Holy Wild

By 
Gwen Benaway

Note: This text is adapted from a keynote address delivered on Thursday, November 2nd at Queer Canada, a conference at Brock University in St. Catherine’s, Ontario.

dedicated to the memory of Aiyyana Maracle and all my transsexual and Two Spirit relations who resist and continue to make beauty in the middle of a genocide.

 

“to be native and queer is to sometimes forget how to love yourself because no one else wants to”

—Billy-Ray Belcourt, This Wound is a World

 

my gookum said only
the wild ones are holy.

bush in northern Michigan
is the ancestral field of my body,

a girl who tastes of summer ragweed
in the high heat of noon.

my body grows by night in secret,
wet with yearling dew.

breasts and hips spread
like bushfires in a dry season,

skin pale as moonlight at dawn,
soft as a muskrat’s pelt skinned in March.

my mouth is a damselfly’s wings,
iridescent breath on your sex.

my hips hold a cock the colour
of crushed blueberries, bittersweet purple.

my breasts dart from your hands
like minnows, chase deeper water.

my gookum said a woman moves
like the sway of cattails in a June wind.

I lean to you like an otter dives, slick
and glistening against your chest. 

underneath the cedar of my thighs,
past the birch tree of my spine

is an opening, a rattlesnake den,
when you press your body in me,

the sound I make is a blackbird’s cry.
here is the wild heart of me,

rush of heat on your fullness,
this is the holy wild she made me.

a woman’s sex is as sacred as her land,
my ancestors learned from creation,

a woman is as holy wild as
her body’s made to be. 
 

I believe I was asked to deliver this talk on the assumption that I would speak to Indigenous sexuality and gender. I will speak to Anishinaabe conceptions of sexuality and gender in some sense, but I am wary of performing to Queerness my Indigenous body for consumption and ethno-graphic research. I’ve learned that anything I create is ultimately bent by settler minds to become a representative landscape for them to reimagine themselves against or inside.

I choose instead to focus on Queerness as a site of struggle. A settler project, infinitely replicating the sins of its colonial master. And to speak to how Indigenous and transsexual subjects remain displaced from Queerness, trapped into inhabiting your spaces by the legacy of transphobia and homophobia you brought to my ancestors when you landed here. To voice the impossibility of reconciliation without rape, a denial of our hurts and an erasure of our separate experiences as Indigenous and transsexual peoples.

To situate myself inside a conversation on Queerness feels like a particular violence. Queerness is not a landscape which arises from my body, but is a space I enter through the bodies of others. It is my lovers, male-bodied cisgender men, who position themselves as Queer and by extension, me as a participant in their Queerness. Or I am forcibly read as Queer, rendered so by an outside gaze which explains my difference through its particular optics.

To situate myself inside a conversation as Indigenous feels like a particular homecoming. Indigenous culture is a landscape which arises from my body, a space that I move inside and create around me. It is a specific naming with clear delineations of who and what I am. Anishinaabe, Métis, Bear clan, Niish Ode Kwe (Two Heart woman), Mitkomis (Oak Tree), from the Great Lakes, born into waterways and blood which stretch as far back as I can trace. I am not read as Indigenous, a byproduct of my skin tone and the colour of my hair and eyes, but I am always embodied as an Indigenous subject.

The balance between these realities, an Indigenous reality and a Queer reality, is a complex one. I move inside both communities and positions, but I only claim one of them as my own. Perhaps I don’t claim Queerness because I feel that Queerness does not claim me. Or if Queerness claims me, as an Indigenous transsexual, it claims me as a symbol or theoretical construct of forces it seeks to dismantle. Indigenous claims me as a whole being, an entirety of self which extends into all aspects of my being. One position returns humanity to me while the other position renders my humanity invisible.

The tension between Queerness and being trans is well documented. Vivian Nameste, a trans scholar, writes that Queerness regulates transsexual bodies “to the figural dimensions and functions of discourse.” Trish Salah, a trans poet and scholar, argues that a “queer critique of transsexuals/transsexuality was made, and continues to be made, without really taking stock of the cissexual privilege through which it is most often spoken.” As far back as the beginning of Queerness as a political and theoretical framework, my transsexual ancestors focused their critiques of Queerness on its inherent whiteness, its drive towards normative structure, and continued erasure of transsexual suffering. When Sylvia Riveria spoke at the 1973 Christopher Street Rally, she took the stage to a chorus of boos from a Queer crowd.

Her words resonate with me today. When she says, “I have been to jail. I have been raped. And beaten. Many times! By men . . . But, do you do anything for me? No. You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit . . . What the fuck's wrong with you all?”, I hear the voices of every transsexual woman I have known resonate with that pain. Her question—“what the fuck’s wrong with you all”—is directed towards Queerness, not at heterosexuality. She asked a question in 1973 which I ask daily of Queerness and Queer subjects. What the fuck is wrong with you?

As an Indigenous transsexual, I repeat the same question for reasons similar and differing from Sylvia’s intervention. Indigenous culture and politics emerges from a collective but inside a nation-specific tradition of self. Within Anishinaabe culture and worldview, Queerness does not exist. Other concepts exist in its place, but the reality of colonialism, the legacy of ongoing genocide in Canada, and the violence of the settler gaze force us as Indigenous subjects to show up inside Queerness, to wear its clothes and dance in its clubs, pretending we belong. Rejecting Queerness is not an option. We must hold it, however superficially, close to our bodies in order to survive and be rendered visible.

The dynamics of Queer settler erasure of Indigenous bodies and transsexual bodies interests me, because they arise from the same colonial need: to eat the other, discard its unpleasant parts, and wear its skin as a mask. Queerness without accountability to or relation with Indigenous and transsexual bodies is a monster, a Wiindigo. We must kill it if we are to survive the winter but as I’ll explain in this text, killing a Wiindigo is no simple task.

An Indigenous critique of Queerness is not new. Andrea Smith, Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, and many other Indigenous scholars have critiqued how the focus of Queerness on post-identity often disappears Indigenous subjects or renders us a foil for Queer subjectivity while replicating white supremacy and settler hierarchies. As Qwo-Li Driskill writes in hir article, Doubleweaving Two Spirit Critiques, “Two-Spirit critiques diverge from other queer critiques because they root themselves in Native histories, politics, and decolonial struggles. Two-Spirit critiques challenge both white-dominated queer theory and queer of color critique’s near erasure of Native people and nations, and question the usefulness to Native communities of theories not rooted in tribally specific traditions and not thoroughly conscious of colonialism as an ongoing process.”

Perhaps the most striking Indigenous critique of Queerness arises through the work of Scott Lauria Morgensen. They argue, as I do here, that Queer settlers valid their sexuality by referencing the historic presence of diverse gendered and sexualized Indigenous bodies, use their settler privilege and sexual oppression to absolve themselves of colonial accountabilities, and then establish settler queer communities which incorporate uncritical performances of Indigeneity without any ongoing reciprocal relationship to Indigenous bodies. I extend this critique to specify that the historic Indigenous bodies claimed by settler Queers are transsexual Indigenous bodies, a double violence given Queerness’s continued inability to engage current transsexual bodies as valid or valuable. My Indigenous transsexual ancestors are the ghosts of Queer settlers, the ones they invoke to narrate their performativity while they erase me as a subject within my body. I carry both hurts and they sing inside my blood, long past when the stars have fallen and a cold white moon rises over the dark Queer cities.

Queerness imagines itself in relation to Indigenous bodies frequently. Early political and theoretical movements of Queerness emerged from encounters with Indigenous bodies and articulated some of their inherent Queerness within our histories. How often have I heard from Queers that Indigenous cultures saw Queerness as sacred? Or witnessed Queer folk enter Indigenous spaces, access our traditional medicines, and appropriate our ways into a self-care practice for themselves? Heard settler Queers say being Two Spirit resonates with them and reflects their identity without any knowledge of what those concepts mean in my worldview? All of Queerness’s relationship to and with Indigenous bodies is rooted in a continuation of settler violence.

The central question I return to is when settler Queer people engage in what Phil Deloria calls “Indian Play,” a pageantry of imagined rurualism, primitivism, and appropriative spirituality, are they consciously reenacting settler genocide and colonial claiming or merely instinctively replicating the power structures of the heteronormative colonial society they claim to have escaped? I want to extend Deloria’s critique outward to transsexualism as well. Queer settlers often engage in “Gender Play,” a consumptive and appropriative mimicry of transsexual identities and bodies without any relation to transsexual suffering. Queer settler “Gender Play” allows them to appropriate the gender fluidity and complexity of transsexual bodies without having to include, fuck with, or love actual transsexual bodies. In an attempt to subvert their inclination towards heteronormativity, Queer settlers simultaneously play Indian and play Transsexual without any recognition of the ongoing suffering of Indigenous and transsexual bodies nor the reconciliatory requirement for a meaningful engagement with our entirety as sovereign bodies.
 

let my body resist
its undone bones

lye in the tendons,
sugar in the hips

I’m done making excuses
and second chances

let them think
a trans girl is sterile

this body gives birth
to a thousand children

all named grief,
all without fathers.

I’m not interested
in parcels of flesh

mailed into mouths
as if we’re caught

in an infinite tomorrow
never arriving here.

forgive my body
its unwillingness

to bend over for
your language,

let you flip me
into submission

against the weight
of cis masculinities.

your second boyhood
does not conquer

my second girlhood
though we intersect

here in my body
sometimes.

resist these undoing
touches of your tongue

how my bones concave
under your gaze

the judgement you place
on my desire as if

you know this body
better than others.

your jealousy betrays
your want.

witness this birthing
of me, my body

still sweet under clothes,
self-determined.

I’m done copulating
inadequacies, fix

my spine on North,
cedar tea over

bruises, pray for
afterbirth’s glow.

this body knits
itself together

whatever you do
inside me is yours.

foreign body,
I am not undone

by you even if I
sometimes fall

entirely to pieces
beneath you.
 

I went to a Two Spirit conference recently. Halfway through the conference, I feel overwhelmed by the conversations and the space. Still processing a recent end of a painful relationship, I retreat from the conference to hide in the wellness room where traditional medicines were available and another Indigenous trans feminine elder was present. As the Two Spirit conference is organized to include allies, there is a watchful collective of white settler queers in all conference spaces, taking notes and listening with carefully composed compassionate faces. They are even present in the wellness room, as a white settler Queer enters the room quickly after me. They tell the elder that they are feeling “anxious” and request smudging. The elder provides emotional care for them and smudges them with an eagle fan. The white settler Queer stays in the room, absorbing care from all of the Indigenous people present.

They have feather earrings in their ears. They have Indigenous tattoos on their body. Their partner is another white non-binary Queer. They do not say thank you. They do not offer tobacco. They do not seem to appreciate that the elder is sharing something holy and specific with them. They do not recognize that their relation to Indigenous bodies is one of consumption and of entitlement. There are three Indigenous women in the room: the elder, her helper, and me.

While the elder smudges the settler Queer and tries to offer counseling, the elder’s helper, a Métis Two Spirit woman, begins to softly pray under her breath. I am trapped in the room, unable to interrupt ceremony because of our cultural protocols and forcibly part of this circle providing care to this insensitive invader. Worried more about the elder and her helper, I also begin to pray. I reach towards my clan, Makwa doodem. Bear medicine.

I feel his strength move into me as the settler Queer finally says they feel anxious because their partner hasn’t returned a text in four hours. They are tearing up as the elder continues to ask gentle questions while offering various teachings. Makwa and I hold firm as the elder’s helper continues to pray. I wonder what this looks like to the settler Queer. Do they see the intersection of three different Indigenous nations in this room, Anishinaabe medicine merging with Métis prayer alongside Cree teachings? Do they realize that elder, her helper, and I have spent years of our lives learning and working in our traditional lodges to be able to provide them this form of spiritual care right now?  

Finally the settler Queer is soothed and I can leave the room. I am still distressed but seeing how the elder is tired from her work with the white settler Queer, I simply offer her tobacco and leave. As I walk back to my hotel room, I think about how many Indigenous people I know do not have access to an elder or to medicine. How many Indigenous people I know that will never be held and cared for within their cultures as diverse sexual and gendered beings. How many Indigenous people are anxious, afraid, dying, being murdered, missing, starving, poisoned, silenced, in danger. How everything we have of our cultures and spiritualties comes from residential school survivors who refused to lose their language and ways of being despite tremendous violent force. 

I feel like something has been taken from me—from us—but I don’t know how to voice that. So I swallow my pain. This is an intersection of whiteness and Queerness, of privilege and consumption. It’s the assumption of Queerness that it owns us as Indigenous bodies. It’s ignorance cloaked in our fashion, our sacred symbols, our gender politics, returning to us wearing the conqueror’s face.

As we have always done, as our ways of being compel us to do, we greet them with compassion and share everything we have. It is not enough for them because nothing is enough for them. Wiindigo neendam, cannibal mind, settler mind. Hungry, starving, eating everything in sight.


the most romantic thing
you could say to a girl

like me,
if you spoke to a girl

like me at all,
would be to say

I noticed you
right away

everything
you said felt

like snow underneath
my tongue.

I know the most
romantic thing

boys say to girls
like me, if they say

anything to girls
like me at all,

is you almost look
like a real woman,

for a second I thought
you were worth something

you can suck my dick
if you want to,

I’ve always wondered
what it would be like

to be with a girl
like you.

I’d say what
every girl like me says,

if we say anything at all,
the most romantic thing

I can say is
for a moment

I almost thought
you were the boy

I’ve been looking for
but you can stay

until he gets here
which will be never so

you can stay as long
as your curiosity

keeps you,
don’t mind the snow

it’s what happens
when the possibility

goes out of
water.

~

Wiindigo is a story of my people. Anishinaabe people told stories of Wiindigo carefully because speaking the name of that being can draw him closer to them. I do not casually invoke him now, but offer him as a theoretical model for how I see Queerness, whiteness, and settler mind. Wiindigo is a cannibal. He eats the flesh of his kin, going mad with hunger and defiling the most sacred relational bonds of my people.

He comes in Winter, in the deep cold of this land when game is scarce and starvation waits for us. He is a spirit who possesses the hungry, turning them against their own kind. He can possess anyone if they are hungry and desperate enough. The act of eating kin was a real danger for my ancestors, an actual one against which they guarded constantly, but also a metaphorical one. Wiindigo warns against consumption inside relational bonds. There were Wiindigo killers in Anishinaabe culture, people trained and blessed with medicines to protect us against Wiindigos.

A Wiindigo cannot be saved. Once a Wiindigo, always a Wiindigo. A Wiindigo must be killed in order to be healed. The RCMP tried to jail a group of Wiindigo killers in Northern Ontario in the early 1920s but they evaded capture and disappeared into the bush. They were the last recorded Wiindigo killers, but those ways of being have not been lost, merely adapted. The only way to kill a Wiindigo is to not be hungry. You must be full, spiritually and mentally with your ways of being. You must be soaked in your Anishinaabeness in order to kill a Wiindigo, holy in your fullness.

My elder introduced Wiindigo stories to us and then told us that white people are Wiindigos. They have Wiindigo Neendama, he said, a starving mind. They consume everything in order to make themselves “real.” Watch out for Wiindigos, he warned us, because they will steal your life from you without compassion or remorse. I see Wiindigo as a way to approach Queerness as well. A hunger, a desire, a dangerous power of settler Queers disconnected from themselves through trauma as they consume everything.

There are many ways to consume other people. Forcing Indigenous minds and bodies to educate you, absorbing our stories and cultures, eating our pain to fuel settler guilt, using us as examples of Western cultures’ depravity without actually engaging our specific bodies, having token land acknowledgements that fetishize us as the displaced ghosts of a once proud people. There is intimate abuse, rape, shame, guilt, gas lighting, denial, transphobia, homophobia, erasure. A million ways to eat another, a million ways to make us nourish you.

As I mentioned moments ago, the only way to kill a Wiindigo in Anishinaabe culture is to be full but how can we, as Indigenous and transsexual bodies, ever be full? We’re constantly being drained, performing our hurt and our “survivance” for an audience that rewards us with sympathy but not meaning. While Gerald Vizenor’s articulation of Indigenous survivance is a powerful gesture towards Indigenous revitalization and continuity, Indigenous transsexual and Two Spirit survivance is actively consumed by a Queer audience and converted into settler fever dreams of their own transgressive vitality. Our bodies, as Indigenous transsexual and Two Spirit people, are not reanimated by our survivance but commoditized and rewritten to become complicit in our oppression. We are pushed out of our communities because of transphobia and internalized violence. We lose family and friends because of the forced Christianity pushed onto our nations. We don’t have safe elders or safe ceremony spaces. We’re still on starvation rations.

~

I watch Queer folks on my Instagram feed return to rural settings to explore a rustic, primitive Queerness. They wear feathers and beads, dress in leather or settler garb, and create discordant art and theatrics rooted in a performance of Queerness. Are they, in this imagined landscape, attempting to get close to their ancestors or mine? What does it mean for Queerness to create Queer communities on land their ancestors stole, in costumes that mimic us, without our presence or acknowledgement? What does it mean to have a figurative relationship to Indigenous bodies but not a real relationship to us or our history?

Queer erasure and consumption of Indigenous bodies mimics its erasure and consumption of transsexual bodies. Our art forms and embodiments become Queer play. Our transgressions become their fantasy. Our gender variance becomes their answer to the persistent heteronormativity of Queer spaces. Yet actual trans bodies remain absent or regulated to the sidelines. Queer men don’t date trannies. Real lesbians don’t sleep with pre-op transsexuals because they don’t want to lose their gold star. The relationship between settler colonialism and transphobia is rarely discussed, but ever present. If Queerness imagines a relationship to Indigenous bodies which is not rooted in our actual bodies, it also denies a relationship to transsexual bodies by actively erasing our presence.

I use Wiindigo to speak to Queerness because the image of a hungry ghost in winter reminds me of every Queer male lover I’ve ever had. My elder told me Wiindigo stories when I was first learning my language. Wiindigo is animate and omnipresent. Like all spirits, he can move through walls and travel immense distances. He lives in the mind, a hungry which is more physical. When settler Queers talk about “finding themselves through casual play” or “needing to feel free,” I imagine Wiindigo hovering inside their mouths, consuming everything and everyone they touch.
 

fuck your fear
of your body,

know it carries
the two of you

underneath dirt
inside a love

you can light
another winter with.

how he smiled
fucking you

his face over yours,
suspended together

a rapture is only
the moment everything leaves.

you are holy in
this fear, this shame

of a pleasure
still surprising.

no one sees you
without first seeing themselves.

take it back—
you are not afraid

of their discomfort
as much as you are

afraid of your un-belonging,
your wounds become honey

underneath the careful prayer
of humid winds.

say it now—
I am whole inside

the bones I carry,
fuck my fear

until it cums
rainwater.

~

Much of my perspective on Queerness comes from my relationships with white cisgender Queer men. I often speak about Queerness and Transness throughout my relationships and in writing this talk, I find myself returning to the same points of contention where my white lovers and I never found agreement. In arguments and long conversations, I grapple with the theoretical intersection of Queerness and Whiteness, trying to explain why my position as an Indigenous transsexual feels like violence. Through their Queerness emerges my own relationship to Queerness, my wounds and frustration, the denial of harm they enact on my body, my inability to resolve the ancestral patterns of historic abuse within our intimacies.

I actively avoid sexual and intimate relationship with Queer men because my experience of those relationships is often one of displacement and harm. Heterosexual identified men rarely question nor interrogate my gender identity or the politics of my desirability, but predicate their relationships with me on the basis that I am a woman like any other woman. While Queer men have argued to me that this is a form of erasure, it functions as a reanimation in reality. By locating me firmly and fixed within the category of “woman,” my heterosexual male lovers grant me an agency and humanity rarely given by my Queer lovers.

My Queer lovers fixate on my gender as an identity, a constructed and performative display of self which is not rooted in biology or experience. They do not apply the same lens to their cisgender bodies nor the bodies of their cisgender female-bodied lovers. Their willingness and need to dismember my being as a transsexual woman is rooted in Queerness as an active force against transsexual wholeness. By assuming that my womanhood is merely an identity, they perform a transphobic and racist violence against me that I am powerless to resist. What does it mean to interpret my gender outside of the sovereign worldview of Anishinaabe nationhood? As an Anishinaabe transsexual, my gender is spiritual and imbued on me from birth by creation.

Separate from their Wiindigo drive to dismember my transsexual body, the Queer men I’ve shared intimacies with often replicate heteronormative misogyny in their relations with me and other female bodied subjects. How many conversations with Queer men have I had where fucking a female body is connected to a renewal of their masculinity or an emotional catharsis related to their childhood experiences? How often do they complain about the female bodied subjects in their lives as either wanting too much from them or not giving them enough? More disturbingly, my Queer male lovers often narrate desires of rape, masculine domination, and female subordination as erotic drives. They seek consumption, to be consumed and to consume with equal disregard for the historical, social, and gendered ways their cisgender white Queer bodies are implicated in these acts. 

Somehow the blatant misogyny is submerged in their location as a Queer subject. It’s acceptable to have these desires because Queerness, as a theoretical model for consumption, validates them. If the parties are consenting, what harm is there in the sexualized submission of female bodies in order to strengthen a fragile cis masculinity? Except their partners are often marginalized and racialized female bodies, except they engage female bodies and then deny an emotional harm when women question their actions, except this dynamic replicates historic settler rape and subordination of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized bodies. Queerness, in its disappearing of Indigenous and racialized identity, ignores the legacy of colonization and empowers cis men to reenact it under the guise of a transformative desire.

This desire is not new nor transformative. It is Wiindigo, the same sexual desire of conquest which drove white settlers to colonize, destroy, and reimagine Indigenous nations across the world. I have often fought with my Queer lovers about whether desire could be oppressive or not. They usually argue that what a subject does with their desire determines if it’s oppressive, not the desire itself. I argue that desire itself can be oppressive, shaped and formed by heteronormative, racist, and colonial lens. If your desire excludes transsexual bodies, if your desire only values Indigenous and racialized female bodies as emotionally resonant sexual objects, if your desire replicates systems of systematic power, it is oppressive and needs to be healed. Desire is not simply an action, but a colonial inheritance.

I know why I seek white Queer cis men as intimate partners, despite the obvious danger and abusive dynamics present. I come from an intergenerational trauma where my Indigenous female ancestors choose light-skinned abusive men as their primary partners. I grew up watching my gookum and my mother be physically and emotionally abused. I was physically and emotionally abused by my father. I inherited and internalized a colonial message that Indigenous women deserve to be harmed. That we are only valuable for our ability to endure abuse. That if your male partner loves you, it’s okay for them to hurt you. This what I need to heal.

They often keep me a secret throughout our relationships. They have other partners, mostly cis women with occasional male partners. It wasn’t because they was ashamed of having partners with male genitals. They are usually proud of that, a kind of Queer badge demonstrating their radicalness. A transsexual partner means something different, something more terrifying and shameful. Queerness doesn’t have a way for Queer men to value my body. Queerness doesn’t give out ally cookies for fucking trans girls. Like all settler philosophies, it needs to murder its other in order to become real. Canada hanging Louis Riel, Canada sending children to be raped and disappear, Canada driving the Indians into smaller patches of land by starvation rations. It’s the same instinct, the same pathological drive to consume and assimilate difference without recognizing our inherent sovereign bodies.   

I am usually disposed of along with other racialized partners for white cisgender lovers. Once the transsexual and Indigenous intimate experience is possessed by white Queer men, it ceases to have any value. Because our bodies are a conquest and an exploration, not a place to build a home. Once conquered, our resources extracted, we are abandoned. Home is located in whiteness, in Queerness, away from the colonies of desire. This must seem bitter, a personal vendetta masked in theory, but I’ve talked to other trans woman and racialized cis queer women and it’s not an uncommon experience. Every queer woman I talked to, cis or trans, had similar stories of their own confrontations with misogyny, racism, and colonial thought masquerading as progressive Queerness.

Or is it a masquerade? Is this the Queerness created and fuelled by settler imaginations of radical alternatives? A world without accountabilities to race or gender or violence? A utopia of desire, a shining heaven on earth. A new world. Another place to break open bodies and toss them aside. A space to finally, blessed with ordinances of the Queer gods, consume the other until there is nothing left but the wide emptiness of longing, an expansive wasteland where all racialized and Indigenous bodies are just an experiences to possess and release back into the night, wounded, broken, bleeding animals like me.

 ~

you kiss my neck
underground,

my breasts
in your hands,

my body, a river
I try to escape.

this current
between us

as dangerous
as anything

I’ve touched,
but you find me

inside it, move
your body over me

dive into a light
I don’t know

I have, as if
you feel

the girl I am
more than

I do, afterwards
you cradle me

cup my breasts
press your body

around mine
and yes,

this is what
I want, a lover

who fucks me
like the girl I am.

~

“the answer to the determination of gender comes . . . through our sense of spirit. We maintain the belief that those among us who are different are the way they are because of a special gift of the Grandmothers” —Aiyyana Maracle

What does it mean if I speak to you in Anishinaabemowin? When I say, Anishinaabe Niish Ode Kwe N’da, does this translate to you as meaning? Or do I, by force of your existence and the weight of your language against my skin, choose to name myself within your Queerness as transsexual, as queer-ish, as medically transitioned, as pre op heading to post op, as a former faggot, as an symbolic object of your desires and imagination? The violence of our history together means I must, if I wish to be rendered visible in your world, speak your tongue to you and place myself, precariously, inside your Queerness.

The precarious position of being a Queer subject as an Indigenous body is a discomfort common to Indigenous peoples. I remember listening to a Two Spirit elder, identifying herself as lesbian, speak about how she felt forced to choose between being Queer and being an Indian. If I have to choose, she said, I choose to be an Indian first. When Billy Ray Belcourt, a Cree poet, describes himself as Queer, he does so by first admitting he chooses this position from an absence of other language which holds him. His Queerness, as is the Queerness of many Indigenous people, is one of absence, not fullness. A colonial absence, a planned and deliberate absence created by the settler project of conquest.  

Joshua Whitehead, another Cree poet, recently tweeted about trying to learn words in Cree for being Queer. His struggle with language is that the words he learns do not correlate to how Queerness functions in a Western context. I learned many years ago from my elders that Anishinaabemowin has no words for Queerness or being a Queer body, not because we lack conceptual understandings of diverse gender and sexual practice, but because our language did not feel a need to differentiate the Queer body from the Anishinaabe body. They exist as a unified self.

Of course, I have words I can use in Anishinaabemowin to speak to aspects of my being. Niish Ode, a word I learned from one of my elders to speak to difference. Two hearts. Ago Kwe, a word used in historical and contemporary texts, meaning like a woman or in the image of a woman. Okitwaakwe, a warrior woman, a way of describing women who fought as men in war. Or words we choose at a conference in 1990 in Winnipeg, Two Spirit. These words are used contemporarily by Anishinaabe people to attempt to negotiate the divide of Queerness and Anishinaabe-ness, to find a meeting ground.

My language elder said we don’t need words like this to describe Queerness or Transness. He said we know each other in Anishinaabe community. We know who you are by how you act and the history of your relationship to us. We don’t use words like Naabe or Kwe, man and woman, in Anishinaabemowin, not because those concepts don’t exist, but because they are assumed by the relationship of the speaker to the audience. In Anishinaabe thought, the relational is precedent over the biological or the identifier.  

We do not have gendered pronouns in Anishinaabemowin. To accurately translate most verbs in Anishinaabemowin into English would be to say, “that one did this” or “this being is doing that action.” This extends into groups as well, “These ones do this” or “that ones will do that.” Unique to Anishinaabemowin grammar is the ability to indicate collective self, a way of saying “these ones (who belong to us) are doing this” and “those ones (who do not belong to us) did that.” Queerness and Transness in Anishinaabemowin arise and are held within relationship.

So I return to the relationship between being an Indigenous subject and a Queer subject. To be both requires a dismantling of self, a kind of violence which mimics the force of colonialization itself. Of course, some Indigenous subjects are comfortable within that violence, having been disconnected from Indigenous thought by force, accident, or trauma. Some may simply find Queerness more appealing for reasons which I do not share. I respect their agency in making that choice but I am not an Indigenous subject who is comfortable within the violence of Queerness, because I do not feel that Queerness is invested in the revitalization of Indigenous peoples and worldviews.

For me, Queerness feels like a weapon of the settler mind, a way to dismember us as Indigenous bodies into consumable ideas to feed its endless regurgitations of a colonial self. As a transsexual woman, I feel that Queerness is also a weapon of the cisgender mind, a powerful force to disempower, erase, and consume transgender bodies to feed its own gender play and heteronormative sexual practices. In all ways, Queerness is a space which I reject because Queerness rejects me twice over, as a transsexual and as an Indigenous subject.


you came on my stomach
twice in twenty minutes,
less the second time

I remember your penis
ejaculate in slow motion
as our eyes connect.

I don’t cum anymore—
I borrow your moisture
to make my own wetness.

this way of fucking,
divined by you as solution
to the problem of my body

you, cradle your cock
against my half hard clit
in your right hand

flip me on my back,
fuck our genitals together
while your left arm

pushes me down hard,
grind our bodies as if
you were fucking a cis girl

I scratch your back raw,
instinct, blind and mewing,
pressure where my vagina

will someday be makes me
orgasm in waves of sharp
electricity between bodies.

then your warm semen
pools in the cleft of me,
you hold me with hands

that smell of cock,
a not girl, not boy scent—
we fall asleep, confused

in our separate desire,
you, fucking me cis
me, fucked in future tense

until we break apart,
reassemble in distinct
but related universes

later in the week
I say I like our sex
but I know we’re over

when you answer back
“I’m glad to share
the experience with you”

an experience can
only happen once.
sex with me is falling

into the soft dark hole
of my body, finding comets
where other girls have cunts.
 

“we were dispossessed not only of the land of our ancestors, but, perhaps more importantly, of something less tangible: the sense of who we were . . .” —Aiyyana Maracle   

In a migration of thought, in a circle of my becoming, I return to my earlier engagement of settler Queerness. Queerness absorbs and steals Transnesss in order to invent its play on gender and sexuality. It does not seem an accident to me that many Queer subjects replicate a white masculine presentation, often literally dressing in the settler clothing of their ancestors. Vintage lumberjack is also a vintage rapist, a vintage colonizer, a vintage genocide uniform. How can any Indigenous subject be at home inside Queerness when its preferred aesthetic is white settler chic?

Looping into the personal is often seen as intellectual weakness in Western culture, but within Anishinaabe kendasowiin, the relational is a valid site of intellectual inquiry. It’s how Anishinaabe understand the world around us, though and within our relationships. I’m less interested in Queerness as a theoretical practice as I am concerned about Queerness as a relational one. My own work of navigating Queerness is similar to my work of navigating whiteness and settler mindsets. I don’t have a choice and it’s impossible to resist these forces without engaging its subjects.

What I wonder is why Queerness needs to rape us as Indigenous and transsexual bodies in order to hold us? Why Queerness must consume and violate our wholeness as Indigenous and transsexual bodies through its gaze in order to see us as valuable? If Queerness only determines our validity after fucking us, how do we survive Queerness without dismembering ourselves? Is Queerness a residential school of the mind? A treaty of desire? Sign away the land of our sovereign bodies, cut off our hair to perform its aesthetics of worth?

As it does to Black and other racialized bodies, Queerness strives to render us into objects for consummation. Or for transsexual bodies, it rejects us as not desirable entirely. How do the politics of “no Asians, no fats, no femmes” translate into Queerness settler worship? The white male god is ever present. The only way we, as Indigenous and transsexual subjects, can be present within Queerness is through disavowal of our positions as oppressed racialized bodies. We must assimilate or find ourselves alone at 2am on a crowded dancefloor.

~

say you love
contradictions,

place a hand
between my thighs,

feel the soft small
line of me,

transsexual clit,
a boy cock

gone over
to water.

my breasts
are smaller

than the girl
you often fuck,

what I lack
in volume,

I make up
in novelty,

hold me down,
your body in me

I’ll be a river
running west,

my hips, a lake
beneath you.

you like girls
like me, it’s ok

to want a body
unfinished, in (trans)it

more or less
a woman,

you can be a boy
as wide as sky,

cross borders,
break boundaries

inside me,
unlock us

in a touch,
bridge currents

before I become
an ocean,

my cunt is a gift,
your cock, a promise

not a perfect love,
our secret want

your tongue,
my bones

our hands still
spark together—

we make new countries
where desire

and our fear
bring us.
 

What alternatives exist to Queerness for Indigenous subjects? There are many but accessing them requires a collective healing process. A reclamation of our ancestral languages and legends, a renewal of our cultures. We must return to landscape which birthed us. That does not mean a literal return to our reserves or the bush, though this may be part of return. It means a return to Anishinaabe ishikiwinaank and Anishinaabe kendasowiin. Our doing, our knowing. Anishinaabe minobimadizhiwiin. Our good life.

It requires us as Indigenous bodies to reclaim our inherent sovereignty. We must refuse assimilation. We must align ourselves with the forces of liberation, not just our liberation but the liberations of other racialized and oppressed bodies. We must rearticulate our worldviews, not for white academic discourse, but to each other and with each other. We must build new communities of relationship to each other.

We must surrender the burden of white masculine misogyny which has overtaken us. It is not ours. What this means for each Indigenous subject is different. Creeness is not Anishinaabeness. Stoloness is not Metisness. Our nations are unique and within that difference, we have a wide range of options for embodiment. For me, it means an emotional and intellectual return to my worldview.

As Michael Yellowbird writes: “As a process, decolonization means engaging in the activities of creating, restoring and birthing. It means creating and consciously using various strategies to liberate oneself, adapt to or survive oppressive conditions; it means restoring cultural practices, thinking, beliefs, and values that were taken away or abandoned but are still relevant and necessary to survival; and it means the birthing of new ideas, thinking, technologies and lifestyles that contribute to the advancement and empowerment of Indigenous Peoples.”

I undertake this work knowing this work will not save me from colonial violence. I undertake this work knowing that Queerness will eat me anyway. What matters is that I try the work, not that I succeeded at it. It is the work of my Indigenous and trans ancestors. And it continues as do the forces which compel us to do this labor. Perhaps that is my relationship to Queerness: the work I do in order to survive it. And perhaps that is the work we’re all doing as racialized and oppressed bodies in response to Queerness: surviving it and through our survival, imagining our liberation.

For when José Esteban Muñoz wrote that “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality . . . We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain,” I hear the discordant echoes of a colonial instinct in the desire for a new world, the consumption of an Indigenous past, and a settler longing to possess the collective future. If Queerness is to be a “horizon imbued with potentiality,” it must first account to the historic violence against Indigenous, transsexual and racialized bodies and recentre Indigenous, transsexual, and racialized bodies as sovereign ones. It must decolonize Queer desire and form sexual and intimate relational bonds with Indigenous, transsexual, and racialized bodies that are not exploitive, affirm our value, and allow for our sovereignty.
 

kaawin ninisidotawaasii
nijaa’ge, zhaaganaash

I am too tired to

imagine your violence is your love,
explain to my friends why I talk to you,

replay your hand on my neck,
your hand between my legs,

let you run your fingers
through my hair, as if I was holy

nijaa’ge aasha
               I’m used up now.

then you walk away, pretend you don’t see me
on the street with your friend, lift your hand—

up to shield your eyes, as if  seeing me
could hurt you as much as you hurt me.

ikidon miinawaa
                            say it again

nimikwenimaa
                            pooshke kiin

remember us, your arms around me
by night, early morning, after walking home

in sub zero weather, your hand in my hand,
squeeze my neck, bite my fingers—

ikidon miinawaa
                            say it again

you love me, kwayak
kizaaki'in, zhaaganaash

now we are strangers
history replays in our mouths

you say you don’t want all or nothing

a little bit yes a little bit no
                            pangii eta go pangii eta go

isn’t this what every white man

tells an Indian girl, just sign on the X
everything is yours but nothing will be left.

kiiwanimoshki zhaaganaash.
I will not reconcile with your violence

how you said I wasn’t a real woman

niizh o’de kwe is worth nothing
                            wiiji'ishinaap mishomisanaak

I will not reconcile with the kingdom
of your body.

eha, yes I still love you
              but kaawin, no,

first you must reconcile
with yourself

aasha indanimose
                            nimashkawizii apane

the weight of your body,
the burden of our history

is my last gift to you.
 

Let me close by saying this. Queerness will not be our liberation as Indigenous, transsexual, and racialized bodies. It is and has always been a weapon of our oppressor. Fuck the oppressor. It’s time to liberate ourselves. For me, that liberation lies within my language, my worldview, my humanity as an Anishinaabe Niizh Ode kwe. And I continue to try, as much as I can, to liberate and be liberated. Holy Wild apane, forever.

For my relationship to my ancestral lands is not just a metaphorical one. My gender and body are not just identity or performance, but sovereign embodiments of a worldview rooted in spirit. I am woven inside a history which ripples throughout me, but I am wider than that history. To be Holy Wild is not just a revitalization of an Indigenous transsexual self, but an acknowledgement of the fundamental relationship between us as Anishinaabe and creation.

I don’t think we are the only ones who have been hurt by Queerness. Queerness embraces and discards other racialized bodies as it does ours. It harms other cultures and other ways of being. And for some, those chosen few (usually white, usually cisgender), it offers liberation. A liberation bought from the destruction and denial of Indigenous and transsexual bodies. Whiteness is not just a colour. Queerness is not just a desire. It’s a weapon of genocide. And I will not claim that which only claims me as its victim. So I return to the words of Sylvia to ask: What the fuck is wrong with ya’ll? 


Acknowledgements:

I am deeply indebted to the work of Indigenous scholars mentioned in this text, including but not limited to Daniel Heath Justice, Andrea Smith, Qwo-Li Driskill, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. I am also deeply indebted to the work of transsexual scholars such as Vivian Nameste and Trish Salah as well as my transsexual ancestors such as Aiyyana Maracle. I am grateful for my elders and language teachers, especially Alex Mckay and Doug Williams, for their continued instruction of Anishinaabe ways of being. I am uplifted by the work of fellow Two Spirit Indigenous writers like Billy Ray Belcourt, Joshua Whitehead, and others. I want to thank Morgan M. Paige and Trish Salah for their assistance in sourcing Aiyyana Maracle’s works.

Portions of the poetry in this text are part of my next collection, Holy Wild, forthcoming from BookThug in 2018. “Holy Wild,” the first piece, was previously published in Canadian Art Summer 2017 Issue, and “Reconciliation,” the final piece, was previously published in ARC Poetry Magazine Issue 84.

Gwen Benaway is of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She has published two collections of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead and Passage, and her third collection, Holy Wild, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2018. A Two-Spirited Trans poet, she has been described as the spiritual love child of Tomson Highway and Anne Sexton. She has received many distinctions and awards, including the Dayne Ogilvie Honour of Distinction for Emerging Queer Authors from the Writer's Trust of Canada. Her poetry and essays have been published in national publications and anthologies, including The Globe and Mail, Maclean's Magazine, CBC Arts, and many others. 

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