Gwaai Edenshaw and Kwiaahwah Jones, co-curators for the exhibit RezErect: Native Erotica, originally shown at the estimable Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, are still out there talking and presenting long after the exhibit’s come down. The two were recently at the University of California-Riverside, invited by Dr. Michelle Raheja (Seneca) to speak to her classes. In his statement accompanying the exhibition, Edenshaw said that “sex figures prominently in aboriginal stories across the continent, as sexual humour, playful irreverence, spiritual reverence, place names, morality tales or other meanings lost in time. In my world, it’s a safe bet that the laughter coming from that group of grandmothers over there drinking tea is partly triggered by sexual innuendo. We hope to carry on that tradition here – sexy, intelligent, fun and provocative.”
I spoke with Dr. Raheja, who is picking up where RezErect left off, and breaking new ground in terms of serious discussions and study of Native sexuality.
Alex Jacobs: You said you were floored when you saw the exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery. What were your initial reactions to the show?
Dr. Michelle Raheja: Honestly, this exhibit had a profound effect on me because I had never seen a Native American exhibit that handled difficult/controversial issues with such humor, sophistication, intelligence and creativity before.
I picked up Janet Rogers’ Red Erotic at the Bill Reid Bookstore, mostly because I couldn’t resist the cover art by Nicholas Galanin. I assigned both Red Erotic and the RezErect catalog because they are both smart and funny treatments of Indigenous sexuality, gender and the erotic. Other texts I used included Drew Hayden Taylor’s Me Sexy, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Interpellations: Three Essays on Kent Monkman, Qwo-Li Driskill’s Queer Indigenous Studies, Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, and Walter Dyck’s Son of Old Man Hat. We also viewed Ryan McMahon’s Powwow Shades of Grey (Twitter fiction), as well as videos on Canadian Residential Schools and Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. The class was entitled “Amorous Adventures: Native American Gender, Sexuality, and the Erotic.” The RezErect exhibit prompted me to teach a graduate course on this subject. I tried a “de-colonial” approach by opening the seminar up to people not affiliated with the university; we had guest speakers from the Native community, people brought their children to class. And Kwiaahwah Jones and Gwaai Edenshaw traveled to southern California to talk about RezErect.
Students could also submit video research/creative projects in lieu of seminar papers, and they loved the presentations by Jones and Edenshaw. The public talk was extremely well attended (we had to turn people away) and undergraduate students were so excited by the talk that they’ve asked me to teach an undergraduate course on Indigenous sexuality. Jones and Edenshaw also gave a public talk at Human Resources, a community-based art space in Los Angeles that was very well attended.
Why are these depictions of Native sexuality/sensuality important?
I think of three distinct periods of Native sexuality, sensuality, and the erotic. In the thousands of years in the pre-contact era, Native sexuality expressed itself in ways that weren’t yoked to Christian ideas of shame. Native sexuality was an important part of life; what we now call “Two Spirit” people were valued and had important places in society; gender complementarity was the norm as the roles of women and men were equally important (re: the Iroquois Creation Narrative); human bodies were considered natural and pleasure was considered normal. During his talk, Gwaai Edenshaw related that traditional Indigenous art, at least in the Northwest Coast, is extremely sexual in nature (moreso than in the contemporary period), embedded in oral tradition and infused with humor.
In the post-contact era, with the forced assimilation of Native people, compulsory Christianity and boarding/residential schools, Native people were taught to feel ashamed of their bodies and pleasure; there was a lot of policing of women’s bodies in particular. This gave rise to intergenerational trauma in our communities, the legacy of which we still see today with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the thousands of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, and the Amnesty International statistic that one in every four Native women will be the victim of sexual abuse during her lifetime. Yet even under these harsh conditions of settler colonialism, one can read the continuation of Indigenous beliefs about sexuality.
For example, in Walter Dyck’s autobiography of Left Handed, Son of Old Man Hat, a Navajo sheepherder in the 1930s, we can still see a particularly Navajo way of looking at human relationships that refuses to take Christian sexual morals into account. And now, in the third era, Native people are reclaiming philosophies and lived experiences of sexuality in really creative and important ways. For example, Kent Monkman’s work resuscitates and refigures what could best be described as queer Native practices and fiction like Louise Erdrich’s demonstrates the joy inherent in Native expressions of sexuality.
What about past depictions of Native sexuality that you have seen in your research, what were the worst and the best?
The worst examples are found in the ways Native people have been shamed into thinking that their bodies and traditional ways of being are immoral. The idea that Native people are either licentious and in need of reforming or completely asexual performs an incredible violence on Indigenous ways of being. The best examples are those that show traditional cultural and art forms that express Native sexuality—totem poles, origin stories, and even now, with 49 songs performed at powwows. If you scratch the surface, it’s possible to trace out a very long and joyful genealogy of healthy and positive representations of gender, sexuality and the erotic in Native literature and visual culture.
My mom was a huge fan of westerns. Late at night she’d watch westerns in the dark in front of her little black and white television set at the kitchen table, blue tendrils of smoke swirling around her. I couldn’t understand why she was invested in images of Native people that were, so I thought, so negative. When I asked her, she told me that it was better for us to be seen at all instead of remaining completely invisible in popular culture. She loved seeing Jay Silverheels and other Native actors in these films and read the characters they portrayed in a much more forgiving, interesting light than I did. I thought about her comments a lot in college, especially while reading texts that found Hollywood Indians to be completely stereotypical and problematic. But when I started conducting archival research on Native American actors and contacting the descendants of these actors, I realized that the history of Native people in the motion picture industry was incredibly complicated and that while Native actors and directors were complicit, to some extent, with stereotypical representations, they also made some significant inroads in terms of creating more positive and engaged images. In the book, I put these earlier Hollywood Indian contexts in conversation with contemporary Indigenous filmmakers to think about the long, complex, and fascinating history of Native Americans in film.
Santa Fe NM
May 4, 2015