Critical polyamorist blog
Identity is a Poor Substitute For Relating: Genetic ancestry, critical polyamory, property, and relations
Expanded from a talk given March 27, 2020 via Zoom for Creative Mornings Edmonton.
In 2013, I started writing the Critical Polyamorist blog, a new turn in my research after over a decade of studying the DNA testing industry and its implications for Indigenous “identity” and governance. In that same year, my book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, was published with University of Minnesota Press (and in 2019 on audio). At first, the new turn in my personal life and research interests seemed unrelated to my existing area of expertise. But everything is related. From the start, I explored and analyzed my personal practice of consensual nonmonogamy and that of polyamory broadly against a historical backdrop of settler-colonial thought. Everything I do and study is always located within the broader structures of colonialism.
My polyamory analyses, like my DNA and identity analyses, focus on the US and Canada, the two settler-colonial countries I’ve lived in during the last two decades. That said, I prefer insider-research and critique from within the place I know best and in which I have the deepest lived investments. Since I have lived 44 of my 51 years in the US, and less than five years in Canada, it is US culture, history, and dominant setter narratives that I know best. I do not exempt Canada from ongoing settler-colonial violence, but I often feel insufficiently informed of Canadian history and cultural trends to focus my analyses on Canada’s colonialism. The longer I live in and continue to be formed and informed by Canada, my critical eye turns more to focus on this country.
Since 2013, I have received mostly thankful blog comments or emails related to my academic writing, speaking, and podcasting on consensual nonmonogamy. Not that I don’t have critics. I sometimes get questions after university and public lectures that are defensive of monogamy, and skeptical of polyamory as an ethical practice. But the people who take the time to write me—men, women, gender nonbinary people, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous—mostly say that my work is a positive revelation. Others say it is a path they were already exploring. I hear that my work gives them language to make sense of their discomfort with both compulsory monogamy and settler polyamory. In seven years, I have received several messages from people telling me they or their partners ended long-term monogamous relationships in part due to reading my writing. I am humbled when people tell me this, and I feel uneasy. It feels like a lot of responsibility and I hate to think of being the cause of a stranger’s pain. Of course, I know that it is compulsory monogamy (often coupled with compulsory heterosexuality) that is the fundamental source of pain.
Critical Polyamorists and Relations
Those who are interested in polyamory, who are pursuing or who cannot (openly) pursue it and who write or approach me—are people who are dissatisfied with settler sexuality and its ways of being, its rigid and heavily scripted possibilities.They are dissatisfied with monogamy and also more mainstream forms of polyamory that tend to view monogamy and nonmonogamy as simply individual and private choices. The people who read my work on polyamory and respond positively are ready to understand monogamy as compulsory in our society, as enforced by and supportive of settler-colonialism. They do not view monogamy or nonmonogamy as simply a matter of personal inclinations, be those social or biological inclinations. There are conversations among both scientists and polyamorists about whether inclinations towards nonmonogamy are rooted in social values and/or in biology. Those who write me and approach me after academic and public lectures are thinking hard about how to love plurally and ethically in a society whose social, cultural, economic, and legal structures support or reward monogamy while erasing or actively demeaning nonmonogamous relating. While some of the critical (would-be) polyamorists who reach out to me might view their nonmonogamous nature as to some degree inherent, they nonetheless focus as do many polyamorists on practices of dynamic relating in which possibilities are more diverse and negotiated together. These relations tend to involve open and honest conversation, consent, and building networks of mutual support with not only polyamorous partners, but also with a broader community of like-minded thinkers and doers. They more often trouble gender norms. Such consensual nonmonogamy is often contextualized in relation to other social reform projects. It is community minded.
DNA Test Takers and Property
On the other hand, the DNA test takers who consume my other body of writing, lectures on video, and press, have given me strikingly different comments over the past 20 years, mostly negative or anxious feedback. This is related to the fact that I insist on consideration for lived relations, and relations are not a significant part of such peoples’ interactions with Indigenous DNA knowledge and identity unless one counts their implication in colonial structures. Naturally, the DNA test takers tend to push back on my insistence, and instead make property claims over Indigenous biologicals and so-called identity. Among them, I have encountered two types of property-claiming “Native American DNA” test takers:
1) First, there are the skilled genealogists who are themselves scientific thinkers, who follow recent science on human population genetics, who use DNA to confirm their family tree—to substantiate or not a story of a “Native American” in their lineage. For them the reward is the naming and confirmation of branches in their tree. They get to claim ancestors, surnames, links to historic geographies and peoples. Ultimately, they seem to use their own family tree as a window to comprehend world history, which is understandably fascinating. Again, none of their claims need involve actual relating with Indigenous peoples or places. Their new knowledge might lead them to seek such relations, but it needn’t. This type of property claim does not necessarily involve an identity claim. One might, for example, like one genealogist I encountered, prove the presence of a Mohawk ancestor in one’s genetic tree, but not actually claim to be Mohawk or seek out relations with that people. I found in the research for my book that this type of DNA test taker, usually class- and education-privileged and armed with excessive scientific knowledge, rarely translated a genetic ancestor into a personal identity claim. I was pleasantly surprised.
2) There is a second type of DNA test taker, one who makes a double property claim also without necessarily seeking to relate. These test takers tend not to be expert genealogists nor lay experts in the application of DNA testing to genealogy. Rather they come to DNA testing with the specific goal of finding scientific proof to support a claim to Indigenous identity, often with great emotional investment. Such a test taker might combine genealogical documentation and DNA testing to provide greater support for say again a Mohawk in their family tree, which leads them to then not only claim an ancestral lineage (“my ancestors,my lineage, my heritage”), but such a person might also race-shift to claim a Mohawk “identity.” They could, but do not necessarily seek to relate with Mohawk people and community, which is rarely an easy prospect for complex historical and social reasons.
These days, I rarely encounter the first type of DNA test taker—the skilled genetic genealogist—since I am no longer researching in their communities. But even though my book on “Native American” DNA research was published seven years ago, I still regularly receive long emails and handwritten letters from the second group of DNA test consumers. I was wondering why this story hasn’t died yet, I’m certainly tired of it. But a historian of science told me last year that more DNA ancestry tests were purchased in 2018 than in all previous years combined. Wow. When DNA test takers communicate with me, they detail long searches and deep desires to prove a “Native American” in their family tree, most typically a Cherokee ancestor, followed by many fewer claims to possible Blackfeet/foot, Apache, and Choctaw ancestors with other peoples occasionally claimed. As opposed to the expert genetic genealogists, this second group is more ready to say something like, “I have DNA, therefore I am Native American.” This is a one-sided claim in which ancestors or peoples, e.g. Blackfoot, Apache, or Cherokee peoples need not acknowledge such claims, yet those claims nonetheless have veracity in settler-colonial culture with its increasing emphasis on genetic kinship. Think of the oft-cited lament of “identity politics” and the invocation of scientific “proof” when such claims are rejected or pushed back on by the very Indigenous people being claimed.
A well-known recent example of the power of genetics in settler society is the October 2018 news story of former U.S. presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, and her Native American DNA test. When that story broke, I did two dozen media interviews over the span of a couple of weeks about her unsubstantiated Cherokee claims and her DNA test to try and prove those claims when professional genealogy showed no evidence . At that time, messages and emails spiked in my in-boxes and ‘splaining snarky tweets also jumped in number on my Twitter feed. This was also the case, although less so given his lesser global stature, when I did media interviews in January 2017 about Canadian literary darling, Joseph Boyden, and his disproven claims to be Métis and to have other Indigenous ancestry .
In summary, the “Native American DNA” test takers’ claims over biological property, rights to knowledge, and identity—built historically on the blood and bones of Indigenous peoples—are regularly defended against Indigenous protest and definitions of belonging.
From DNA to Polyamory Research—from Property to Relating
As the years have unfolded since 2013, when I began living and researching polyamory in addition to genetics politics, and both within a framework of settler-colonialism, I have come to see that these two projects are connected. I am concerned in both cases with actual practices of relating versus making property claims over ancestors, Indigenous peoples, and now over lovers and partners. In Native American DNA, I insisted on actual (hopefully good) relating with Indigenous communities—that property claims to Indigenous identity could not be made absent the agreement of Indigenous peoples; that Indigenous citizenship requirements, definitions of kin, tribe, and nation had to be respected; and that Indigenous peoples, relations, and “identities” were not simply there to be claimed by heretofore non-Indigenous peoples just like the land has been claimed without assent.
Monogamous marriage supported in the 19th century the breakup of collective Indigenous land-bases into private parcels. And just like nations have staked a sole sovereign claim to land, or male heads of household to their private acreage in a compulsory monogamy society, it is the norm for one to stake a sole sovereign claim in a beloved’s body, writing over all previous names, loves, and relations that land and body have known.
The property ethic that grounds compulsory monogamy and state-sanctioned marriage is being resisted at least in part by those who engage in critical polyamory—who understand critical nonmonogamous relating as a move against settler-colonial structures, and not simply a personal lifestyle choice or an identity grounded in biology (e.g. there are scientists looking for monogamy or nonmonogamy genes). The polyamorists who reach out to me are looking to relate differently, more consensually, thoughtfully, and ethically. They are trying to figure out in repeated conversations with those who want to relate back how to do that.
This is unlike so many of the DNA test takers who write me and make emotional pleas for advice about DNA testing companies, who pen ten-page letters or lengthy emails detailing their lives and long emotional searches for Native ancestry, who describe their needs to belong to this land or to have what they view as a right to belong recognized. Their narratives often evidence romantic and stereotypical ideas of Native peoples’ cultures and phenotypes. For example, you can read in Elizabeth Warren’s and Joseph Boyden’s impassioned and unsubstantiated narratives such stereotypes. In many such stories there is also something that anthropologist Circe Sturm has called the “ennui of whiteness.” Many who passionately claim Native American ancestry are dissatisfied or bored with being simply white. Claiming an Indigenous ancestor and a right to identity (again like a land-claim without assent), they think will help them overcome.
These days, I only write DNA test takers back to provide them a reputable genetic genealogy forum to help them answer their technical questions about DNA tests. I want them to get good scientific advice, preferably not from the same companies profiting from DNA testing. And for application of that science to Indigenous citizenship, kinship ideas, and policy, they can turn to my book and articles, and to others I cite.
The (would-be) polyamorists, however, I write back, often at length. I try not to go beyond my skill set. I am no life or relationship counselor. Comparing these two groups has lead me to argue that polyamory should remain a method of (good) relating and not come to be thought of primarily as a sexual orientation or identity. "Identity" as a concept does not necessarily imply ongoing relating. It might imply discrete biological conjoinings within ones genetic ancestry and it can spur alliances, but it can also exist as a largely individualistic idea, as something considered to be held once and for all, unchanging within one’s own body—whether through biological or social imprinting—as one’s body’s property. Similarly, I don’t want our polyamorous relating to calcify into individual identity claims that risk us looking too much within our own persons for a definition of who we are. Rather, I want us to remember that we are always becoming, in part in relation to one another. If we remember that we are what we become as much or more than we are who our properties determine us to be, I suspect that will help us focus on how to relate more carefully with one another as beings in the world, both within and beyond romantic relations.
Be safe, be well,
the Critical Polyamorist
1] Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106.
2] Scott L. Morgensen . The Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism andIndigenous Decolonization.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011: 23.
3] Select articles or media interview links:
Politico. Native American critics still wary of Warren despite apology tour by Rishika Dugyala. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/27/native-american-critics-elizabeth-warren-1475903, August 27, 2019.
TallBear, Kim. “Elizabeth Warren’s Claim to Cherokee Ancestry is a Form of Violence.” High Country News, January 17, 2019. https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.2/tribal-affairs-elizabeth-warrens-claim-to-cherokee-ancestry-is-a-form-of-violence.
Mother Jones. “Natives are Split Over Rep. Deb Haaland’s Endorsement of Elizabeth Warren.” By Delilah Friedler. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/08/natives-are-split-over-rep-deb-haalands-endorsement-of-elizabeth-warren/. August 1, 2019.
GQ. “What Elizabeth Warren Keeps Getting Wrong About DNA Tests and Native American Heritage.” By Mari Uyehara. https://www.gq.com/story/elizabeth-warren-dna-tests?fbclid=IwAR18qCzkl7BSGTjExCS3_F_E5EI-vI068nMt7s4UWWVqpwu4P2rzHyqAwr8. December 11, 2018.
Rolling Stone.“Why Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Fiasco Matters.” By Jamil Smith. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/elizabeth-warren-dna-766297/?fbclid=IwAR02AZXZzMoBVjj7hxeMkq81QlmYLaoEouC9otmuoGK7ugfsn2iUkPLLixY. December 7, 2018.
Native America Calling. “The Science and Politics of DNA. By Art Hughes. https://www.nativeamericacalling.com/?s=tallbear+DNA. October 23, 2018.
WYNC Studios, On the Media with Brooke Gladstone. “By Blood, and Beyond” Interview with Kim TallBear. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/blood-and-beyond-blood?utm_medium=social&utm_source=tw&utm_content=otm&utm_source=tw&utm_medium=spredfast&utm_content=sf93926531&utm_term=onthemedia&sf93926531=1. October 19, 2018.
Washington Post. “Just About Everything You’ve Read On the Warren DNA Test is Wrong.” By Glenn Kessler. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/10/18/just-about-everything-youve-read-warren-dna-test-is-wrong/?fbclid=IwAR3jFgozNYeu7-7TugYhzRT7G4PAOsLtCqVH69KhTSChAZUICsQWUdU-ifE&utm_term=.49549b11d72e. October 18, 2018.
Jezebel.“Our Vote Matters Very Little: Kim TallBear on Elizabeth Warren’s Attempt to Claim Native American Heritage.” By Prachi Gupta. https://theslot.jezebel.com/our-vote-matters-very-little-kim-tallbear-on-elizabeth-1829783321?rev=1539718292953&utm_campaign=socialflow_jezebel_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow&utm_source=jezebel_facebook&fbclid=IwAR0k7CCSxS3O9e7kAq3N8XGvSW4QU36ja2c8ZywKob6-HpPQg_jxVugNExY&/setsession. October 16, 2018.
BBC.“US Senator Elizabeth Warren Faces Backlash After Indigenous DNA Claim.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45869804. October 16, 2018.
CBC Indigenous. “Canada Research Chair Critical of U.S. Senator’s DNA Claim to Indigenous Identity.” By Rhiannon Johnson. https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/kim-tallbear-elizabeth-warren-dna-results-indigenous-identity-1.4863903. October 15, 2018.
KUOW. “Senator Warren Takes the DNA Test.” By Bill Radke. Interview with Kim TallBear and Rick Smith. https://www.kuow.org/stories/senator-warren-takes-the-test. October 15, 2018.
The Verge. “No matter what Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test shows, there’s no genetic test to prove you’re Native American.” By Angela Chen. https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/15/17978144/elizabeth-warren-dna-test-native-american-genetics-ancestry-culture-identity-politics?fbclid=IwAR0zF-4Ln8tGxSGWPvhWj_4vqcvLrO270_UGie9yGC_SGvPf56h1mP2uQBY. October 15, 2018.
Washington Examiner.“Native American Professor: Warren Shows Privileges of Whiteness.” By Caitlin Yilek. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/native-studies-professor-elizabeth-warren-accepted-settler-colonial-definition-of-native-american-identity. October 15, 2018.
Forbes.“What Do Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Results Actually Mean?” By Jennifer Raff. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/2018/10/15/what-do-elizabeth-warrens-dna-test-results-actually-mean/#6aa7f23612df. October 15, 2018.
Indian Country Today.“Strike Against Sovereignty? Senator Warren Asserts Native American Ancestry Via DNA.” By Vincent Schilling. https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/strike-against-sovereignty-sen-warren-asserts-native-american-ancestry-via-dna-5mJJTl_79ESAQLX8hCckZA/. October 15, 2018.
The Washington Post.“Elizabeth Warren’s Refusal to Take a DNA Test to Prove Native American Ancestry was Probably a Smart Move.” By Tara Bahrampour. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/why-elizabeth-warrens-refusal-to-take-a-dna-test-to-prove-native-american-ancestry-might-have-been-a-smart-move/2018/03/13/071ed2fe-26fd-11e8-874b-d517e912f125_story.html?utm_term=.6b8be9dfdf5f.March 14, 2018.
Slate.com.A DNA test won't explain Elizabeth Warren's Ancestry by Matt Miller, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/06/dna_testing_cannot_determine_ancestry_including_elizabeth_warren_s.html, June 29, 2016.
4] Select interview links:
Edmonton Am Podcast. Episode 300276870. “Joseph Boyden is Coming to Edmonton…Two Indigenous Writers Weigh In.” http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/859187779596. January 20, 2017.
Alberta Noon. “Does it Matter if Joseph Boyden is Not Indigenous?” http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/alberta-at-noon/episode/11348216. January 13, 2017.
CBC. The Current. With Anna Maria Tremonti. “Indigenous Identity and the Case of Joseph Boyden.” http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-january-5-2017-1.3921340/indigenous-identity-and-the-case-of-joseph-boyden-1.3922327. January 5, 2017.
Settler colonialism doesn’t only hurt Indigenous peoples.
Here is a recent podcast I was guest interviewed for, Pterocast! I talk in this episode about new avenues for critical and creative academic research, polyamory and the deconstruction of compulsory monogamy, Indigenous belonging, assumptions of ancestry in DNA tests and much more. This podcast covers not only my work on critical polyamory but also my longer-standing work on anti-racist science and technology.
Dear readers, I have done multiple podcast interviews in the last year or two on critical polyamory. I decided I should gather them together. Below are summaries and links for those that i can recall, most recent first. Readers are welcome to remind me of any links I might forget and I will add them to this post. Thank you all for reading. And happy listening!
Please listen to this episode at:
This is my most recent podcast interview, and one of the funn(i)est conversations I have had on this topic. This is the "Decolonizing Sex" Episode 5 of Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur's new podcast, "All My Relations." I loved laughing and talking with Adrienne and Matika, and thank them for having me on their beautifully produced podcast to talk about critical polyamory and relations of multiplicity. We also talked about social media and blogging as a feminist method of inquiry and, as Adrienne calls it, "consenting to learn in public." So there is a discussion too of feminist methods in this convo! We recorded this episode at the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington, USA.
Please listen to this episode at: https://soundcloud.com/patty-wbk/kim-tallbear
This episode of Medicine for the Resistance, "Reconstructing sexuality with Dr. Kim Tallbear" (Gender and Sexuality series), was recorded by phone (or Skype?). The embed code on the Soundcloud site doesn't seem to be working, but you can click on the episode title above and go right to this podcast.
Here is the episode description from the Medicine for the Resistance Soundcloud site.
Dr. Kim Tallbear joins M4R and challenges us to consider what it means to live out the words of Aileen Morton Robinson: "Be less possessive, and do something every single day to undermine the colonizer." Join us for a conversation about thinking beyond identity to what it means to live in good relation with all our relatives. The language of identity is necessary to address inequity but shifting the lens to consider what it means to live in good relationship allows us to move beyond these silos into living together. If we want to talk about decolonizing our lives, we need to think about being in good relation instead of seeking inclusion in the settler state.
This conversation touches on critical polyamory in a wide-ranging conversation about Indigenous citizenship and relationships with the Breakdances with Wolves team, Gyasi Ross, Wesley ("Snipes Type") Roach, and Minty LongEarth," a few Natives with opinions and a platform." i really enjoyed hanging out with them and their technical team on-air. Breakdances with Wolves is based in Seattle, Washington, USA.
This episode, "Identity, Sexuality, and Tipi Confessions," touches on identity--particularly related to the intersection of tribal citizenship, blood rules, and newer technologies of DNA testing as well as sexuality and intimate relationships. We recorded during the same week that I was in Seattle at the University of Washington as a decolonial ethics faculty member with the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING), the other main scholarly work that I do.
This episode 181 "Settler Sexuality with Dr. Kim TallBear." This conversation with the Multiamory Podcast produced by Emily Matlack, Dedeker Winston, and Jase Lindgren covers the basics of "settler sexuality" as i think about that in relationship to what I call "critical polyamory." We talked about how to create relationships and kinship networks beyond the confines of the definitions of appropriate sexuality and family forms imposed on Indigenous peoples and others by settler-colonialism.
This is episode 113 of my regular podcast, Media Indigena, "A Second Slide into Settler Sexuality."
Here is the full show description from Media Indigena site:
Saddle up for our Settler sexuality sequel! Building on last week’s exploration of how Settler norms impact Indigenous notions of intimacy and interpersonal connections, we more explicitly discuss the erotically infused insights of Mohawk/Tuscarora writer, poet and broadcaster Janet Rogers. Insights she shared with our own Kim TallBear (associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta) at ConvergeCon, the annual conference working to build sex positive communities. Joining host Rick Harp to reflect on Kim and Janet's dialogue is Candis Callison, associate professor at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.
This is episode 112 of my regular podcast, Media Indigena, "Settler Sexuality's Slipper Slope."
Here is the full show description from Media Indigena site:
On this week's roundtable: Settler Sexuality. A subject at the heart of two recent talks by our own Kim Tallbear (one at the sex-positive communities event ConvergeCon, the other at SoloPolyCon), we thought we'd use it as an opportunity to take a longer look at an often troubling and taboo topic. In particular, we discuss the insights of her keynote — "Yes, Your Pleasure! Yes, Self-love! And Don’t Forget, Settler Sex Is A Structure" — at the 2nd Annual Solo Polyamory Conference in Seattle, Washington.
An associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Kim discussed her work at the MEDIA INDIGENA roundtable with host Rick Harp and Candis Callison, associate professor at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.
Released November 2017, this episode of Feral Visions podcast, “Dr. Kim TallBear: Moving Beyond Settler (Colonial) Sexualities. is hosted by Anjaii Nathy Updhyay with Liberation Spring.
Here is the full show description from Feral Visions:
How did our ancestors practice relationships and sexuality prior to colonization? Learn from Dr. Kim TallBear about moving beyond settler colonial sexualities! What's a decolonial approach to the settler institution of monogamy? These are some of the topics we delve into.
"Just Pleasure" features sequential interviews with Dr. Sarah Hunt, me-- Dr. Kim TallBear (AKA the Critical Polyamorist), and Aishah Shahidah Simmons. This show is a collaboration between Full Circle and Liberation Spring. Featured guests are interviewed by Anjali Nath Upadhyay of Liberation Spring.
Here is the show description from Full Circle:
[Just a quick trigger warning: please be forewarned that this radio hour includes a discussion of colonization, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse. Please take good care of yourself while you listen.]
Since the so-called sexual revolution, have we actually reached a -eh-hem- climax of sexual liberation? Might there still be unfinished work to do? Wouldn't sexual liberation require consent, decolonization & accountability? Let's find out. On this show, we will:
- Learn about the history of consent on this continent
- Move beyond the dominant understanding of sexuality in settler colonial culture
- And discuss loving with accountability.
Dear followers, apologies for being away so long. I have been focusing on academic talks related to this content, and also academic publications, including a book in process. I do have a new blog or two drafted. There is just so little time to blog between talks across Canada, the USA, Sweden, England, and Finland during the last two years on the role of non monogamy in decolonization.
In the meantime, I have a new chapter in a Prickly Paradigm Press volume, Making Kin, Not Population, edited by Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway, feminist technoscience scholars who helped pave the way for my generation of thinkers. Parts of this chapter were drafted as blogs on this site, so you will recognize some content. Please do order here from The University of Chicago Press Books.
Keynote lecture given at the Second Annual International Solo Polyamory Conference (SoloPolyCon18), Seattle, WA, USA, April 14, 2018
During the weekend of April 7-8, 2018, I attended Converge Con in Vancouver. It is a conference “that originated with a desire to build sex positive communities, and start a dialogue around sexuality, relationships and activism.” I had the honor of being on the closing panel, #MeToo in the Age of Consent, with Erin Tillman, the author of The Consent Guidebook, and sex educator, Jimanekia Eborn—both from L.A. The final question posed to our panel was:
If there was one thing you wanted people to take away this weekend about autonomy, agency, power, and creating a culture of consent, what would that be?
“Remember your structural analysis,” I responded. Settler sexuality—that gives us this hetero- and increasingly homonormative compulsory monogamy society and relationship escalator intimately tied to settler-colonial ownership of property and Indigenous dispossession--is a structure.
Converge Con was refreshing with so many people with similar filters about sex-talk, meaning…let’s talk unabashedly about sex. All of it! They set up a separate social space for between session gabbing because in 2017 there were complaints from “normies” at the hotel about all the sex talk happening in the lobby. At Converge Con sessions included “Group Sex Demystified,” body positivity, liberation from repressed sexual shame, sex positive parenting (loved that one), “Masturbation for Healing and Creation,” “How Society’s Representation of Beauty…Impacts Sexual Self Expression,” and how to manage sex and relationships when coping with depression. There were many sessions that teach us as individuals, couples, families or even communities techniques for liberating ourselves psychologically, emotionally, even spiritually from sex negative and shaming thoughts and behaviors.
I found less emphasis on averting our gazes from our own bodies, individual, family, or community histories to look hard at the (settler) state and its structures. Those structures not only indoctrinate us with settler ideals, but they have legally and economically enforced certain forms of sex and relationships throughout the existence of these nation states.
It is necessary to throw off shame, love one’s self and one’s body, rejuvenate, and practice self-care. Yet a focus on even sex positive bodies and relationships vs. a focus on sex negative bodies and relationships, is not in and of itself a structural analysis. Focusing on sex and body positivity helps us cultivate the energy to fight systemically. And personal transformation cannot fully occur without societal transformation. The two are co-constitutive—meaning individual and societal change help produce one another. I want us to always keep that in mind. The heteropatriarchal state would prefer we focus our eagle eye on our own shortcomings exclusively, and not its extractive and oppressive structures.
A Note on Terminology: Settler and Settler Sexuality
My colleague at Queens University, queer theorist Scott Morgensen, has popularized in academic circles—and this bleeds into Indigenous sexual health circles—the term “settler sexuality.” He defines this succinctly as:
The heteropatriarchal and sexual modernity exemplary of white settler civilization.
If that is too succinct, he has also explained settler sexuality as:
A white national heteronormativity [and increasingly also homonormativity] that regulates Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler subjects.
His work and the work of other anthropologists and historians of Euro-American settlement, marriage and monogamy in the US and Canada, shows how it was not only Indigenous people that were forced into monogamy and state sanctioned marriage. Those relationship forms were intimately tied up with the appropriation of Indigenous collectively held land and its division into individual allotments to be held privately. Men as heads of households qualified for a certain acreage. They obtained more if they had a wife and children. Women of course were tied to men economically. Accordingly, compulsory monogamy and marriage have been forced on other non-monogamous and sometimes non-Christian communities as well. Thus, settler sexuality can be translated more straightforwardly as both heteronormative and homonormative forms of “love,” “sex,” and marriage that are produced along with private property holding in the US and Canada.
Therefore, when I use the term “settler,” I am not interested in nitpicking who is and is not a “settler” on an individual level. Americans often find the term odd, too polite, actually. On the other hand, more Canadians are a bit more accustomed to “settler,” and don’t often find it so polite. Some of them seem to have the same reaction to the term “settler” as they do to being called “white.” But I also know many academics, both white and “visible minorities” (the term used frequently in Canada for “minorities” or “people of color,” and which includes recent immigrants) who identify as “settlers.” And when they do, it is with explicit recognition that their lives in Canada are made possible by settler-colonialism.
There are vibrant conversations in Canada and in the US (although more so among academics in the US) that debate the applicability of the term “settler” and suggest new terms for non-racially privileged, non-Indigenous groups, e.g. African-Americans or recent non-white or non-Christian immigrants who enter the US or Canada due to conditions of war and violence in many cases due to settler state imperialism abroad. There will be no untroubled definitions of the category of settler. Instead, I focus on settler-colonial state power, including its cultural power, which all of its citizens are capable of shoring up. I see non-Indigenous racially disadvantaged citizens as potentially complicit in settler-colonial appropriations of Indigenous (re)sources. And many of us across racial and religious lines have been made complicit in helping uphold settler forms of sex.
Kyle Powys Whyte, a Potawatomi environmental philosopher and activist who teaches at Michigan State explains very pithily how the citizenry broadly is involved in ongoing settler-colonialism. In a recent article in Yes! Magazine, he writes:
Whether one participates in settler colonialism is not entirely a matter of when or how one’s ancestors came to the U.S. Having settler privilege means that some combination of one’s economic security, U.S. citizenship, sense of relationship to the land, mental and physical health, cultural integrity, family values, career aspirations, and spiritual lives are not possible—literally!--without the territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples.
Are Non-normative Sexualities also “Settler Sexuality”?
So-called non-normative sexualities and relationship practices, such as polyamory—I would say especially solo polyamory within that--do challenge important settler state cultural restrictions, but they also tend to assume the inevitability of settler-colonial cultural norms and governance structures. They do not sufficiently interrogate Indigenous dispossession for the rise of a private property state. They often simply want to redeem the settler state into a more multicultural and inclusive entity, without asking how even alternative practices of intimate relation uphold settler colonialism.
Margot Weiss, an anthropologist who wrote a book Techniques of Pleasure that examines kink communities in San Francisco and Silicon Valley shows how they consume expensive sex toys and “play” experiences on their way to personal self-actualization. She highlights gender and race dynamics and power relations in kink communities that are sometimes not so different from mainstream settler sexuality. These patterns of individual identity-making via capitalist consumption, and fairly normative race and gender dynamics rose in concert with settler-colonial nation-building. She also delves a bit into the very interesting history of old guard leather communities in San Francisco that have had more oppositional politics historically, but her focus is on newer more economically privileged kink communities, including tech sector workers.
Scott Morgensen in his anthropological work in a community of radical faeries and their predominantly white back-to-the-land communities also shows how even queer sex, including non-monogamy and kink are also often enacted as forms of settler sexuality. Morgensen’s work shows how radical faeries in a rural Oregon community remain conditioned by race hierarchy, and their back-to-the-land ideology is of course predicted on Indigenous dispossession historically and erasure of Indigenous presence today.
Morgensen discusses how queer claims too are conditioned by settler colonialism. He also pays close attention to Indigenous two-spirit activism and theorizing and their focus on People or tribal-specific knowledges about sexualities, relations, and relationships. The term “two-Spirit" gestures toward precolonial gender systems not based on the European sex/gender binary that concerned colonizers and which now concerns queer thinkers. If you don’t know the history of the term two-spirit, which is in wide use today, it came into common use in 1990 in Winnipeg at the International Gathering of American Indian and First Nations Gays and Lesbians. As opposed to “coming out,” an important aspect of two-spirit thought is the idea of “coming in” to community to take up special roles designated for gender diverse individuals within the extended kinship webs of Indigenous communities historically. Or at least that is the ideal. Two-spirit people have struggled in Indigenous communities too with homophobia produced of colonial violence.
In my Critical Polyamorist blog, I’ve written about the disproportionate influence that heteronormative couple privilege and associated hierarchies have in polynormative communities. My frustration with that mode of polyamory is explained in my critiques of how it remains very much a form of settler sexuality. More rule-bound and couple-centric forms of polyamory privilege the married, cohabiting, child-sharing couple as “primary,” with additional relationships being “secondary.” This replicates key conditions of monogamy that I find politically and ethically difficult. In short, it is not only vanilla monogamists who uphold settler-colonialism with their intimate practices linked to property, consumption, couple and marriage privilege.
Within open nonmonogamy, I push for analyses that help us envision ways of relating beyond such normative arrangements and also beyond Western notions of romantic “love” conditioned—whether we know it or not—by capitalism’s coercive power. I don’t want Hallmark and Nestlé telling me when and how I need to show my love while also giving those companies my money to evangelize normative relations and unsustainably extract resources.
SoloPolyamory and Being in “Good Relation”
I am here with all of you at SoloPolyCon because I see more potential in solo polyamory for challenging the assumptions of settler states. I’ve considered too the potential for my focus on being in good relation—my particular Indigenous standpoint—to be in conflict with the ethic of autonomy and non-hierarchy that is a mark of solo polyamory. But then I remembered a photo that one of you posted on Facebook during last year’s conference. (I was sick and had to Skype in my talk from Edmonton.) The photo was of about a half dozen SoloPolyCon attendees hanging out at the beach. They were each standing apart, scattered along the beach like differently contoured and colored stones. And I remember the photo was captioned “Alone together.” The image looked so appealing, just the kind of community that would understand me and that might be able to be articulated with the idea of being in good relation that is being taken up with renewed commitment by different Indigenous peoples across North America these days—by academics, artists, activists, and Indigenous Twitterati. I cannot emphasize how much Indigenous thinkers are focusing on “Indigenous relationality,” an umbrella term used to help us think beyond race, the nation state, biology, and other settler conceptual impositions.
Taking the “solo polyamory” explanation from our Facebook page:
People who practice solo polyamory have lots of kinds of honest, mutually consensual nonexclusive relationships (from casual and brief to long-lasting and deeply committed). But generally, what makes us solo is the way we value and prioritize our autonomy. We do not have (and many of us don't want or aren't actively seeking) a conventional primary/nesting-style relationship: sharing a household & finances, identifying strongly as a couple/triad, etc.
How do I see that as being articulated with the idea of Indigenous relationality? Autonomy from compulsory monogamy or even the nonmonogamous hierarchical couple need not be defined as “single.” Solo polyamory for me is a de-escalation from the couple. For me and others it is a refusal to get on the escalator (again). But it can simultaneously also lend itself to living in extended relation and disrupting commonly accepted relationship categories. Many of us work to build networks of made kin as essential support systems, and with more fluid boundaries. And many of us do this under settler structural duress. It’s just that most solopoly people probably don’t name the challenges they face as settler-colonialism.
I’ve written and talked elsewhere about my Dakota ancestors’ practices of relating and their “sexualities” as we call it today. Before settler-imposed monogamy, marriage helped to forge important Dakota kinship alliances, but divorce for both men and women was possible. Women also owned household property. They were not tied to men economically in the harsh way of settler marriage. More than two genders were recognized, and there was an element of flexibility in gender identification. People we might call “genderqueer” today also entered into “traditional” Dakota marriages with partners who might be what we today consider “cisgendered.” In a world before settler colonialism—outside of the particular biosocial assemblages that now structure settler notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently. In thinking about “sex,” how did my ancestors share touch as a form of care, relating, and connection before the imposition of settler structures of sexuality and family? There is much that has been lost due to forced conversions to Christianity and the sexual shaming that came with that. And so much of settler sexuality has been imposed onto Indigenous peoples in place of our ancestors’ practices, both heteronormative and now also “queer” settler sexuality. But in a world before settler colonialism and its notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently.
And yet, we Dakota continue to live in a way that embodies in our 21st-century loves, long-held kinship structures. Many of us continue to live in extended family where the legally married couple is not central, where children are raised in community, and where households often spill over beyond nuclear family and across generations. Can we not then also imagine sexual intimacies outside of settler family structures? I know we already have them. Can we name and measure them without using settler sex and family forms as reference points?
It is also important in unsettling settler sex and family to mine historical and language archives in order to know more about what kinds of relations were possible before settler-colonial impositions, including nonmonogamous relationships that were common in Dakota and other Indigenous cultures. This suggestion will be met with resistance by some Indigenous people. Our sexual shaming and victimization has been extreme at the hands of missionaries, in residential schools, and by government agents who all wielded violent control over Indigenous lives. There are still many of us have not recovered from the shaming of Christian sexual mores, and supposedly secular state institutions that continue to monitor, measure, and pathologize our bodies and our peoples.
That said, I am beginning to hear from younger Indigenous people either via comments on my blog or when I give lectures at universities, that they would like to embrace open and honest nonmonogamy. But in addition to a shortage of willing Indigenous partners, they worry about the judgement of their elders who are still immersed in values that younger people see as a holdover of residential schools and the church. One Indigenous undergraduate asked me what my elders think of my nonmonogamy. I remember exactly how I responded:
I don’t know what they think. They don’t say anything to me, and I’m pretty open on Facebook, and on my Critical Polyamorist blog. But I’m almost 50, and at 55 I'll get a senior discount at businesses on my reservation. I’m almost an elder myself! I also earn my own money and I’m an academic. With that comes more freedom than most people have. So I’m not really worried about what people think. But I know you do have to worry. I try to make space for others so someday they will have the choices that I have.
Writing and speaking this talk is to make just a little more space.
Yet in our lives as Indigenous people, we already unsettle settler relations in courageous ways. Think about work that Indigenous people do to defend the earth in order to have a chance at (re)constituting good relations with our other-than-human relatives. I think of the resistance to resource extraction that particularly Indigenous women and two-spirit people have organized via IdleNoMore and Standing Rock, sometimes at great personal risk. These are both movements that link the defense of Indigenous treaty rights to defense of the planet, which is a way of also caring for our human descendants to come. In terms of that idea of being in good relation, I consistently compare “environmental” caretaking to caretaking human relations. Accordingly, decolonizing sex is one way of re-constituting good relations with some of our human relatives. Of course I use “relative” broadly since “we are all related.”
I will be paying close attention the rest of the weekend at this conference to notice potential articulations between solo polyamory and forms of Indigenous thought and practice related to sex and relationships.
Disaggregating “Sex,” Reaggregating Relations: The Example of Moreakamem
I want to dig just a bit deeper into the theory behind being in good relation by providing one more example of nonmonogamy and by settler standards non-normative sexuality among an Indigenous people in what is today Sonora, Mexico. There is a type of Indigenous healer there who can teach us a lot about being in good relation in ways that refuse settler sexuality.
My friend, David Shorter, an Indigenous Studies scholar at UCLA, wrote an essay entitled simply, “Sexuality.” That essay resulted from the time that Shorter spent with moreakamem—healers or seers among the Yoeme. Being also a religious studies scholar, he had originally set out to understand the “spiritual” aspects of moreakamem as healers. But his analysis came to entangle “sexuality” with “spirituality.”
In southern Yoeme in Sonora, an elder told Shorter that individuals who engage in nonmonogamous and/or non-heterosexual relationships are often also moreakamem. In fact, in northern Yoeme communities in Arizona, moreakame has come to be conflated with terms such as “gay,” “lesbian,” or “two-spirit,” and other less positive terms. Indeed, the healer aspect of the word has been lost for US-based Yoeme who have much ethnic overlap with “Catholic Mexican American” communities.
But among southern Yoeme, Shorter found that he could not understand the powerful “spiritual” roles in community of moreakamem without also understanding their so-called sexuality. He explains that in many Indigenous contexts, there is an “interconnectedness in all aspects of life.” Following the connections between sex and spirit among the Yoeme was akin to “following a strand of a spider’s web.” Shorter sees both sexuality and spirituality as sets of relations through which power is acquired and exchanged between persons or entities. So when he writes about moreakamem, he emphasizes their focus on relating and their relational sharing of power with those who seek healing, with deities and spirits, etc. The moreakamem have reciprocity with and receive power in their encounters with spirits, ancestors, dreams, animals. And also in the human realm when they use their power to see for and heal other humans suffering from love or money problems, addictions, and other afflictions of mind and body.
But moreakamem refuse to accentuate their personal characteristics and capacities. They do not focus on their own so-called sexuality or even their power to heal. Rather, they focus on their work in community. Shorter explains that these healers “work tirelessly and selflessly to maintain right relations.” And he too refuses to classify Moreakamem as gay or nonmonogamous.
Shorter also encourages his readers to de-objectify (I might say decolonize). That is, we should try not to think of sexuality, spirituality (and nature too) as things at all. This is difficult: In a settler framework—whether in bed or in ceremony—relations get appropriated if you will and made into “things.” They get named or objectified as “sex” or “spirituality.” David Shorter asks us to see that what settler culture turns into objects are actually sets of relations in which power (and sustenance?) circulates. I am thinking that I would add that our relations then become resources for the settler state to measure, monitor, and exploit to in complex ways build settler knowledge and national identity. This is why I can say we might decolonize relations as we de-objectify them. An important practical outcome of this shift in thinking is that if we resist hardening relations between persons (be they human, nonhuman, or spirit) into objects, we might be better attuned to relating justly in practice, and we might reclaim our relational “resources.” We might attend to being in good relation and what that requires and resist having our relating both stifled and remade by less flexible “natures” and hierarchies. Therefore, It is not only for moreakamem, but for all of us that “sexuality” can be understood as a form of reciprocity and power exchange”—a way of being that “mediates social relations across the family, clan, pueblo, tribe,” etc. We exist not simply in nature but we exist in relation to one another. With this understanding of sexuality, it begins to look as Shorter writes, “more like a type of power, particularly one capable of healing” and transforming.”
Think of that co-constitution and re-constitution of our sexualities if we are polyamorous—the multiple, diverse sets of relations, power exchange, and subjectivities that result from multiple relating. I leave you with a powerful quote by David Shorter:
Sexuality is not “like” power…sexuality is a form of power: and, of the forms of power, sexuality in particular might prove uniquely efficacious in both individual and collective healing. Further, I will suggest that sexuality’s power might be forceful enough to soothe the pains of colonization and the scars of internal colonization.
David Delgado Shorter (2015): 487.
Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz expresses two powerful ideas that have been helpful to me of late. In a September 14, 2017 interview with Krista Tippett of the On Being podcast, Díaz explained that in this moment of crisis—and always—it is imperative that critical thinkers be “misaligned with the emotional baseline” of mainstream society. He also explained his notion of “radical hope,” his trust that “from the bottom [meaning those not in power] will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible.”
I see that emotional baseline as dreaming of a progressive settler state. Tippet, the interviewer, then recounted Díaz ’s idea that “all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also have hope, which is not blind optimism, but radical hope. Talk about what that is…” she said. Díaz responded:
I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.
I have radical hope that settler relations based on violent hierarchies and concepts of property do not have to be all there is. This crisis or transition time in the US and Canada, and globally, offers an opportunity to cease cultivating a misplaced love for the state that insists on dreams of progress toward a never-arriving future of tolerance and good that paradoxically requires ongoing anti-blackness and genocidal violence. The path toward the supposed democratic promised land of settler mythology is in everyday life a nightmare for many around the globe. We require another narrative path to guide us. Indigenous people are proposing a relational web framework that is more about here and now, and not about when. We have an opportunity, if we choose to see it that way, to be misaligned with the emotional, intellectual, and (un)ethical baseline and narrative of those who hold power. We can have radical hope in a narrative that entails not redeeming the state, but caring for one another as relations. How do we live well here together? The state has and will continue to fail to help us do that.
I leave you with an inspirational quote from an Indigenous thinker who is misaligned with the emotional baseline of settler sexuality. At Converge Con last week, I interviewed Janet Rogers for the Media Indigena podcast I do every other week. Janet is a poet and performance artist who is Mohawk and wrote the book Red Erotic in 2010. There is a more Indigenous erotica coming out now, but Janet was a bit ahead of the curve perhaps. I mentioned to her that at Converge Con I felt like non-Indigenous people were more respectful and less invasive with their questions and their assumptions about my Indigenous perspective than is usually the case when I am in a largely non-Indigenous space. I thought their focus on consent culture might have a lot to do with their respectful behavior.
Here is what she had to say:
I’m … coming to the realization that the sensitivity, the consideration, the education, the awareness, the “awokeness”—if you will—within the sex positive community overflows into that awareness, sensitivity…into how those communities are relating to Indigenous people….Your practice and understanding of your own sexuality overflows into the rest of your life. That’s where it begins!...If you’ve got that resolved in the bedroom…all of that empowerment, all of that positivity is going to overflow in other areas of your life.
I am taking her advice to heart. I am trying to get it right in the bedroom so I can get it right in the rest of my life. I think you are too.
*ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. Thanks to all of the people at Converge Con 2018 in Vancouver who I had the pleasure of thinking with over the weekend of April 7-8, 2018. Their sex positivity work in the world fertilized this keynote that I gave the following weekend, April 14, 2018, in Seattle.
 Scott L. Morgensen . The Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism an˙d Indigenous Decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011: 23.
 Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106
 Katherine Franke. Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Inequality (New York: NYU Press, 2015). Also see Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008).
 Morgensen 2011, 81.
 For more on solo polyamory, check out these two-oft read articles. Aggiesez. “What is Solo Polyamory? My Take.” SOLOPOLY: Life, Relationships, and Dating as a Free Agent. December 5, 2014. Available at: https://solopoly.net/2014/12/05/what-is-solo-polyamory-my-take/. And Elisabeth A. Sheff. “Solo Polyamory, Singleish, Single & Poly.” Pyschology Today. October 14, 2013. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201310/solo-polyamory-singleish-single-poly
 David Delgado Shorter (2015). Sexuality. In The World of Indigenous North America. Robert Warrior (ed.). New York and London: Routledge: 487-505.
 Shorter 2015, 490 and 497.
 I have actually expanded the thinking on decolonization in this paragraph beyond what I spoke during the keynote. In editing this for the blog, I realized that I needed to explain my use of “decolonization” in this paragraph. I am still thinking through this use of decolonization so I welcome thoughtful thoughts from others who work with decolonial ideas in Indigenous Studies especially.
 Shorter 2015, 497-8.
 On Being with Krista Tippett. Interview with Junot Diaz. https://onbeing.org/programs/junot-diaz-radical-hope-is-our-best-weapon-sep2017/. September 14, 2017. (Retrieved February 11, 2018).
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to open non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly & @KimTallBear