Critical polyamorist blog
Subverting Empire in Our Hearts and in the Bedroom: A Christian Polyamorist Perspective (by T.B. Livermont, guest blogger)
by T.B. Livermont, Guest Blogger
Critical Poly Note: Dear readers, I feel truly privileged to know and learn from T.B. Livermont and honored that she is allowing me to publish this guest post. While I am not a Christian, I am moved by her theological reckoning with ethical non-monogamy, and her expansive and pragmatic vision of love.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
St. Paul in Galatians 5:19-23 (NRSV)
In considering my duty to Jesus Christ and to the Church as a Christian who has recently found peace in embracing an ethical non-monogamous lifestyle, I must consider how Christians have failed to liberate our theology from old political understandings. In many ways, Christians are still like our Hebrew forefathers who, having escaped Pharaoh and empire, cried in the wilderness and clung to the remembrance of the comfort of captivity. The message of Jesus Christ from the beginning was that of mercy, love and the establishment of a political entity ‘not of this world.’
Why in a post about the structuring of romantic relationships am I talking about empire and governments? Like my blog host, I was also born and raised in the Heartland of America and am a tribal member of a plains tribe. I am also the daughter of pioneers. In fact, when I, my mother and my children stand in her family cemetery, there are seven generations of pioneers. I believe that Americans such as myself have inherited much from ideas of feudalism, even while we supposedly reject much from such systems. In practice, we have a love-hate relationship with democracy.
Almost the entirety of the Bible is framed in relation to political structures and mores, including the Gospels’ recording of Jesus Christ’s analogies and parables in which he illustrated the relationship between God and man. The Gospels record him using those now outdated political structures as analogies that in his time invited and challenged listeners to reimagine what loyalty could mean. Jesus often posed questions to his followers that asked them to think critically about the empire in which they lived. He rarely answered these questions directly, but instead the parables and analogies he used coaxed people to imagine new ways of thinking, thereby tipping the usual patterns of slavery and serfdom of his day upside down.
What is the lesson for Christians’ romantic relationships in the 21st century? While few of us really take issue with the idea of duty, Americans get queasy with feudal ideas of lords over subjects, not just because they invoke various patterns of ownership akin to slavery, but because as those living in a democratic republic, we blanch over ideas of hereditary rights over others. Unfortunately, our marriages, while somewhat more modern, are still closely tied to the old power-down structures of king and country. Monogamous marriage (or polygamy way back) was necessary for inheriting titles, land, power and prestige. Those in power would make sure their male subjects could hope for and thus be controlled by that hope as they aspired to and engaged in their ‘king of my own castle,’ practices. These included marriage, control of women’s sexuality and reproduction, land ownership by and for men, etc. Modern American marriage (and divorce) laws and practices are still directly tied to these ideas.
Now that we no longer live the king/subject model of government, how do we begin framing new relationships, between those we love and, for Christians, between ourselves and how we understand our duty to God and the Church. We Christians have purposefully (or by force in boarding schools and other institutions) been immersed in the Bible’s history and allegories subsequently filtered through an American cultural translation of old feudal political models. We must now make a new accounting. How can our families and romances more fully reflect our realities as Christians and non-Christians living in a democracy? Much of the pressure from the Christian Right on ‘saving the family,’ actually reinforces outdated models of marriage and family mores that have much more to do with maintaining and establishing patriarchy and a specific brand of Christian thought, that of American Evangelicalism, than from any honest theological wrestling with the Bible.
Other types of Christians read the Bible in a progressive way. God wasn’t trying to sell kings and feudalism as the only means for human government under him. Even in the Jewish Bible, God warned the Hebrews that he didn’t want them to have kings, but they kept insisting because they wanted to be like the nations around them. In the Book of Judges, a time period before Israel had the great kings we now think of, the greatest judge was a woman. The judge model is really the foundation for the love of neighbor Jesus brought us, and the freedom that comes with it, rather than the fear and subservience of a feudal model. Why shouldn’t we also reconsider our models for sexual relationships and families based on this earlier, freer and more loving model?
Poor study of the Bible and much prooftexting on marriage by American Evangelicals, coupled with our confused American relationship with monarchy (vs. democracy), cause us to lose focus on how subversive many of the Gospels and Biblical narratives were. Christian polyamory (and again I can’t state it enough--this should not be confused with patriarchal polygamy) can be understood as naturally stemming from a progressive reading of the Bible. Think of how easily “Lord” and “Savior,” enters the language? While such terms reflect the loyalty we should give Jesus Christ, such terminology is also limiting. For a very long time, I have also identified Christ in light of other Biblical descriptions of him: “The Firstborn of Creation.” He is also the “The Word of God Made Flesh,” and more simply, “Emmanuel, God with Us.”
If the Bible is both true to history and a rather faithful witness to the political realities in the times in which each book was written, two things can be said: 1) the sacred texts have sometimes been used by governments and powers to force behavior and actions that would prop up oppressive governments. 2) Christians can also trust the witness of the Bible in its own right, provided we understand thoroughly the feudal relationships woven throughout books written in that time and their interpretations later by those living similarly in monarchies and feudal systems. These particular histories and interpretations continue to shape how we in the U.S. in the 21st century interpret the Bible.
American Christianity: Times are a changing
Several years ago, as America had the opportunity to vote for the first African-American president, a group of Christian Anabaptists published a book called, “Jesus for President.” This book was in direct response to the hyper conservative and what they see as an ungodly prostitution of the church that would erode separation of church and state and further political and social injustices in our country. There was a presentation on YouTube that is the guts of the book tour, which I suggest to anyone who is interested in the idea that empire and Jesus are not two peas in a pod. The book and video go to great lengths to retell the entire Biblical narrative in a Christocentric way, so that every loving thing Christ said about those in power and those of the lowest station in the first century is highlighted as the subversive, anti-empire activity it really is. Much of the subversion in the Jewish Bible includes God inspiring and pulling to the forefront simple people. For example, putting a slingshot in a shepherd boy’s hand to kill the giant. The boy then became a king. Or God had Emmanuel born in a stable to a young woman, who could have been stoned to death for being pregnant before marriage.
I am sure the main author of “Jesus for President,” Shane Claiborne (who was celibate until marrying a couple years ago), would be horrified for me to piggy back his community’s work with polyamory. I want that to be clear to those who have hated Shane’s message of peace and reconciliation and who would use anything they could to disparage his efforts.
However, I bawled through Shane’s works because they affirm the love within my heart, infused by the Holy Spirit, for my neighbors. At the same time I have felt ashamed and confused for loving more than one person romantically. I am trying to reconcile an over-flowing of love with the idea that love is scarce and should be saved for only one. I believe Christian polyamory can help address this contradiction. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people follow Christ for license to cheat on their spouses or commit fornication (the objectifying of humans for sexual release). This is not what polyamory is. Polyamory literally means ‘more than one love,’ and love does not seek to do harm, but instead open the door for ethical sexual relationships filled with communication, honesty, and yes, a peculiar notion of loyalty. Nor am I suggesting that all Christians should become polyamorous. I write this because those of us who find ourselves following Christ as polyamorous people may have an unique witness that adds much needed diversity to the world of polyamory and a more democratic understanding to Christianity of the Hebrew carpenter that would become So Much To So Many.
A recurring theme in the New Testament, and especially the letters of the New Testament attributed to St. Paul, is that we cannot do whatever we feel like now that we live in the freedom of Christ. His advice for Christian life must be seen as a response to the incredible freedom people felt when given the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Women specifically felt great freedom in the Gospel. St. Paul’s concern was that if church leaders didn’t provide this new people with a way to express this freedom, non-Christians would disparage the message of Jesus Christ and might also see it as a form of dangerous political rebellion. Sudden philosophical or religious freedom can cause all sorts of unforeseen structural issues in society, so I am cautious to not utterly abandon scripture and even tradition.
New Christian ethics for relationships, including ethical non-monogamy
Rather than tossing St. Paul’s words to the wayside like some progressive Christians, his concerns resonate with me deeply as I navigate polyamory. Many Christians would criticize me for choosing ethical non-monagamy, no doubt assuming that someone who would choose to refashion herself romantically and sexually in this way is simply wanting to have sex with everyone, forgetting a sense of duty or loyalty to a partner or to herself. I have actually had the opposite happen. In not seeking to ‘replace’ my previous loves (whether we remain romantically and sexually involved or not), I am free to continue caring deeply for the good of those I love. There is nothing more Christian than that and this gets to the core of fidelity and natural duty. Recently, while walking into a church event, I had the sensation for the first time that I was not a ‘fallen woman.’ While I’m sure the little old ladies would be horrified to know how I order my bedroom and heart, I walked in feeling honest, knowing I am not promiscuous in the negative definition of that word. Rather, I am confident that I can now treat more people with more love and ethical consideration than is possible within the confining mores of feudally-inspired monogamous marriage.
As a Christian, I do believe I have certain restraints upon me as a follower of Jesus Christ. St. Paul once remarked that deacons (church leaders) ought not to have more than one wife. This remark has been used as reason not to divorce and also as an argument against polygamy. Oddly enough, it is the only place that I’m aware of that tied the male gender to the role of deacon, despite Paul himself referring to specific women as deacons (which is washed out of the English versions of those letters to some degree). At any rate, what is important to add here is the rest of what Paul said, and to note the societal conditions within which the “one wife” command was given. In that society, a man’s wealth was most easily seen and shown off by having more than one wife and by having many children. Not only were multiple wives and children a status symbol, but they were also the vehicles by which a man gained wealth and power. More children meant more workers--especially for agrarian peoples, more strength of arms against enemies and overall provided a type of ‘investment’ we can’t relate to today. As followers of Christ, those new Christians were to eschew wealth and power. In the Book of Acts, it actually says they lived and shared everything in community. So, accumulating possessions--and in that culture women were possessions--was frowned upon. Paul was advocating that men specifically who sought to lead in the Church must not be so concerned with accumulating wealth, but to take care of their families, and beyond that to serve those in need. Paul was not advocating a limit on love.
Conclusion: Understanding the pitfalls while walking with love
Like the new Christians in that era, I know that I must maintain a lifestyle in which I can take care of myself and my family before I can hope to help others. I know that I only have so much time and so many resources.There are thus natural laws (material reality) that govern what I can do. I also find that as a Christian it is best if I divorce my ideas of duty and fidelity from outmoded laws meant to govern wealth and power in another time and place, and instead place my sense of duty and faithfulness squarely in the plane of Christ-like love and second from a place of personal loyalty. Loving more than one person romantically in ethical ways does not objectify them if we keep to our ethics and love them first with Christ-like love. Monogamy has done as much if not more in objectifying humans as sexual objects and creating a culture of fornication, since in our culture of serial monogamy, we must cast aside lovers and sometimes even the parents of our children once we begin having sexual relations with another. This seems to place sexual relations ahead of love in defining what relationships should be. Most Christian leaders would say ‘sex outside marriage’ is fornication. I have had trouble with that definition my whole life. How, when I follow Jesus, am I to put more stake in following the marital laws of the country I live in, than the intentions of my heart? I still struggle with that. I know that St. Paul wanted Christians to find a measure of peace within the governments they lived under. He is often lambasted for this by Christians, especially today, but I believe that there is a certain element of practical truth in that advice. Mostly though St. Paul was worried that “whatsoever you don’t do in faith is sin.” Obviously a piece of paper from the government about a marriage does not protect those people from hating each other, from abuse, from dishonesty or anything else. It may make things easier for women bearing children so that they have a degree of safety in being provided for during vulnerable times in their lives, but yet, that is no guarantee either. So, how then do I make peace with words like fornication? Adultery?
Can I truly, as a Christian, go have sex with whomever I like? Can I get falling down drunk at a local honky tonk and participate in hook up culture and one-night stands? In fact, I feel freer now that I’ve come out as polyamorous to not engage the usual means for finding and securing monogamous relationships and marriage. I am in no hurry to ‘replace’ people and to make choices that in my past (serial) monogamist practice may have caused me to have sex with someone too soon or to jump into relationships too quickly. Biblical admonitions against fornication specifically address the objectification of other humans to fulfill one’s own needs sexually, and I would suggest emotionally. With this understanding of fornication rather than an understanding that conflates it with sex outside of legal marriage, I must ask myself to the best of my knowledge aided even by prayer, a) do I want to enter a relationship of any type solely for my own benefit or do I truly love the other person first in Christ-like love and b) am I able to hold both love and fidelity for them based on their needs of me, as well. As for adultery, if they are involved in a monogamous relationship, especially if they are married, does my relationship with them meet the previous criteria, plus an added openness and honesty with their current partner. For my own loyalties and fidelities, I must also ask if a new relationship will cause me to abandon my other loves and relationships and cause heartbreak and instability.
Polyamory is not for everyone. I grieve, though, at the way marriage today still chains us to the past and not always in traditions that inspire and teach us, but in ways that make us become subjects to be lorded over. The Bible has been much maligned, especially by those in tribal communities, and I’m sure in sex diverse communities as well, because of how so many Christians have clung to the law rather than the spirit in which it was written. While “Jesus for President” has begun decolonizing the American Christian mind, I pray that we might also allow Jesus Christ to decolonize our loves and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in our hearts and bedrooms while also guiding us away from unloving actions against self and neighbor.
T.B. Livermont is a recovering Evangelical living in the Northern Plains. An enrolled tribal member, she works everyday to love God and her neighbor and to bring up her children to walk well with the rest of Creation.
How Can Polyamory Teach us to be Better Professionals: Or, How I Learned to Love and Be Loved by Many Colleagues (by Jessi Bardill, guest monogamist)
by Jessi Bardill, Guest Monogamist
Critical Poly note: Jessi Bardill and I had a conversation this past summer at a conference we both attended. She was at the time in the last frantic stages of planning her wedding (gorgeous bride, by the way). Yet we still found time to discuss during conference coffee breaks the virtues of polyamory in terms of the lessons it provides for good communication. Poly provides helpful tips for better and more open communication whether one engages in monogamous or plural relationships. It occurred to her that such lessons could also apply well to academic and other professional mentoring relations. This guest blog post is the result of that conversation. I hope you enjoy it dear readers!
Thanks to the Critical Polyamorist and critical scholars that inform her work, I too have started to take a good hard look at my own relationships – not those of the sexual variety (having just promised monogamy through ceremony to one partner) but instead to those relationships that sustain, shape, and condition my life as an academic and as a member of multiple professional communities. In readings and discussions about how a critical polyamory can make for a better personal life, I was consistently reminded of advice given through my graduate and undergraduate studies about “reading promiscuously” and seeking out a spectrum of mentors, preferably who do not mirror you yourself – a task which has extended as I see myself beginning to balance between being a mentor and being a mentee, including engaging in peer mentorship circles where the power of the relationship is more evenly shared. All of which brings me to a few important lessons that are shared between critical polyamory and successful professional relationships:
1) Respect and shared emotion are important. If one or the other is not present, you are not in a relationship with the other person but instead are being used, perhaps as a node within a networking play, as a means to their ends, or as a token representative.
2) One relationship will not fulfill all of your needs. Unless you plan to be a clone of your mentor, you will need to engage multiple mentors and will one day have multiple mentees. At a point, you will realize the assignment of either term—mentor or mentee—is inefficient if you are to engage deeply with one another, build knowledge together, and support each other (even in disagreement).
3) If you seek out or attract others in these relationships who are only very similar to yourself, you are likely to find yourself unfulfilled. The additional perspectives, experiences, projects, interests, and pursuits of those with whom you are in relation will provide more than a mirror of your own, but can also provide complements, extensions, and challenges.
4) Jealousy provides a barometer of individuals engaged in relationships. Various cultural narratives and the privileging of monogamous couplehood have conditioned us to be jealous, of other interested partners, of other relationships, and for jealousy to be felt by others towards us. These instances reflect more about society and our place in it as individuals, including how we feel about our shifting positions within professional relationships, how we are communicating in relationships, and how we support others seeking that care and communication. Those with whom you are in a relationship should also seek others to be in relation with, and moreover, your relationship with them will improve through their additional explorations in these relationships. They are not objects, projects, or products – they are people, and you are too.
5) You are responsible for your own development, and part of that development involves engaging in these relations – not in believing someone else will do it for you. A key component to polyamory is communication, including honest communication, and that communication involves being clear with partners as well as yourself.
6) Openness and honesty will facilitate stronger relationships. Avoiding a meeting, disengaging in conversation, or otherwise being disingenuous harm both parties in a relationship – if you are not having your needs met across the relationships, evaluate how those needs have evolved and what you need now, and which relationship offers that, or could.
7) Some relationships end, others will materialize, and still others will develop into more than originally anticipated. Especially in mentoring relationships that are prescribed by others and not entered into with attention to the above principles, the relationship is likely to end like a bad blind date. But other relationships might emerge from unexpected connections. Those relationships that both parties choose to be a part of may become more sustained, more frequent, more collaborative, or even more personal.
From other sexualities deemed “deviant” from the norm (itself established to protect property and hierarchy), and informed by the Critical Polyamorist’s most recent post on “Couple-Centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism”, I have also learned that sharing or group relationships are important. Having a peer group, a writing group, a sewing group etc, allows you to invest emotionally in multiple people at once, does not require the relationship to be sustained by only a partnership, and can build on the earlier principles by enacting respect, honesty, emotion, and discouraging jealousy as well as promoting mutual responsibility, support, and community development. While some may think these parallels are a step too far, an attention to these principles in mentoring and other important relationships should provide its own answer to what polyamory can do for you today when you love and lift many (including yourself).
Jessi Bardill is an Assistant Professor of English at East Carolina University. She thinks, writes, and teaches about intersections of power, privilege, and technologies as well as the possibilities for alternatives to colonized structures through social justice and other means.
 In her post on “Routedness, Not Rootedness in Geography and Desire”, the Critical Polyamorist redefines “promiscuity” in positive terms, “not as excess or randomness but as openness to multiple complex connections” though sometimes partial, and that “when they are combined, cultivated, and nurtured, multiple connections constitute sufficiency, and sometimes abundance”. It is this satisfaction or abundance, as opposed to excess, which could be compounded with labor concerns, that I seek to examine in mentoring and professional relationships.
 My thanks to Divina (see Couple-Centricity, Polyamory and Colonialism) for her feedback that forced me to articulate this point in a way that I hope now is more clear.
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.
My mother-in-law is dying. Even though her son and I are no longer together, she is still my mother-in-law. My co-parent, as we call each other now, is still my mother’s son-in-law. At least that is what my Native American mother says, and vehemently. I have no trouble with that. Just because Co-parent and I are no longer a monogamous romantic couple, does not mean that I do not want to remain his family. We raise a child together. We sometimes think and write together. We have been loquacious friends since the night we first met, and I hope we will continue to be. Until death do us part. In addition to being a stellar father to our child, a good son- and brother-in-law, he is a beloved uncle to my nieces and nephews--our nieces and nephews. We Natives—at least in my extended family and tribe—tend not to let white men’s laws and norms completely distort our thinking about family. That is not to say that we have been able to completely resist Eurocentric norms related to kin and marriage. Witness the politics of tribal enrollment in the United States in which our regulations governing who gets to be a tribal citizen have been informed for 100-plus years by curious Eurocentric notions of biogenetic kinship. Our ancestors were also forced into monogamy by U.S. and Canadian state-builders who could not grant them full humanity without forcing indigenous people into heterosexual one-on-one, lifelong relationships, nuclearizing their families, attaching marriage to land ownership, and extending those notions of ownership to the women—the wives in whose name allotted lands were also given.
But in everyday practice, we are still adept at extended family. Beyond biological family, we also have ceremonies to adopt kin. And in my extended family we engage in a lot of legal adoption. This is aided by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that prioritizes the adoption of Native children by Native American tribal families so children have a better chance of remaining inside tribal cultures. In my opinion, we are culturally superior to the mainstream in the U.S. in our skills and values for making extended family. Not unlike this new practice of mine—polyamory (when it does not stop at sex and self-actualization, but goes farther to make family or community)—our tribal webs of kinship can be more emotionally, environmentally, and economically sustainable. Although like polyamory, the entanglements are demanding and it’s no bed of roses everyday.
My mother-in-law and I were close. She always loved Native American art and took an interest in me right away when Co-parent first brought me home. I am not an artist of course. He would roll his eyes. He would lovingly tease her. For my part, I loved listening to her many stories and drinking wine together. She told me she loved having another woman around after raising only sons. And she was from the first moment thrilled with the coming of our child. The day she received in the post her birthday card with our positive pregnancy test folded inside, she left us a voice mail: “You have just lifted a dark cloud over my head!” She was so excited at our pregnancy. Her other grandchildren live half the world away. She too rarely sees them. Fittingly, our child is so much like my mother-in-law. Like Grandma, our child is an artist, and an animal lover. They share the same sense of color and abstractness in their painting. She doted on our child until she got Alzheimer’s. Even afterwards. When our child enters the Alzheimer’s unit, Grandma’s eyes light up.
I have a difficult time with her passing. I do not mourn her dying. She did not want to live with dementia. I wonder if her spirit is trapped in her body and I want her to be free of that. Co-parent and our child and I agree: It is a blessing that Grandma is about to go to the spirit world. Although the thought crosses my mind that she has another capacity now. She looks with wonder at snowflakes and leaves twittering in wind, at miraculous birds. No, my difficulty is watching how my ex-husband’s Euro-American family greets death. Unlike in our tribe and family, they do not sit with their dying elder through the days and nights of the passing. First in the hospital for however long it takes, and then afterwards, a three-day wake. There is no tribe to bring food for the family. They do not tell stories for days punctuated by laughter, suddenly swallowed voices, silence, tears. Death like this at the end of a lived life is an event. We mark it, a bon voyage. I can bring none of this to my mother-in-law’s deathbed. While my tribal family still claims Co-parent as kin, familial terms are no longer forthcoming for me from his biological family. My rights are diminished and distance is what feels respectful while they mourn. My mother-in-law will likely die alone, outside the minutes of their daily visits. They are pained at her passing. They have a hard time watching her. I do not understand their relationship to death. She had a full life and for her generation of women, much more equality. She had children, a loving husband, an artistic path—her very own thing. Our child does not get to sit long enough with Grandma. The adults are too quick to leave. I hear she is in no pain. She goes peacefully. Why is coming to the end of a good journey unbearable to witness? Does the quieting of her vitality seem undignified, a failure? Death is too often construed as “giving up the fight.”
After thinking hard on this, I conclude that a fundamental conceptual break conditions their relationship to death. Materiality is severed from spirit in their world. There is life and death. It is not only scientists who do this. Believers do too. The relationships are long and intimate between Western science and Christianity. There is no dichotomy in their shared conceptual-ethical framework that does not become hierarchy: life/death, human/animal, man/woman, civilized/savage. Death is bad because death ends life. They are afraid of death. In such a worldview, Earth and spirit do not touch. For some, there is no spirit, only earth. For others, Heaven is out there, the angels are holy and fly away. They don’t often know spirits to bridge worlds in mundane ceremonies, or in dreams. In their stories when spirits walk the planet, they are ghosts troubled and lost on their way to Heaven or diabolical and slipped through the cracks of Hell. But our spirits are persons—our social relations, wise or imperfect. Some were human. Some may be again. We tribal people don’t have scripture or a Google map plotting the streets of the spirit world. We don’t all share one named broker from this world to the next. We don’t pretend to know much. But we do know that death of the body opens up another stage of being. We have all seen or heard of it. We may not all have the same relations with spirits, but it is impossible to live in a tribal community and not live within a world where spirits do things. For us, materiality is part of beingness, not the other way around.
With my mother-in-law’s passing, I am grateful again that I am a tribal person. I would not wish our Peoples’ hardships on anyone, but I would want no other life, no other body than that which is a product of their work in this world. Through colonization intimate relationships with our Peoples’ places of origin were disrupted. So much of indigenous peoples' self-determination in the U.S. (and Canada) is attempting to reconstitute those relationships with land, or just to live there. We attempt this in ethically impoverished political-economic systems, like washing filthy clothes in filthy water. But we also sustain our relations in non-material ways. Just as we do not relinquish the beingness of our human relatives with the passing of their biophysical bodies, we do not relinquish our relationships with our nonhuman relations in these lands, even after the legal, material, and scientific claiming of their bodies by nation states.
In the company of four generations I watched my great-grandmother breathe in and never again breathe out. A few hours later she visited her house. My aunt smelled her perfume wafting through the rooms. For twenty years she has visited me in dreams. I hold her rose-petal hands. I tell her I love her. As I age, I think of new questions to ask her. I hope my mother-in-law will visit our child in dreams. As our child grows older, the questions will come. Last night I said, “when you visit Grandma tomorrow, hold her hand, talk to her, tell her you love her. You never know what she might hear. Let her know she’s not alone.” Our child said with a “duh” tone and a shaking-back-and-forth head, “I know Mom. I promise. I was rubbing her head yesterday. I wanted to stay.”
We fall to Earth into the hands of our ancestors. Why should we not leave it from beneath the touch of our descendants or our relations as they hand us back to ancestors again?
The Critical (and ethnocentric) Polyamorist
8/20/14 Postscript: This bittersweet article, "Dead at noon: B.C. woman ends her life rather than suffer indignity of dementia," was published today in the Vancouver Sun. My mother-in-law (who, when she was still lucid) had expressed similar concerns as Gillian Bennett, the woman in the Sun story. My mother-in-law had also expressed the desire for options besides living with dementia in a completely incapacitated state.
 David M. Schneider. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Second Edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980 (1968). Also see Kirsty Gover, “Genealogy as Continuity: Explaining the Growing Tribal Preference for Descent Rules in Membership Governance in the United States,” American Indian Law Review 33(1) (2008): 243-309. Also see Kirsty Gover, “Genealogy as Continuity: Explaining the Growing Tribal Preference for Descent Rules in Membership Governance in the United States.” American Indian Law Review (33)1: 243-310.
 Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2008.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to 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