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Features / May 23, 2018

What Do We Mean by Queer Indigenous Ethics?

Billy-Ray Belcourt and Lindsay Nixon discuss the ways in which queer and trans Indigenous folks enact another kind of art and theory
Fallon Simard, Anxiety, 2017. Meme printed on giclee, 127 x 97 cm. Fallon Simard, Anxiety, 2017. Meme printed on giclee, 127 x 97 cm.

With the support of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, academic and writer Billy-Ray Belcourt completed a series of articles for Canadian Art over the last year, in collaboration with our Indigenous Editor-at-Large Lindsay Nixon. In this conversation—the last of this series—Belcourt talks with Nixon about the future of Indigenous thought as it relates to queerness.

Queer Indigenous Methods

Billy-Ray Belcourt: Let’s begin with the ways in which we operationalize queer, trans and/or two-spirit as analytic. To paraphrase Jasbir Puar, what does queer indigeneity conduct? I am interested less and less in uncovering a genre of experience from the graveyard of Indigenous history that we might call queer. This means that I am most curious now about what queer indigeneity does: the sort of possibilities, affective spheres, intimacies, modes of ethical life, paradoxes, and temporal and atmospheric disturbances it elicits.

Lindsay Nixon: As a self-proclaimed relational ethics nerd, I consider how queer ethics can (and can’t) intervene in Indigenous life. My own queer ethics are a relational way of being that I learned in the street by being, doing, enacting, creating and resisting in the world in real time alongside my scrappy queer youth kin. My formative years as a writer and creator were spent alongside queer youth in community-organizing, where I inherited queer relational philosophies through art and literature. I take up queer because of how I align my own experiences and identities, and as a way of repping the spaces that have loved me and nurtured my growth. My queer Indigenous kin raised me. In many instances, we didn’t have queer and trans mentors, or the support of our cisgender and straight Elders. We had to teach one another what it meant to occupy gender-diverse and sexually diverse roles within community.

I do most of my #QueerIndigenousEthics research on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and other online communities in which queer Indigenous youth are disseminating lived values in quippy GIFs, memes and infographics. Fallon Simard made a series of memes that play with the idea of using social media for the rapid-share of revolutionary ideas, and speaks to how younger generations are thinking about and enacting queer ethics in art, outside of settler-colonial institutions like universities and art museums. Examples of how I’ve seen queer ethics operationalized by youth creators include using creative memes to enact reciprocity with kin and to circulate self-help ideologies and relational betterment concepts, such as negotiation of boundaries and consent protocols.

B: What you identify here is the uninstitutional condition of queer Indigenous ethics. I’ve argued elsewhere that queerness and indigeneity, that queer indigeneity, pressurizes thought as such. By this I mean that at the level of metaphysics it elides analytic capture. So, for example, the concept of sovereignty, which is a charismatic concept in Indigenous studies, cannot be the ideational house for those of us who are queer and/or trans Indigenous and two-spirit. Sovereignty is a charismatic concept, which means that it galvanizes inquiry en masse. It swallows up a host of meta-concepts that do not stand the test of intellectual time like it does. So, it is not just that we experience multi-faceted forms of oppression that “race” itself cannot fully account for; it is also that we participate in relational practices that agitate the body or the nation as inviolable containers for political life. Anything can become a site of severance, even the concepts to which we are most devoted. There are, of course, two valences of severance at play here: the ways in which we are made vulnerable to a host of political violences as a symptom of state power, and the ways in which we are beholden to others for our survivability—think Butler’s seminal claim that the ontological condition of being in the world is that we are in it with others, that we are made and unmade by those around us.

Queerness, then, makes trouble for the diagnostics that are used to spot resistance or to repair suffering; sex, for example, can be a space in which care is enacted by those who have elsewhere been barred from it. What this means, then, is that those who are Indigenous and differently gendered and/or sexualized will seek and/or perform alternative sites of political action and community-building. Simard’s art is an instructive example of this: there is a campy excess to the memes. One of them reads “i can’t breathe” and it is stylized with a blurred, crumpled paper bag, likely to signify a panic attack in which one’s breathing is de-rhythmed. In the Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Art, I argued that Simard does this to get at the biosocial component of settler colonialism. That Simard makes use of the form of the meme is critical because its theoretical and aesthetic animus is a makeshift form of connectivity. It circulates among those with shared good and bad feelings; it props up an affective infrastructure within which we hail ourselves as a part of something, one that renders us togethered, if you will.

After Resurgence

L: The Indigenous creators and thinkers one or two generations ahead of us, if they were thinking about queer indigeneity at all, were probably more influenced by resurgence theory, a way of thinking which also bled into how they framed Indigenous decolonization movements and refusal.

Resurgence is a political philosophy that often argues that Indigenous peoples must rise above colonialism by asserting flattened conceptions of sovereignty and nationhood, thereby erasing women and two-spirit folks by centring solely activism that mirrors colonial-capitalist warring and legal scholarship. The limit of single-issue resurgence theory—and its hidden neoliberal ideology that places individualized responsibility on Indigenous peoples for overcoming the conditions of coloniality that permeate their lives—is that it fails Indigenous peoples from the Canadian Prairies, and queer and trans Indigenous peoples, who experience an especially insidious web of institutional, racial and spatial marginalization that they cannot simply “rise above.”

Theory that emerged out of that single-issue resurgence discourse tended toward interventions into institutional spaces that constrain Indigenous peoples, such as museums, the academy and governmental band registration and management. As such, the two-spirit political philosophies that emerged in generations before us also tended toward a reclamatory position of simply stating Indigenous gender-variant and sexually diverse existence as revolutionary. I’m thinking of artists like Kent Monkman, particularly his early works centring Miss Chief, and academic writing such as Queer Indigenous Studies and volume 16 of Duke’s Lesbian and Gay Studies journal on the theme of “Sexuality, Nationality, and Indigeneity.” These works were absolutely revolutionary when they came out. They were part of a political project to assert two-spirit knowledge in academe and art museums, spaces that had kept two-spirit peoples without for so long. It’s because of the two-spirit art and theory I’ve mentioned that our generation is now able to branch out and explore the intersections of queer indigeneity.

That said, resurgence discourse, as it bleeds into two-spirit thought, does little to support queer and trans Indigenous peoples who are not part of art or academic communities. As my friend and colleague Erin Konsmo said on her Facebook recently, an increase in visibility for two-spirit theory and institutional (as opposed to community-based) art has not translated into real-world solutions for the daily violences that queer and trans Indigenous peoples contend with.

B: This is the question I hear in your analysis: what are the objects of queer and trans Indigenous or two-spirit critique, and what sort of attachments are we to have to them? Much like how Indigenous feminist theory jumped from a paranoid modality of inquiry, to nod to Sedgwick, one bent on diagnosing wounds, to one of repair and futurity, queer Indigenous theory is also in a state of flux; it is at the end of one object world and at the door of another. On the one hand, there were grassroots and institutional calls to provincialize Indigenous theory, to have it zero in on the nexus of gender, sexuality, race and place. Think, for example, of the 2011 discipline-mapping anthology Queer Indigenous Studies that you mentioned, which sought to offer up approaches to the study of queer and trans Indigenous and two-spirit peoples, including laying out the ways in which settler colonialism was and is a structure that differently subjectivizes those who are non-normatively gendered and sexualized. This is the deeply significant work of exposing the ways in which violence is not sociologically inexplicable; it is engineered from a long history that repeats and is made anew through a continued violence. But, now that these theoretical axioms have been established, how are we to recalibrate our optic? Of course we cannot stop talking about how we are made to suffer differently and disproportionately, but this is not a thick enough intellectual project to enable something like feminist and queer freedom for Indigenous peoples. Art and theory cannot do these alone, but another kind of art and theory can inch us closer to a more capacious future.

New Feminisms

L: I’ve been thinking a lot about the tensions and emerging divides between Indigenous feminism and queer Indigenous feminism. From Indigenous feminists texts like Making Space for Indigenous Feminism by Joyce Green, to feminist art events I’ve attended, the cultural objects that define Indigenous feminism also exemplify how the field considers queer and trans knowledge outside itself. I’m reminded of Gwen Benaway’s notorious Twitter blasts about being a trans woman ill-received, or completely ignored, by Indigenous feminism. I’ve also been thinking through the performativity of Indigenous politics, including Indigenous feminism, in art and theory. Anyone could claim to be a feminist while actually harbouring carceral, laterally violent or transphobic politics, for instance. Being a “feminist” doesn’t make an Indigenous person inherently ethical or politically sound.

What does Indigenous feminism mean, in real time? How are Indigenous feminists living their politics within their relationships? Ultimately I want to refocus this conversation on the incredible beauty, or light, as Leanne Simpson would say, coming from queer and trans Indigenous creators. The wave of queer and trans Indigenous literature and art coming out right now that is unapologetically sex-positive is giving me life! Recent texts and artworks by you, Dayna Danger, Joshua Whitehead, Arielle Twist and Gwen Benaway read with such refusal to me: refusal of the respectability politics that contain queer and trans bodies in Indigenous spaces. These authors are saying the “good Indigenous feminist” label doesn’t apply to queer and trans sex workers who like to pop Molly on the weekends and get fisted and pissed on.

B: Your note on the gap between what one calls oneself (here, “feminist”) and the conduct and dispositions that one harbours (in your observations, “carceral”) brings into focus yet again the constitutive instabilities of theory and art, which is to say that they alone do not always motor ethical ways of living. I believe that this has been an enduring frustration among Indigenous peoples in and out of the university, who intuit the colonial mechanics of knowledge production in academe and call for clear evidence of one’s investment in the remaking of political life in hard places like the reserve or the inner city. Of course a community/institution binary stymies creativity more than it empowers it, much like a good/bad feminist binary, so we need to be obstinate in our desire to think and to act in a way that democratizes the experiences of resistance and freedom.

L: It often feels like queer and trans Indigenous peoples are the only ones supporting one another’s work—coincidently this is the very climate that brought us out of the rez and into cities searching for queer love to begin with. But we can’t even begin that conversation without returning to your essay, “Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?” I remember it being explosive at the time you published it to say that a) Native Studies already suffers from a masculinist mood and ideology; b) focus on masculinities only reinforces a colonial gender binary; and c) masculinity studies can be dismissive to Indigenous women and gender-variant and sexually diverse individuals who have been undertaking emotional labour with Indigenous men whilst being continually hurt and traumatized in return. It’s still explosive to say that two years later!

B: In “Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?” I set out to agitate a set of disciplinary norms in Native Studies—most of which you neatly lay out above. I tried to diagnose how the field participated in a culture of non-performativity by which the pronunciation of its radical or political ethos failed to enable queer, trans, and two-spirit flourishing in a way that wasn’t tokenizing or that didn’t reify what Malinda S. Smith in The Equity Myth calls “the politics of being alone.” I wasn’t trying to throw the field under the bus, but rather to open up a space for critique that might flower queer, trans and two-spirit possibility at the institutional level. Many of us do queer Indigenous studies in disciplines outside of Native Studies (I’m in a Department of English and Film Studies, for example) and in spaces outside of the university proper (in the art world or in community-based education). So we already perform another kind of Native Studies, one that is always shape-shifting. There is a countercultural pulse to this, which brings about its own radical possibility. This is to say that perhaps we need an institutionalized queer Indigenous studies for reasons that are pragmatic (i.e., resource allocation and distribution, a disciplinary “home” for queer and trans Indigenous and two-spirit students and scholars), but also to continue to proliferate the study of people like us in this underground sense, what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “the undercommons,” where abolition—abolition of a society that could have entangled forms of structural oppression—is the dominant impetus behind study.

Futurist Action, Not Thought

L: Interestingly, Indigenous art has also been frequently pushed out of Native Studies spaces. In a truly Indigenous way, Indigenous thought sees gatherings—even where no formal documentation, such as transcripts, exist—to define key moments of our history. The histories of Indigenous thought are passed on as stories that Indigenous peoples tell in perpetuity. I became aware of Indigenous futurism theory by scholars outside of art through panels at the 2015 CESA conference and the 2014 Annual Critical Race and Anticolonial Studies Conference, the former you mention in “Can the Other in Native Studies Speak?” During these and subsequent discussions I noticed the lack of recognition of the formidable artists and art scholars who have been thinking about Indigenous futurism for over a decade.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was an influx of Indigenous net and media artists thinking through future worlds with their creations and networked art theory. Works by artists like Archer Pechawis, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew and Cheryl L’Hirondelle are considered central to the history of Indigenous art. That period has been well-covered with a book edited by Steven Loft and Kerry Swanson, and in Heather Igloliorte, Julie Nagam and Carla Taunton’s Winter 2016 issue of Public.

One of my favorite examples is Thirza Cuthand’s video Colonization: The Second Coming (1996) in which alien vibrators invade and colonize Earth. Using the absurd—her signature humour—and futurity narratives, Cuthand expresses how colonialism plays out on the “baby dyke” body. I evoke Colonization: The Second Coming because it is exclamative of how artwork representing queer and trans realities was denied representation and historicization within subsequent retellings of Indigenous new media, net art and futurist art, and how art, generally, has been left out of conversations about Indigenous futurism within Native Studies

B: We might want to think of Indigenous futurism as an even broader social project, as one that we and our people have co-produced for centuries. There is of course the artistic-theoretical component of this project (the job of rendering what an Indigenous future might look like), but there is also a mundane facet to this: the hard and less glamorous work of survival and care for one another, which always has a future-bearing energy to it. This might reshape what sort of art is imbued with the aesthetic of Indigenous futurism, especially when we take into consideration the gender and the sexual life of Indigenous enactments of care. What I am trying to do in my current projects, particularly this unruly book of essays I am working on, is to show how we might discern practices of care and joy where they are expected to be absent, to have been quashed by state power. I look, for example, at Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil (2002), a site-specific performance about the disappearances of Indigenous women from the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, as an example of a modality of art-making with a utopian pull that is internal to its critique of the racialized, gendered and classed politics of grief.

L: When I published “Visual Cultures of Indigenous Futurism,” I wanted to reframe Indigenous futurist art as an aspirational project wherein Indigenous peoples are contending with the apocalypse now by using visual cultures to imagine otherwise worlds. I was influenced by Indigenous futurism discourse in arts that I saw as defaulting to any visual cultures that express future-narratives. There’s a distinction. What defines queer futurism is its attention to ethicacy and relational transformation. For instance, last year I published an article titled, “Making Space in Indigenous Art for Bull Dykes and Gender Weirdos” wherein I addressed toxic masculinities in Indigenous thought and the erasure of queer and trans subject matter in the Indigenous art canon.

Now, almost exactly a year later, enrolment has been suspended at iGov and, following an external review, and its director has stepped down as head of the department after finding that students were traumatized because of the misogynist and hypermasculinized culture in the department. What this says to me is that the work of critiquing toxic masculinities in Indigenous thought and Indigenous-specific departments has led to real-time transformation within Indigenous academe.

After I published “Making Space in Indigenous Art for Bull Dykes and Gender Weirdos,” Indigenous community witnessed the explosion of the #MeToo movement. It felt like suddenly everyone was critiquing Indigenous masculinity—even though only months before doing so almost ruined my career, relationships with senior Indigenous scholars who had been supportive of the department, perhaps fearing and reacting to complicity, and well-being. And any backlash I received was marginal, minute, compared to what the #MeToo whistleblowers in the report described.

B: I should say that the level of critique I received was nowhere near the degree of vitriol torpedoed at those who speak out about gendered violence. What I think your above provocation does point to, though, is the necessity for a queering of the public discourse on cis/heteropatriarchy in Indigenous social worlds. How do we go about vocalizing our experiences of homophobia and transphobia when they implicate whole facets of our communities, including the sites of ceremony and post-secondary education? We have, for example, a whisper network that shelters us from those circulating in public life. How might art and theory be of service here?

L: Ethical considerations that get to the root of performative identity politics will be a defining factor of our generation’s theory and art. Queer and trans Indigenous peoples are already leading Indigenous futures in art and theory with their progressive organizing and activism dealing with difference, such as race or class or colourism, and their backgrounds in queer anarchist and anti-capitalist, anti-state politics. To be colloquial, we are that difference generation. Central to Indigenous queer futures is the practice of taking space. This is done despite the marginalization of gender-variant and sexually diverse realities within single-issue conceptions of Indigenous thought, a discourse that mirrors colonial-capitalist models of relating and negotiating political freedoms under settler-colonial rule, and erases the care- and love- work undertaken by women and two-spirit peoples. This practice of taking space also encompasses making space for one another by supporting and lifting one another up—what artist Aura Last has called “lateral love.”

I feel indebted to those who came before me, including those whose names and stories have been intentionally withheld from me by Indigenous and settler communities alike. As read the shirts and posters I saw at the radical queer book fairs where I sold my first edited zine collections and sad grrrl poem chapbooks: I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.

Billy-Ray Belcourt

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from Driftpile Cree First Nation. He is a PhD student in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Belcourt’s first poetry collection, This Wound is a World, was released through Frontenac House in fall 2017.

Lindsay Nixon

Lindsay Nixon is a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator, an award-winning editor and writer, and a McGill art history Ph.D. student. They currently hold the position of editor-at-large for Canadian Art.