My Comments for the NAISA Presidential Plenary Session, “Feminism, Gender, Queerness, Sexuality: Keywords for Indigenous Studies?”

Presidential Plenary Session, “Feminism, Gender, Queerness, Sexuality: Keywords for Indigenous Studies?” with Mark Rifkin (NAISA President), Jodi Byrd, Lisa Kahaleole Hall, Mishuana Goeman, and Craig Womack

President Rifkin prompted us with a set of questions about the analytic work of gender and sexuality within NAIS scholarship. Without wanting to be surly or argumentative, my response is “why?” Why do we need to have a conversation about the relevance of gender and sexuality within and to NAIS(A)? Why are gender and sexuality not taken for granted—as is race, ethnicity, class, and nationalist politics—as core analytics of NAIS(A) scholarship?

To be clear, I am not asking why they are not topics of analysis any more than I would suggest that feminist analysis is only possible if gender or sexuality are topics. Rather, I am wondering about the social conditions on which conversations about the relevance of gender and sexuality are articulated. What are the conditions informing NAIS that make it possible, even “normal,” for someone to say “I do not do gender and sexuality” or “I do not need to do gender and sexuality.” (These were, by the way, conversations I had when I solicited contributions to a volume of original essays I am editing with Duke UP from those outside the usual suspects of GSF scholars in NAISA.)

Because if it is possible, even rational or normal, to say these things, then it is also possible to deflect, to minimize, or to pathologize the work of those who “need” “to do” “gender and sexuality.” In other words, if relevance/irrelevance is the shadow cast over the analytic work of gender and sexuality within NAIS, then it is not a question about analysis. It is about how gender and sexuality inform the terms and conditions of social relationality within which NAIS is produced, where some work matters and others does not, at least not on equal terms. (How many of our departments, programs, or journals still have the course or special issue on women, gender, sexuality, or feminism and otherwise expect no attention to these matters within the curriculum or the scholarship it produces? How many books and articles about Native/Indigenous social movements still ignore gender and sexuality politics in the grander narrative interest of more serious—i.e., political, racial, class—matters?)

Obviously, I contend that gender and sexuality are core to Native/Indigenous histories, cultures, and politics; to processes of imperial formation and violences of colonial domination; to interpersonal and communal governance; to land-based epistemologies and pedagogies. If you are not engaging that core, it is not because gender and sexuality do not matter. It is about constructing their irrelevance, articulating them as unimportant. And that is an ethic of relationship and responsibility, not merely to humans of various genders and sexualities but to the land, to the water, and to nonhuman relations. It is an ethic deeply embedded within the social politics that inform Native/Indigenous histories, cultures, governments, and territorial rights struggles; within ideologies and violences of cultural authenticity and legal claimant legitimacy; within the violences and discriminations of sexism and homophobia.

Some brief observations, or provocations, for discussion:

  • Gender and sexuality are about the ethics and responsibilities of relationship—to land, to non-human beings, interpersonally, within Native/Indigenous governance.
  • Our relationships demand accountability to Native/Indigenous forms of governance and territorial rights which are themselves grounded in land-based epistemologies and their genealogies. Questions of affiliation are questions of answerability—who do you answer to?
  • Lastly, instead of thinking about people who do and do not do gender and sexuality, perhaps we can think about how we are engaging gender and sexuality whether or not it is a category/topic of analysis as an ethical articulation of our relationships and responsibilities—an ethics of how we are with one another and the people, lands, and nonhumans we belong to.

Further Reading

“Gender.” In The Indigenous World of North America. Robert Warrior, ed. (New York: Routledge Press, 2014).

Indigenous Feminisms.” In Handbook on Indigenous People’s Politics. José Antonio Lucero, Dale Turner, and Donna Lee VanCott, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming; chapter available on-line as of January 2015).

Editor, Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

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