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Excerpt: Queer Indigenous Studies

In this excerpt, essay author (and a source for Indian Country Today Media Network’s “Everyone Has Their Gift”) examines the concept of desire versus sexual identity. Read a review of the book and a chat with the author. Our feature story is here.

Contemporary Two-Spirit identity places sexuality at the center of the critical intersection of indigeneity and desire. It also brings about a significant problem for social theorists in conceiving of a Two-Spirit sexuality: the act of claiming ancient rights and historic gender continuity at the same time as engaging in what might appear as explicitly modern sexual circulation. Desire, as felt emotion and descriptor of want, may frame much of what we think about sexuality and its relationship to gender for the Two-Spirit men whose lives I documented; desire within this conception can also act as a means of action to achieve certain ends. As an instrument of physicality it is also embedded in broad and micro-sociological understandings of resistance, oppression and pleasure. Two-Spirit men’s sexual acts become the referential indices of a desire or “shifters” for the state of queer indigenous affairs.

I am not arguing for a special demarcated space within white homo-nationalism for Two-Spirit men’s sexuality. Nor am I putting their desire as a one-to-one equivalency with the erotic wants of the non-Native GLBTQ “family.” Rather, I am arguing for an understanding of GLBTQ2 men’s sexuality originating on the axes of Native and gay and of tribally specific sovereign sexuality, of the historical, original and contemporary. It seems that we must push back against the fact that “the erotic is not expressed as particular desires but, rather, as discrete identities.” Accordingly, “erotic desires which fall outside the trinary of heterosexuality, homosexuality (either/or) and bisexuality (both/and), or which fail to make sense in terms of their basic logic of binary gender, are rendered unintelligible.”

Thus it seems that the inequality of desire as it is produces certain forms of knowledge—sexualities, queer identities, bodily effects, social theories, critiques—renders a historically founded and cultural continuous erotic desire unintelligible, while other intelligible forms of historic practices coexist in the same sociocultural spaces. Moving beyond desire as identity requires a conception of a specifically indigenous eroticism emanating from the fundamental principles and experience of tribal and community life that articulates with and recognizes, rather than disrupts, fundamental social principles of Native peoples.

Two-Spirit desire, as a broadly Native project and as a tribally specific one, is an aspect of what Vizenor calls the “simulations of survivance,” which challenges the construction of an “inequality of desire” that was adopted by communities as a “manifest manner” of heteropatriarchy. Manifest manners, alluding to manifest destiny, are American Indian customs and ideas that Vizenor claims are derivative of the settlement process. As a manifest manner, Native heteronormativity is an accommodation to colonial heteronormativity—because it adapted traditional sex segregation to colonial sexual logics, in order that colonial projects would seem to be compatible with how Native people lived gender and sexuality. One of the effects of this was a later internalization of colonial naturalizations of sex/gender by Native people.

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Remember, however, [that] first it was an accommodation, one that did not necessarily “take on” the naturalizing narratives of heteronormativity, so much as made Native sex/gender arrangements compatible with demands of colonial culture. Yet in the case of Two-Spirit men, desire serves as a multifaceted, multi-tribal, and yet individually autonomous as well as sovereign form of survivance. Survivance, a combination of survival and resistance, is a theoretical challenge to a stable, easily discernible and victimized American Indian identity. As an extension, sexual survivance is a community-based and theoretical challenge to the epistemological understanding of Two-Spirits as victims of Native-community heteropatriarchy through the loss of roles and private/public forms of erotic pleasure.

Rather, it is a corporeal continuity with the pleasures of the past and, in this way, is not the token foundation of “identity” or a “structureless” modality of action, but an experience—felt, lived, corporeal—through which other desires are rendered. Through acts of sexual survivance, Two-Spirit men extend Indian-specific meanings about conquest, race, colonialism and sovereignty to desire, whereby the Two-Spirit sexual encounter is governed by sexual historicity rendered modern.


“Two-Spirit Men’s Sexual Survivance Against the Inequality of Desire” by Brian Joseph Gilley from Queer Indigenous Studies, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, et al. © 2011 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted with permission of the University of Arizona Press.