This year’s edition of the American Indian Workshop (AIW) was titled “The Sovereign Erotic.” It was organized over Zoom by Dr James Mackay of European University Cyprus and the Transmotion journal, and with the particular assistance of Matt Kliewer of the University of Georgia. This year’s AIW saw increased participation in terms of both numbers and diversity, with more Indigenous scholars presenting and attending, and with people from as far away as New Zealand. While this was certainly in part due to the use of Zoom – which undoubtedly makes conference going easier for independent scholars and those with limited conference funds – the theme probably helped as well. I have been looking forward to a conference on this subject for some time, and I was not disappointed. The keynote speakers alone made screen burnout worth the risk.
The first day saw a reading by Chrystos, a Menominee poet and two-spirit activist I have loved since I was an undergrad and came across her seminal work “Ya Don Wanna Eat Pussy” (Vanishing, 1988), a perfect encapsulation of the tensions experienced by queer Indigenous people. Chrystos returned later in the week for a roundtable, which was an excellent planning decision as it gave people time to ruminate and develop better questions as the conference went on. I would like to see more of this kind of format. Among other things, one of the issues raised during that roundtable was the problem that settler culture has in distinguishing between legitimate anger over injustice and what is nonsense. Considering the current proliferation of “Karens,” this topic deserves further attention.
David Stirrup of the University of Kent hosted a conversation with the artist Andrea Carlson. They began by talking about the influential illustrations in Tales of the smokehouse and their mischaracterization as “male erotica.” During the portion more specific to her own work, Carlson discussed the relationship between being a story teller and being a listener. As she stated, if you are a listener to indigenous cultures, you’re being given a gift. But then you are responsible for that gift, and the burden of it. How do you care for it? How do refrain from exploiting it? I thought this particular comment was something that scholars of Native American cultures and those who are just interested would do well to bear in mind.
Dr Shaawano Chad Uran of Cornell University presented a moving talk on “Eroticism as a series of offerings.” I was unusually enraptured and quite forget to take notes. However, you can read several of his pieces, including “Rhymes for young Deadpool” on his website. You can also watch his talk on “The anthropology of zombies: frontiers of the reanimated west.” In it, he demonstrates his use of zombies as a genre to teach anthropology and critically engage students. As a Trekkie, I appreciate his inclusion of the Borg in this category. More importantly, this strikes me as a truly useful way to abstract anthropological practice and theory for students, allowing the field’s problems to be covered without alienating the classroom. I think that often happens when – for example – Christian rituals are used as a context for that kind of critical discussion. The abstraction avoids directly turning students off, while at the same time appealing to a wide segment of younger scholars with closer ties to pop culture than Christianity.
Dr Kai Minosh Pyle delivered a thought provoking keynote address on “Searching for Two-Spirits through language.” Two-Spirit as a concept has been misappropriated – and often misrepresented – by non-Indigenous people. The desire to find a queer past is understandable, but the widespread belief that all Native American cultures were/are welcoming of 2S people in the same ways and the same degrees often erases cultural differences. It also makes it harder for 2S people to talk about problems experienced now. Such as recovering our cultures, having to find our way into the future where the past may not actually provide a guide, and dealing with homophobia and transphobia within our communities and families. Existing in the moment is either denied to us or is contested. Lastly, Kai Minosh Pyle’s work strikes me as very much in line with that of Qwo-Li Driskill (cf. Asegi Stories), and this is especially useful considering the reluctance of some scholars to cite them or engage with their work.
Other noteworthy presentations at this year’s AIW include Cécile Heim’s work on Franci Washburn’s Elsie’s Business and the imagery of the Deer Woman. I found this particularly interesting given how surprisingly widely the Lakota Deer Woman appears to differ from the Cherokee Deer Woman. It just goes to show how the incredible diversity in Indigenous cultures can take even Native American people unaware at times. I also highly enjoyed Channette Romero’s presentation on queer Indigenous futurism. I think that her take on how “non cis hetero normative erotic acts are acts of ceremony” in such post-apocalyptic works is often true. That’s certainly the case in one of my favorite collections, Love beyond body, space, and time: an Indigenous LGBT sci-fi anthology.
Sadly, Steve Russell was too unwell to join the roundtable discussion concerning his legacy as a lawyer, professor, journalist, poet, and activist. He walked on last month. Steve was a good friend, one of the first people to encourage me in returning to school, and in my transition. He is much missed. The best thing I can do is encourage others to get to know him through his work, and a good place to start is his autobiography: Lighting the fire: a Cherokee journey from dropout to professor (Miniver Press, 2020).
Program for “The sovereign erotic”: https://www.american-indian-workshop.org/AIW42/2021_AIW_Nicosia.pdf
Andrea Carlson’s Work: https://www.mikinaak.com/work
Shaawano Chad Uran: https://www.shaawano.com
Kai Minosh Pyle: https://mekadebinesikwe.com
Steve Russell on Medium: https://steverussell-9575.medium.com
Steve Russell’s Obituary: https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/longtime-indian-country-today-contributor-steve-russell-dies