latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Scott Lauria Morgensen, Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 336 pages, $25.00 paper, ISBN 9780816656332.
In Spaces Between Us, Morgensen recalls his first visit to a rural retreat in southern Oregon belonging to the Radical Faeries, a back-to-the-land collective of predominantly white urban American gay counter-culturists. Evoking the original 1979 Fairies retreat in which gay men were invited “as inheritors of Native culture on Native land” to “realize the ancient spiritual roots of being gay” (page 127 and 128), Faeries were welcomed “home” to their sanctuary, thereby grounding their desires to liberate and integrate Indigenous gay nature as non-Native occupiers of settled land. In his efforts at decolonization, Morgensen takes issue with the means by which queer politics achieve citizenship through normatively non-Native belonging to a settler nation. He argues that queer cultures absolve their settler colonial inheritance by “claiming roots in Native authenticity” whereby land is constituted as the medium of sexual and gender liberation (page 129). He places this critique in conversation with Two-Spirit organizing, a Native queer modernity that recalls and reimagines knowledges that precede settler colonialism, and with queers of color, to confront normatively white settler queer modernities. As the “proper target” of their antiracist and anticolonial queer critique (page 124), settler colonialism in this context aligns with Morgensen’s distinction between settlers as those “meant to replace” (page 22) and Native nations as “defining and defending sovereign distinctions from non-Native peoples and societies” (page 21).
Writing in the context of the United States, where the distinction between ‘Native’ and ‘non-Native’ evades simple definition, Morgensen makes a number of contributions at the intersection of queer, Native, and settler colonial studies. First, the book unsettles the normatively white, multiracial, non-Native modern queer cultures and politics that derive their character from the logics of settler colonialism; second, it honors the work of Robert Warrior (1994) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) by charting the ways in which Native queer and Two-Spirit activism has renewed Native epistemologies, strengthened Native nationhood, and contributed to Indigenous decolonization while simultaneously challenging non-Native modern queer cultures and politics; and third, it demonstrates how expressions of non-Native and Native queer modernities operate relationally, that is, as a set of ongoing conversations. Methodologically, the book presents an anticolonial approach to knowledge production that is distinct from veiled attempts by non-Native researchers to become, appropriate, or speak for Native peoples. This is the book’s most important contribution.
In Part I, “Genealogies”, Morgensen draws on the work of Andrea Smith (2005) and other Indigenous feminist theorists to map out how modern sexuality and settler colonialism in America have been produced through the sexual colonization of Native peoples. Through the force of regulation and internalization, Native sexuality and gender norms were replaced with the white, nationalist, and heteronormative sexual modernity of settlers. In effect, conquest and racism have worked to queer Native peoples as well as peoples of color as it situates them “outside the norms of white settler society” (page 125). Typifying precisely what the biopolitics of settler colonialism has attempted to stamp out, queer subjects in settler society are those constructed as primitive.
Aligned with Marie Louise Pratt’s contact zones (1992), Morgensen contends that modern non-Native queer sexuality is constructed relationally; that is, according to Patrick Wolf (2008) and Bonita Lawrence (2004), in relation to disappearing Indigeneity. In order to claim ancient roots in a primitive gay tradition that is both universal and indigenous to the lands on which the national settler project has staked its claim, Morgensen draws on the work of Philip Deloria (1998) and Renée Bergland (2000) to describe how non-Native queer communities subsume Native traditions of gender and sexuality as their own. Through the conquest, incorporation, and ultimate transcendence of berdache, an anthropological and colonial account of Indigenous gender and sexual diversity, modern non-Native queers claim possession of “primal truth shared by all gay men and lesbians” (page 4) and assert their belonging within the settler nation. In so doing, they contribute to the naturalization of the settler colonial project through settler homonationalism and position themselves as a sub-national minority group in a liberal multicultural society.
As if in conversation, Morgensen juxtaposes this narrative alongside Native queer and Two-Spirit organizing. By recalling subjugated knowledges of embodiment, desire, kinship, and peoplehood deemed queer by colonial modern definitions of gender and sexuality, Native queer and Two-Spirit activists confront the discourse of Indigenous disappearance and challenge non-Native queer and colonial modernities that have been constructed on Indigenous erasure and appropriation. By exceeding the temporality of settler colonialism, Two-Spirit identity represents a mode of Indigenous survival and resistance emphasized by Warrior and Tuhiwai Smith. Historicizing Two-Spirit identity carries the “power to provincialize Western universalisms (of sex, race, nation, humanity) and displace their imperialist ruses” and functions as a platform for the resurgence of Indigenous peoplehood (page 51). Two-Spirit activists tend to view themselves as members of distinct nations; as “Native first” they mobilize primarily to provide support for one another and to advance decolonization, not to engage non-Native queer communities in dialogue (see pages 123 and 156). Non-Natives are invited to ally, not as sexual minorities, but as a collective transnational front against the appropriation of Native cultures, colonial heteropatriarchy, and white-supremacist settler colonialism.
The strength of Spaces Between Us lies with its use of conversation, bringing together disparate narratives as analytical framework and methodology. Building on the work of Anna Tsing (2005) and Katie King (1994), conversations carry the potential to yield transformative decolonizing narratives and the renegotiation of non-Native relationships to Native cultures and lands. The gross power differential between queered Native peoples and modern settler subjects could render the conversation a benign decolonization tool, but because Native and non-Native queer modernities are constructed relationally, dialogue, particularly when it centers Native queer modernities, works to denaturalize settler colonialism. Exemplifying the work of Tsing’s friction, the author recounts an “articulate silence” that followed the involvement of a group of Radical Faeries in a Shoshone Naraya dance at the Wolf Creek sanctuary in 1999 (see page 158). The colonial desire for queerness, the casual adoption of Native culture, was unsettled by their new sense of responsibility to Native people asserting sovereignty over their culture and working for decolonization.
As anti-colonial methodology, Morgensen stresses that non-Native scholars who seek to facilitate conversations must first address the power-laden spaces between Natives and non-Natives produced and mediated by settler colonialism. By first demonstrating a commitment to unsettle settler colonialism within normatively non-Native space, non-Natives can become accountable to Native activism and scholarship. From here, they may be invited to join conversations “around the kitchen table” (page 229) as allies in the decolonization project.