Critical polyamorist blog
Identity is a Poor Substitute For Relating: Genetic ancestry, critical polyamory, property, and relations
Expanded from a talk given March 27, 2020 via Zoom for Creative Mornings Edmonton.
In 2013, I started writing the Critical Polyamorist blog, a new turn in my research after over a decade of studying the DNA testing industry and its implications for Indigenous “identity” and governance. In that same year, my book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, was published with University of Minnesota Press (and in 2019 on audio). At first, the new turn in my personal life and research interests seemed unrelated to my existing area of expertise. But everything is related. From the start, I explored and analyzed my personal practice of consensual nonmonogamy and that of polyamory broadly against a historical backdrop of settler-colonial thought. Everything I do and study is always located within the broader structures of colonialism.
My polyamory analyses, like my DNA and identity analyses, focus on the US and Canada, the two settler-colonial countries I’ve lived in during the last two decades. That said, I prefer insider-research and critique from within the place I know best and in which I have the deepest lived investments. Since I have lived 44 of my 51 years in the US, and less than five years in Canada, it is US culture, history, and dominant setter narratives that I know best. I do not exempt Canada from ongoing settler-colonial violence, but I often feel insufficiently informed of Canadian history and cultural trends to focus my analyses on Canada’s colonialism. The longer I live in and continue to be formed and informed by Canada, my critical eye turns more to focus on this country.
Since 2013, I have received mostly thankful blog comments or emails related to my academic writing, speaking, and podcasting on consensual nonmonogamy. Not that I don’t have critics. I sometimes get questions after university and public lectures that are defensive of monogamy, and skeptical of polyamory as an ethical practice. But the people who take the time to write me—men, women, gender nonbinary people, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous—mostly say that my work is a positive revelation. Others say it is a path they were already exploring. I hear that my work gives them language to make sense of their discomfort with both compulsory monogamy and settler polyamory. In seven years, I have received several messages from people telling me they or their partners ended long-term monogamous relationships in part due to reading my writing. I am humbled when people tell me this, and I feel uneasy. It feels like a lot of responsibility and I hate to think of being the cause of a stranger’s pain. Of course, I know that it is compulsory monogamy (often coupled with compulsory heterosexuality) that is the fundamental source of pain.
Critical Polyamorists and Relations
Those who are interested in polyamory, who are pursuing or who cannot (openly) pursue it and who write or approach me—are people who are dissatisfied with settler sexuality and its ways of being, its rigid and heavily scripted possibilities.They are dissatisfied with monogamy and also more mainstream forms of polyamory that tend to view monogamy and nonmonogamy as simply individual and private choices. The people who read my work on polyamory and respond positively are ready to understand monogamy as compulsory in our society, as enforced by and supportive of settler-colonialism. They do not view monogamy or nonmonogamy as simply a matter of personal inclinations, be those social or biological inclinations. There are conversations among both scientists and polyamorists about whether inclinations towards nonmonogamy are rooted in social values and/or in biology. Those who write me and approach me after academic and public lectures are thinking hard about how to love plurally and ethically in a society whose social, cultural, economic, and legal structures support or reward monogamy while erasing or actively demeaning nonmonogamous relating. While some of the critical (would-be) polyamorists who reach out to me might view their nonmonogamous nature as to some degree inherent, they nonetheless focus as do many polyamorists on practices of dynamic relating in which possibilities are more diverse and negotiated together. These relations tend to involve open and honest conversation, consent, and building networks of mutual support with not only polyamorous partners, but also with a broader community of like-minded thinkers and doers. They more often trouble gender norms. Such consensual nonmonogamy is often contextualized in relation to other social reform projects. It is community minded.
DNA Test Takers and Property
On the other hand, the DNA test takers who consume my other body of writing, lectures on video, and press, have given me strikingly different comments over the past 20 years, mostly negative or anxious feedback. This is related to the fact that I insist on consideration for lived relations, and relations are not a significant part of such peoples’ interactions with Indigenous DNA knowledge and identity unless one counts their implication in colonial structures. Naturally, the DNA test takers tend to push back on my insistence, and instead make property claims over Indigenous biologicals and so-called identity. Among them, I have encountered two types of property-claiming “Native American DNA” test takers:
1) First, there are the skilled genealogists who are themselves scientific thinkers, who follow recent science on human population genetics, who use DNA to confirm their family tree—to substantiate or not a story of a “Native American” in their lineage. For them the reward is the naming and confirmation of branches in their tree. They get to claim ancestors, surnames, links to historic geographies and peoples. Ultimately, they seem to use their own family tree as a window to comprehend world history, which is understandably fascinating. Again, none of their claims need involve actual relating with Indigenous peoples or places. Their new knowledge might lead them to seek such relations, but it needn’t. This type of property claim does not necessarily involve an identity claim. One might, for example, like one genealogist I encountered, prove the presence of a Mohawk ancestor in one’s genetic tree, but not actually claim to be Mohawk or seek out relations with that people. I found in the research for my book that this type of DNA test taker, usually class- and education-privileged and armed with excessive scientific knowledge, rarely translated a genetic ancestor into a personal identity claim. I was pleasantly surprised.
2) There is a second type of DNA test taker, one who makes a double property claim also without necessarily seeking to relate. These test takers tend not to be expert genealogists nor lay experts in the application of DNA testing to genealogy. Rather they come to DNA testing with the specific goal of finding scientific proof to support a claim to Indigenous identity, often with great emotional investment. Such a test taker might combine genealogical documentation and DNA testing to provide greater support for say again a Mohawk in their family tree, which leads them to then not only claim an ancestral lineage (“my ancestors,my lineage, my heritage”), but such a person might also race-shift to claim a Mohawk “identity.” They could, but do not necessarily seek to relate with Mohawk people and community, which is rarely an easy prospect for complex historical and social reasons.
These days, I rarely encounter the first type of DNA test taker—the skilled genetic genealogist—since I am no longer researching in their communities. But even though my book on “Native American” DNA research was published seven years ago, I still regularly receive long emails and handwritten letters from the second group of DNA test consumers. I was wondering why this story hasn’t died yet, I’m certainly tired of it. But a historian of science told me last year that more DNA ancestry tests were purchased in 2018 than in all previous years combined. Wow. When DNA test takers communicate with me, they detail long searches and deep desires to prove a “Native American” in their family tree, most typically a Cherokee ancestor, followed by many fewer claims to possible Blackfeet/foot, Apache, and Choctaw ancestors with other peoples occasionally claimed. As opposed to the expert genetic genealogists, this second group is more ready to say something like, “I have DNA, therefore I am Native American.” This is a one-sided claim in which ancestors or peoples, e.g. Blackfoot, Apache, or Cherokee peoples need not acknowledge such claims, yet those claims nonetheless have veracity in settler-colonial culture with its increasing emphasis on genetic kinship. Think of the oft-cited lament of “identity politics” and the invocation of scientific “proof” when such claims are rejected or pushed back on by the very Indigenous people being claimed.
A well-known recent example of the power of genetics in settler society is the October 2018 news story of former U.S. presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, and her Native American DNA test. When that story broke, I did two dozen media interviews over the span of a couple of weeks about her unsubstantiated Cherokee claims and her DNA test to try and prove those claims when professional genealogy showed no evidence . At that time, messages and emails spiked in my in-boxes and ‘splaining snarky tweets also jumped in number on my Twitter feed. This was also the case, although less so given his lesser global stature, when I did media interviews in January 2017 about Canadian literary darling, Joseph Boyden, and his disproven claims to be Métis and to have other Indigenous ancestry .
In summary, the “Native American DNA” test takers’ claims over biological property, rights to knowledge, and identity—built historically on the blood and bones of Indigenous peoples—are regularly defended against Indigenous protest and definitions of belonging.
From DNA to Polyamory Research—from Property to Relating
As the years have unfolded since 2013, when I began living and researching polyamory in addition to genetics politics, and both within a framework of settler-colonialism, I have come to see that these two projects are connected. I am concerned in both cases with actual practices of relating versus making property claims over ancestors, Indigenous peoples, and now over lovers and partners. In Native American DNA, I insisted on actual (hopefully good) relating with Indigenous communities—that property claims to Indigenous identity could not be made absent the agreement of Indigenous peoples; that Indigenous citizenship requirements, definitions of kin, tribe, and nation had to be respected; and that Indigenous peoples, relations, and “identities” were not simply there to be claimed by heretofore non-Indigenous peoples just like the land has been claimed without assent.
Monogamous marriage supported in the 19th century the breakup of collective Indigenous land-bases into private parcels. And just like nations have staked a sole sovereign claim to land, or male heads of household to their private acreage in a compulsory monogamy society, it is the norm for one to stake a sole sovereign claim in a beloved’s body, writing over all previous names, loves, and relations that land and body have known.
The property ethic that grounds compulsory monogamy and state-sanctioned marriage is being resisted at least in part by those who engage in critical polyamory—who understand critical nonmonogamous relating as a move against settler-colonial structures, and not simply a personal lifestyle choice or an identity grounded in biology (e.g. there are scientists looking for monogamy or nonmonogamy genes). The polyamorists who reach out to me are looking to relate differently, more consensually, thoughtfully, and ethically. They are trying to figure out in repeated conversations with those who want to relate back how to do that.
This is unlike so many of the DNA test takers who write me and make emotional pleas for advice about DNA testing companies, who pen ten-page letters or lengthy emails detailing their lives and long emotional searches for Native ancestry, who describe their needs to belong to this land or to have what they view as a right to belong recognized. Their narratives often evidence romantic and stereotypical ideas of Native peoples’ cultures and phenotypes. For example, you can read in Elizabeth Warren’s and Joseph Boyden’s impassioned and unsubstantiated narratives such stereotypes. In many such stories there is also something that anthropologist Circe Sturm has called the “ennui of whiteness.” Many who passionately claim Native American ancestry are dissatisfied or bored with being simply white. Claiming an Indigenous ancestor and a right to identity (again like a land-claim without assent), they think will help them overcome.
These days, I only write DNA test takers back to provide them a reputable genetic genealogy forum to help them answer their technical questions about DNA tests. I want them to get good scientific advice, preferably not from the same companies profiting from DNA testing. And for application of that science to Indigenous citizenship, kinship ideas, and policy, they can turn to my book and articles, and to others I cite.
The (would-be) polyamorists, however, I write back, often at length. I try not to go beyond my skill set. I am no life or relationship counselor. Comparing these two groups has lead me to argue that polyamory should remain a method of (good) relating and not come to be thought of primarily as a sexual orientation or identity. "Identity" as a concept does not necessarily imply ongoing relating. It might imply discrete biological conjoinings within ones genetic ancestry and it can spur alliances, but it can also exist as a largely individualistic idea, as something considered to be held once and for all, unchanging within one’s own body—whether through biological or social imprinting—as one’s body’s property. Similarly, I don’t want our polyamorous relating to calcify into individual identity claims that risk us looking too much within our own persons for a definition of who we are. Rather, I want us to remember that we are always becoming, in part in relation to one another. If we remember that we are what we become as much or more than we are who our properties determine us to be, I suspect that will help us focus on how to relate more carefully with one another as beings in the world, both within and beyond romantic relations.
Be safe, be well,
the Critical Polyamorist
1] Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106.
2] Scott L. Morgensen . The Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism andIndigenous Decolonization.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011: 23.
3] Select articles or media interview links:
Politico. Native American critics still wary of Warren despite apology tour by Rishika Dugyala. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/27/native-american-critics-elizabeth-warren-1475903, August 27, 2019.
TallBear, Kim. “Elizabeth Warren’s Claim to Cherokee Ancestry is a Form of Violence.” High Country News, January 17, 2019. https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.2/tribal-affairs-elizabeth-warrens-claim-to-cherokee-ancestry-is-a-form-of-violence.
Mother Jones. “Natives are Split Over Rep. Deb Haaland’s Endorsement of Elizabeth Warren.” By Delilah Friedler. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/08/natives-are-split-over-rep-deb-haalands-endorsement-of-elizabeth-warren/. August 1, 2019.
GQ. “What Elizabeth Warren Keeps Getting Wrong About DNA Tests and Native American Heritage.” By Mari Uyehara. https://www.gq.com/story/elizabeth-warren-dna-tests?fbclid=IwAR18qCzkl7BSGTjExCS3_F_E5EI-vI068nMt7s4UWWVqpwu4P2rzHyqAwr8. December 11, 2018.
Rolling Stone.“Why Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Fiasco Matters.” By Jamil Smith. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/elizabeth-warren-dna-766297/?fbclid=IwAR02AZXZzMoBVjj7hxeMkq81QlmYLaoEouC9otmuoGK7ugfsn2iUkPLLixY. December 7, 2018.
Native America Calling. “The Science and Politics of DNA. By Art Hughes. https://www.nativeamericacalling.com/?s=tallbear+DNA. October 23, 2018.
WYNC Studios, On the Media with Brooke Gladstone. “By Blood, and Beyond” Interview with Kim TallBear. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/blood-and-beyond-blood?utm_medium=social&utm_source=tw&utm_content=otm&utm_source=tw&utm_medium=spredfast&utm_content=sf93926531&utm_term=onthemedia&sf93926531=1. October 19, 2018.
Washington Post. “Just About Everything You’ve Read On the Warren DNA Test is Wrong.” By Glenn Kessler. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/10/18/just-about-everything-youve-read-warren-dna-test-is-wrong/?fbclid=IwAR3jFgozNYeu7-7TugYhzRT7G4PAOsLtCqVH69KhTSChAZUICsQWUdU-ifE&utm_term=.49549b11d72e. October 18, 2018.
Jezebel.“Our Vote Matters Very Little: Kim TallBear on Elizabeth Warren’s Attempt to Claim Native American Heritage.” By Prachi Gupta. https://theslot.jezebel.com/our-vote-matters-very-little-kim-tallbear-on-elizabeth-1829783321?rev=1539718292953&utm_campaign=socialflow_jezebel_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow&utm_source=jezebel_facebook&fbclid=IwAR0k7CCSxS3O9e7kAq3N8XGvSW4QU36ja2c8ZywKob6-HpPQg_jxVugNExY&/setsession. October 16, 2018.
BBC.“US Senator Elizabeth Warren Faces Backlash After Indigenous DNA Claim.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45869804. October 16, 2018.
CBC Indigenous. “Canada Research Chair Critical of U.S. Senator’s DNA Claim to Indigenous Identity.” By Rhiannon Johnson. https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/kim-tallbear-elizabeth-warren-dna-results-indigenous-identity-1.4863903. October 15, 2018.
KUOW. “Senator Warren Takes the DNA Test.” By Bill Radke. Interview with Kim TallBear and Rick Smith. https://www.kuow.org/stories/senator-warren-takes-the-test. October 15, 2018.
The Verge. “No matter what Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test shows, there’s no genetic test to prove you’re Native American.” By Angela Chen. https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/15/17978144/elizabeth-warren-dna-test-native-american-genetics-ancestry-culture-identity-politics?fbclid=IwAR0zF-4Ln8tGxSGWPvhWj_4vqcvLrO270_UGie9yGC_SGvPf56h1mP2uQBY. October 15, 2018.
Washington Examiner.“Native American Professor: Warren Shows Privileges of Whiteness.” By Caitlin Yilek. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/native-studies-professor-elizabeth-warren-accepted-settler-colonial-definition-of-native-american-identity. October 15, 2018.
Forbes.“What Do Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Results Actually Mean?” By Jennifer Raff. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/2018/10/15/what-do-elizabeth-warrens-dna-test-results-actually-mean/#6aa7f23612df. October 15, 2018.
Indian Country Today.“Strike Against Sovereignty? Senator Warren Asserts Native American Ancestry Via DNA.” By Vincent Schilling. https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/strike-against-sovereignty-sen-warren-asserts-native-american-ancestry-via-dna-5mJJTl_79ESAQLX8hCckZA/. October 15, 2018.
The Washington Post.“Elizabeth Warren’s Refusal to Take a DNA Test to Prove Native American Ancestry was Probably a Smart Move.” By Tara Bahrampour. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/why-elizabeth-warrens-refusal-to-take-a-dna-test-to-prove-native-american-ancestry-might-have-been-a-smart-move/2018/03/13/071ed2fe-26fd-11e8-874b-d517e912f125_story.html?utm_term=.6b8be9dfdf5f.March 14, 2018.
Slate.com.A DNA test won't explain Elizabeth Warren's Ancestry by Matt Miller, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/06/dna_testing_cannot_determine_ancestry_including_elizabeth_warren_s.html, June 29, 2016.
4] Select interview links:
Edmonton Am Podcast. Episode 300276870. “Joseph Boyden is Coming to Edmonton…Two Indigenous Writers Weigh In.” http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/859187779596. January 20, 2017.
Alberta Noon. “Does it Matter if Joseph Boyden is Not Indigenous?” http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/alberta-at-noon/episode/11348216. January 13, 2017.
CBC. The Current. With Anna Maria Tremonti. “Indigenous Identity and the Case of Joseph Boyden.” http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-january-5-2017-1.3921340/indigenous-identity-and-the-case-of-joseph-boyden-1.3922327. January 5, 2017.
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