Critical polyamorist blog
Several evenings ago I attended a class and conversation on open relationships at a feminist sex shop in an increasingly trendy area of my mid-Continent city. The class was for the open relationship curious, or beginners. Although I’ve been at this for about 19 months, I’m still a beginner. My fabulous fellow WOC (woman of color) sex educator friend, Divina, led the course. She also does community activism on a range of other social issues that entangle and go beyond topics of sexuality. In this largely white, middle-class poly community, where I shy away from poly group events because I feel like a cultural outsider, I willingly submit to Divina’s skilled, effusive, and politically sophisticated leadership. Like me, she thinks about the role of compulsory monogamy in propping up a heteronormative, patriarchal, and colonial society. I can jump right in with her—into the politically deepest part of a conversation on this stuff and she’s right there with me. Plus she’s got years more on-the-ground experience in open relationships than I do. This particular class was aimed at a more general audience, however, tackling issues that many Poly 101 classes do—namely handling jealousy and the kind of never-ending communication that is a hallmark of healthy polyamory.
While the heightened racial and cultural diversity at this meeting was encouraging (yay feminist sex shop!), another cultural bias nonetheless loomed large at this event, which I will address in this blog. That is the couple-centric culture that pervades our city’s poly scene, and our broader society. Coupledom is often the foundational assumption that anchors many poly discussions. Topics for conversation at this class included WHY (open the “primary” relationship)? And then ground rules (for the couple) to consider: WHO (can and cannot be a candidate for an additional relationship—mutual friends? Exes)? WHAT (kinds of sex with others does the couple agree is okay)? You get the drift. As a “single poly” person I sat there feeling feisty and thinking “What, are we single polys just out here populating the world to sexually and emotionally serve individuals in couples?!” We get the “honor” of being on lists of appropriate partners, eligible “secondaries.” Or not? Our bodies and hearts and desires get to be the objects of couples’ rules about what’s allowed. Or not? It’s easy to feel ancillary in this type of poly scene, a sort of “snap on” component to a more permanent—a more legitimate—entity.
No doubt many poly folks in primary relationships struggle against hierarchy between that primary relationship and outside relationships. After all, the structure of the couple allows only so much. The language of primary and secondary only allows so much! Even in a Poly worldview that seeks to undo so many of the repressions and exclusions of monogamy, the normativity of the couple itself goes unquestioned by far too many polys. Yet its primacy in our society is engendered of the same institutions and unquestioned values that produce the monogamy we resist. Like monogamy, the couple entity as central to the nuclear family is bound up with the sex negativity that poly people battle as we argue for and live lives in which sex and love are not viewed in such finite terms (although time certainly is) and thus not “saved” for only one other person. Like monogamy, the couple (especially when legally married), is legitimated and rewarded at every turn—U.S. health insurance eligibility, clearer child custody arrangements, tax filing benefits, and general public recognition and validation. In our society this type of arrangement is assumed as the logical end point, what we are all looking for or should be looking for. One of my favorite bloggers, SoloPoly, has an excellent post on this “relationship escalator” (the expected progression—first meeting, courtship, sex, presenting as a couple in public, intimate exclusivity, establishing a routine together, commitment defined by these steps, culminating in legal marriage that is supposed to last until one person dies). She also has a second related post on “couple privilege” and a guest post on couple-centric polyamory, which links to the Secondary’s Bill of Rights. I’m posting that one on my refrigerator!
The fight for recognition of same-sex marriage also testifies to the pervasive couple-centricity of our culture. The dyad, for so long opposite sex and now increasingly also same sex, is portrayed as the fundamental unit of love and family. It is a key structure used to try and gain what should be fundamental human and civil rights for all of our citizens. I am reminded of biology textbooks that describe the gene as “the fundamental unit of life,” an instance of gene fetishism in which molecules come to stand simplistically for much more complex social-biological relations, for nature and nurture that actually shape one another in all kinds of interesting and unpredictable ways. In addition to genetic essentialism, we have in our culture couple essentialism. We fetishize the couple making it stand at the heart of love and family, which are actually the product of much more complex social-biological relations. The (monogamous) couple and narrower notions of family have a hard time containing and often sustaining the great complexity of relations that we humans feel and forge as we attempt to connect with one another throughout life. As with genes, I am not saying the couple produces only myths and master narratives. Like molecular sequences, there is sometimes beauty and profoundness in what the couple produces. But just as genes do not alone embody the enormity of “life” (despite the assertions of too many scientists and pop culture more generally) neither should the “couple” and its offshoot “nuclear family” embody in its most essential form the enormity of human love, physical desire, and family. A final note on same sex marriage: gays don’t always do marriage like straights expect them to—to give but one example of many, their greater acceptance of ethical non-monogamy. I see this as another upside of marriage equality in addition to it being the right thing to do for same sex couples. From this non-monogamist’s point of view it may help us revise marriage into a less repressive institution.
Of course it was not always so that the (monogamous) couple ideal reigned. In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation, Nancy Cott argues with respect to the U.S that the Christian model of lifelong monogamous marriage was not a dominant worldview until the late nineteenth century, that it took work to make monogamous marriage seem like a foregone conclusion, and that people had to choose to make marriage the foundation for the new nation.” In The Importance of Being Monogamous, historian Sarah Carter also shows how “marriage was part of the national agenda in Canada—the marriage ‘fortress’ was established to guard the [Canadian] way of life.” At the same time that monogamous marriage was solidified as ideal and central to both U.S. and Canadian nation building, indigenous peoples in these two countries were being viciously restrained both conceptually and physically inside colonial borders and institutions that included reservations/reserves, residential schools, and churches and missions all designed to “save the man and kill the Indian.” Part of saving the Indians from their savagery meant pursuing the righteous monogamous, couple-centric, nuclear-family institution. Land tenure rights were attached to marriage in ways that tied women’s economic well-being to that institution.
Indeed, the nuclear family is the most commonly idealized alternative to the tribal/extended family context in which I was raised. As for many indigenous peoples, prior to colonization the fundamental indigenous social unit of my people was the extended kin group, including plural marriage. We have a particular word for this among my people but to use it would give away my tribal identification. With hindsight I can see that my road to ethical non-monogamy began early in my observations in tribal communities of mostly failed monogamy, extreme serial monogamy, and disruptions to nuclear family. Throughout my growing up I was subjected by both whites and Natives ourselves to narratives of shortcoming and failure—descriptions of Native American “broken families,” “teenage pregnancies,” “unmarried mothers,” and other “failed” attempts to paint a white, nationalist, middle class veneer over our lives. I used to think it was the failures to live up to that ideal that turned me off, and that’s why I ran for coastal cities and higher education—why I asserted from a very early age that I would never get married. Now I see that I was suffocating under the weight of the concept and practice of a normative middle-class nuclear family, including heteronormative coupledom period.
I was pretty happy as a kid in those moments when I sat at my grandmother’s dining room table with four generations and towards the end of my great-grandmother’s life FIVE generations. We would gather in her small dining room with it’s burnt orange linoleum and ruffled curtains, at the table beside the antique china cabinet, people overflowing into the equally small living room—all the generations eating, laughing, playing cards, drinking coffee, talking tribal politics, and eating again. The children would run in and out. I would sit quietly next to my grandmothers hoping no one would notice me. I could then avoid playing children’s games and listen instead to the adults' funny stories and wild tribal politics. Couples and marriages and nuclear families got little play there. The collectives—both our extended family and the tribe—cast a much wider, more meaningful, and complexly woven net. The matriarch of our family, my great-grandmother, was always laughing. She would cheat at cards and tell funny, poignant stories about my great-grandfather who died two decades before. Aunts and uncles would contribute their childhood memories to build on those stories. My mother would often bring the conversation back to tribal or national politics. A great-grandchild might have been recognized for some new creative, academic, or athletic accomplishment. The newest baby would be doted on as a newly arrived human who chose this family. The Mom who might be 18 or 20 and unmarried would have help, and she would be told to go back to school, or find a career track to better her life for her baby.
Too many in my family faced life choices more restricted than mine are now. Others were simply unwilling to sacrifice a life lived daily among extended family and tribe, as I have done. From where I stand it looks like my most of my extended family members have more security in that small town family and tribal community, or in the coherent, densely-populated “urban Indian” community in which I spent part of my childhood, than they do in Euro-centric traditions of nuclear family and marriage. On the other hand, my security and primary partnership is the educational and professional escalator that I ride and climb to ever more opportunities in high-up cities. Paradoxically, in seeking security outside of one colonial imposition—marriage and nuclear family (although I also tried that for a good while and wasn’t so skilled at it)—I chose a highly individualistic path that enmeshes me in different sets of colonial institutions: all of those corporate, nonprofit, government, and academic institutions in which I have worked. I also have a global indigenous and professional network that brings tremendous meaning to my life. But individuals among them are rarely here at night when I need someone to share words, laughter, food and touch with. I need to build some sort of extended kin group here in this city where I live. I doubt that coupledom (mine or others) combined with “outside” relationships will ever suffice in this context. Building something more collective is my desire and my challenge. Despite my focus on couple-centricity in Poly World, some polys refer to their intimate networks—their extended made families as “tribes.” But even those individuals are an ill fit for me for cultural reasons I’ve written about in earlier posts, ISO Feminist (NDN) Cowboys and Poly, Not Pagan, and Proud. I learn especially open communication lessons from Poly World, but I’ve made few real friends there. I look more to indigenous peoples for partial models, and I continue to seek non-indigenous people in this city who don’t fit the existing poly cultural mode, but who are committed to open relationships. Alas, it is exhausting being a minority within a minority. But I can never resist a challenge.
One final insight: Indigenous colleagues that I admire speak and write of “decolonizing love,” for example the Nitâcimowin blog of University of Victoria graduate student Kirsten Lindquist (Cree-Métis). I obviously love her focus of decolonial analysis on relationships. It is a generative framework for pushing us to articulate a better world. But my slightly cynical aging self doesn’t quite believe that we can decolonize, meaning to withdraw from or dismantle colonialism. We live inside a colossal colonial structure that took most of the world’s resources to build. Does not every maneuver against colonialism occur in intimate relationship to its structures? There is no outside. Deep inside the shadows and shifting (cracking?) walls of that edifice I don’t anymore see my family’s and tribe’s failures at lasting monogamy and nuclear family as failure. I see us experimenting, working incrementally with tools and technologies that we did not craft combined with indigenous cultural templates in any open space we can find to build lives that make any sense to us at all.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) in Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008): 3-4.
WARNING: A Critical Poly sex & dating post. It can't all be profound social theory!
The Critical Polyamorist has a predicament. I find monogamous men more attractive than poly men. Why? It is nothing inherent about polyamorous versus monogamous men, or people. Polyamorous men are not objectively less attractive than monogamous men. “Attractiveness” cannot be objectively or universally defined.
What I mean is that poly men and people generally are drawn disproportionately from a certain race/class of people who cultivate ways of being—and, in turn—bodies that I find less sexy based on the cultural standards for sexiness inculcated in me within the rich cultural world of my own non-privileged background. Standards of “attractiveness” are situated, and my standard does not synchronize with the situated community of polyamorists in my middle-American urbane milieu. From my standpoint as a small town girl turned cosmopolitan, woman-of-color feminist intellectual, poly men are less sexy and compelling to me precisely because of reasons I’ve raised in earlier blogs. They come disproportionately from middle-class, highly educated, WASP backgrounds. In their privileged lives and histories they have disproportionately molded themselves into pale, skinny, soy latte sipping, yoga bendy techies, New Agers, or sometimes renaissance faire-going kinksters. To each his or her own, but for me, a skinny white boy dressed in an inauthentic kilt or wearing leather and flogging his submissive woman or getting flogged by a mistress is not my cup of tea. (Stay tuned for a future post on the race and class politics of BDSM in which I will give the community a fairer and more in-depth treatment.)
I come from a place that I have both hated and loved: A USA/AIM/tribal flag flying, vet worshiping, pickup truck driving, Waylon Jennings-singing-out-the-car-window-surrounded-by-cornfields-small-town. Maybe twenty streets crisscrossed in an all too finite grid beneath the brightest infinite sky. All I saw growing up were the roads and river leading out of town. I never understood how anyone could not take to them. And I did. Now I'm here and I find myself only really relating to men who can relate to that kind of place, to the land and peoples I come from. Where are they who have made a similar journey? I’ve struggled to get here and now I’m stuck with some skinny-ass, urbane poly guys?
I want men with meat on their bones—who fill out their jeans and pearl snap shirts. There is nothing sexier than a bit of belly. I want sex positive, feminist men in cowboy boots. I don’t even mind if they fly flags as long as they understand why I refuse to, men who understand when I say, "this country is not this land." Yet who will dance with me and feel it deep in their bodies too some classic Texas country in a dance hall, or wailing out of speakers in a garage furnished with a sagging couch, tools and half rebuilt cars. I want men who call me Princess because they are amused that I get like that sometimes, and who can handle it just fine—who are not threatened by my knowledge of safe sex, and my frequent flier mileage account. Who stand up to me as I stand up to them: Eye to challenging eye, body to strong body, who will neither kiss my ass, nor dominate me.
Good luck, Woman.
When I do get a date with one of those hunky guys who share my love of Waylon and Willie they often don’t know the difference between ethical non-monogamy and just sleeping around until they find the new right ONE who will move in, warm their bed, and their food. Several times I’ve heard “So are you REALLY serious about this non-monogamy stuff?” Those ones tend to know little about sexual techniques past quick missionary style sex. Although to be fair, some want to do better. But I’m pretty vanilla and I still feel like I could do a two-week sex education course for these guys. And, you know, I would! But on top of that, a disproportionate number of them cannot keep an erection with a condom on. You can tell they haven’t used them much. Not a good sign on any front! And indications are they take it as sluttiness (I’m not a fan of that word even in a sex-positive meaning—it’s inherently negative) and not a courageous intellect that I have both medical and social knowledge about sex techniques, safe sex practices, and disease rates in different populations. Polyamorous relationships—due to the emphasis on openness and communication about sexual practices can actually result in more physically healthy relationships when one accounts for the unsafe sex practices and lack of communication about sex among unfaithful so-called monogamous people.
It’s enough to drive Critical Poly back to monogamy. But wait, what I’m looking for isn’t out there in mono world either, is it? And that is the fundamental predicament. In addition to there being too few ethically non-monogamous people in this world yet, there are too few sex positive people period—monogamous or non-monogamous. Not only are we dominated by compulsory monogamy in our society, but we are hounded by its pal, sexual shame. Both are tied up with our capitalist systems of private ownership and control not only of land but women’s bodies—all bodies. We who try hard to live sex positive are not drawn proportionately from the full, colorful, contradictory array of humanity. Not everyone has the resources to walk this talk. In boots.
But I keep hoping. Where are you feminist, meat-on-your bones, humble, swaggering men who will dance in a honky tonk with me—and not as hipster voyeurs but as homeboys there? And who would be equally comfortable flying to Stockholm, Tokyo, or Fargo? Or happy to stay home taking care of their own business, but just fine that I hit the road regularly?
I was out recently in some trendy patio bar in my glass-towered downtown with some super-cologned-up guy. He leaned forward with his white teeth and his perfectly pressed $200 Italian button-up shirt. He whispered across the wine glasses and arugula, “What is your fantasy?” I responded with a quizzical look: “I don’t have fantasies. Anything I want that is possible to bring into being, I work on that. If it is impossible in this world, I don’t bother fantasizing about it.” I don’t think that is the response he was looking for. He had identified himself to me earlier as a dom and Critical Poly isn’t into having her butt paddled or her neck collared. Our date ended early. But now that I’ve written this, I realize that I do have a fantasy. And no matter how far-fetched it may seem, I’ll keep searching for those most contradictory of humans: feminist (preferably NDN--but I’m negotiable on this one) country boys who have the skills to take on the city, and me.
The Critical Polyamorist
p.s.: Since I first drafted this blog post several months ago, I found a big old handsome, car repairing, book reading, idea slinging, axe wielding, ethical non-monogamist firefighter to fill a friend/lover position. Oh my god, he is the sexiest thing.
 American Indian Movement
 Voxxi. “STIs: Why Polyamorous Relationships Can Be Physically Healthier Than Monogamous Ones," Polyamory in the News, January 19, 2014.
 “Dom” is a male dominant within the world of BDSM. Whereas “domme” is a female dominant. According to anthropologist Margot Weiss BDSM “is an amalgamation of three acronyms: B&D (bondage and discipline), D/s (domination/submission), and SM (sadomasochism).” Practitioners prefer SM (for sadomasochism) to S&M (sadism & masochism). “Many practitioners feel that SM brings the S and M together” thus emphasizing the “mutual necessity for both as well as the consent involved.” Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure (Duke University Press, 2011): vii, xi.
 NDN is shorthand for “Indian,” a term Native Americans use to describe ourselves. In my experience, the use of the term by Native Americans both acknowledges the colonial genealogy of “Indian,” but insists on continued use of the term in a way that connotes an insider’s familiarity with its usage.
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.
I am a minority within a minority. I am a polyamorist. Polyamory means being romantically involved with more than one person at a time. With the knowledge and consent of all involved. It does not mean just sex with multiple people. For me and many others it involves the heart.
And I am Native American. No really, I am! My great-grandmother was NOT a Cherokee princess. I am descended from at least four different tribal peoples, and I am a citizen of one of those tribes. And unlike some folks who claim a Native American identity based on some distant and sometimes unsubstantiated ancestor, my entire family—at least the biological relatives—are Native American. Of course, polyamory is not a traditional Native American practice. Or at least it’s no more or no less traditional historically than patronizing your local diamond counter, registering for china at Macy’s, and going down to the little white church. I’ll come back to that in a future blog post.
The polyamory expert Elisabeth Sheff notes that people of color and working class people “do not appear in large numbers in mainstream poly communities.” Feminist scholar and critic of monogamy Angela Willey explains that while others engage in varied practices of non-monogamy without necessarily calling it “polyamory” there is a "white hegemony in poly literature" that "has tended to presume a universal subject, neutral and therefore implicitly white, middle-class, college educated, able bodied." As a woman of color raised poor or working class in rural America, although I am now a professional, there are challenges in being an explicit and especially rare practitioner of polyamory. Like many other poly people, I have a university degree. Of course! I would NEVER have been exposed to all of you poly folks if I did not. But after living and traveling in many places, I find that I am still a small town girl in ways that surprise me. My extended family is historically not very formally educated but we were nonetheless a book-reading and PBS-watching lot. I was exposed early on to politically oppositional thinking. My family is anti-racist and anti-homophobic. I am the only one who identifies as a feminist, but most of the women in my family act like they are. I have uncles, aunts, and cousins who are definitely country. Some of them hunt, own guns, and drive trucks. All of the recipes they post to Facebook involve something in a box and or a can. They shop at Walmart. None of us are vegetarians or hippies who practice free love in communes. Well, except me a little.
The Critical Polyamorist is an experiment to think through in cyberspace, as an unusually situated person, this adventure that I have embarked upon. This isn’t public journaling. I want to begin a conversation with other polyamorists who feel not only socially challenged in the broader monogamist culture but who also feel culturally challenged within our rather homogenous polyamorist communities. (Disclaimer: I live in middle America, not California or New York. Maybe there are more folks of color who are out as poly in those places. But it’s a pretty pale landscape around here.) I am starting this blog in order to reflect and converse about these struggles with others who feel like me. I know you are out there. I am interested in reaching folks who are grateful for the models other polyamorists provide to love plurally and ethically. Their books and blogs keep me committed to this path on those days when I am suddenly weary or sad. When I feel like falling back into monogamy because it seems easier, because the world is made by and for them. I often hear poly people talk about the lack of models in our society for living this kind of life. We are inundated from birth with monogamy, indoctrinated in its norms and values. Few of us are born into poly families. We often come to this path after living as monogamists for substantial portions of our lives. I have only identified as poly for about a year. At this point I am proceeding with more determination and faith than support or understanding.
And for a minority of us within an already poly minority, the examples and support we can find in mainstream poly communities fall short in specific ways as we struggle to do polyamory as particular raced and classed subjects. I identify not at all with the kind of New Age-tinged, communal mode of life taken up by the Kerista Commune in San Francisco in the 1970s that is credited with birthing the polyamory term. And I still see too much for my taste of stereotypical “hippie-dippy” culture in this community. But I am inspired by the systematic shift in both practice and thought that polyamory articulates. I like its intellectual substance. I just sometimes get turned off by its particular form of white cultural drag. I want to find a home in this poly world. If I’m going to do that I need to help make it more diverse. My gift to this community is to provide this place of reflection such as would reaffirm my struggle on those days when I doubt I can do this.
So what do I mean by “critical polyamory”? This blog brings critical social theory including analyses of U.S. race and culture to analyze poly life and politics from my perspective as a woman of color, as a rural-born and now urban-dwelling Native American professional. I take the label “critical” not to downplay the radical critique of our society’s compulsory monogamy that polyamorists already engage in. We poly people are critical thinkers and actors who think it is possible to ethically love multiple people simultaneously with the consent of all involved. Polyamory is in this sense inherently and deeply critical. But when I take up the label “critical” it is not redundant. It draws on a broader tradition of “critical social theory.” That is an academic term in which analysis and critique of social problems are not just for the good of knowledge, but they are geared toward social change. Indeed, in pushing for greater inclusion in dominant society, have communities of color not always explicitly called out both obvious and not so obvious politics and cultural practices that exclude our experiences and histories? Critical social theory traditionally brings insights from multiple social science and humanities disciplines (anthropology, psychology, history, sociology, literature etc). I will occasionally add insights from the biophysical sciences to inform my analyses of poly life and politics. That divide between society and nature is a false one anyway. The biophysical sciences also matter very much in understanding our world. And increasingly, disciplines are getting smeared across that line between culture and nature.
My kid tells me that I have an “evil sense of humor.” This blog will sometimes get evil, and hopefully funny. All names, locations, and other identifying information will be changed or hidden to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent.
Stay tuned for my next post, “Poly, Not Pagan, and Proud.”
The Critical Polyamorist
 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 Langdridge (London: Routledge, 2010), 34-45.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly