” is answered no more definitively than sometime between about 1492 and 1900.
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