Critical polyamorist blog
Dear readers, this is just a quick post to let you know that I will keep this blog and domain up indefinitely. But I am now writing on consensual nonmonogamy (CNM), including critical polyamory, among many more topics over at my new Substack-hosted "newsletter," Unsettle.
All of the work that I do, be it interrogating certain genomic and other scientific research and commercial activities, interrogating compulsory monogamy and marriage, or interrogating assumptions about "nature," is really about interrogating the violently imposed worldviews and structures of the Eurocentric settler-colonial state.
Thus, I decided to gather and link different topics together under the broader umbrella of Unsettle. That newsletter is dedicated to unsettling the narratives and assumptions of settler-colonial thinkers and structures through an examination of Indigenous affairs, cultural politics, and decolonial thought and initiatives across different but ultimately related topics and fields. I found that I could no longer keep my "nonmonogamy" analyses separate from everything else I am thinking and writing about.
I will also be migrating content from this site over to Unsettle in the form of "new" (old) posts. Some of you will be happy to know that I now do audio and written posts simultaneously on that platform. Not only is it more accessible, but I almost always write a piece to eventually speak it. I love giving talks and doing podcasting. I come from multiple oratory cultures, both my Dakota culture and also having been a kid who went to church a lot (it was an excuse to dress up!). I love to orate.
See you over at Unsettle on the Substack platform. Thanks for reading, and maybe for listening.
This is an English-language translation of a Spanish-language interview with me conducted by Montserrat Madariaga-Caro, and published in La Juguera Magazine, a cultural magazine based in Valparaíso, Chile. The interview was also produced as a podcast for Pterodáctilo. The interview was started in Austin Texas in January 2020 face-to-face, and was finished by e-mail while I was back in Canada and Montserrat Madariaga-Caro was in Chile. Madariaga-Caro is from Viña del Mar, Chile, a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, working on life relations at Mapuche Huilliche Territory in Chile.
To destroy sexuality as it is known in the Western world is for Kim TallBear the same as revealing an aspect of colonialism that hits us in the most intimate: The imposition of monogamy and singular marriage as a way of domination over the land and its lives. This Dakota thinker, affirms that her practice of polyamory does not focus on sex but on the multiple relationships that she maintains with different human and non-human people. About the current pandemic, she says there are too many monogamists moralizing contact and that it would do us good to learn from polyamorous agreements on risk management.
Kim TallBear is one of those octopus-people. With each tentacle she does something different. She is an academic, a theorist, a performer, and a tweeter. She wrote the book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and False Promise of Genetic Science. She is the author of erotic non-fiction texts that she regularly reads at the Tipi Confessions show, which she co-produces. She is invited to give talks, interviews and workshops at different universities around the world. And she has a blog called The Critical Polyamorist. Currently, she lives in Canada and teaches at the University of Alberta. TallBear is a tall, large, sexy woman who likes to wear big earrings and cowboy boots. She speaks without pause, except when she laughs. I interviewed her in January 2020 in Austin at the University of Texas. She was on an artistic visit in the city. She was coming from giving another interview when we met, but her energy was like that of a bullet train.
The interview you are about to read, for the most part, corresponds to a podcast published in Pterodáctilo online magazine of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of the University of Texas, Austin. Some questions were added later for this piece.
Before we get into your work, can you talk a little bit about your upbringing, so the audience can know where you are from, and what is your relationship to indigeneity and colonization.
I grew up mostly in rural South Dakota, so I grew up between two Dakota reservations in the Northeast and the Southeast of the state, so right along the eastern Minnesota border. One of them is the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and that's where I grew up and I've many relatives there. But I am actually a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate on another reservation, which is up north on the same highway, and everybody is related between those two Dakota reservations, but our historic homelands are where Saint Paul and Minneapolis are today. In fact, downtown Saint Paul is where my fourth great grandfather’s village was, his name was Ta Oyate Duta, he was called in English Little Crow, which is not a translation of the Dakota [she laughs a little]. Anyway, he was a reluctant leader of the Dakota war of 1862 against settlers in Minnesota, when they established the state, when they exiled Dakota people out onto reservations in what became South Dakota. But we still migrated back and forth between the Twin Cities and those Dakota reservations in the eastern side of the state.
And so I grew up there, raised by my great grandmother and my grandmother. Then, I finally moved back with my mom to the Twin Cities when I was in high school but I was such a grandmother's girl, l just wanted to be in the country with my grandmother and I did try living in the city as a child with my mom, but I couldn't hang. I just wasn't tough enough to live in South Minneapolis in the projects [she laughs]. But, finally, in high school I thought: there’s not enough opportunities on the reservation, it’s too racist, there is nowhere to work. I felt like I had more opportunities in the city and that it would be less anti-Indigenous. And it was, I mean it's a different kind.
Then I went to the university, actually at Texas Christian University my fist two years of undergrad, just to get a thousand miles away from home. I knew nothing about Texas, I ended up loving it though ‘cause it's kind of like South Dakota but with more Spanish and better food, boots, and country music. It’s very much like home in many ways. Then I went to finish my undergrad to the East coast at the university of Massachusetts at Boston, where I did a Community Planning degree, and went to MIT for a Master in Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. Ended up working for tribal environmental organizations, for federal agencies on environmental science and technology projects, eventually did a PhD and wrote a book, Native American DNA. So, it's been a circuitous route throughout the work that I do.
DECOLONIZING SEX AND RELATIONS
Let’s talk about decolonizing sex. Last weekend a friend complained about people saying that they were polyamorous when really they were just sleeping with a lot of people. This friend said: "E-du-cate-your-sex!". You certainly have educated your sex. Can you share with us your take on being polyamorous.
Yeah, the common pushback by people in polyamorous communities is that this isn't just all about the sex. And stop using our words for your nefarious activities! [laughs]. Polyamorous people are largely very particular about what that term means, it means multiple loves. And it doesn't always means sex. I know polyamorous asexual people. Now, most of us when we love our romantic partners probably have sex with them but not everybody, and it's not a necessary component of that kind of relationship. So, I think that my experience with polyamory is that it's multiple loves. I'm polyamorous, I am not a swinger. Now, there might be overlaps between those two things, swingers tend to have multiple sexual relationships, but they tend to have rules that actually, from what I can tell from the people that I know, inhibit deep emotional engagements—there is a good conversation around that. Polyamorous people are a bit different, we actually seek the deep emotional engagement. Many of us are seeking longer term relationships, but in this kind of plural way.
You talk about settler colonial sexuality, ¿could you explain what this is?
I use polyamory as a stepping stone to critique the imposition of compulsory monogamy and State-sanctioned one-on-one lifelong marriage by the settler colonial State. In Indigenous Studies and Indigenous communities we are always complaining about blood quantum and tribal citizenship rules, the colonial imposition of blood and racial ideology, and those kinds of exclusions, but going hand in hand with that was the imposition of monogamy and marriage, solo-marriage not plural marriage like my ancestors had—we were non-monogamist. The colonists divided up the collective Indigenous land-base into 160 acre allotments that they gave to the head of household, which was always a man, and he could get 80 acres for his wife and 40 acres for each child. So here you have this imposition of heteronormative settler sexuality and family structure onto the land.
All of this stuff came together so I don't understand how we can go after blood quantum and private property without going after monogamy and marriage. And so, many of us in Indigenous communities are so bought in, which leads to the next thing: that our sexuality has been made deviant. It has been made deviant the fact that our ancestors engaged in plural marriages, that they might had have same sex relations. If you look at the historical and anthropological record and our oral histories, Indigenous communities throughout the Americas had same-sex practices, had multiple genders, not this gender binary stuff that the colonizers imposed on us. And it was a site of tremendous violence, I mean they tortured and murdered people who engaged in same-sex practices. They made these practices illegal, they told us that we were sexually deviant and we have deeply absorbed this into our own psyche. It's not only the church that has done this, the state has told us this, and science has told us this. There are scientists at the turn of the Twentieth century assuming gender binaries, assuming heterosexuality as normal and good, and everything else is deviant.
This is one of the things that non-critical polyamorists do, they just have some vague notion where they blame the church. Those polyamorists don’t understand monogamy and nonmonogamy within a structural analysis of racism and settler colonialism. It isn’t just the church, it's the state, science and the church all working together in a settler structure to impose these violent gender binaries and compulsory monogamy and marriage practices onto us. And so, my own polyamory is a way of living the life I want to live, but also critically examining on a daily basis—I guess I do auto-ethnography on myself—what people are pushing against when they are doing polyamory. I think a lot of polyamorists deep down have some of the same resistance that I have but they don't have the theoretical language, they don't have the politicization that I have to actually blame the settler State for this problem, because settler colonialism doesn't only harm Indigenous Peoples, it harms all of us, and it’s devastating the planet.
BEING IN RELATION
Thank you for that. It's inspiring. Related to the last thing you said about settler colonialism destroying the planet, I understand you also talk about polyamory in relation to non-humans. How can we talk about caring relationships, loving relationships, without putting the focus on sexual relations, and opening it to non-human relationships as well?
I use the term polyamory because I want to be intelligible to people and that’s what I do in my own romantic and loving relationships. But ultimately the word “polyamory” would fail me in my ethic of relating, and the word “sex”, sexuality and all of its related words would fail me. Sex, as we define it, which is a conjoining usually of two bodies, it can be more than two bodies, it's overly focused on genitalia or certain erogenous zones. People have sex to relate, that is one important good way of relating but that's not the only way to relate, and so, ultimately, what I want to do by focusing on sexuality in my work, both in my performance and my scholarship, is to blow that category apart.
One of the theorists that I think with is my good friend David Delgado Shorter, who teaches at UCLA, and David has one article that is just called "Sexuality" and another one called "Spirituality". He looks at both sexuality and spirituality as objects that Western thinkers have cohered into these little manageable objects and concepts. And what he says is: We are not dealing with sex or spirituality at all, what we are dealing with are sets of relations, and by making sex and spirituality things or objects, or doing a lot of categorization, one actually inhibits intimacy and inhibits good relating. So, I work with that set of theories.
“In my work I do use the terms polyamory, sex, sexuality, but I am trying to get towards a more relational set of words: talking about relationality and relational ways of being, and kind of mixing that up with the sexuality stuff, so, eventually, I can get people to think more about being in relation.”
In my work I do use the terms polyamory, sex, sexuality, but I am trying to get towards a more relational set of words: talking about relationality and relational ways of being, and kind of mixing that up with the sexuality stuff, so, eventually, I can get people to think more about being in relation. Then, we don't have to make sex such a special thing. I think sex should not be so special, but neither do I think it should be stigmatized. For some of us, it's a very important way to relate, but it shouldn't be this special thing that gets put on the prize shelf or conversely in a little private box, and that is so special that either we have to scream from the mountain tops about it or we can't talk about it at all. Sex it's just sex. Why is it a thing, right?
“QUEER IN RELATION TO WHAT?”
How do you feel about identity politics in relation to gender and sexuality, for example to be cis, to be queer, to be a lesbian...
I understand the need in this settler colonial society for those kind of categories and the hard work that's gone into those kinds of identifications, as mostly non Indigenous Peoples push back on the settler State—again I don't think they articulate that that is what they are pushing back on. But when you talk about being queer, queer in relation to what? I was sitting with Kēhaulani Kauanui in a Native American and Indigenous Studies Association meeting one time, and there was a panel of Indigenous queer theorists up there. I was sitting next to her and we both looked at each other and I said: “Well, I guess you are queer if you want to identify yourself in relationship to settler sexuality. But if your point of reference is not the settler sex state, but it's your own Indigenous set of practices and relating, are you queer?”
I was raised to be heteronormative and very heterosexual. It took me a long time to come to the realization that I was not only physically and romantically attracted to men. I didn't realize this because I am attracted to men, a lot, and when you are a woman you don't have to question that, and you think you're straight. And now I'm like, well, I don't want to adopt these other terms. I mean, I know that I move through the world with straight and cis privilege and I acknowledge that, I own that because I've been socialized into that body and that subjectivity. But I am also Dakota, and I know the way that I was raised, in these kind of subtle non-verbalized ways to relate more fluidly.
“And so I would never say that I'm queer, ever. First of all, because I have so much straight and cis privilege. Number two, because I'm Dakota and that is my frame of reference.
And so I would never say that I'm queer, ever. First of all, because I have so much straight and cis privilege. Number two, because I'm Dakota and that is my frame of reference. I don't feel the need to adapt these categories for myself and there is a real political statement in me doing that, but I totally get why others do it. I totally get the need to advocate for rights around those categories. I have a pragmatic view of it. I think that as Indigenous Peoples we should have a more robust conversation about when we are identifying as queer what are we doing, versus say two-spirit, versus me saying I'm just Dakota and I'm going to relate accordingly. And maybe within that I might have some sexual practices that you settlers might think are queer but aren’t queer to me!
I know there are people, like pan-Africanist thinkers, that are thinking about this as well, and I'm quietly paying attention to what they are doing. There is some resistance to the imposition of the LGBTQ and queer categories over there, which can be taken as homophobic or anti-trans, but I don't think that's all. From what I hear, I hear them saying “we have our own history and practices and ways of relating, and maybe we should use our own terms for that.” So this is a really great conversation to have, right?
RELATING IN TIMES OF PANDEMIC
¿What are your thoughts on this pandemic, from the perspective of your work on “being in relation” and confronting colonialism?
My initial thoughts about the Covid-19 pandemic have less to do with colonialism than they have to do with the lessons we can draw from consensual nonmonogamists to better manage risk in our societal relations. Many polyamorists, for example, are already practiced in mindful and safer physical interactions. We skillfully use protection for sexual relations. We talk openly about it, and in technical detail. We have pointed conversations with lovers or potential lovers about “fluid bonding,” unprotected sex. We agree to unprotected or protected (at some level) physical contact, but only after open conversation about current partners and risk tolerance.
Some of us belong to a “polycule,” a group of people who have sex within their group, but not outside that group. In a polycule, everyone involved might agree to adhere to (unprotected) sexually intimacy only within group, no outside lovers allowed. Acceptable levels of risk are agreed to within group. This is similar to a household in an era of Covid-19, or to two families who have similar risk avoidance practices and tolerances and who agree only to relate socially face-to-face with one another.
For polyamorists these kinds of explicitly discussed agreements are almost always combined with regular STI testing. All of this talk, health education, and testing combined minimize risk. Similarly, one can imagine universal and regular coronavirus testing along with education and open conversation being a wise approach to minimizing risk.
“Perhaps like the HIV crisis, heterosexist and racist North American observers thought this epidemic too was only deadly to the “others” they do not consider normal or advanced human societies.”
I have sarcastically wondered on social media if there are not too many monogamists and normative “western” thinkers in charge of health and other public policies. We saw early on in this pandemic wishful thinking in the US and Canada and too much denial of the seriousness of what we are facing. I think at play in this denial—so maybe that is US and Canadian settler-colonial exceptionalism—is an “othering” of China and the “east.” This othering includes talk of Covid-19 being the result of a “Chinese virus,” rumoured to be derived from strange (to us) Chinese social and cultural practices.
Perhaps like the HIV crisis, heterosexist and racist North American observers thought this epidemic too was only deadly to the “others” they do not consider normal or advanced human societies. Too many of our governmental leaders in the US and Canada, might have held beliefs similar to leaders in earlier decades who thought HIV would mainly ravage gay communities and African countries, and therefore mattered less since those communities were considered backwards and culturally deviant.
It’s clear to me that normative thinkers—largely monogamists, I am sure—are making the Covid-19 situation worse. There is evidence that monogamists practice less safe sex, including when they “cheat”. I think we need more nonmonogamist policymakers and healthcare experts who are less moralizing about exposure to infection, who understand that we are all ultimately at risk because we are all organisms in which viruses and bacterial pathogens can thrive. But that risk and attendant suffering can be lessened with sufficient education, discussion, and proactive medical practice.
What part does the connection between humans and other-than-human play in “being in relation” and in light of the pandemic?
Thinking in terms of categories of beings (e.g. races, genders, species, etc.) seems in human history to inevitably result in ranking forms of life, in hierarchy that brings cruelty and exploitation.
Whether one is speaking of relating well with humans or nonhumans, in the variety of ways in which we relate (sexually, intimately-but-not-sexually, as food, fuel, or material “resource”), we are talking about sustaining one another. This does not mean power relations are never involved in how beings relate. Power circulates. It can be shared. If one thinks of a web of relation, there is tension in the web and any movement ultimately has reverberations across that web. It is better to think of how our movements and actions affect many beings in relation.
Those hierarchies of life that we inherit from modern European thought do us a disservice when they view some forms of life as always or categorically “killable,” as Donna Haraway puts it. As she says and as Indigenous philosophies recognize, it’s not that we can live without killing, but we must understand that killing is always killing. It is not to be taken lightly. It is not to be done as a right or without consideration. There are consequences to killing. And we should not disregard the suffering of humans and our non-human relatives. The hierarchy of life that is so prevalent in “Western” religion, governance, and science seems to promote more rather than less suffering.
“Ending this deadly pandemic and preventing future pandemics will require acting with more consideration for the many diverse bodies within our collective, both human and nonhuman beings.”
To come back to this present pandemic, minimizing the movement of this virus through our human community requires recognizing like the virus does our expansive relatedness, not only among humans, but with nonhuman relations. Ending this deadly pandemic and preventing future pandemics will require acting with more consideration for the many diverse bodies within our collective, both human and nonhuman beings.
Scientists think the virus made a jump to humans due to loss of wildlife habitat and/or through the industrial food complex. This pandemic is rooted in disregard by powerful humans for the conditions of life for both less powerful humans and for our nonhuman relatives who suffer greatly in this global capitalist, colonial system.
SoloPolyCon 2018 keynote: Yes, Your Pleasure! Yes, Self-love! And Don’t Forget, Settler Sex is a Structure
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. Thanks to all of the people at ConvergeCon 2018 who I had the pleasure of thinking with over the weekend of April 7-8, 2018, and whose sex positivity work in the world also fertilized this keynote. And thanks to Damien AtHope (pictured here) for the video.
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.
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