Critical polyamorist blog
Dear friends, I'll read a series of my Critical Polyamorist 100s at the Poets' Theatre at the Armory in Somerville, Massachusetts, September 1. See the flyer below for more information. Around the 100s, I will also give commentary, sort of a mini and not too-academic lecture, about critical relations that disrupt settler state ideas of relating, including compulsory monogamy. The compulsory monogamy system in addition to the privileging of state-sanctioned marriage and imposed norms of nuclear family and private property have disrupted Indigenous notions of extended family and more just and sustainable relations with more-than-humans. My longtime friend and writer-colleague, Richard Cambridge, curates this reading series. In a former life as a performance-oriented poet (long before I was an academic), Boston and Cambridge were my poetic stomping ground. I left reluctantly in early 1996 for professional opportunities. While I have finally found another home in Edmonton, Alberta, this reading is a sort of homecoming for me. The last time I did a reading of creative writing in the Boston area was in 1995. I have focused on academic writing for nearly two decades now. The Critical Polyamorist 100s have helped bring creative writing back into my writing practice. The 100s are informed by and in turn loop back to inform my academic work within non-monogamy studies, Indigenous studies, and science studies in which I challenge imposed and colonial forms of settler relations.
I'll also be in town for the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) annual meeting in Boston, August 29-September 2, 2017 where I'll be giving comments as part of a Presidential Plenary panel, "Interrogating the Threat," that will focus on what we as Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars should be most concerned about in this current moment. The panel will consider questions "across domains of settler colonialism and the (post)colonial, (in)security and (anti)militarism, bio and health politics, race/difference and (im)migration, and multi-species environments." That's a mouthful. I hope to see you, if you're in town, at one or maybe even both events.
Critical Poly Note: My academic work and the personal-political work of living a critical polyamorist life are increasingly coming together. They especially intersect in the sexy storytelling show Tipi Confessions that I produce with colleagues from the University of Alberta, Faculty of Native Studies. With a contract and mentorship from the original Bedpost Confessions sexy storytelling show in Austin, Texas and their founding producers, we do Tipi Confessions shows in Edmonton and across Canada. This blog post is a talk that I gave at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) 2017 Annual Meeting, University of British Columbia, June 24, 2017. In this talk I highlight the creative, academic, and decolonization work that intersect in Tipi Confessions and the research-creation lab we are building around the show. This talk was given under my other moniker, Kim TallBear, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment at the University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies.
In this talk I describe an innovative new community-based research program and creative methodology at the University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies. Tipi Confessions is comprised of sexually-themed performances that take creative research methodologies to the stage. Please join us at the Chan Centre of Performing Arts here on the UBC campus tonight at 7:30 for our show, which has also appeared with a variety of different performers in Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Ottawa. Three Indigenous women from the University of Alberta—Professors Tracy Bear and Kim TallBear, and social media maven Kirsten Lindquist, with occasional guest producers—produce 3-4 Tipi Confessions shows annually. In addition, Charlotte Hoelke, Indigenous graduate student at Carleton University produces a student-run Tipi Confessions show in Ottawa.
Our shows are sometimes associated with academic symposia as is our show this week at NAISA. Tipi Confessions was first held in December 2015 with all Indigenous performers at the University of Alberta Indigenous Masculinities symposium, where we drew a capacity audience of 200 at the Art Gallery of Alberta theatre. We produced our second Edmonton-based show in October 2016 at a Fringe complex theatre to accompany the Prairie Sexualities symposium co-organized by University of Alberta Women & Gender Studies professor Susanne Luhmann in collaboration with feminist scholars from the University of Saskatchewan. We produced our third show this past February 18, 2017 at the University of Saskatchewan in collaboration with OUTSaskatoon. They approached us after seeing our Prairie Confessions show and asked if we could bring the show to Saskatoon as part of the weeklong queer arts and performance festival, Wîsahkêcâhk Comes to Town!
With advising from University of Alberta drama faculty—our dramaturge, Professor Donia Mounsef—and with mentoring from the producers of the original Bedpost Confessions™ show in Austin, Texas, Tipi Confessions, Indigenizes the highly successful sexy storytelling and performance format developed in 2010 by three writer/producers--Julie Gillis, Sadie Smythe, and Mia Martina in Austin. In the seven years since, Bedpost Confessions has been a proven performance technology. The quarterly show is heavily attended in Austin—I’ve seen long entrance lines around the venue—and is known in the city for promoting sex positivity via performance, associated workshops, and outreach to diverse constituencies. It is a truly brilliant format and we are grateful that the founders in Austin contracted with us add an Indigenous flavor and to bring the show to Edmonton and other cities across Canada.
Our shows solicit from the university and local communities stories and performances focused on sex-positive themes. Stories can be explicitly political, feminist, humorous, and/or educational. Performances fit the Bedpost Confessions™ mission of ethics, education, and entertainment around sex, sexuality, and gender. The show also considers performers who do comedy, video, burlesque, short stage readings, or any performance that features positive sexuality. However, anonymous audience confessions—read on stage by our MCs—are “always the stars of the show,” a Bedpost Confessions tagline. Confessions run the gamut from simply salacious to also hilarious and sometimes moving as our audiences—like many of us—have overcome or are overcoming so much, including sexual trauma. They confess their difficult journeys sometimes towards positive sexuality after the shame and trauma rendered especially via colonial suppression of Indigenous sexualities.
We will soon call for submissions for a Halloween 2017 show to be held again at the Fringe Theatre complex in Edmonton. Our aim is to produce Tipi Confessions as a triannual (fall, winter, spring,) show in Edmonton in addition to producing shows to accompany academic symposia when an irresistible opportunity arises. We have found that it is considerably more work and sometimes more expensive to take this show on the road largely because of having to deal with new and less familiar social and organizational networks, and new theatre venues and processes that risk unexpected costs. But we learn as we go.
A point to emphasize: While we are Indigenous-women led and thus we center Indigenous analytical and ethical frameworks, especially prairie-Indigenous histories, cultures, languages, and sensuous topographies, we are inclusive of other Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers in most of our shows. The producers decided early on that we would invite many diverse people into our tipi while still centering our standpoints. We solicit works from Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and writers. We invite a diverse array of performers into our metaphorical tipi. And as two-spirit Cree elder Marjorie Beaucage from Saskatoon said at the show there, “tipis have no closets."
The Research-Creation Approach
Tipi Confessions serves as the anchor of a “research-creation laboratory,” a space of creative experimentation and action research co-produced with our existing decolonial and critical sexualities research and curriculum in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. You’ll hear more about these activities from Tracy Bear and others later on this panel. Tracy teaches the very popular Indigenous Erotica course at the University of Alberta. And I teach a course, (De)Colonial Sexualities that works to disaggregate both the concepts of “nature” and “sex” back into “relations” thus decolonizing or even displacing those terms. I seek to demonstrate in my work that so-called sex and nature are not fundamental ways to organize world or the variety of bodies that inhabit it. And I think “sex” and “nature” are unfortunate translations for many Indigenous peoples of the ways in which we relate to both our human intimates and our other-than-human loves, including the land- and waterscapes of our hearts.
Tipi Confessions offers University of Alberta faculty, students, and staff as well as students and researchers at other universities (e.g. at Carleton University under the direction of Charlotte Hoelke with mentoring also from Bedpost Confessions) an experimental space in which to combine performance with research in the humanities and social sciences. How do we do that, and what is the research-creation approach, specifically? Chapman and Sawchuk in their 2012 article on research-creation explain:
Research-creation…projects typically integrate a creative process, experimental aesthetic components, or an artistic work as an integral part of the study. Topics are selected ad investigated that could not be addressed without engaging in some form of creative practice, such as the production of a video, performance, film, sound work, blog or multimedia text. While works may be exhibited or performed as “art” and research-creation is occurring in a wide-range of cultural institutions and disciplines, the focus of this article is how this practice act as an epistemological intervention into the “regime of truth” of the university. Universities and other degree-granting institutions have firmly established protocols and practices for what constitutes valid scholarship that act as normative frameworks for modes of presentation. Research-creation can thus be read as a methodological and epistemological challenge to the argumentative form(s) that have typified much academic scholarship. In research-creation approaches the theoretical, technical, and creative aspects of a research project are pursued in tandem, and quite often, scholarly form and decorum are broached and breeched in the name of experimentation.
I have also broached and breeched scholarly decorum in my social science-meets-Indigenous-planner work and the way that I have approached my anthropology of science work. As a feminist researcher, I found that I had to care for my subject. My book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science turned the gaze back onto largely white, heterosexual, males—those who usually find it their prerogative to gaze at us. However, not caring for my subjects—indeed wanting their research projects and worldview to fail—was a demoralizing form of research while also constituting an important challenge to their colonial research regime. But the former planner in me conceived of another way to also work that addressed that predicament. I began to work with critical non-Indigenous scientists and the very few Indigenous scientists I could find to train and mentor young Indigenous scientists who were still students. I work with scientists who founded the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING), an annual summer training and networking program with both wet lab and dry lab (or decolonial bioethics) components. I wanted to help change science from within. I could not have done this work as a legitimate complement to my anthropology that gazes at a subject population’s curious cultural practices if I held fast to the misguided ship of standard notions of objectivity that purport to gaze and study from a so-called distance. Rather, I practice feminist objectivity and Indigenous standpoint that is highly self-reflexive about the historic, geographic, and bodily grounds from which I am rooted when I ask my particular research questions. I do not delude myself like so many weak objectivity thinkers that I gaze from nowhere.
But to return to Tipi Confessions and research-creation, this methodology and concept provides our research group and production team a particularly moving and productive path to generate performances—creative works that are pleasurable, healing, and transformative—while also attending to histories and ongoing social dynamics of colonization and decolonization. Research-creation and the project of Tipi Confessions and the broader Decolonial Sex and Sustainability Lab (DSSL) are ground in appeals to my planner’s sensibility. We research and perform for social change. And in Tipi Confessions, the transformation sparks within the 2-hour timespan of the show.
In summary, the research-creation approach helps us to transcend university walls as we engage artists, performers, activists, and community members in Edmonton and across Canada in the active work of decolonizing sexualities and sex practices—Indigenous and not. That is the broader context. Let me now provide a few more details about what our lab is organizing in terms of academic programming.
The Decolonial Sex and Sustainability Laboratory: Reconstituting Relations
The mission of the Decolonial Sex and Sustainability Laboratory (DSSL) will be to articulate theories, social science, and creative action-research outputs that help envision new and re-envision old models of sustainable relations between humans and with our other-than-human relations, be those nonhuman animals, waters, and land upon which we depend as human communities. Unsustainability is not only an artifact of humans using too many resources of “nature,” e.g. harvesting too many trees, fish, and other animal bodies, pulling fossil fuels out of the ground in ever-dangerous and contaminating ways, and using fossil resources to fuel unsustainable agricultural systems and growth economies. We can also understand social relations between humans as unsustainable, as both materially and socially resource intensive with the costs and benefits unevenly distributed. The same hierarchies of life or hierarchies of organisms that enable human domination of nonhuman animals and the environment have enabled racial domination of European (Americans) over Indigenous people and other “visible minorities” or “people of color.” Those hierarchies of life also enable male domination and de-animation (making less alive or vital) of women and other genders. They enable the domination of disabled bodies, queer bodies, and other non-normative humans.
Social and cultural development that also always involves economic and institutional development has come disproportionately at the expense of the marginalized and disproportionately shores up the wealth—both material and social—of the privileged. Unsustainable sexual relations are also key to the resource-intensive, private property settler-colonial regime that our laboratory will work to intervene in. The DSSL will undertake several intersecting initiatives that I will list only briefly. I don’t want this talk to end like a grant proposal:
Below is a photo of the three Tipi Confessions producers after our interview (along with Bedpost Confessions' producer Julie Gillis) with the academic broadcaster, Minelle Mahtani, on her Sense of Place weekday show on Vancouver's Roundhouse Radio 98.3 . You can listen to the hour-long interview here.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to our show photographer, Jun Kamata, photographer, writer, and Professor at Asia University, Tokyo. Thanks also to our sponsors for the Vancouver Tipi Confessions show at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts: Womyn's Ware for sexy prizes for audience members and to YouthCO and QMUNITY for condoms and lube distributed free to audience members. Pleasurable, consensual, and safe sex!
Dear readers, I had the honour of being interviewed last month on podcast by Dominant Dominus Blue and submissive baby j over at BlackPeopleKink.com: Where Color and Kink Collide. As their web page says, they "talk weekly about issues and topics concerning sex, kink, race, BDSM, polyamory, relationships, education, erotica, love, society, and everything else we feel like. Along with this community-driven blog, and as public-speaking educators, we encourage frank and open dialogue amongst everyone in the world of kink. We believe that only good things happen when color and kink collide!" I am pretty vanilla myself so I appreciate their inclusive and curious attitude about my critical polyamory. They have great energy together and are some of the best interviewers I've come across. I predict their podcast will really take off as they get more well known. You can also follow them on Twitter @blackpeoplekink.
Here is the link to my podcast interview, BPK #005: The Critical Polyamorist. And here is a link to audio.
At the Edmonton-based Tipi Confessions show I co-produce with three other Indigenous women, the MCs recently read an anonymous audience confession on stage that elicited much laughter: “Polyamory is too much talking. Yawn.”
True! But so worth it when the tree of polyamory matures. After four-plus years of transition from compulsory monogamy and state-sanctioned marriage-mind, my solo polyamory tree feels rooted and fruiting like never before.
What is “Solo polyamory”? A Facebook page on the topic lays it out as follows:
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.
This blog post is inspired by the emergence, after years of tender and consistent cultivation, of the full-bodied fruits of polyamory. I have also honed my tending skills via study of polyamory’s social practices and the ways in which our bodies and institutions shape and are (not) shaped by ethical nonmonogamy. Combining action with theory is key to undoing this compulsory monogamy world. 
Monday 11am: A text from a newish lover from across town: “Your messages make my day brighter.” Plus a kiss emoji. We schedule a coffee date. We also shift the hours of a dinner date. I realized that I’ll be back later from Calgary than I thought. I am not the best with my Google calendar. He is full of sweetness. He draws it from me too. I feel my heart grow with him. He too is a gardener. He often wakes me and puts me to sleep with affectionate messages. It is joy to have days begin and end with his texts, though I see him about once a week. Our work and home-lives are at the center of our lives. He is not solo poly. I am, but what does that mean? My daughter is the anchor of my house.
Monday 5pm: “So it looks like this weekend is a no go. I miscalculated my weeks….” My dear friend and lover in another province asks to re-schedule our visit. He is a novice at nonmonogamy Google-calendaring. I understand. “The extra few weeks will only increase the joy we have in seeing each other,” I say. And yes, it’s okay if he visits even now that my teenage daughter has moved to live with me after several years living with her dad. Of course, I am open with her about polyamory. I am bad at hiding things. And ethical nonmonogamy is not shameful. I want my daughter to know there are options besides compulsory monogamy, and marriage. And I am only attracted to kind people. I would not bring anyone around her who is not kind. “Oh she knows about us,” I tell him. “She likes you. She thinks you’re cute.” (I didn’t tell him the rest: “….like a puppy.” My girl loves dogs more than humans.) He laughs.
Monday 11pm: I just went to bed, after tucking in my daughter who is still sick with a cold, and cuddly when she is sick. Otherwise, her autonomy is quickly increasing. A little ding on my phone. Is it my sweetie across town? He’s an early-to-bed person. Probably not. Is the one I adore in another province? Surprise! It’s a man I was newly seeing when I left Austin last year. He and I started slowly: Busy schedules, work, our respective children, my two main partners, our friends. And his wife, who I now email and message with more than him. She keeps me apprised of their lives. I’ve gotten to know them better since I moved away. We share in common the experience of having artistic children, and a belief that love should proliferate, not be contained by monogamy. She is so lovely. But this time, it is him catching me up on their lives by text. I tell him I’ll be in Austin in July. We make plans. He sends me a picture of him in his Texas boots kicking back in a field of bluebonnets. Be still, my beating heart. I love that land, those skies. He too is one to be seriously doted on. He is a good partner to his wife, a good dad, a good person. He is a good friend and potential lover to me. Plus, BOOTS. He says he has a sexy photo for me too….if I want it? Sexier than boots in bluebonnets? Oh yes, I want.
Tuesday 7:00am: Sexy pic arrives. I get on my rower with energy. A great start to the day.
Sunday 3pm: I make plans in late April in Vancouver with a steady partner I left in Austin. It was not easy to leave there. It was a good life. But I am drawn to places where Indigenous presence is more visible. I am giving a keynote at a polyamory conference in Vancouver. He will fly up to meet me and also attend the conference. He would rather go there than visit Edmonton. Go figure! (Edmonton is the main city of my heart now. I have brief dalliances with Vancouver a few times a year.) He and I shall walk all over Vancouver. I will go vegan with him for a few days. His vegan philosophy runs counter to my view on things, but it is fundamental to who he is. And he makes me laugh even when I eat vegan food. With his well-coiffed hair and his pastel-colored, always immaculate shirts, one might take him for a political party staffer on a night out. He looks normative, but good. Yet he is quirky and unusual on the inside. He is from one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. He relocated to Texas and stayed. I am enamored of his contradictions, and our contradictions together. He is fun. And despite our considerable differences, we are fun together.
Three Sundays ago: “Standing on the street…my instrument wrapped around me…Here I am, thinking of you. I miss your beautiful smile. How I miss the challenge of your towering intellect.”
This text. Made my month. Would it not yours?
That former lover and always mind-mate is one of the most talented and interesting human beings I will ever know. He texted me from his southern city. I will be there for another talk, also in April. We made plans. I will be able to hear him play music again, hear his distinct voice and laugh. Connections take many forms. Sometimes they involve human bodies touching, or human bodies wrapped in voluptuous arms of brass. Bodies connect with cityscapes, with thousands of bluebonnets, and the sultry air of a southern city. We will eat decadent southern food together. There will be much meat. Our two bodies will be wrapped in each other’s voices and laughter. Who knows what else? One is open.
This is how polyamory works for me. Both my mother and a mentor told me when I was in my twenties, “Never burn bridges.” I’ve almost always followed that advice. Think of how one is with platonic friends. Those one connects with deeply. One can go years. Pick up where we leave off amidst each other’s meandering lives. This is how I am with friends and lovers. My lovers are almost always also my friends, where we are able to move into, out of, and sometimes back into romantic engagement. This is different than the common “friend with benefits” (FWB) idea. FWB often implies a public face of the relationship where the sexual engagement is a hidden fact. While I am not one to publicly display much physical affection, neither am I interested in hiding romantic feelings. FWB, counter-intuitively, seems conditioned by the dominant societal ideal that sex is only legitimately attached to the real, authentic (assumed monogamous) romantic relationship. So sex between "just friends" is somewhat illicit, gets hidden. FWB seems to both denigrate the power of sex in and of itself ("it's just sex") and denigrate friendship as a "real" relationship ("we’re just friends"). FWB thus seems ironically to privilege the ideal of the mononormative and compulsory sexual couple. But all of my intimate relationships are real relationships. Sex with appropriate persons and with robust consent can be a beautiful experience. Yet sex isn’t some special signifier of authentic love. True love can exist absent sexual connection. I have a couple of friends with whom there is no sexual contact, and I consider them as among the great loves and supports of my life. There are those also those people who identify as asexual but who love romantically in both monogamous and polyamorous ways.
A current lover once broke up with me. He said he wasn't ready for a relationship. It was both a funny and sad moment. I said to him, “We are in a relationship even if you break up with me. Will we not always be friends, like we have been for years? That’s a relationship.” He agreed on the friends part. But he didn’t think he could do ethical nonmonogamy. And after his long marriage, as much as he liked me, he might want to pursue others. He had my blessing. But he wasn’t ready to process polyamory and the idea that we could have other-than-platonic love and touch between us, yet also pursue that with other people at the same time. Friends with benefits or serial monogamy made sense to him, and they don’t work for me. And most importantly for both of us, he didn’t seem to understand that it is possible to cultivate deep intimacy while living life off the relationship escalator--outside of normative couple structures, e.g. cohabitation and marriage. From his point of view, there was freedom or getting trapped. So “falling for” someone made him nervous. I laugh, but not at him. I laugh at how absurd and oppressive settler society has made the project of love and fidelity. Faithful and loving nonmonogamy is counter-intuitive to social norms that draw hard lines between friend and lover, sex and other kinds of intimacy and touch. These lines prompt us to be stingy and possessive with love and affection, and to view it as inappropriate except in the narrowest of circumstances, to attach it to a one-way relationship escalator. In my form of ethical nonmonogamy, I do not draw such lines, nor am I interested in tackling someone onto an escalator. I love him, whether we have sex or not and no matter who else he has sex and love with. As a solo polyamorous person, falling for him never scared me, whatever happens. I cherish each of my eggs. Occasionally one breaks. But not putting them all in one basket means I have others to sustain me. After a hiatus in our romantic relationship (no hiatus in friendship), he’s pondering my polyamory again. This makes me happy.
Five Wednesday’s ago. My avowed monogamist daughter spoke up at the end of a group conversation in Trondheim, Norway, where I traveled for work. She was the only young person in a group of adults, all Indigenous people, testifying to one another about the trials of living under colonialism. One topic of conversation was settler-imposed sexuality and family structures. My daughter shared: “At first my Mom’s polyamory freaked me out. But I was younger. I didn’t get it. Now I understand, and it has taught me that I don’t have to choose one group of friends over another. I don’t have to be in a clique at school. I can have lunch with one group of kids this day, and a totally different group of kids the next. Sometimes they don’t understand, and they get offended, but I like to have different kinds of people in my life.”
That is the kind of nonmonogamy I too practiced as a teenager, back in my Midwestern and not-at-all-cosmopolitan childhood, long before I understood that polyamory was a possibility. I liked and was often liked in return by nerds, rockers, cheerleaders, athletes, band kids, theatre kids, and kids that crossed race and class lines. I willed myself at about the age my daughter is now to not limit myself to one crowd, to promiscuously consider many possibilities that came my way, not to covet or be jealous. Maybe I was naturally a nonmonogamist. Or maybe I was just so interested in people and the world that I developed strategies for having as much of it as I could. If I never left my childhood homes in rural South Dakota or the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I have no doubt I would be in part who I am now: In whatever configuration I could manage, spinning webs of diverse care and relations. Polyamory is one more way to enact that.
The Critical Polyamorist
 See our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/tipiconfessions/. Also see the webpage and podcast of our parent show, Bedpost Confessions, produced by Sadie Smythe, Julie Gillis, and Mia Martina, out of Austin, Texas, https://bedpostconfessions.com.
 Stay tuned for my eventual unpacking of “solo polyamory” within a context of critical Indigenous relationality. Polyamory is, I am aware, a form of settler sexuality but one in which I find partial decolonization. It is a weigh station as I learn to disaggregate settler sexuality and kinship into good relations.
 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
 I am very much in conversation with Angela Willey, and her book Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
 See the SoloPolyCon 2017 conference Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1261631220560643/.
 Aggiesez. “Riding the Relationship Escalator (Or Not). ” SOLOPOLY: Life, Relationships, and Dating as a Free Agent. November 29, 2012. Available at: https://solopoly.net/2012/11/29/riding-the-relationship-escalator-or-not/.
If I were a country music singer I’d write a song by the same title as this blog post. I would love to be an ethical nonmonogamist, sequin-sporting, cowboy boot wearing Native American country music star, belting out radically different narratives of love, lust, and loss. Steel guitar and fiddles would scream behind me. But I digress.
I left a state sanctioned legal marriage in 2010, or so I thought. We have never legally divorced. I don’t care about the legalities. We are still financially and socially entangled as coparents, and we occasionally collaborate professionally. I don’t plan on marrying again. I will always be responsible financially to my coparent’s wellbeing, if he needs me to be. He has been my closest friend. There are also benefits to being legally married in the US, that settler state of which I am a citizen and where my coparent still resides with our child. The US denies its citizens universal healthcare and makes it difficult for “alternative” families (i.e. not heterosexual and/or monogamous) to enjoy rights of visitation in hospitals, or easier child custody arrangements. Legal marriage, including same-sex marriage, helps deliver these benefits. Marriage can also provide tax benefits, cheaper insurance and other financial incentives. Living in two separate households is expensive enough. The financial perks of remaining legally married help even though I now feel deeply negative about the institution. Such benefits should not be reserved for those who are coupled in normative, monogamous unions constituted along with legal marriage. But this powerful nationalist institution reserves for itself the utmost legitimacy as an ideal social form, one we are all supposed to aspire to or we are marked as deviant. It asserts its centrality at the heart of a good family. It forecloses other arrangements and choices. Even after I tried to abandon settler marriage, it continues to break my heart year after year as I struggle to live differently in a world so fundamentally conditioned by it. I wrote in a July 2014 blog post, Couple-centricity, Polyamory and Colonialism, about this form of relating and how it was imposed to build the white nation and decimate indigenous kin systems. The diverse ways of relating of other marginalized peoples, e.g. formerly enslaved African-Americans post-emancipation and their descendants, LGBTQ folks, and those from particular religions that advocate plural marriage (my readers may have less sympathy for the latter) have also been undercut by settler norms of sexuality and family.
The High Cost of Resisting Compulsory Monogamy
In 2010, I was still brainwashed by compulsory monogamy. I was deeply pained by not feeling what I thought I was supposed to feel in a lifelong, coupled relationship. I thought if I found the “right” monogamous relationship my confusion and pain would be no more. But I did not entertain that idea for long in the separation. I cannot honestly remember why I decided to explore ethical nonmonogamy, at first by reading, and then by actively engaging with an ethical nonmonogamy community in the city I moved to. In the several years since I began living as a nonmonogamist, I have climbed a steady learning curve. Many of those lessons are documented in this blog.
But despite my realization that settler sexuality and family are the source of much anguish for me, for my extended family in our mostly “failures” to attain it, and for indigenous peoples more broadly, I have consistently known that if I could go back in time to 1997, I would get married all over again. We brought our daughter into this world. I would change nothing if it meant she would not be here. Being the cultural person I am, I live according to the idea that there is a purpose that I will probably never fully name to our daughter’s presence in this world. I cannot imagine this world without her. I would do every single thing exactly the same in order to make sure that she arrived in this world exactly the person she is, both biologically and socially. I understand those aspects as co-constitutive. That is, we are biosocial beings.
But even aside from our daughter, I would get married all over again. Had we not legally married he would have moved overseas without me for a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity, and that would have ended our relationship. We had to be legally married, according to immigration, for me to accompany him long-term. I would marry him all over again because I grew enormously with him. I don’t know if he would say the same. I hope so. If he would not, that would be sad. We spent so many years together. My daughter’s father is someone with whom I have always questioned my cultural and emotional fit. He is not a tribal person. Those are the people I connect emotionally most deeply with. Yet he and I have a deep and abiding intellectual and political fit, and I have not been able to let that go. We never ever lack for ideas to discuss together, and with such animation. We think and write well together. We are highly intellectually complementary, and that matters to us since we both do intellectual work. Physically we are a good match as well, except for me sometimes when the cultural connection felt not enough, when I especially longed for that kind of emotional intimacy, and which no doubt I did not provide for him either. There are things I will never understand about him. I attribute that to our very different cultural upbringings. I would grow detached, retreat physically. I eventually accepted that he was not the right one. Yet I see why I got together with him, and why I kept coming back after several attempts early on to leave, why I ended up staying so long. And yet I also cannot regret leaving. I simply don’t see how I could have done anything differently given who I was, and who he was each step of the way. I did not take the easy way out. I tried hard for years to understand. It was only through staying, and then finally leaving, and then studying and practicing ethical nonmonogamy that I came to understand the structures that produced our relationship, and which continue to.
I know that there was no other choice but to eventually leave. I have revisited this decision many times. Each recollection, I arrive at the same conclusion. The unhappiness was growing too large. My behavior in the marriage too deteriorated. I grew to dislike my coparent and myself more every day. I had liked us both when we got together. I finally couldn’t live like that. I had respected us both. I wanted to respect us both again. I had so much to change. I see many couples out in the world mistreating one another, or suffering in silence. Between my own marriage and the nonmonogamous relationships I’ve been in, both with divorced people and with those attempting to make their marriages work, I know how pervasive are unmet needs, the resentments and sadness that come for so many with compulsory monogamy. I see these dynamics everywhere now. And I no longer see them as individual failings. For many people, there are few real choices. Our society does not want to accommodate anything but compulsory monogamy. It insists on the right one, until death do you part, settling down as a mark of maturity, making a commitment with a narrow definition of what that looks like. Society then stigmatizes multiple needs and vibrant desire as commitment phobia, wanderlust, sordid affairs, promiscuity, cheating. Indeed, our society better accommodates lying than it facilitates openness and honesty. While I am able to choose not to lie, to be openly nonmonogamous with my partners, it has come at a significant emotional and financial cost to all involved when I left a normative marriage to eventually figure it out.
Only if I were who I am now could I have made a gentler, wiser choice six years ago. Only if I were an ethical nonmonogamist then could I have tried to make another decision, and asked my coparent to join me in that. He is an anti-racist, anti-colonial, sex-positive feminist. Chances are he would have tried. But I was not who I am now. It was an intensive, committed journey to get here. I also know long-together couples in open relationships who work well, who love and respect each other and their other partners, and whose children are well taken care of. Ethical nonmonogamy, if it were a legitimate social choice that we were taught early on, like we are taught compulsory monogamy from our first consciousness, would enable more expansive notions of family thus keeping families more intact. I probably would not have left. I would have known then that no one partner, even a culturally more familiar one, could provide all I need. A different kind of marriage is a marriage I can probably get behind. This is one reason, despite my misgivings about the Marriage Equality movement, I do think queers getting married will trouble our mononormative conceptions of marriage as part of their critiques of heteronormative marriage. Queers more often do ethical nonmonogamy. If anyone is going to marry, better queers than straights in my opinion.
Crying the Nights into a Coherent Narrative
Six years into this transition, I have begun crying myself to sleep each night, either at the beginning of the night, or sometimes in the middle. I never sleep the night through. My tears do not represent regret. They mourn ongoing, inevitable loss. Crying is like composing, whether words, or song, I imagine. I let the nightly cries take me as if they are a spirit possession so strong it is easier to submit. I work through them as hard forgings of language that are at first raw, then sensical, poetic. It is a form of intellectual intercourse with the emotions of my body, with history, with the planet and skies. My days are bright and pass quickly with vibrant intellectualism—with measured hope in an era where many have little. Why then are the nights so hard? After much pondering, I think I know. The nights this far north are expansive in their starry blue-blackness. And though they grow shorter, squeezed on both ends by sun, they are somehow not smaller. The night relinquishes no power. History and auto-ethnographic data flood in to widen the hours of unsleeping. Until finally I fall asleep without realizing. I am not a person who can live content without understanding. I was deeply troubled in a normative marriage. In order to change anything, I had to understand why. It took me six years of active study of myself, of texts, of others to understand.
During the last few months, in the long nights of reflection and in deeply physical bodily mourning, I have come to know that I could have done nothing differently. Under the weight of settler history, I had a narrow range of choices. Of course I do not feel blameless. My love and longing for my daughter won’t allow that. My nightly cries have now become simple mourning of every night lost with her—every night that I cannot hug her goodnight, or rub her back until she falls asleep. She is a teenager now but like all of the children in our extended family, she likes to sleep with her mom. I mourn the loss of cooking dinner with her in the evenings, her chatter in the kitchen, her eagerness to learn how to cook. I mourn her beautiful singing voice daily, seeing the progress of her paintings weekly in the art studio. I miss giggling and plotting and whispering with her in person. I left a marriage that her father had a much easier time fitting into. Settler marriage was a model that more or less worked in his life experience. He was always her primary caretaker. I could never have asked to take her with me, not then anyway. I also left for a nonhuman love it turns out, although that took me a while to realize. I needed to be back on the vast North American prairies. My coparent loves living near the sea. While I am fed by multiple partial human loves I cannot do without that land-love.
So I am thankful for Skype. I am thankful for jet planes. I am thankful that I mostly have the means to make this work. But the distance cuts hard, especially in the middle of the universe of night when I am far from my daughter, when I hear matter-of fact thoughts in the crystal quiet: Things might not end well. There are no guarantees. Yet maybe “ending well” is a vestige of monogamy, a vestige of the utopic but destructive ideal of settlement in its multiple meanings: not moving or transitioning; settling for the best thing we can imagine; closure, no open doors. But a life in which our child lives long plane rides away from one or the other parent seems a sad alternative to the settler monogamy and marriage I cannot abide. So much travel feels ultimately unsustainable—emotionally, financially, and environmentally. I think of refugees of war, or economic migrants who live through different sets of oppressive circumstances half a world away from their loves, both human and land. I try not to feel sorry for myself. I still have so much. I try to have faith that I can keep patching together my loving relations over an arc of the globe for as long as I need to. I try to have faith in new ways of knowing and being, ways that scare me. I am in uncharted territory. I hope I can keep going. Maybe something will change.
Ethical Nonmonogamy as a Site of Biocultural Hope
Settler marriage, sexuality, and family have been cruel and deep impositions in my people’s history, and in mine. My ancestors lived so differently. I think we tribal peoples are left with pieces of foundations they built. What we have been forced, shamed, and prodded into building in their place is an ill fit. But it is not like we have plans or materials to build as our ancestors did. We go on as best we can with what we have. My ancestors had plural marriage, at least for men. And from what I read in the archives “divorce” was flexible, including for women. Women controlled household property. Children were raised by aunts, uncles, and grandparents as much or more than by parents. The words in my ancestors’ language for these English kinship terms, and thus their roles and responsibilities, were cut differently. I know one feminist from a tribe whose people are cultural kin to mine who speculates that maybe the multiple wives of one husband may sometimes have had what we call in English “sex” with one another. (I assume when they were not sisters, which they sometimes were.) And why not? 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. Much of the knowledge of precisely how different they were has been lost. Oppression against what whites call sexuality has been pervasive and vicious. Our ancestors lied, omitted, were beaten, locked up, raped, grew ashamed, suicidal, forgot. We have inherited all of that.
I live and work in pursuit of new ways of loving, lusting, and losing amidst the ruins and survivals together of my ancestors’ ways of relating. I work with what is left to work with. I take note of the historical accounts we retain, both in academic English and in our oral histories. I look to articulate these partial understandings with my lived experience in tribal community and the fundamental ethical lessons I’ve inherited from my people. Even in the instances where specific knowledge of cultural practices was beaten and shamed out of our peoples, I believe that we have retained in community fundamental ethical orientations to the world that can help us learn to love and relate in the 21st century in ways that are less conditioned by the specific settler structures of sex and family against which I live and write. Some of these ethical orientations include a sense of agnosticism about what we know and withholding judgment, a humility and patience to wait for more information; a sense of relatedness to other living beings rather than fundamental rights to own or control; a broader and less hierarchical definition of life (born of that agnosticism) than Western thinkers have tended to allow; a sense of being in good relation that is measured by actual relating rather than by doctrine; and finally not simply tolerance for difference but genuine curiosity about difference, and sometimes even delight in it.
In my loving and relating, I look for and seek to proliferate “sites of biocultural hope” as my colleague and friend Eben S. Kirksey describes them. In what has been dubbed an anthropogenic age, in which humans have developed the capacity to fundamentally alter the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, Kirksey advocates something more than apocalyptic thinking. He is one of the non-indigenous thinkers with whom I am most in conversation. He encourages us to understand surprising, new biosocial formations in an era of environmental, economic, and cultural crisis as legitimate flourishings, and not simply deviance. Where Kirksey refers to "emergent ecological assemblages—involving frogs, fungal pathogens, ants, monkeys, people, and plants," I do not forget such other-than-human relations. But I also refer to indigenous peoples and cultures in the wake of American genocide as not only sites of devastation, but as sites of hope. My particular people have been post-apocalyptic for over 150 years. For other indigenous peoples it has been longer. Still, our bodies and continuing/emergent practices are ecosocial sites and manifestations of hope. We survive, even sometimes flourish, after social and environmental devastations, after and in the midst of settler cruelties from extermination to assimilation designed to wipe us from this land. I see us combining our fundamental cultural orientations to the world with new possibilities for living and relating. We’ve been doing this collectively in the Americas for over five centuries. We’ve done it with respect to syncretic forms of religion and ceremony, with dress, music, language, art and performance. Why should we not also articulate other ways to love, lust, and let love go? Settler love, marriage, and family in hetero- homo- and mononormative forms does not have to be all there is. I have to have faith in that. I am only beginning to imagine.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Katherine Franke. Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (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).
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