Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Review: Living The Spirit

(Living The Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe Co-ordinating Editor. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.)

My actual work has been going more slowly than I'd hoped this week, for a variety of reasons, so I only have time to do a few quick words about this book. It is a compilation of essays about the past and the present, stories, poetry, and visual art. Most of the contributors come from nations whose territory is now considered part of the United States, but there are a few from farther north, including a couple of great short stories by Beth Brant of Bay of Quinte, whom I'd heard of before.

I had gotten a hint before of the ways in which sexual and gender regulation were vastly different (in diverse ways) in pre-contact Aboriginal societies than in European traditions. This book also feels like it is just a start at unearthing those realities, but it is important because it is the voices of gay and lesbian Aboriginal people themselves.

Before colonization, a number of Aboriginal nations had traditions in which people could embrace the dress and work of the other gender and thereby be considered either that gender or a third or fourth gender. In this book, the French word "berdache" was used as a general term to describe men who engaged in these practices. There was also acceptance, in many nations, of some kinds of same-gender and same-sex sexuality, sometimes connected with changes in gender identification and sometimes not. People who went down these paths were sometimes looked down upon, sometimes just accepted, and sometimes regarded as sacred.

The scope of the tragedy of colonization -- the completeness of the destruction of ways of living -- hit home for me again not only through the text but also from the photographs of the last few known men who had lived as berdaches in traditional ways. I was struck by the different ways there could be of reading the content of those images. Some people would probably take them as markers for exoticness, yet another ounce of racist weight added to the so-called evidence that Aboriginal people were/are "different" and "weird" and "other." Some fundamentalists probably would even take them as evidence that Christianizing and colonization were for the best, if traditional cultures allowed for that sort of shenanigans.

But really these are just photos of ordinary people who found a way to live who they were, and one note of the symphony of tragedy that is North America's genocide is that the niches in which they could exist never had the chance to evolve peacefully -- they were cut short, and now folks like those who contributed to this book are having to reinvent from scratch, more often than not, ways to be queer and Aboriginal in North America.

It's worth a read.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Idyllopus said...

I was wondering if there are any stories and/or photos from borderland prairie/woodlands nations (Otoe, Missouria, Omaha etc).

Scott said...

Hmmm...none of the nations you specifically mention, I don't think, but I don't know that area well enough to be sure I'd catch the ones you mean by "etc". Let me just have another look...the photos that I talk about are from Navajo, Crow, Acoma, Zuni, and Tolowa nations.

The nations of people contributing text are: Laguna Pueblo/Sioux, Mohawk, Anishnawbe, Cree, Navajo, Tlingit, Hupa, Winnebago, Wintu, Menominee, Seminole/Choctaw/Chickasaw/Cherokee, Lakota/Southern Cheyenne/Aztec, Oglala Sioux, Koyukon-Athabascan, Appalacian/Cherokee, Yankton Sioux, Ojibwa, Comanche/Yuchi, Maidu, and Yupik Eskimo.

The chart at the back of the book mentions that both the Oto and the Omaha have berdache roles.

Idyllopus said...

Steve thanks for checking. The nations I was specifically thinking of were Otoe, Missouria, Omaha, Ioway, Ojibwa. Mainly I just like to be on the lookout for photos, but the subjects is also interesting.

Again, thanks for having taken the time to look for me.