"One of the things I find really difficult is how racism is presented as a black-white issue. It erases the whole issue of genocide."
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Chrystos Lieve Snellings
MARCH 13, 2002. Chrystos, Native American poet, artist, and activist, talks to The Gully about queer Native America and the de-queerifying of mainstream queers.
The Gully: What are the main issues facing queer Native Americans?
Chrystos: Some of us are working in AIDS education and prevention, some in prison activism, some in land and treaty rights claims. Some of us are just holding jobs. Though queer Native Americans, or two-spirit people, as we call ourselves, have huge gatherings every year, we don't tend to be as cohesive as other queer communities, which is more typical of the way native people are in general. We aren't as institutionalized. A lot of what happens is based on personal relationships.
I'm in the process of making a film about two-spirited women, and we'll be filming this summer out on the reservation. One of the women we'll be focusing on is called Smiley. She lived for years as a butch-identified dyke in Seattle. Hopefully, the film will make our lives more visible. You don't see native people on the 6 o'clock news, and queer native people are entirely invisible even in the gay community where, I have to tell you, I thought it would be different.
One of the things I find really difficult is how racism is presented as a black-white issue. It erases the whole issue of genocide. Of the worst genocides in the history of the world, maybe the worst is what happened in this country and in Canada, and is still going on around the world, including in Brazil and some places in Central America. The eradication of native people is still a core issue for me.
Barbara Cameron understood that. She was one of the most important people in my life. She understood exactly what I was talking about. We knew each other for 30 years. We had a lot of discussions that contributed to my political development, and to giving me a sense of dignity about my place in the world, and my right to be in that place. A lot of who I am is a result of that friendship.
Is it difficult to do work around native issues as an out dyke?
I've actually experienced more overt homophobia from heterosexual women of color than I have from native peoples. Part of the misunderstandings have been about the rules of manners for native people. We have a very different standard for what is acceptable behavior than the mainstream.
Like, here's a simple example. Any kind of intrusiveness is impolite. So, for instance, you don't point at people, that's intrusive. You don't ask, "What do you do?" That's a sort of invasive question that shows you have to be doing something to be human. I'm not very good at these things myself I was raised in the city. One thing about Barbara, is that she was very respectful of other people even when she disagreed with them. A lot of times people are disrespectful when they disagree.
Another thing we'd think is inappropriate would be "outing" people. Who a person is and what they want to tell other people about themselves should be in their control.
Is it the same standard for straight people?
Yes, straight Indian people wouldn't even hold hands in public. It's just a different sense of boundaries. We're not as crazy and wild. I remember in high school the guys who streaked. Mainstream queer culture has a lot of that streaker mentality in it. I'm not ashamed of my body or anything, I just wouldn't have done it. We also have a different sense of humor. Native people tease one another a lot, but it's not mean. It's very affectionate. You might call someone who was your best friend "Potato Nose."
Do the different standards of behavior make it difficult to organize with other queers of color?
Yes, sometimes. There's also no difference in the level of ignorance as compared to white people, or very little. What can you expect when people go to the same schools and learn, or don't learn, the same things?
What about the many different cultures in the queer native community? Do you have problems organizing across them?
Native culture is not as homogeneous as I've made it sound. There are native drag queens that can be as outrageous as white ones. But there are more similarities than differences. The other thing is that oppression does tend to unite people across differences. And we remain, in my opinion, the most oppressed people in the United States.
We don't have access to media power. There is no national native news anchor, for instance, when there are Asian, Latino and black anchors. We don't have a history month. We do not have the ear of the American public, for specific reasons: because the original intent of the "Founding Fathers" was to eradicate native people from the earth. There was never any intention to eradicate African people, though they were treated as property, which is horrible enough. But they weren't systematically murdered because they were in the way.
And I think what happens for queer people is, as long as they are participating in corporate America, or creating new software, or looking pretty on TV, as long as they are part of mainstream America, they thrive. When they resist that agenda, that's when they are attacked.
I think a lot of what has happened in the last 10 years in queer politics has not been in control of queer people. Like queers in the military. Why is that an issue for us? I understand there are issues of inequality in the military and that's wrong, but should we even be signing up for something in which we'll be asked to kill people for reasons we don't even always know?
The three main issues now in the queer community are not issues of resistance. The military, marriage which I wouldn't do even if I was straight: what right does the government have to be in my bedroom? and mainstreaming, becoming like June Cleaver. Wanting to be part of the mainstream is essentially de-queerifying queer people, because if we can get married, and be in the military, and be June Cleaver and I maintain that being queer is different, it's not the same as being straight, there's a totally different mindset we'll be mushed all together into a kind of Melissa Ethridge clone. That is repulsive to me.
And having all the known queers being white is also repulsive to me. I don't think mainstream queer culture has even noticed that yet. Not too long ago they had some show on TV about lesbians, a women's program, maybe Vanessa Redgrave was in it. In the paper ad, all of them were white, all blond. That really scares me, the German Reich values.
Chrystos' books include Fugitive Colors, Dream On, and Not Vanishing.
For A review of Chrystos' work in Speakeasy.
For the LGBT and Two Spirit Native American Community at Tenemos.
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