Desiring the Tribe
Indigenous life is already a kind of gay communism. This is my willful desire to pull together world-building tendencies sometimes in conflict with each other. Maybe you already know that Engels wrote about the Iroquois or that in Leslie Marmon Silko’s words, “Marx stole his ideas from us, the Native Americans.” But what does any of that have to do with being gay? It’s less to do with the “being” and more with a doing: gays, communists, Natives make and remake the world in more egalitarian forms, or that’s what we should be doing.
There have been glimmers of interconnectivity across Indigenous life and gay practice; a lens as large as communist thinking might direct this wavering light forward. I consider the tribe, as one form of organizing reproduction and relationships, as an angle into the shared political project of fostering indigenous life and gay practice outside the nuclear family and all the harm and drudgery that follow from it.
From the 1970s on but probably in some instances earlier, white gays in settled North America have hung their hopes of liberated sexual futures onto the idea of the tribe. This aspiration for tribalism has only occasionally and with extreme limit supported the ongoing tribal formations of Indigenous peoples, often imagined as roaming around a pre-contact past and disappearing after the catastrophic arrival of heterosexuality. The tradition continues today when queers on Grindr can choose to belong to their sexual preference by clicking on their “tribe”: twink, bear, trans, discreet. These categories, Billy Ray Belcourt argues, only make sense if considered part of a “post-Indigenous genocide” where actual tribal entities do not coexist. For gay settlers, the tribe provides an alternative form of collectivity, one attached to floating forms of Native American spirituality without the inconvenience of actually existing Indians.
Leslie Feinberg’s description of a Diné family at the beginning of hir 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues is instructive for the book’s mix of cringey romanticization operating along a genuine impulse toward solidarity—a tendency blooming through Feinberg’s gayness, butchness, and communist affiliation. The novel at the same time depicts the often fatal, usually banal, but always disappointing limits of those we call settlers, but more descriptively those who have the greatest stakes in sustaining the colony. The impulse toward elimination is always dangerously close to being indulged. Different tribal gender and sex systems can be abstracted and extracted with little concern for the lived conditions of Indigenous peoples. The difference of these abstracted gender-sex configurations, understood to be beyond a man/woman binary, becomes a genre through which the butch can understand butchness. Feinberg describes the birth of the butch protagonist Jes in a description usually reserved for tragically-painted mixed-bloods: “And so I grew in two worlds, immersed in the music of two languages. One world was Wheaties and Milton Berle. The other was fry bread and sage. One was cold, but it was mine; the other was warm, but it wasn’t.” Like my adoration for the recurring X-Files character Albert Hosteen, (anti-government “medicine man” with classified knowledge of downed UFOs), I have an embarrassed attachment to the Navajo presence in a book that clarified working-class gay solidarity to me. By the end of the novel, Jes finds a meeting of disparate worlds, if only in a dream vision of queer firekeepers: third gender Indigenous peoples invite Jes into a circle convened outside straight society. They invite Jes into their difference. This is a common, shared recurring dream for settlers and this dream of being accepted and absolved by the Native is here transformed across a desire for sexual and gender freedom. This dream, Jes decides, answers to the demand that Duffy, a labor organizer, had implored of his friends and fellow workers earlier in the text: to imagine a world worth living in and fighting for. It is trying to imagine this other world that brings gays, anarcho-primitivists and others to their fantasy dreams of Indian life. These fantasies, though, are of a strictly limited imagination, one that persistently fails to consider the complications of ongoing Indigenous dispossession that go along with Indigenous presence. This desirable world is approached through taking over the position of reductive indigeneity rather than collaborating with Natives working alongside Jes in the factories of Buffalo.
Gay settlers, especially those like Feinberg who sense the limits of capitalism for human survival let alone sexual liberation, turn to the tribe for an animating orientation toward a sacred that seems to give gay life meaning and an oppositional role to the straightness of colonial power. The tribe for these settlers is a utopic impulse. But utopia is nowhere, another time. Natives live in very specific somewheres and they live now. The trouble is how to foster a gay program against private property that is in material support of Indigenous life. On the lands being unconquered from the United States, the project imagined here—gay, ndn, tribal—would be mutually built on and build the grounds for a collectivity outside the nuclear family and national borders. The project is also about pleasure, abundance and the difficulty of getting there.
To get “there,” a place I call the un-enclosed world, settlers cannot continue their trajectory along what Jodi Byrd calls in her book of the same name, the “transit of empire.” This transit moves by creating ideas of the Indian that can either be inhabited by settlers or positioned as the eternally evolving enemy of settler security. Two examples: 1. gay settlers using the idea of gender diversity in Native cultures as a sign of their (gay settlers’) own legitimate case for a meaningful role in larger society and 2. the treatment of civilians in US-created war zones in the Middle East as enemy combatants. The Indian, as the savage to the settler’s human, exists outside proper, and propertied, civilization. This outside as an imagined space mapped on the body of the savage is both feared and desired. For the US government this transit is made by extending the Indian wars to Central America and the Middle East where American soldiers arrive at their killing fields in Apache helicopters to murder civilians under justifications devised in the nineteenth century to consider all Native people insurgents. In less lethal routes, though all are made possible through the lamentable deaths of Native people, the Indian allows people to articulate and access a sense of alterity for themselves and their political claims. Can this transit take us anywhere other than a dead end? How might the sacred, the pull toward something outside the fleshy constraint of one body, create a space and time where, in the words of Byrd, we can “apprehend and grieve together the violence of U.S. empire”?
In the past year during the resurgence of interest in David Wojnarowicz’s work, I noted his idiosyncratic formulation of tribes. “We are born into a preinvented existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation there are real tribes.” These tribal references would appear and re-appear throughout Wojnarowicz’s essays, some of which are recorded and played as components of his sculptural installations. The “real tribes” he invokes are not detailed as the hundreds of Native collectivities sometimes called tribes, nations or tribal nations, but, considering Wojnarowicz’s writings on traveling through the Navajo reservation, I also read their presence into his statements. The alchemy of analysis reanimates the “real” tribal concerns that make possible Wojnarowicz’s tribal thinking. The pre-invented world is coloniality. The one-tribe nation is formed from the United States’ strict removal of alternatives to life that deny it more markets. Though Wojnarowicz and I begin with different originary attachments to the tribal, we arrive at similar goals: undoing the American government’s illusory legitimacy in order to proliferate what Wojnarowicz sees as abstract affiliations of shared interest and what I understand to be existing collectives of Indigenous people demanding a reorganization of social, political, and economic relations. These other tribes live alongside and obscure the national forms that assign us our documents and give structures to organize life according to family and occupation and citizenship.
One figure who in his long life of political activity links the concerns here of communism, gay organizing, tribe thinking and land-based collective practice is Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine society, member of the Communist Party, and grandfather to the Radical Faerie movement, which calls itself a “rainbow tribe.” Hay is described in his biography as having a “long-standing concern with Native Americans.” In Los Angeles, Hay would join with the Committee for Traditional Indian Land and Life (CTILL) and invite the group to hold meetings at the kaleidoscope factory that served as Hay’s social center and a hub for countercultural experiments. CTILL was formed in 1967 by non-Indigenous people in LA to specifically address the aggressive land grabs by the Peabody Coal mining company at Black Mesa, Arizona, a land claimed by the Hopi and Diné tribal nations. Though not a Native group, CTILL resulted from a “colloquium between traditionally minded Indians and non-Indian youth,” a group with whom Hay claimed an innate and immediate connection because of his lifelong association with unspecified Indian people. CTILL was one of several groups with new age affinities and an attachment to tradition as the basis of solidarity politics with Natives. It is telling that their interests were formed outside the city they lived in. Indians in LA may not have elicited the same appeal to white homosexual men’s concerns with a more authentic seeming Indigenous site of resource exploitation. The Natives who came to LA often arrived through relocation programs removed people from their local conditions for “traditional” living and incorporated them into menial wage labor jobs. An understanding of the material basis for the decimation of Indigenous tradition might have led to a more expansive kind of solidarity work that incorporated the concerns of urban, gay or straight Natives, as well as those facing encroachment on the rez. New Age gays and those like Hay, with an interest in non-Western gender systems and associated forms of egalitarian governance, often directed their resources at preserving Indigenous traditions while also preserving the kind of extractive relationships that on a larger, political and military scale prevent such traditions from flourishing.
Like his collaborator Will Roscoe, a non-Native researcher of Indigenous gender diversity, Hay looked to the traditions of tribal peoples specifically of current-day America to try understanding the role homosexuals play in a transcultural global history. It is important to specify that Roscoe, Hay and many radical faeries consider homosexuality an aspect of gender diversity—they saw their homosexuality as giving them a different kind of gender than straight men. Much of Roscoe and Hay’s shared interest centered on the figure of the “berdache,” a now outdated and disgraced term that collapses a variety of gender and sexual roles across Indigenous cultures.
After his time in Los Angeles, Hay moved to the San Juan Pueblo, now called Ohkay Owingeh, a name also of the people who live there. In 1970, Hay invited the lesbian anthropologist Sue Ellen Jacobs to assist the Pueblo women’s council in making a historical claim for their roles and recognition in their tribe. The two had severe disagreements about the image of the berdache in Hopi history and contemporary society. Jacobs argued that the use of berdache collpased a whole range of different sexual practices, some homosexual, some not, into simplified “icons of ‘difference’ and the ‘other’ in the creative, curiosity-driven” white reconstructions of (always past) indigenous societies. After tracing the adoption of two-spirit as a term of self-identification for Native gays, lesbians, queers, trans gender individuals and those whose gender or sexuality find no reflection in these English terms, Jacobs confesses her own begrudging giving up of the berdache term recognizing its inaccuracy, its origins as a slur but also its circulation as an “important symbol of potential liberation from gender identity construction, homophobia, and sexuality containment for some lesbian/gay/two-spirit First Nations/Native American Indian activists as well as for myself and other non-Natives.” I am most interested in this last arena of liberation, what Jacobs calls containment. What are the material conditions that allow gay men, some women like Jacobs and queer Natives to relish in the reconstructed past of the berdache? In a word, dispossession. In another word, enclosure. These historical processes of conquest are about seizing land, accomplished through war and enforced by the structural disruption of the social relations sustained by the land. This creates a situation in which a word like berdache, an extensive item in the index of colonial knowledge production about non-Europeans, can strangely stand in for some kind of return to a different mode of relations.
In my most generous reading, the radical faeries and other gay communities seek some sacred sanctioning of their back-to-the-land life is in part formed for a desire to relate to land outside the privatized organization of property. Much of this desire and interest, which sometimes manifests as ownership, also came as a response to the AIDS epidemic. Scott Morgenson, a non-Native working in Indigenous studies for many years, has written extensively and attentively on the radical faeries, taking their meaning-making practices on their own terms while also elucidating the colonial mediation of radical faerie sexual sociality and social sexuality. Morgenson was especially sensitive to how radical faerie camps have served as memorial sites for gay men mourning their lovers and friends and even of course strangers. There is a strong connection then between mourning and gay publics, which themselves emerge from certain social groupings and stratifications. For Natives, gay or straight, the mourning comes from what they are not able to practice on the land. “To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world,” Wojnarowicz wrote in regard to the making public memorials to those killed by HIV/AIDS related illnesses. He believed “each public disclosure of a fragment of a private reality serves as a dismantling tool against the illusion of ONE-TRIBE NATION; it lifts the curtains for a brief peek and reveals the probable existence of literally millions of tribes.”
Histories of American genocide might be a way to understand a pull to the tribe. A book on gay culture during and after AIDS is not coincidentally titled Reviving the Tribe. AIDS was also understood by Native peoples as part of a genocidal campaign of neglect. Frank Wilderson has written about a politics formed from grievances against genocide as a way to pose Indigenous claims against the US at the level of irreconcilable antagonism. Our common ground is not the suffering itself but the fact of how we lived lives that made us targets of the US government. The public in the US is not only formed by indigenous genocide and dispossession but racial violence against black life, militarized border security, and repression of sociosexual life outside of white heterosexual reproduction. To fight for a public, a counter-public, is not just to affirm these multiple enclosing and genocidal formations but to attempt to un-form and break through them. It can become the de- of decolonization. In his classic work on gentrification and the zoning-out of public sex spaces, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany describes how notions of progress for the officials of New York City (and their corporate buddies) are directly linked to discourses of cleansing. He’s talking about the situation in the 80s when the porn theaters of Times Square were shut down in a process of “Disneyfication,” i.e. making the area friendly for families to go wild shopping at the M&M store. It was not only that these theaters played porn but that they were cruising sites where people (usually men but occasionally women) of different races, ethnicities, class statuses mingled and made contact for the purposes of getting off. The fear of contamination expressed in disgust with gay sexual practice and paranoid ignorance around the transmission of HIV is also the fear the ruling classes have of difference recognizing itself and its collective weight.
Even as he evokes the splendor of encounters in the porn houses, Delany does not write his book to advocate for their re-emergence. Rather he wants to push toward “conceiving, organizing, and setting into place new establishments—and even entirely new types of institutions—that would offer the services and fulfill the social functions provided by the porn houses that encouraged sex among the audience. Further, such new institutions should make those services available not only to gay men but to all men and women, gay and straight, over an even wider social range than did the old ones.” Delany’s invocation of new institutions is increasingly urgent now as gays have been accepted reproductive candidates for the nuclear family. What kind of gay acts are outside capitalist accumulation? If the answer today is none, let us devise some by tomorrow. Though the public is made possible by the bloody and ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands, it is also an invitation to ongoing relationships that settlers, arrivants, the displaced and dispossessed must learn together in whatever formulation of “we” they can claim and be claimed by to challenge and overcome that very occupation.
This essay is for the gays and the dispossessed and the gay dispossessed. The dispossessed are those Indigenous refugees whose lives are uprooted by US-manufactured violence in their homes in Central America and then again by the violence of the US border. The dispossessed are those from or still living overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and all other sacrifice zones of imperialism. But I write in English, so I write from and to those around me in this sacrifice zone. I write to gay ndns because I want us to articulate our wild and desirous potentiality even as it exceeds and disrupts the normative and common sense of Indigenous thought and politics. Gay ndn politics do not fit neatly in the national sovereignty model though gay and lesbian and two-spirit Indigenous peoples have for decades also articulated their sexuality in nation-based frameworks. To desire the tribe is to find another way of organizing what is now called family apart from the hell of heterosexuality. The nationalism of Indigenous politics has been a powerful movement to improve the daily lives of Native people and to fight the encroachment of corporate and state interests into land inhabited by Native peoples. Nationalism can also go hand-in-hand with a family values style of traditionalism and sovereignty-based politics that even in its most radical version can get the nod of approval from western liberals. I mention these intra-ndn dialogues in brief to say there is more work to be done to avoid abstracting “the tribe” as a pan-Indigenous fact. Rather than claiming the tribe is a kind of inherent collective Indigenous identity, I propose the form as a way to think of internationalism without the nationalism. Inter-tribalism is a practice committed to getting the United States out of America and everywhere else in the world.
The tribe as a communal collective is not the xenophobic and brutish form that phony moralists, bigoted social scentisists, and others often cast it as. The tribe is my, our, attempt to think the “we” beyond the scale of social circles, targeted advertising groups, and also the political as it now exists in our lives. I envision it in order to scale up my imagination of how the world will be reorganized during and after the fall of the current colonial times. The anthropologists poison certain words, but it is true I am thinking of kinship here. There is no pristine past and the future is messy. We work to form kinships, not in the bio-bind of blood lines and percent nor in the institutional pacts of marriage and property inheritance. To some, tribe carries too many connotations with colonial categorizations of this organization of people as a backwards and primitive form of life too unstructured to be called anything like “governance.” It is however because a tribe is difficult to assimilate into the acceptable containers of liberal politics (individual, household, citizenship, representation) that it reorients the entire value system used to dictate how people live and relate to each other, the world.
The settler gay left tendencies toward tribalism, in a diminished understanding of the tribe in the here and now of history and not only a utopic before, has largely been a pull toward a sense of meaning, the kind of meaning often generated in spiritual practice. The sacred shouldn’t be associated with romanticized projections of Indigenous traditionalism but rather forms and practices that break outside enclosure: on every scale from the individual, to the body, to the family, to the nation state. Non-Indigenous gays have also looked to the tribe and tribal thinking in order to care for each other, to affirm the beauty of homosexual life, and these are things that should be done. This gay tribalism reaches its limit when it does not confront the destruction of social relations and land bases that makes white men feel they can inhabit Native identities. What I am concerned about is whether there is a way to re-circuit the transmission of influence from Indigenous to settler. Can the tribe do that? The answer will come as we organize together against specific instances of resource extraction, enclosure, border policing and military aggression.
Mine is a politics animated by desire and against death. I am not a spiritual Indian, but I believe anything sacred comes through a directed experience to the collective. The bounds of that collective can be vast but the grounds we meet on demand we make contact, not conquest. ⊱