Elevate Difference

When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty

In When Did Indians Become Straight?, Mark Rifkin takes on a monumental task, exploring the intersections between sexuality, race, colonization/imperialism, sovereignty and nationhood as they apply to Native American tribes and their struggles over the centuries. As someone who is both of Native descent and gay, I was intrigued.

Queer theory and Native American studies have frequently intersected as examinations of the complex and varied Native American understandings of gender and sexuality have frequently informed both Native and non-Native explorations of what it means and has meant to be queer and what the ideal future situation for queer people would look like. Having read a great deal of these examinations, I expected, perhaps, too much.

Rifkin has some good points to make about how discourses on sexuality and appropriate family structure have affected the construction of race and the recognition of peoples of color as legitimate in the eyes of the nation-state, how “tradition” has frequently been reconstructed to erase those parts of actual tribal tradition and culture that are offensive to outsiders, how the imposition of the nuclear family structure was used in the United States government’s attempts to eradicate Native American tribes as distinct peoples, etc. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make these points very well.

Rifkin’s use of language can only be described as abusive and exploitative. As a writer, I frequently wished to liberate them from his grasp and set them free to follow their natural habits in their natural habitats. Rifkin commits so many of the crimes against the English language common amongst academics that it would be tedious to list them all, but the highest of his crimes is perhaps the misuse of terms, such as heteronormativity, to mean what he needs them to mean rather than what they actually do.

The language alone would be bad enough, but Rifkin also seems to argue points that are valid in a manner that makes them seem invalid or at least suspect. For instance, in exploring the role of the nuclear family ideal in the racialization of Native Americans, Rifkin chooses to explore Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, the biography of a White woman become Seneca clan mother. Unfortunately, his focus on the circumstances surrounding the sale of Mrs. Jemison’s lands in Seneca territory as evidence for the primacy of her Whiteness glosses over the fact that much of the back and forth as to her identity as White or Seneca had little to do with racial ideology and much to do with pragmatism, land speculators using whatever twist of law and fact would most quickly grant them access to a prime investment opportunity. The evidence is not sufficient to the argument. Ultimately, it seems that in trying to bring so many ideas and theories together into a cohesive whole and to do so by relying heavily on a very limited literary canon, Rifkin’s arguments frequently become muddled and disjointed or simply fall apart at the seams.

As much as I wish that more people would explore these areas of both Native American studies and queer theory, I can’t in good conscience recommend this book.

Written by: Melinda Barton, April 7th 2011