Critical polyamorist blog
Keynote lecture given at the Second Annual International Solo Polyamory Conference (SoloPolyCon18), Seattle, WA, USA, April 14, 2018
During the weekend of April 7-8, 2018, I attended Converge Con in Vancouver. It is a conference “that originated with a desire to build sex positive communities, and start a dialogue around sexuality, relationships and activism.” I had the honor of being on the closing panel, #MeToo in the Age of Consent, with Erin Tillman, the author of The Consent Guidebook, and sex educator, Jimanekia Eborn—both from L.A. The final question posed to our panel was:
If there was one thing you wanted people to take away this weekend about autonomy, agency, power, and creating a culture of consent, what would that be?
“Remember your structural analysis,” I responded. Settler sexuality—that gives us this hetero- and increasingly homonormative compulsory monogamy society and relationship escalator intimately tied to settler-colonial ownership of property and Indigenous dispossession--is a structure.
Converge Con was refreshing with so many people with similar filters about sex-talk, meaning…let’s talk unabashedly about sex. All of it! They set up a separate social space for between session gabbing because in 2017 there were complaints from “normies” at the hotel about all the sex talk happening in the lobby. At Converge Con sessions included “Group Sex Demystified,” body positivity, liberation from repressed sexual shame, sex positive parenting (loved that one), “Masturbation for Healing and Creation,” “How Society’s Representation of Beauty…Impacts Sexual Self Expression,” and how to manage sex and relationships when coping with depression. There were many sessions that teach us as individuals, couples, families or even communities techniques for liberating ourselves psychologically, emotionally, even spiritually from sex negative and shaming thoughts and behaviors.
I found less emphasis on averting our gazes from our own bodies, individual, family, or community histories to look hard at the (settler) state and its structures. Those structures not only indoctrinate us with settler ideals, but they have legally and economically enforced certain forms of sex and relationships throughout the existence of these nation states.
It is necessary to throw off shame, love one’s self and one’s body, rejuvenate, and practice self-care. Yet a focus on even sex positive bodies and relationships vs. a focus on sex negative bodies and relationships, is not in and of itself a structural analysis. Focusing on sex and body positivity helps us cultivate the energy to fight systemically. And personal transformation cannot fully occur without societal transformation. The two are co-constitutive—meaning individual and societal change help produce one another. I want us to always keep that in mind. The heteropatriarchal state would prefer we focus our eagle eye on our own shortcomings exclusively, and not its extractive and oppressive structures.
A Note on Terminology: Settler and Settler Sexuality
My colleague at Queens University, queer theorist Scott Morgensen, has popularized in academic circles—and this bleeds into Indigenous sexual health circles—the term “settler sexuality.” He defines this succinctly as:
The heteropatriarchal and sexual modernity exemplary of white settler civilization.
If that is too succinct, he has also explained settler sexuality as:
A white national heteronormativity [and increasingly also homonormativity] that regulates
Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler
His work and the work of other anthropologists and historians of Euro-American settlement, marriage and monogamy in the US and Canada, shows how it was not only Indigenous people that were forced into monogamy and state sanctioned marriage. Those relationship forms were intimately tied up with the appropriation of Indigenous collectively held land and its division into individual allotments to be held privately. Men as heads of households qualified for a certain acreage. They obtained more if they had a wife and children. Women of course were tied to men economically. Accordingly, compulsory monogamy and marriage have been forced on other non-monogamous and sometimes non-Christian communities as well. Thus, settler sexuality can be translated more straightforwardly as both heteronormative and homonormative forms of “love,” “sex,” and marriage that are produced along with private property holding in the US and Canada.
Therefore, when I use the term “settler,” I am not interested in nitpicking who is and is not a “settler” on an individual level. Americans often find the term odd, too polite, actually. On the other hand, more Canadians are a bit more accustomed to “settler,” and don’t often find it so polite. Some of them seem to have the same reaction to the term “settler” as they do to being called “white.” But I also know many academics, both white and “visible minorities” (the term used frequently in Canada for “minorities” or “people of color,” and which includes recent immigrants) who identify as “settlers.” And when they do, it is with explicit recognition that their lives in Canada are made possible by settler-colonialism.
There are vibrant conversations in Canada and in the US (although more so among academics in the US) that debate the applicability of the term “settler” and suggest new terms for non-racially privileged, non-Indigenous groups, e.g. African-Americans or recent non-white or non-Christian immigrants who enter the US or Canada due to conditions of war and violence in many cases due to settler state imperialism abroad. There will be no untroubled definitions of the category of settler. Instead, I focus on settler-colonial state power, including its cultural power, which all of its citizens are capable of shoring up. I see non-Indigenous racially disadvantaged citizens as potentially complicit in settler-colonial appropriations of Indigenous (re)sources. And many of us across racial and religious lines have been made complicit in helping uphold settler forms of sex.
Kyle Powys Whyte, a Potawatomi environmental philosopher and activist who teaches at Michigan State explains very pithily how the citizenry broadly is involved in ongoing settler-colonialism. In a recent article in Yes! Magazine, he writes:
Whether one participates in settler colonialism is not entirely a matter of when or how one’s
ancestors came to the U.S. Having settler privilege means that some combination of one’s
economic security, U.S. citizenship, sense of relationship to the land, mental and physical health,
cultural integrity, family values, career aspirations, and spiritual lives are not possible—literally!--
without the territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples.
Are Non-normative Sexualities also “Settler Sexuality”?
So-called non-normative sexualities and relationship practices, such as polyamory—I would say especially solo polyamory within that--do challenge important settler state cultural restrictions, but they also tend to assume the inevitability of settler-colonial cultural norms and governance structures. They do not sufficiently interrogate Indigenous dispossession for the rise of a private property state. They often simply want to redeem the settler state into a more multicultural and inclusive entity, without asking how even alternative practices of intimate relation uphold settler colonialism.
Margot Weiss, an anthropologist who wrote a book Techniques of Pleasure that examines kink communities in San Francisco and Silicon Valley shows how they consume expensive sex toys and “play” experiences on their way to personal self-actualization. She highlights gender and race dynamics and power relations in kink communities that are sometimes not so different from mainstream settler sexuality. These patterns of individual identity-making via capitalist consumption, and fairly normative race and gender dynamics rose in concert with settler-colonial nation-building. She also delves a bit into the very interesting history of old guard leather communities in San Francisco that have had more oppositional politics historically, but her focus is on newer more economically privileged kink communities, including tech sector workers.
Scott Morgensen in his anthropological work in a community of radical faeries and their predominantly white back-to-the-land communities also shows how even queer sex, including non-monogamy and kink are also often enacted as forms of settler sexuality. Morgensen’s work shows how radical faeries in a rural Oregon community remain conditioned by race hierarchy, and their back-to-the-land ideology is of course predicted on Indigenous dispossession historically and erasure of Indigenous presence today.
Morgensen discusses how queer claims too are conditioned by settler colonialism. He also pays close attention to Indigenous two-spirit activism and theorizing and their focus on People or tribal-specific knowledges about sexualities, relations, and relationships. The term “two-Spirit" gestures toward precolonial gender systems not based on the European sex/gender binary that concerned colonizers and which now concerns queer thinkers. If you don’t know the history of the term two-spirit, which is in wide use today, it came into common use in 1990 in Winnipeg at the International Gathering of American Indian and First Nations Gays and Lesbians. As opposed to “coming out,” an important aspect of two-spirit thought is the idea of “coming in” to community to take up special roles designated for gender diverse individuals within the extended kinship webs of Indigenous communities historically. Or at least that is the ideal. Two-spirit people have struggled in Indigenous communities too with homophobia produced of colonial violence.
In my Critical Polyamorist blog, I’ve written about the disproportionate influence that heteronormative couple privilege and associated hierarchies have in polynormative communities. My frustration with that mode of polyamory is explained in my critiques of how it remains very much a form of settler sexuality. More rule-bound and couple-centric forms of polyamory privilege the married, cohabiting, child-sharing couple as “primary,” with additional relationships being “secondary.” This replicates key conditions of monogamy that I find politically and ethically difficult. In short, it is not only vanilla monogamists who uphold settler-colonialism with their intimate practices linked to property, consumption, couple and marriage privilege.
Within open nonmonogamy, I push for analyses that help us envision ways of relating beyond such normative arrangements and also beyond Western notions of romantic “love” conditioned—whether we know it or not—by capitalism’s coercive power. I don’t want Hallmark and Nestlé telling me when and how I need to show my love while also giving those companies my money to evangelize normative relations and unsustainably extract resources.
SoloPolyamory and Being in “Good Relation”
I am here with all of you at SoloPolyCon because I see more potential in solo polyamory for challenging the assumptions of settler states. I’ve considered too the potential for my focus on being in good relation—my particular Indigenous standpoint—to be in conflict with the ethic of autonomy and non-hierarchy that is a mark of solo polyamory. But then I remembered a photo that one of you posted on Facebook during last year’s conference. (I was sick and had to Skype in my talk from Edmonton.) The photo was of about a half dozen SoloPolyCon attendees hanging out at the beach. They were each standing apart, scattered along the beach like differently contoured and colored stones. And I remember the photo was captioned “Alone together.” The image looked so appealing, just the kind of community that would understand me and that might be able to be articulated with the idea of being in good relation that is being taken up with renewed commitment by different Indigenous peoples across North America these days—by academics, artists, activists, and Indigenous Twitterati. I cannot emphasize how much Indigenous thinkers are focusing on “Indigenous relationality,” an umbrella term used to help us think beyond race, the nation state, biology, and other settler conceptual impositions.
Taking the “solo polyamory” explanation from our Facebook page:
People who practice solo polyamory have lots of kinds of honest, mutually consensual
nonexclusive relationships (from casual and brief to long-lasting and deeply committed). But
generally, what makes us solo is the way we value and prioritize our autonomy. We do not have
(and many of us don't want or aren't actively seeking) a conventional primary/nesting-style
relationship: sharing a household & finances, identifying strongly as a couple/triad, etc.
How do I see that as being articulated with the idea of Indigenous relationality? Autonomy from compulsory monogamy or even the nonmonogamous hierarchical couple need not be defined as “single.” Solo polyamory for me is a de-escalation from the couple. For me and others it is a refusal to get on the escalator (again). But it can simultaneously also lend itself to living in extended relation and disrupting commonly accepted relationship categories. Many of us work to build networks of made kin as essential support systems, and with more fluid boundaries. And many of us do this under settler structural duress. It’s just that most solopoly people probably don’t name the challenges they face as settler-colonialism.
I’ve written and talked elsewhere about my Dakota ancestors’ practices of relating and their “sexualities” as we call it today. Before settler-imposed monogamy, marriage helped to forge important Dakota kinship alliances, but divorce for both men and women was possible. Women also owned household property. They were not tied to men economically in the harsh way of settler marriage. More than two genders were recognized, and there was an element of flexibility in gender identification. People we might call “genderqueer” today also entered into “traditional” Dakota marriages with partners who might be what we today consider “cisgendered.” In a world before settler colonialism—outside of the particular biosocial assemblages that now structure settler notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently. In thinking about “sex,” how did my ancestors share touch as a form of care, relating, and connection before the imposition of settler structures of sexuality and family? There is much that has been lost due to forced conversions to Christianity and the sexual shaming that came with that. And so much of settler sexuality has been imposed onto Indigenous peoples in place of our ancestors’ practices, both heteronormative and now also “queer” settler sexuality. But in a world before settler colonialism and its notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently.
And yet, we Dakota continue to live in a way that embodies in our 21st-century loves, long-held kinship structures. Many of us continue to live in extended family where the legally married couple is not central, where children are raised in community, and where households often spill over beyond nuclear family and across generations. Can we not then also imagine sexual intimacies outside of settler family structures? I know we already have them. Can we name and measure them without using settler sex and family forms as reference points?
It is also important in unsettling settler sex and family to mine historical and language archives in order to know more about what kinds of relations were possible before settler-colonial impositions, including nonmonogamous relationships that were common in Dakota and other Indigenous cultures. This suggestion will be met with resistance by some Indigenous people. Our sexual shaming and victimization has been extreme at the hands of missionaries, in residential schools, and by government agents who all wielded violent control over Indigenous lives. There are still many of us have not recovered from the shaming of Christian sexual mores, and supposedly secular state institutions that continue to monitor, measure, and pathologize our bodies and our peoples.
That said, I am beginning to hear from younger Indigenous people either via comments on my blog or when I give lectures at universities, that they would like to embrace open and honest nonmonogamy. But in addition to a shortage of willing Indigenous partners, they worry about the judgement of their elders who are still immersed in values that younger people see as a holdover of residential schools and the church. One Indigenous undergraduate asked me what my elders think of my nonmonogamy. I remember exactly how I responded:
I don’t know what they think. They don’t say anything to me, and I’m pretty open on Facebook, and
on my Critical Polyamorist blog. But I’m almost 50, and at 55 I'll get a senior discount at businesses
on my reservation. I’m almost an elder myself! I also earn my own money and I’m an academic. With
that comes more freedom than most people have. So I’m not really worried about what people think.
But I know you do have to worry. I try to make space for others so someday they will have the choices
that I have.
Writing and speaking this talk is to make just a little more space.
Yet in our lives as Indigenous people, we already unsettle settler relations in courageous ways. Think about work that Indigenous people do to defend the earth in order to have a chance at (re)constituting good relations with our other-than-human relatives. I think of the resistance to resource extraction that particularly Indigenous women and two-spirit people have organized via IdleNoMore and Standing Rock, sometimes at great personal risk. These are both movements that link the defense of Indigenous treaty rights to defense of the planet, which is a way of also caring for our human descendants to come. In terms of that idea of being in good relation, I consistently compare “environmental” caretaking to caretaking human relations. Accordingly, decolonizing sex is one way of re-constituting good relations with some of our human relatives. Of course I use “relative” broadly since “we are all related.”
I will be paying close attention the rest of the weekend at this conference to notice potential articulations between solo polyamory and forms of Indigenous thought and practice related to sex and relationships.
Disaggregating “Sex,” Reaggregating Relations: The Example of Moreakamem
I want to dig just a bit deeper into the theory behind being in good relation by providing one more example of nonmonogamy and by settler standards non-normative sexuality among an Indigenous people in what is today Sonora, Mexico. There is a type of Indigenous healer there who can teach us a lot about being in good relation in ways that refuse settler sexuality.
My friend, David Shorter, an Indigenous Studies scholar at UCLA, wrote an essay entitled simply, “Sexuality.” That essay resulted from the time that Shorter spent with moreakamem—healers or seers among the Yoeme. Being also a religious studies scholar, he had originally set out to understand the “spiritual” aspects of moreakamem as healers. But his analysis came to entangle “sexuality” with “spirituality.”
In southern Yoeme in Sonora, an elder told Shorter that individuals who engage in nonmonogamous and/or non-heterosexual relationships are often also moreakamem. In fact, in northern Yoeme communities in Arizona, moreakame has come to be conflated with terms such as “gay,” “lesbian,” or “two-spirit,” and other less positive terms. Indeed, the healer aspect of the word has been lost for US-based Yoeme who have much ethnic overlap with “Catholic Mexican American” communities.
But among southern Yoeme, Shorter found that he could not understand the powerful “spiritual” roles in community of moreakamem without also understanding their so-called sexuality. He explains that in many Indigenous contexts, there is an “interconnectedness in all aspects of life.” Following the connections between sex and spirit among the Yoeme was akin to “following a strand of a spider’s web.” Shorter sees both sexuality and spirituality as sets of relations through which power is acquired and exchanged between persons or entities. So when he writes about moreakamem, he emphasizes their focus on relating and their relational sharing of power with those who seek healing, with deities and spirits, etc. The moreakamem have reciprocity with and receive power in their encounters with spirits, ancestors, dreams, animals. And also in the human realm when they use their power to see for and heal other humans suffering from love or money problems, addictions, and other afflictions of mind and body.
But moreakamem refuse to accentuate their personal characteristics and capacities. They do not focus on their own so-called sexuality or even their power to heal. Rather, they focus on their work in community. Shorter explains that these healers “work tirelessly and selflessly to maintain right relations.” And he too refuses to classify Moreakamem as gay or nonmonogamous.
Shorter also encourages his readers to de-objectify (I might say decolonize). That is, we should try not to think of sexuality, spirituality (and nature too) as things at all. This is difficult: In a settler framework—whether in bed or in ceremony—relations get appropriated if you will and made into “things.” They get named or objectified as “sex” or “spirituality.” David Shorter asks us to see that what settler culture turns into objects are actually sets of relations in which power (and sustenance?) circulates. I am thinking that I would add that our relations then become resources for the settler state to measure, monitor, and exploit to in complex ways build settler knowledge and national identity. This is why I can say we might decolonize relations as we de-objectify them. An important practical outcome of this shift in thinking is that if we resist hardening relations between persons (be they human, nonhuman, or spirit) into objects, we might be better attuned to relating justly in practice, and we might reclaim our relational “resources.” We might attend to being in good relation and what that requires and resist having our relating both stifled and remade by less flexible “natures” and hierarchies. Therefore, It is not only for moreakamem, but for all of us that “sexuality” can be understood as a form of reciprocity and power exchange”—a way of being that “mediates social relations across the family, clan, pueblo, tribe,” etc. We exist not simply in nature but we exist in relation to one another. With this understanding of sexuality, it begins to look as Shorter writes, “more like a type of power, particularly one capable of healing” and transforming.”
Think of that co-constitution and re-constitution of our sexualities if we are polyamorous—the multiple, diverse sets of relations, power exchange, and subjectivities that result from multiple relating. I leave you with a powerful quote by David Shorter:
Sexuality is not “like” power…sexuality is a form of power: and, of the forms of power, sexuality in
particular might prove uniquely efficacious in both individual and collective healing. Further, I will
suggest that sexuality’s power might be forceful enough to soothe the pains of colonization and the
scars of internal colonization.
David Delgado Shorter (2015): 487.
Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz expresses two powerful ideas that have been helpful to me of late. In a September 14, 2017 interview with Krista Tippett of the On Being podcast, Díaz explained that in this moment of crisis—and always—it is imperative that critical thinkers be “misaligned with the emotional baseline” of mainstream society. He also explained his notion of “radical hope,” his trust that “from the bottom [meaning those not in power] will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible.”
I see that emotional baseline as dreaming of a progressive settler state. Tippet, the interviewer, then recounted Díaz ’s idea that “all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also have hope, which is not blind optimism, but radical hope. Talk about what that is…” she said. Díaz responded:
I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in
that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other
possible. I believe that with all my heart.
I have radical hope that settler relations based on violent hierarchies and concepts of property do not have to be all there is. This crisis or transition time in the US and Canada, and globally, offers an opportunity to cease cultivating a misplaced love for the state that insists on dreams of progress toward a never-arriving future of tolerance and good that paradoxically requires ongoing anti-blackness and genocidal violence. The path toward the supposed democratic promised land of settler mythology is in everyday life a nightmare for many around the globe. We require another narrative path to guide us. Indigenous people are proposing a relational web framework that is more about here and now, and not about when. We have an opportunity, if we choose to see it that way, to be misaligned with the emotional, intellectual, and (un)ethical baseline and narrative of those who hold power. We can have radical hope in a narrative that entails not redeeming the state, but caring for one another as relations. How do we live well here together? The state has and will continue to fail to help us do that.
I leave you with an inspirational quote from an Indigenous thinker who is misaligned with the emotional baseline of settler sexuality. At Converge Con last week, I interviewed Janet Rogers for the Media Indigena podcast I do every other week. Janet is a poet and performance artist who is Mohawk and wrote the book Red Erotic in 2010. There is a more Indigenous erotica coming out now, but Janet was a bit ahead of the curve perhaps. I mentioned to her that at Converge Con I felt like non-Indigenous people were more respectful and less invasive with their questions and their assumptions about my Indigenous perspective than is usually the case when I am in a largely non-Indigenous space. I thought their focus on consent culture might have a lot to do with their respectful behavior.
Here is what she had to say:
I’m … coming to the realization that the sensitivity, the consideration, the education, the awareness,
the “awokeness”—if you will—within the sex positive community overflows into that awareness,
sensitivity…into how those communities are relating to Indigenous people….Your practice and
understanding of your own sexuality overflows into the rest of your life. That’s where it begins!...If
you’ve got that resolved in the bedroom…all of that empowerment, all of that positivity is going to
overflow in other areas of your life.
I am taking her advice to heart. I am trying to get it right in the bedroom so I can get it right in the rest of my life. I think you are too.
*ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. Thanks to all of the people at Converge Con 2018 in Vancouver who I had the pleasure of thinking with over the weekend of April 7-8, 2018. Their sex positivity work in the world fertilized this keynote that I gave the following weekend, April 14, 2018, in Seattle.
 Scott L. Morgensen . The Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism an˙d Indigenous Decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011: 23.
 Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106
 Katherine Franke. Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Inequality (New York: NYU Press, 2015). Also see Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008).
 Morgensen 2011, 81.
 For more on solo polyamory, check out these two-oft read articles. Aggiesez. “What is Solo Polyamory? My Take.” SOLOPOLY: Life, Relationships, and Dating as a Free Agent. December 5, 2014. Available at: https://solopoly.net/2014/12/05/what-is-solo-polyamory-my-take/. And Elisabeth A. Sheff. “Solo Polyamory, Singleish, Single & Poly.” Pyschology Today. October 14, 2013. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201310/solo-polyamory-singleish-single-poly
 David Delgado Shorter (2015). Sexuality. In The World of Indigenous North America. Robert Warrior (ed.). New York and London: Routledge: 487-505.
 Shorter 2015, 490 and 497.
 I have actually expanded the thinking on decolonization in this paragraph beyond what I spoke during the keynote. In editing this for the blog, I realized that I needed to explain my use of “decolonization” in this paragraph. I am still thinking through this use of decolonization so I welcome thoughtful thoughts from others who work with decolonial ideas in Indigenous Studies especially.
 Shorter 2015, 497-8.
 On Being with Krista Tippett. Interview with Junot Diaz. https://onbeing.org/programs/junot-diaz-radical-hope-is-our-best-weapon-sep2017/. September 14, 2017. (Retrieved February 11, 2018).
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!
Looking for Love in Too Many Languages…Polyamory? Relationship Anarchy? Dyke Ethics? Significant Otherness? All My Relations?
Despite the fact that the polyamorous community says it over and over again—polyamory is ‘not just about sex’—the monogamously inclined media…cannot get past the fact that sex is a potential component in several relationships. Yet polyamory is by definition ‘many loves’. Sex might be a component and it also might not be….Mainstream media perception and focus on sex as the principle driver of polyamorous relationships, is not only incorrect, but it has damaged the real meaning of polyamory to such a[n] extent that I don’t know whether we can recover the word.
“The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship Anarchy"
Postmodernwoman.com (October 5, 2015)
There are many insightful blogs being written on topics that can be understood as “critical” polyamory. They contain analyses that go beyond more common treatments of emotional and logistical troubles related to having multiple, open relationships. Critical poly accounts address complex intersectional politics that condition how we are able to (or not) love openly and promiscuously. (See a selection of such blog posts on my links page.) And when I use the word promiscuous I do not define it as is standard in our mononormative, sex negative culture, i.e. as indiscriminate and random sexual encounters. Rather I re-define “promiscuous” as follows:
PROMISCUOUS, adj. and adv. (OLD DEFINITION)
Pronunciation: Brit. /prəˈmɪskjʊəs/ , U.S. /prəˈmɪskjəwəs/
Done or applied with no regard for method, order, etc.; random, indiscriminate, unsystematic.
OED Third Edition (June 2007)
PROMISCUOUS (NEW DEFINITION)
Plurality. Not excess or randomness, but openness to multiple connections, sometimes partial. But when combined, cultivated, and nurtured may constitute sufficiency or abundance.
Polyamory and Relationship Anarchy
I am edified by what I see as an increase in critical polyamory analyses that address questions such as how can we participate in open relationships as persons conscious of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other kinds of privilege and marginality. How do we do polyamory in less hierarchical rather than more hierarchical ways? The more rule-bound and couple-centric forms of polyamory, for example, that privilege the (state sanctioned) married, cohabiting, child-sharing couple as “primary,” with additional relationships being “secondary,” seem to me to replicate many of the conditions of monogamy that I find politically and ethically distasteful. I am always interested in analyses that help us envision ways of relating beyond such normative arrangements and beyond Western notions of romantic “love” conditioned—whether we know it or not—by capitalism’s coercive power.
I am an indigenous critic of “settler sexuality,” that is hetero- and homonormative forms of “love,” “sex,” and marriage. Or as Scott Morgensen—whose work established the term—defines it: “a white national heteronormativity [and increasingly also homonormativity] that regulates Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler subjects”. In thinking against forms of settler sexuality, I have become intrigued by the concept of “relationship anarchy” (RA). I’ve read several recent online analyses of this term, including one by well-known poly blogger Louisa Leontiades, as a reorienting concept for previously identified polyamorous people. Leontiades, author of The Husband Swap (2015), references blogger Andie Nordgren’s “Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy,” and describes RA as follows:
Relationship Anarchy is a relationship style characterised most often by a rejection of rules, expectations and entitlement around personal relationships. Relationship Anarchists are reticent to label their relationships according to normative expression (boyfriend, girlfriend etc.) believing these labels to be inherently hierarchical but rather look at the content of the individual relationships allowing their fluidity to evolve naturally under the guiding principles of love, respect, freedom and trust. Relationship Anarchy does not predefine sexual inclination, gender identity or relationship orientation.
I am curious about and moved by the concept of “relationship anarchy” (RA). But anarchist thinkers such as the blogger at Emotional Mutation have pushed back against poly folks appropriating the term “relationship anarchy” to help us lessen the perceptional baggage generated when mainstream media presents our relationships simplistically with a “salacious hyperfocus on sexuality.” Emotional Mutation clearly differentiates RA from poly, when they explain that polyamorists will tend to avoid or reject “some of the more radical/anarchic avenues of non-monogamy” that Relationship Anarchist’s pursue. For example:
…Relationship Anarchy rejects all arguments for policing the behavior of one’s intimate partners. ALL of them. What this means in practice is not only No “Agreements” in our own relationships, but also no participation in policing the rules/agreements/contracts of other peoples’ relationships. In other words, Relationship Anarchists are not necessarily anti-cheating.
These descriptions of the RA ethic make a lot of sense to me after three years as an ethical nonmonogamist, one who has made an intensive intellectual and political project out of the practice. As I wrote in my last blog post, “Critical Polyamory as Inquiry & Social Change” (Dec. 13, 2015), I lament cheaters far less than I used to. Rather, I lament the society in which the concept of cheating has so much salience and causes so much pain. “Cheating” is an idea conditioned by what are ultimately ideas of ownership over others’ bodies and desires. Having been "cheated on" long ago before I was married, having been the unwitting dalliance of someone who was cheating, and having myself cheated out of confusion and resistance (I see now) to monogamy, I can say that I cannot tolerate lying. It insults my intelligence. I could not myself carry lies. I confessed quickly. Sometimes the truth hurts, but for me lying hurts more. Cheating comes in part from thinking that lying will hurt less than honesty. Indeed, for some it does hurt less. This is the reality of a compulsory monogamy society in which there are severe social, legal, and economic penalties for breaking the monogamous contract. Those of us who have had the wherewithal to say “I want out” know well those penalties.
But the main reason that Relationship Anarchy intrigues me is my growing distaste—other than consent and safe sex agreements, of course—for relationship rules broadly. Like monogamy, I see fundamental aspects of polyamory to also involve imposing onto relationship categories and rules forged historically to manage society in hierarchical ways and which facilitate the coercive work of colonial states that always privilege the cultures and rights of whites over everyone else, the rights of men over women, and the rights of the heterosexuals over queers. Of course, state-sanctioned, heterosexual, one-on-one, monogamous marriage is tied to land tenure in the US and Canada, and helped bring indigenous and other women more fully under the economic and legal control of men. Polyamory only partly challenges settler sexuality and kinship, including marriage, in seeing ethical love as not being confined to the monogamous couple. But as I’ve written in an earlier blog post, “Couple-Centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism” (July 28, 2014), it still often in practice privileges the married couple as primary, other relationships as secondary, and continues to invest in couple-centric and often nuclear forms of family that are deeply tied up with colonialism. Ethical nonmonogamy in the US and Canada does not do enough to question these settler forms of love, sexuality and family. Although to be sure, there are ethical nonmonogamists who do their best to loosen the strictures of settler family forms to the greatest degree they can in a society whose laws thwart alternative families, including indigenous and queer families, at every turn.
Dyke Ethics and an Indigenous Ethic of Relationality
In addition, and not unlike monogamists, nonmonogamous people also often privilege sexual relating in their definitions of what constitutes ethical nonmonogamy, or plural loves. Might we have great loves that don’t involve sex? Loves whom we do not compartmentalize into friend versus lover, with the word “just” preceding “friends?” Most of the great loves of my life are humans who I do or did not relate to sexually. They include my closest family members, and also a man who I have had sexual desire for, but that is not the relationship it is possible for us to have. I love him without regret. We have never been physically intimate. Is this somehow a “just” friends relationship? I do not love him less than the people I have been “in love” with. Might we also not have great and important loves that do not even involve other humans, but rather vocations, art, and other practices?
I am coming to conceive of ethical nonmonogamy in much more complex and fluid terms than even polyamory (yet another form of settler sexuality) conceives of it. There are certain queer relationship forms that my evolving vision of relating resonates more closely with. In her forthcoming book, Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology, University of Massachusetts feminist science studies scholar Angela Willey articulates a broader sense of the erotic than is reflected in both monogamist and ethical nonmonogamist (i.e. polyamorist) sex-centered ideas of relating. Briefly, Willey defines the erotic in conversation with black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde and her idea of joy, “whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual.” Joy can involve humans and nonhumans, including entities and concepts not considered to be alive in a typical Western framework. The sexual and the romantic may be present in Lorde’s and Willey’s concept of the erotic, but they have no special status as a form of vital connection. Music, love of one’s work, satisfaction in building something, making love to another human being, artistic expression—all bring joy and fulfillment and are forms of eroticism. This can help us envision more expansive forms of connection and belonging beyond those produced by monogamy and nonmonogamy, and their sex centered understandings. Not that sex isn’t great for many of us, but it’s not been great for everyone. Nor do some people care to have what we call “sex.” Not all loves involve sex, even between partners. That should not diminish the veracity of love, commitment, and relating when it is the choice of both/all partners to not include sexual relations. The concept of erotic at play here does not hierarchize relationships according to the presence of sex, or the kind of sex. Willey is especially attuned to the loves and relating of queer subjects, “dykes” in particular, in whose circles she reads deep values of friendship, community, and commitments to social justice. And while sex and coupledom are present they are not uniquely centered. Willey’s observations are complementary to what I am calling an “indigenous ethic of relationality.” I am working to articulate a conceptual framework of relating with not only my human loves—sexual and not, but also with indigenous place, and with different knowledge forms.
What is “Love” Anyway? Becoming (Partially) Together?
All of this musing on plural, expansive mutual caretaking relations brings me back to this concept of “love,” which we throw around a lot in English.
Since I moved 2400 miles north to Canada from the American south last summer and left behind a wonderful friend and lover—FB (short for Firefighter Boyfriend), I’ve had time to reflect on our way of relating for the 14 months we were in close contact. FB models the kind of relatedness—a kind of “love” one could call it—that I am moving toward. It is not quite polyamory, nor Relationship Anarchy. I don’t yet have a name for it. FB is always there for me, even when he is not here. We never saw each other more than once every 2-4 weeks, usually for a weekend at a time. But I saw him enact a kind of distributed web of faithfulness that is rare, at least in US American culture. FB attends to his many loves: his children, his parents and sibling, sometimes his previous lovers. He attended to me and to M and to R, his other partners during our time together. He attends to his athletic training partners. He attends to his friends since childhood. He attends to his work, which he takes very seriously. He attends to these people and practices with his heart and his physical being. He does work for people as part of attending to their complex human needs. He fixes cars, fixes things around the house, and for a few of us he attends to our bodies in sexual ways. He continues to check in with me though we are separated by thousands of miles. He even checks in with my child occasionally. I will always remember the day he accompanied us to a speaking gig I had in a town 100 miles from home. He tied his camping hammock from a tree on the university campus, and my child swung in it while FB played guitar and sang Johnny Cash songs to her so she wouldn’t have to be bored at my talk. He is filled with energy to attend to his many relations. While he helps nourish community far beyond his nuclear family, his children too are raised in community, with not only him but by extended family.
I remain in relation with FB, although often now by messaging or Skype. I continue to converse with him, to learn with him. He is not indigenous but he gets it—at least the human side of this ethic of relatedness, a 21st century articulation of “all my relations,” that I work to live. I never told FB that I loved him. I was still defining love when we were together in the same city according to a couple-centric, probably more escalator-like definition, which FB and I were not ascending. Monogamous conditioning is probably like an addiction in that one must always be vigilant to its hunger, its willingness to help one cope or make sense of life. Though I work daily to gain nonmonogamy skills and to put down long- conditioned monogamous responses, I accept that it may always live inside me. I need the support of other nonmonogamous people who like me are in recovery from a colonial form of monogamy. Because I keep working at it, I am more skilled than I was a year ago in spotting monogamous responses in myself. I see that I was mistaken when I did not tell FB that I love him when I saw that I had his consent to share those words. In fact, we were enacting it even then. I understand now that love is not only feeling, but attention and willingness to caretake, even partially. Sometimes this includes sex. Sometimes it does not. From here on out, I will be more careful and thoughtful, yet more generous in my use of the word “love.”
When we caretake, it must also include ourselves. FB attends to himself. He knows that he needs to replenish. He is also not afraid to ask others to attend to his life. Being in relation requires doing and asking. This is because we cannot do everything for ourselves, or for others. As tireless as FB often seems in his efforts to be in relation, he is also always clear that he cannot be everything to anyone. Along with him I learned that faithful attention to one’s loves requires not submitting to the myth that partners can “complete” or make each other whole. I have come to think that asking for that is not fidelity, but betrayal of oneself and one’s lover(s), thus the point of a broad, strong network of relations. We can only manage the heavy work of sustenance in cooperation with one another.
FB and I have engaged in what Alexis Shotwell (after Donna Haraway) calls a form of “significant otherness.” Haraway refers to “contingent, non-reductive, co-constitutive relations between humans and other species” as she theorizes more ethical human relations with and responsibilities to the nonhuman world. By co-constitutive, Haraway refers to how we shape and make one another. We become who and what we are together, in relation. Taking Haraway’s reformulation of “significant otherness” as also a way to “talk about valuing difference,” Shotwell applies this relational ethic to her own analysis of polyamory practice: “significant otherness points towards partial connections, in which the players involved are relationally constituted but do not entirely constitute each other.” She also draws on Sue Campbell’s analysis of “relational self-construction”—the ways in which “we are formed in and through mattering relations with others…how our practices of being responsive to others shapes the kinds of selves we are.” 
How does this play out on the ground? Through specific relations with FB, for example, in concert with my intellectual relating with theorists cited here (Campbell, Haraway, Lorde, Morgensen, Shotwell, and Willey), and with indigenous ways of thinking relationality, I can now articulate “love” in a more complex and considered way than I had before. I have learned through nonmonogamy practice and reflection on that practice—aided by feminist, indigenous, and queer theorists—that one becomes together differently with different persons, phenomena, and knowledges. This happens on material and social levels simultaneously. Different bodies and desires fit together differently, thereby shaping different sexual practices and facilitating different sets of skills. New desires and pleasures (sometimes surprising!) are biosocially constituted. Different personalities and social ways of moving in the world help us partially re-socialize one another. With the aid of lovers past and present, including intellectual and other loves whose actual bodies play less to no part in our intimacies, we are ever becoming.
I began writing this post before Valentine’s Day, but life interfered and it took me a while to get back to it. But in that spirit, I leave you with a blessing: May your loves and relations be many, and not caged within settler-colonial norms of rapacious individualism, hierarchies of life, and ownership of land, bodies, and desires. I hope that every day you are able to spend time with some of your loves, whoever they are and in whatever relationship form they take. I wish you health and connection in 2016.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106
 Angela Willey. Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. London and Durham: Duke University Press, 2016 [forthcoming].
 Alexis Shotwell. "Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness." In Gary Foster, ed. Desire, Love, and Identity: A Textbook for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. Oxford University Press Canada: Toronto (forthcoming October 2016), 7.
During the past fourteen months of my iterative commitment to polyamory, one question occasionally troubles my mind for difficult hours. In the midst of my gratitude for what I have in a world of hardship and sorrow, I grow sad for a time and struggle with this predicament: Am I pursuing polyamory because I have given up hope of ever finding a person so compelling and compatible (and available and in the same country!) that we could remain committed to one another for the rest of our lives? This is the main question I return to time and again, and my chief struggle in polyamory. Am I taking the easy way out? Trying to avoid vulnerability? Disappointment? Commitment and compromise—the hard work of fidelity to another rather than just myself?
In the moments of struggle I also sometimes wonder if I am just too like my parents, neither of whom were able to sustain lifelong romantic partnerships. My life is richer with nurturing and opportunity than theirs were, but I share their propensity for travel and migration. They were both workaholics, both running from but also always returning home. I have come to see their migratory practices as not wholly dysfunctional but as a productive act of survival. And they just crave the road. So do I. Too bad poly wasn’t a viable choice for my parents in their non-privileged mid- to late-20th century middle America world. Maybe both of them would have had more success in love, felt less like failures or oddballs in that regard. Their serial monogamy and that of my extended family members over the course of decades did none of us much good. I saw more than my share of failed marriages and dysfunctional couple relationships. It is sad to remember so much unrealistic idealism and expectations that could never be fulfilled coupled with controlling, dishonest, and disrespectful behavior of men towards women, sometimes of women towards men, but most of all the collateral damage to the children involved. Our struggles were clearly shaped by oppressive colonial institutions that deeply damaged Native American families and communities for more than a century. I see now that there was little possibility of living up to the successful nuclear family ideal. On the other hand, despite colonization, we are still accomplished at cultivating networks of extended family—biological, adopted, and ceremonial—and that makes me proud. And it is probably a key reason that I find myself drawn to this non-Native American practice called polyamory. In its ideal form as I imagine it, poly can help build extended family that includes but goes beyond the restrictive bonds of biology.
Whatever the history that brought me to here—whether it is family- or culture-specific, a result of colonial history, or a fundamental human condition (some like to argue that non-monogamy is biological nature), whether it is nature or nurture or both—every time I enter the space of struggle over poly versus monogamy, I walk out the other side still committed to polyamory. I am certain that even were I to find “true love” again (I think I’ve felt that at least twice in my life), I’d find myself back here in a few years, facing a choice to open that relationship. For I no longer believe that it is realistic or fair or ultimately loving to myself and to my partner to command that each of us legitimately long for and be only with one another. I am also coming to believe as I weigh healthy and honest monogamy against healthy and honest polyamory, neither is any more or less difficult. They both involve considerable emotional work, ethical commitment, the courage to be vulnerable, good communication skills, compassion and withholding judgment. In other words, neither set of practices, if they are to satisfy on multiple levels, allows us to slack. I must therefore decide how to live, love, and desire in the way that seems to best fit me, and I am fortunate to have the resources to do that. While my ethical and analytical head always chooses polyamory, my heart is still deeply conditioned by the romantic and illusory ideal of safety in monogamy. And my body wants what both can offer: connection. In this struggle, I often let my head lead the way, which helps remake my heart. My heart, in turn, prompts new analyses. This blog is part of that.
Only fourteen months after embarking on the path of poly, I find it hard to remember its origin. How did I find the path’s beginning? How long did I ponder it before I started walking? I surely must credit the influence of queer thinkers, some of whom are my friends—both their analyses and the fact that more frequently than straight people they practice ethical non-monogamy. Although queers less often label it polyamory. That label seems to be more the domain of straight people. I know that I did not buy the poly self-help books until after I’d made the decision to try and de-program myself from monogamy. And I know that it is not something I considered when I made the decision, three years ago, to leave my marriage to a stellar human being. But it was marriage itself that had always felt like an ill fit to me. And I worried about the effect that growing unhappiness would have on our child. But still I was committed to serial monogamy back then. I believed I just had to find the right “one” and everything romance-wise would fall into place. But that did not happen. I tried for a couple of years once I felt my heart open up again after I kept it closed in marriage. But for various reasons opportunities with people I could imagine spending a life with appeared, and then faded. In my age, education, and class range, I meet too many potentially suitable matches who are still tangled up emotionally, psychologically, and financially in monogamous relationships, many of them troubled or unsatisfying. And those who are single are often scarred by their previous committed relationships gone terribly wrong, yet many are still committed to a monogamous ideal. Others see themselves as sexual and emotional mavericks who reject commitment and embrace non-monogamy, but without the openness and extreme level of communication that is a hallmark of the poly ideal. These types are an especially bad fit for me. Like them, I may have early on viewed non-monogamy as a way to have smaller, more manageable connections in the face of “true love’s” absence and in the face of competing commitments, such as work. Work comes first. It not only helps support my material well-being and that of my child, but it is through work that I enact my ethical and political commitments to this world. My work is my spiritual practice. My commitment to egalitarianism further complicates my ability to live up to that idealized form of romantic commitment in our society, monogamous marriage. I am not following anyone around, and I don’t want anyone sacrificing their path to follow me. But unlike the anti-commitment mavericks, I don’t want to reject love and meaningful attachment to other humans in the form of romantic relationships. To be sure, I’m nervous of the pain they can bring: but I know I want it. I am like this in friendship too. I crave platonic ties that enfold love and intimacy that will last to our dying days. Ultimately, being non-monogamous does not free me from the work and emotional risk of love and commitment. Rather, it re-shapes what love and commitment (can) look like, requiring me to negotiate them with multiple partners instead of one. Poly can also sometimes blur the boundaries between platonic and romantic love. A caveat: I’m not knocking sex for the sake of sex. For some people that is what fulfills them. It is not sufficient for the intimacy I crave.
Routes after Roots
I had an epiphany a decade ago that rootedness in one place—finding that one true geographic home—will never be something I can find on this planet. What a relief to realize there is no one true place for me, and that there is nothing abnormal about that feeling. I could stop feeling like a failure, fickle, a commitment phobe, like travel is just running, like I was doing it all wrong. Along with that realization, came the knowledge that standing still too long has its own ethical risks—complacency, eclipsed vision, and judgment. I must be regularly challenged on the borders of different worlds, always living in translation. Yet after the decade-long sense of disconnection I could never overcome living on a mountainous coast—on land that moves but under skies that are still—I realized that I need to spend more time on flat, expansive land. If not in the spot where I came into this world in human form, it had to be something like it. This land where I live now is warmer than my birthplace, but still the skies are tumultuous, breathtaking and life giving. And I need rivers like I need the roads and the skies. Rivers are the lifeblood of my historic, metaphoric, and literal topography. I grew up near rivers. They symbolize for me leaving and returning in a regular migratory pattern. They are movement and place simultaneously. Like me, like my parents before me, and historically my migratory ancestors, rivers are routed. I live on the banks of one now. Luckily, my work also enables me to travel and to stay periodically in place. I am rewarded for my skills at translation between literal and technical cultures, between conceptual languages. Travel enables me to co-parent my child who lives with my ex-husband during the school year. As soon as I found it, I embraced the knowledge that I am at peace only living en route, leaving for different and challenging far-off lands, then returning to expansive plains and skies, a more tolerant, thoughtful, and grateful person. Routedness, not rootedness, allows me to lead an ethical life.
But what of relationships? How could I hope to find someone who can live such a life with me while having their own life? I am fortunate to have encountered a few (potential) romantic partners of whom I was enamored and could take anywhere: curious, tolerant, adventurous, grounded intellectuals who like me come from humble economic backgrounds. Individuals who share my lenses and could grow with me in travel. Yet for a variety of reasons, most of them were ultimately unavailable. But even if one had been available, would I have nonetheless eventually faced the choice of polyamory? Yes, probably.
For not only am I routed through different lands, but I am routed in my work. I am fidelitous to multiple institutions and technical tracks. I attribute this second form of routedness also in part to my mother and to the life she created for us as children. She also craves diversity in social relations and from her I learned to build and cherish a stunningly diverse community. It spans many classes, races, nations, technical specialties, levels of ability, sexual and political orientation. I need diverse people with their multiple worldviews and their different knowledges in order to make sense of the world. My family, friends, colleagues, and lovers will often not be comfortable in one another’s presence. But this is the challenge and the existence I crave and which satisfies me: to be continuously routed geographically, conceptually, and intimately.
Again, polyamory is for me an intellectual, political, and emotional project all wrapped up in one—each aspect re-shaping the others. But since I am more accomplished at the intellectual than the emotional, I sometimes lean harder on my analytical abilities and my political commitment to non-monogamy to strengthen my resolve to keep navigating the challenging social, moral, and cultural landscape that is poly. If I want a home there, I must help build it. Just like there is no perfect one true love out there waiting for me, just like I have to create and nourish democratic relationships and knowledges, so must I nourish and help constitute the diverse and democratic poly world I want to live in. In the end, polyamory is not only intimacy constituted by love and sex, but fundamentally by openness to multiple connections. It involves emotional, intellectual, and physical plurality rather than “promiscuity,” which is usually negatively defined as entailing a casual, transient, and indiscriminate approach to intimate connection. But the plurality of polyamory can equally be understood not as excess or randomness but as openness to multiple complex connections, some of them not as complete as one might require in monogamy when you can choose only one person. But when they are combined, cultivated, and nurtured, multiple connections constitute sufficiency, and sometimes abundance. The ideal of polyamory requires an honest recognition that life and love are ever in flux. Too often the ideal of monogamy tells us to deny this. It lulls us into thinking we can get things settled, that we are ever safe and secure in our one true relationship. Polyamory does not let us rest in this idea. In its best form, poly leads us to abundance, negotiated and built through work and care. It takes us beyond that sad and debilitating world in which fear of scarcity and deprivation dog us into a severely circumscribed set of choices that we then think we need to live with for a lifetime. Monogamy can be better than that of course, but often it is not. With polyamory as a legitimate choice, I wonder if our standards for and skills with monogamy would improve as well?
The Critical Polyamorist
 I owe this language that helped me to understand what I have long felt to James Clifford as he articulated these concepts in his book Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
WARNING: This may be the unsexiest blog post on polyamory you will ever read.
In my first blog post, I introduced The Critical Polyamorist as a project in which I aim to explore the politics of being a minority—a tribally-identified Native American—within the already minority polyamory community in the U.S. I bring critical social theory to analyze the politics of race and culture as they play out in the poly world I inhabit in my mid-continental city.
In addition to the lack of race or cultural diversity in explicitly polyamorous communities, I notice that poly people disproportionately engage in certain cultural practices including neo-paganism. In fact, the popular slogan “Polyamorous, Pagan and Proud” can be found on t-shirts, coffee cups, and bumper stickers. A brief description of pagan demographics in the U.S. will demonstrate that this is not mere subjective observation, but something related to structural issues among polys. Speaking as a Native American, noticeable participation in paganism among polys is something I find a bit of a turn off. I’ll explain why shortly.
Contemporary pagan movements are re-articulations of the new and the old. Influenced by pagan practices of a pre-modern era in what is today Europe, and as understood through folklore and anthropological sources, they add modern interpretations and innovations. As opposed to the one-God religions that dominate in the U.S., and which tend to hold humans above lower species, paganism features beliefs in multiple deities (polytheism) and animistic thought in which nonhumans, including those not usually understood to be living, have a spiritual force. Paganism in the U.S. dates to the late 1960s and has historical ties with the rise of polyamory. Multiple academic and self-help sources on polyamory note the overlap between poly and pagan communities. On my city’s various poly listservs and Facebook pages I often see cross-postings for pagan and other New Age events.
Pagan Demographics and Race in the U.S.
I have seen it written that poly people are more likely to identify as pagan because both communities are populated by similarly liberal-minded people. Fair enough. But what attracts certain liberal-minded people to paganism and not others? Are there perhaps some racial differences? Indeed there seem to be. A quick Google Scholar search yielded no academic sources on the intersections of contemporary paganism and race. However a visit to the Wikipedia page on “Modern Paganism” yielded numbers that accord with what I’ve seen in my poly world. The “Socio-economic breakdown of U.S. Pagans” is as follows:
81.5% with university degrees? That’s a highly educated lot. Contemporary pagans are represented in statistically significant numbers in urban, suburban, and rural areas, but the numbers on “ethnicity” among U.S. pagans are not at all diverse.
Surprised by that Native American number? You should be. The Wiki page explains that “Based on the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on religion, there are over one million Pagans estimated to be living in the United States.” In turn, this number means nearly 90,000 Native American pagans. But according to the 2010 U.S. Census, we Native Americans (self-identified that is, not tribally enrolled, which number about half of the self-identified population) number 1.7% of the U.S. population, or roughly 5.2 million. Given the pagan self-identified numbers that would mean that 1.7% of self-identified Native Americans identify as pagan, or 3.4% of the tribally-enrolled. I am dubious. I have lived and worked in many indigenous communities across the United States and a little bit in Canada too—both rural and urban. I have never met a single indigenous person in any of these communities who identifies publicly as “pagan.” NEVER. On the other hand, I know multiple North American indigenous folks who explicitly identify as poly, or did at one point in their lives. Never say never. There might be a few folks out there from tribal communities who identify as pagan. But 90,000 of us?
Despite my never having met a Native American pagan in the flesh, I am actually not surprised by that 9% number. Most of those “Native Americans” are very likely white folks who, without that inflated Native American number, actually constitute the vast majority of pagans—probably over 99%. Why do I say this with such certainty? White folks in the U.S. find it pretty easy to identify as Native American. Race works in the U.S. largely according to a divide between black and white. About 100 years ago the black/white divide was strengthened by the disappearance of red as a separate and nationally meaningful race category. The shifting politics of race after the end of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century and after several hundred years of massive declines in the indigenous population through disease, dispossession, and massacres allowed European-Americans to absorb red into their own race. Federal Indian policy and anthropological theory in the 19th century advocated “killing the Indian and saving the man.” Through interbreeding with whites it was thought that Indian blood could be diluted over the generations. The Indian could—and, most policy makers believed, would—become white. In addition, various cultural assimilation programs designed to break up tribal communal practices and thinking and actual land-based tribal communities persisted in U.S. federal policy through the 1960s.
On the other hand, blackness was defined in terms of its ability to contaminate the white body. This kind of thinking undergirds the notion of hypodescent or the “one-drop rule” in which children of mixed unions—that is their parents come from different racial or ethnic groups—are automatically assigned to the socially subordinate group. This is why, despite his white mother, President Obama is automatically classed as black in the U.S. One can certainly identify as mixed-raced in the U.S., as some have identified the President. However, he or any other African-American would be hard pressed to identify as white and have that legitimated across a broad spectrum of our society. On the other hand, those who identify and are identified as White might claim to be descended from Mitochondrial Eve in Africa, but they rarely claim recent African ancestry. Yet they can very easily claim to be Native American and not undercut their identity as white, or the widely accepted racial definition of white, i.e. not black. Remember the controversy surrounding U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and her never documented Cherokee ancestry? She never denied her simultaneous identity as white.
Native American, Poly, and Leery of Neo-paganism
In addition to over-reaching claims to Native American self-identification by a not-insignificant minority of white pagans, I am leery of paganism in my poly community for reasons having to do with my commitments to Native American rights to religious freedom. These include the rights to have our ceremonial practices not appropriated to benefit folks outside of tribal communities.
Those who are socially unfamiliar with U.S. Native American communities might see an easy alliance between neo-paganism, other New Age practices, and various tribal ceremonial practices. However, core values in neo-paganism are strikingly different from those informing Native American ceremonial practices. Native people might in theory support non-Natives seeking spiritual paths more satisfying than the individualistic, hierarchical, rigid doctrinal, and human exceptionalist forms of mainstream religions. But at the same time most of the Native people I work and live with from across the U.S. and Canada are weary of forays into our cultural worlds when they have not been invited in nor therefore had the opportunity to learn proper decorum or protocol. Folks choosing—and yes, it is a choice—to appropriate certain tribal practices, e.g. sweat lodge or vision quest should know that they do so with our disapproval. Indeed, such actions reveal how little they have left behind the individualistic, universalizing, human-centric core values of the mainstream religions and cultures they reject, i.e. many forms of Christianity. Tribal practices are not simply available as resources to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment. Unlike Christianity, ours are not generally proselytizing traditions and individuals don’t simply get to make choices about their spiritual path. We do that in community.
Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann, who studies religions and mental experience, notes other interesting similarities between evangelical Christianity and paganism. She describes a shared “childlike wonder and fairytale romance” with either “an ancient magic in the earth itself” or Jesus/God as the case may be. At the root of this is “an attempt to make real what these practitioners fear may not be real.” They are trying to “experience the supernatural as real despite awareness that other, sensible people presume that it is not.” These types of religion emerge in secular societies in which “most people might claim to believe in God, but in which atheism is a real social possibility and in which the social presumption is that religious belief is a personal choice…one possibility among others.” These are opposed to those societies in which there is little possibility of not believing in God (or some greater power?) I submit that Native American tribes are these latter types of societies. Luhrmann takes special note of the “famous Reclaiming coven” in San Francisco led by Starhawk (Miriam Simos). She describes it as “perhaps the largest, best organized, and politically most effective of North American pagan communities. Reclaiming prides itself on its individualism and its fluidity and creativity.” Luhrmann notes a “poaching” that goes on in paganism, i.e. a picking and choosing of practices without necessarily adhering to a convention or tradition. She also observes in Reclaiming a sense of “let’s pretend,” “let’s suspend disbelief” thus helping pagans to construct faith in the face of rational secularism. To the contrary, I have never been in a tribal ceremonial space where anything was pretend or playful. We don’t just make it up. Nor, to put it as Luhrmann does, do we poach the practices that appeal and leave the rest.
Obviously, there are good reasons for me to worry that I won’t be able to build a community in poly world if my choices involve a disproportionate number of pagans. I find such practices culturally unappealing. But not only does paganism not speak to me, I feel on guard against it and other New-Age forms of worship that draw in superficial and often corrupting ways on the traditions of indigenous and other peoples from around the world. Some New Age leaders have also made unsubstantiated individual claims to Native American identity to the consternation of Native peoples ourselves. Such borrowing is ethically troubling in that it helps extend misperceptions of Native American and other indigenous ceremonies, knowledges, and definitions of community belonging. It encourages even more appropriation and wild claims. In rare cases New Age adaptations are downright dangerous, such as when New Ager James Arthur Ray improperly performed what he called a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona, Arizona in 2009. His “ceremony” resulted in the death of several people. 20 more were hospitalized. Attendees had paid up to $10,000 to participate. Charging for a ceremony is something else that is looked down upon in U.S. Native American communities.
The Whiteness of Poly: What’s a Critical Polyamorist to Do?
There are problems for me in polyamory that go beyond the main gripes described in poly self-help literature—overcoming sex repression, jealousy, open communication, time management and “coming out” to family, friends, and colleagues. Time management—that complaint really makes me roll my eyes. Oh my God, I cannot manage all of my lovers! Do I have time to change my sheets between dates? Can I keep my Google calendar straight?
Yet despite my sarcasm, polyamory provides an ethical and practical framework for living and loving, in a way that can help undo the damage done to people of all backgrounds by Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and economically, environmentally, and emotionally unsustainable concepts of nuclear family. Compulsory monogamy anchors those family forms and often involves notions of ownership and control of others’ bodies and desires. In 2013 in the United States of America, “polyamory” is a more realistic framework for challenging such rigid relationship and family forms than, say, returning to some pre-colonial plural marriage practice that my tribe and many others had. I am not sure we even fully know what those looked like since “sexuality” as we cohere it in contemporary Western culture became a chief site of oppression and control of indigenous peoples by Christian missionaries and the U.S. state.
Of course, in extolling the virtues of poly, I cannot stress enough that most people don’t have my financial autonomy, moral support, or analytical resources to make a choice for plural love and sex. And women are even more limited than men in such choices. I never ever forget my privilege as a financially non-dependent woman with a relatively tolerant family and community of friends, and with the intellectual resources to learn how to do this. But I also hope that if more of us do it, maybe others in the future will find easier acceptance. And as diverse people find a way to live this way, if indeed they want to, eventually a poly world won’t look so homogenous. Perhaps a few of us here and there across this vast country are already articulating different constellations of practices, different ways of naming this life informed by different histories and sensibilities. I hope that one day we do not have to rely so much on a language and conceptual framework circumscribed by such an undiverse set of people.
Until then I remain yours,
The Critical Polyamorist
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ixoreus for leading me to scholarly work on neo-paganism. I did not use them all and wish I could give the topic deeper attention as it intersects with race and polyamory. But alas this is a blog, not a magnum opus.
 Jin Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Christian Klesse, “Poly/logue: A Critical Introduction to Polyamory. Sexualities 9(5) (2006): 515-529; Melita J. Noël, “Progressive Polyamory: Considering Issues of Diversity. Sexualities 9(5) (2006): 602-620; Angela Willey, “’Science Says She’s Gotta Have It’: Reading for Racial Resonances in Woman-Centered Poly Literature, in Understanding Non-Monogamies, eds. Meg Barker and Darren Langridge (London: Routledge, 2010), 34-45.
 Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, “Polyamory,” in Sexuality, ed. J. Eadie (London: Arnold, 2004), 164-5; Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio. Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living New York: Haworth Press, 2004; Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Klesse 2006; and Noël 2006.
 See “The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs,” http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf, accessed December 10, 2013.
 Circe Sturm. Becoming Indian: The Struggle Over Cherokee Identity in the 21st Century. Sante Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2010.
 Yael Ben-zvi, “Where Did Red Go? Lewis Henry Morgan’s Evolutionary Inheritance and U.S. Racial Imagination,” New Centennial Review 7(2): 201-229.
 Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1982.
 Sean Sullivan, “The Fight Over Elizabeth Warren’s Heritage Explained, The Washington Post, September 27, 2012, accessed December 10, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/09/27/the-fight-over-elizabeth-warrens-heritage-explained/.
 T.M. Luhrmann, “Touching the Divine: Recent Research on Neo-Paganism and Neo-Shamanism.” Reviews in Anthropology 41 (2012): 138-39.
 John Dougherty, “For Some Seeking Rebirth, Sweat Lodge Was End,” The New York Times, October 21, 2009, accessed December 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/us/22sweat.html; ICTMN Staff, “Self-Help Shamster Behind Sweat-Lodge Homicides Released From Prison Read,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 13, 2013, accessed December 10, 2013, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/13/james-arthur-ray-released-prison-no-not-guy-who-killed-mlk-150407.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to 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