Special to Indian Country Today
What is Indigenous masculinity?
Sam McKegney brings a healthy, non-Indigenous perspective on how to uplift Native voices by interviewing First Nations people directly and hearing their perspectives. His book “Masculindians” offers an interesting, inside take on what it’s like to be an Indigenous person set within a predominantly colonial culture in contemporary times.
“Masculindians” includes testimonies from more than 20 people with various heritages, many of whom have raised families and recall raising boys as single mothers. They grapple with the differences in approach by Indigenous and western people in raising the family. For example, Basil Johnston, Anishinaabe, notes how the strict nuclear family and structural individualism hurts Indigenous families by directly contrasting how they originally functioned.
Michigan State University Press published the book in 2014, but its themes are timeless.
The interviews in “Masculindians” draw parallels between how Native/First Nations men have had to find their sexual identity from within the institution of residential schools; not easy. Johnston once again sheds light on how many children “were ripped away from their families at the age of 5 or 6 while still developing their foundation of self worth.”
Multiple sources within “Masculindians” cite how Indigenous people have resiliently dealt with adversity and are using their past, along with their parents' past, as a way to be more warrior-like in a deeper sense. The term “warrior” is important in many tribes, but the interpretation of the word is more of an inner strength/peace, rather than a big physique and aggressive nature — unlike the “traditional” Hollywood examples.
Most testimonies agreed that Hollywood and western people’s perception affects how they think about masculine First Nations men, and that perception needs to change. Native men who are warriors are peaceful and caring, rather than harsh savages who all wear headdresses and hunt buffalo.
There are multiple references in the book by Natives stating that the capitalistic individualism within America and Canada is what hurts Indigenous people most. Because our societies were built around a group all helping each other, with low power dynamics between leaders and the rest, this makes it challenging to raise children without paying a high price to adapt.
Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk who teaches at the University of Victoria, stresses the idea that being a warrior means having a strong spiritual connection to your people and the land. He goes on to beautifully describe the past and certainly current colonial agenda of creating a “violent” Native opponent, in which a lay person would come to hate or disagree with profusely. He describes the “no win” scenario that Native men face as the system in which we are in was meant to tax and demean us, to put it politely.
Alfred also describes the problem of time scarcity. Although it is not illegal now to practice our culture, as it once was, the current problem now is first learning the English language and capitalism and technology, while at the same time being proficient in our own. To make matters worse, the event of boarding schools and adoption propaganda initiatives all but halted transmission of our people’s languages.
In Part 3 Imagination, of “Masculindians,” Joseph Boyden, a professor and short story writer, encompasses what it’s like to be an Indigenous man with his segment “Manhood Through Vulnerability.” Boyden makes a strong point for Native men who were raised by strong Native women by saying: “I’ve called myself once a Two-Spirit person. I think people were probably like, ‘I didn’t know Joseph was gay.’ But that’s not what I meant. I have seven older sisters. I grew up with eight women ... and so, of course, how could I not understand the female. That’s where the woman’s voice often comes from in my work” (Masculindians, 166).
Boyden also goes on to explain how Native men sometimes cope without a father figure at home:
"Who doesn’t love or is not attracted to the idea of completely reinventing who you are and where you come from? And not in a giant way, but making yourself more attractive or approachable or even heroic to others? But Elijah doesn’t have this — again, it goes back to identity, right? [...] he grew up in residential school. He grew up with no mother, no father, and again, it goes back to the whole [family]. And by the way, another aside: if you look at any group that has come from impoverished places, oftentimes you’ll see fatherless families. You're going to see families without the male figure and the creation of gangs from that. From tougher socio-economic places, you’re going to find young men wanting to band together because they've never had a father figure. Fathers are often either dead, in jail, or just not around. And this is not just an Indian thing." (168)
It’s refreshing to see allies like Sam McKegney explore narratives of Indians and to possibly expel some myths that readers might have, much like myself, before going into the literature. With so many perspectives told in one piece of literature, deeply resonating with at least one of the stories was enjoyable and effortless.
Michael McNulty (Stoonookw), Tlingit - Kiks’adi, is a plant-based cook and contributor to Indian Country Today. Find him on YouTube at McNulty Method. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.