Critical polyamorist blog
WARNING: This may be the unsexiest blog post on polyamory you will ever read.
In my first blog post, I introduced The Critical Polyamorist as a project in which I aim to explore the politics of being a minority—a tribally-identified Native American—within the already minority polyamory community in the U.S. I bring critical social theory to analyze the politics of race and culture as they play out in the poly world I inhabit in my mid-continental city.
In addition to the lack of race or cultural diversity in explicitly polyamorous communities, I notice that poly people disproportionately engage in certain cultural practices including neo-paganism. In fact, the popular slogan “Polyamorous, Pagan and Proud” can be found on t-shirts, coffee cups, and bumper stickers. A brief description of pagan demographics in the U.S. will demonstrate that this is not mere subjective observation, but something related to structural issues among polys. Speaking as a Native American, noticeable participation in paganism among polys is something I find a bit of a turn off. I’ll explain why shortly.
Contemporary pagan movements are re-articulations of the new and the old. Influenced by pagan practices of a pre-modern era in what is today Europe, and as understood through folklore and anthropological sources, they add modern interpretations and innovations. As opposed to the one-God religions that dominate in the U.S., and which tend to hold humans above lower species, paganism features beliefs in multiple deities (polytheism) and animistic thought in which nonhumans, including those not usually understood to be living, have a spiritual force. Paganism in the U.S. dates to the late 1960s and has historical ties with the rise of polyamory. Multiple academic and self-help sources on polyamory note the overlap between poly and pagan communities. On my city’s various poly listservs and Facebook pages I often see cross-postings for pagan and other New Age events.
Pagan Demographics and Race in the U.S.
I have seen it written that poly people are more likely to identify as pagan because both communities are populated by similarly liberal-minded people. Fair enough. But what attracts certain liberal-minded people to paganism and not others? Are there perhaps some racial differences? Indeed there seem to be. A quick Google Scholar search yielded no academic sources on the intersections of contemporary paganism and race. However a visit to the Wikipedia page on “Modern Paganism” yielded numbers that accord with what I’ve seen in my poly world. The “Socio-economic breakdown of U.S. Pagans” is as follows:
81.5% with university degrees? That’s a highly educated lot. Contemporary pagans are represented in statistically significant numbers in urban, suburban, and rural areas, but the numbers on “ethnicity” among U.S. pagans are not at all diverse.
Surprised by that Native American number? You should be. The Wiki page explains that “Based on the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on religion, there are over one million Pagans estimated to be living in the United States.” In turn, this number means nearly 90,000 Native American pagans. But according to the 2010 U.S. Census, we Native Americans (self-identified that is, not tribally enrolled, which number about half of the self-identified population) number 1.7% of the U.S. population, or roughly 5.2 million. Given the pagan self-identified numbers that would mean that 1.7% of self-identified Native Americans identify as pagan, or 3.4% of the tribally-enrolled. I am dubious. I have lived and worked in many indigenous communities across the United States and a little bit in Canada too—both rural and urban. I have never met a single indigenous person in any of these communities who identifies publicly as “pagan.” NEVER. On the other hand, I know multiple North American indigenous folks who explicitly identify as poly, or did at one point in their lives. Never say never. There might be a few folks out there from tribal communities who identify as pagan. But 90,000 of us?
Despite my never having met a Native American pagan in the flesh, I am actually not surprised by that 9% number. Most of those “Native Americans” are very likely white folks who, without that inflated Native American number, actually constitute the vast majority of pagans—probably over 99%. Why do I say this with such certainty? White folks in the U.S. find it pretty easy to identify as Native American. Race works in the U.S. largely according to a divide between black and white. About 100 years ago the black/white divide was strengthened by the disappearance of red as a separate and nationally meaningful race category. The shifting politics of race after the end of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century and after several hundred years of massive declines in the indigenous population through disease, dispossession, and massacres allowed European-Americans to absorb red into their own race. Federal Indian policy and anthropological theory in the 19th century advocated “killing the Indian and saving the man.” Through interbreeding with whites it was thought that Indian blood could be diluted over the generations. The Indian could—and, most policy makers believed, would—become white. In addition, various cultural assimilation programs designed to break up tribal communal practices and thinking and actual land-based tribal communities persisted in U.S. federal policy through the 1960s.
On the other hand, blackness was defined in terms of its ability to contaminate the white body. This kind of thinking undergirds the notion of hypodescent or the “one-drop rule” in which children of mixed unions—that is their parents come from different racial or ethnic groups—are automatically assigned to the socially subordinate group. This is why, despite his white mother, President Obama is automatically classed as black in the U.S. One can certainly identify as mixed-raced in the U.S., as some have identified the President. However, he or any other African-American would be hard pressed to identify as white and have that legitimated across a broad spectrum of our society. On the other hand, those who identify and are identified as White might claim to be descended from Mitochondrial Eve in Africa, but they rarely claim recent African ancestry. Yet they can very easily claim to be Native American and not undercut their identity as white, or the widely accepted racial definition of white, i.e. not black. Remember the controversy surrounding U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and her never documented Cherokee ancestry? She never denied her simultaneous identity as white.
Native American, Poly, and Leery of Neo-paganism
In addition to over-reaching claims to Native American self-identification by a not-insignificant minority of white pagans, I am leery of paganism in my poly community for reasons having to do with my commitments to Native American rights to religious freedom. These include the rights to have our ceremonial practices not appropriated to benefit folks outside of tribal communities.
Those who are socially unfamiliar with U.S. Native American communities might see an easy alliance between neo-paganism, other New Age practices, and various tribal ceremonial practices. However, core values in neo-paganism are strikingly different from those informing Native American ceremonial practices. Native people might in theory support non-Natives seeking spiritual paths more satisfying than the individualistic, hierarchical, rigid doctrinal, and human exceptionalist forms of mainstream religions. But at the same time most of the Native people I work and live with from across the U.S. and Canada are weary of forays into our cultural worlds when they have not been invited in nor therefore had the opportunity to learn proper decorum or protocol. Folks choosing—and yes, it is a choice—to appropriate certain tribal practices, e.g. sweat lodge or vision quest should know that they do so with our disapproval. Indeed, such actions reveal how little they have left behind the individualistic, universalizing, human-centric core values of the mainstream religions and cultures they reject, i.e. many forms of Christianity. Tribal practices are not simply available as resources to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment. Unlike Christianity, ours are not generally proselytizing traditions and individuals don’t simply get to make choices about their spiritual path. We do that in community.
Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann, who studies religions and mental experience, notes other interesting similarities between evangelical Christianity and paganism. She describes a shared “childlike wonder and fairytale romance” with either “an ancient magic in the earth itself” or Jesus/God as the case may be. At the root of this is “an attempt to make real what these practitioners fear may not be real.” They are trying to “experience the supernatural as real despite awareness that other, sensible people presume that it is not.” These types of religion emerge in secular societies in which “most people might claim to believe in God, but in which atheism is a real social possibility and in which the social presumption is that religious belief is a personal choice…one possibility among others.” These are opposed to those societies in which there is little possibility of not believing in God (or some greater power?) I submit that Native American tribes are these latter types of societies. Luhrmann takes special note of the “famous Reclaiming coven” in San Francisco led by Starhawk (Miriam Simos). She describes it as “perhaps the largest, best organized, and politically most effective of North American pagan communities. Reclaiming prides itself on its individualism and its fluidity and creativity.” Luhrmann notes a “poaching” that goes on in paganism, i.e. a picking and choosing of practices without necessarily adhering to a convention or tradition. She also observes in Reclaiming a sense of “let’s pretend,” “let’s suspend disbelief” thus helping pagans to construct faith in the face of rational secularism. To the contrary, I have never been in a tribal ceremonial space where anything was pretend or playful. We don’t just make it up. Nor, to put it as Luhrmann does, do we poach the practices that appeal and leave the rest.
Obviously, there are good reasons for me to worry that I won’t be able to build a community in poly world if my choices involve a disproportionate number of pagans. I find such practices culturally unappealing. But not only does paganism not speak to me, I feel on guard against it and other New-Age forms of worship that draw in superficial and often corrupting ways on the traditions of indigenous and other peoples from around the world. Some New Age leaders have also made unsubstantiated individual claims to Native American identity to the consternation of Native peoples ourselves. Such borrowing is ethically troubling in that it helps extend misperceptions of Native American and other indigenous ceremonies, knowledges, and definitions of community belonging. It encourages even more appropriation and wild claims. In rare cases New Age adaptations are downright dangerous, such as when New Ager James Arthur Ray improperly performed what he called a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona, Arizona in 2009. His “ceremony” resulted in the death of several people. 20 more were hospitalized. Attendees had paid up to $10,000 to participate. Charging for a ceremony is something else that is looked down upon in U.S. Native American communities.
The Whiteness of Poly: What’s a Critical Polyamorist to Do?
There are problems for me in polyamory that go beyond the main gripes described in poly self-help literature—overcoming sex repression, jealousy, open communication, time management and “coming out” to family, friends, and colleagues. Time management—that complaint really makes me roll my eyes. Oh my God, I cannot manage all of my lovers! Do I have time to change my sheets between dates? Can I keep my Google calendar straight?
Yet despite my sarcasm, polyamory provides an ethical and practical framework for living and loving, in a way that can help undo the damage done to people of all backgrounds by Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and economically, environmentally, and emotionally unsustainable concepts of nuclear family. Compulsory monogamy anchors those family forms and often involves notions of ownership and control of others’ bodies and desires. In 2013 in the United States of America, “polyamory” is a more realistic framework for challenging such rigid relationship and family forms than, say, returning to some pre-colonial plural marriage practice that my tribe and many others had. I am not sure we even fully know what those looked like since “sexuality” as we cohere it in contemporary Western culture became a chief site of oppression and control of indigenous peoples by Christian missionaries and the U.S. state.
Of course, in extolling the virtues of poly, I cannot stress enough that most people don’t have my financial autonomy, moral support, or analytical resources to make a choice for plural love and sex. And women are even more limited than men in such choices. I never ever forget my privilege as a financially non-dependent woman with a relatively tolerant family and community of friends, and with the intellectual resources to learn how to do this. But I also hope that if more of us do it, maybe others in the future will find easier acceptance. And as diverse people find a way to live this way, if indeed they want to, eventually a poly world won’t look so homogenous. Perhaps a few of us here and there across this vast country are already articulating different constellations of practices, different ways of naming this life informed by different histories and sensibilities. I hope that one day we do not have to rely so much on a language and conceptual framework circumscribed by such an undiverse set of people.
Until then I remain yours,
The Critical Polyamorist
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ixoreus for leading me to scholarly work on neo-paganism. I did not use them all and wish I could give the topic deeper attention as it intersects with race and polyamory. But alas this is a blog, not a magnum opus.
 Jin Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Christian Klesse, “Poly/logue: A Critical Introduction to Polyamory. Sexualities 9(5) (2006): 515-529; Melita J. Noël, “Progressive Polyamory: Considering Issues of Diversity. Sexualities 9(5) (2006): 602-620; Angela Willey, “’Science Says She’s Gotta Have It’: Reading for Racial Resonances in Woman-Centered Poly Literature, in Understanding Non-Monogamies, eds. Meg Barker and Darren Langridge (London: Routledge, 2010), 34-45.
 Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, “Polyamory,” in Sexuality, ed. J. Eadie (London: Arnold, 2004), 164-5; Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio. Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living New York: Haworth Press, 2004; Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Klesse 2006; and Noël 2006.
 See “The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs,” http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf, accessed December 10, 2013.
 Circe Sturm. Becoming Indian: The Struggle Over Cherokee Identity in the 21st Century. Sante Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2010.
 Yael Ben-zvi, “Where Did Red Go? Lewis Henry Morgan’s Evolutionary Inheritance and U.S. Racial Imagination,” New Centennial Review 7(2): 201-229.
 Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1982.
 Sean Sullivan, “The Fight Over Elizabeth Warren’s Heritage Explained, The Washington Post, September 27, 2012, accessed December 10, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/09/27/the-fight-over-elizabeth-warrens-heritage-explained/.
 T.M. Luhrmann, “Touching the Divine: Recent Research on Neo-Paganism and Neo-Shamanism.” Reviews in Anthropology 41 (2012): 138-39.
 John Dougherty, “For Some Seeking Rebirth, Sweat Lodge Was End,” The New York Times, October 21, 2009, accessed December 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/us/22sweat.html; ICTMN Staff, “Self-Help Shamster Behind Sweat-Lodge Homicides Released From Prison Read,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 13, 2013, accessed December 10, 2013, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/13/james-arthur-ray-released-prison-no-not-guy-who-killed-mlk-150407.
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 ethical 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