Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics is now accepting applications for our 2014 program to be held at the University of Texas June 1-7, and co-hosted by the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. This follows on the heels of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) meeting here in Austin. Undergrads, grads, and Native American community members are eligible to apply for this program. SING involves five days of wet lab, dry lab, and biomedical ethics curricula focused on genomics involving indigenous people. This is a program for people interested in both the science and the ethics, and who are coming in at different levels and with different educational backgrounds.
Uppsala 3rd Supradisciplinary Feminist Technoscience Symposium: Feminist and indigenous intersections and approaches to technoscience
I am thrilled to be blogging from the 3rd Supradisciplinary Feminist Technoscience Symposium organized by my colleague May-Britt Öhman at Uppsala University, Sweden. The five-day symposium (Oct 14-18) is hosted by the Centre for Gender Research within Dr. Öhman's research project, Rivers, resistance and resilience: Sustainable futures in Sápmi and in other Indigenous Peoples' Territories. This is my second year coming to Uppsala. I was also a speaker at the 2nd Supradisciplinary Feminist Technoscience Symposium held in October 2012. This year's program brings together activists, cultural workers, and scholars from across Sápmi and the Scandinavian countries, as well as Japan, India, Canada, Morocco, Peru, Russia and the U.S.
We have had intense conversations following presentations on mining in Sápmi and a film on anti-mining blockades and protests by Sámi and other activists against a cannibalizing form of extraction that undercuts the very basis of life. As I write this I read news posted to Facebook by indigenous friends in Canada about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) assaulting peaceful Mi’kmaq led anti-fracking protests today in new Brunswick. In Uppsala this week, we have also heard presentations and responses on dam safety and dam disruption of Sámi lifeways; on traditional Sámi foodways; on indigenous language and cultural revitalization in Scandinavia and Russia; and on the role of urban indigenous people and institution building in the development of living indigenous cultures, and for opposing the colonial state. And we’ve heard about the role of women's activism in India for advocating for tribal rights and welfare, and indigenous epistemologies as incisive critique of western imperialism that perpetuates extreme global disparity and environmental destruction.
We are sharing our differences in indigenous experience that have to do not only with differences in indigenous cultures, but also in national contexts and colonialisms. And we are sharing lessons learned in challenging colonialism, including ongoing colonial relations inside the academy. Once we not only survive, but begin to do anti-colonial work in more privileged positions within the university or in government, what are the common challenges we encounter inside these institutions and within fields that continue to be integral to colonial projects (e.g. engineering, genomics, anthropology, development studies, natural resource management)? How do we work in different indigenous and national contexts to address these challenges?
This is why I am here, and why I have become so interested in networking with indigenous peoples internationally. Although I inhabit an anthropology department in the United States, I am interested not for anthropological reasons. I am an ethnocentric Dakota after all. Anthropologically, I am most interested in the culture of my own people. I was raised in Dakota communities, both rural and urban, and thus I was a Dakota long before I was an "indigenous" person. But over the last dozen years I have grown through networking and travel into someone who also identifies as indigenous. And I have become committed to my relations with indigenous thinkers from around the world for reasons that have everything to do with being a Dakota. Because I am committed to Dakota sovereignty and thriving, and because I understand the power of being connected to a people who are tied to particular landscapes and waterscapes, which have been simultaneously assaulted by a colonial state, I have become deeply interested in and committed to aiding well-being and anti-colonial possibilities for indigenous peoples around the globe. I understand how important it is to Dakota flourishing to resist the colonial state through cultural and political work and I see that indigenous peoples in different parts of the world have made uneven progress in cultural thriving and political resistance. Thus I approach my work with other indigenous people from a Dakota and more broadly an indigenous standpoint.
We are aided in our people-specific struggles against colonial states by sharing lessons between us and by supporting one another in such work. Key to doing this is to understand not only the similarities between us, but also the differences in our respective cultural and nation-state contexts. I am active with the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), an organization that has helped me network with indigenous intellectuals chiefly in the English-speaking world - in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Pacific, and the United States. NAISA is also working hard to increase its networks in Latin America. Along with my participation in NAISA, my conversations with old and new friends encountered in Uppsala, from Sweden and from around the world, remind me of the power of the category "indigenous."
Anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt notes in the volume Indigenous Experience Today (de la Cadena and Starn, 2007) that indigeneity is a generative and productive category. It not only contributes to the rise in numbers of indigenous people worldwide, but it enables mutual recognition and collaboration by peoples across disparate geographies. It facilitates survival and acknowledges the historical rupture of colonialism. It enables us to share lessons learned for how to combat the colonial states and institutions that would erase us, and in the process destroy the very basis for human life - those nonhumans with whom indigenous peoples recognize our co-constitutive relations. In other words, we understand our peoplehoods as emerging in concert with particular landscapes or waterscapes. We exist as peoples in relation with those places and indigeneity helps us defend those relations and to combat colonial states predicated upon our ancestors' and our continuing dispossession from those places. This is the nature of genocide against indigenous peoples by the way, the simultaneous destruction of co-constituted peoples and their nonhuman relations. Those who insist on defining genocide only according to something akin to the European Holocaust cannot see this.
Part of doing mutually supportive work between indigenous peoples is to build indigenous studies within different national contexts. A chief lesson I have learned in working outside of the Anglophone countries is that not everyone had the kinds of oppositional social movements that we had in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the American Indian Movement (AIM). Social movements forced a space in the academy for indigenous voices. While we in the U.S. still see the space for Native American and Indigenous Studies within the mainstream academy as marginal, there is, for example, even less space in the Swedish academy at present for Sámi voices and decolonizing work. Indigenous peoples worldwide might benefit from the theorization of indigeneity and anti-colonial thought by indigenous scholars in places where there has been more opportunity to do that. That is part of what we are doing in Uppsala - making more space in the Swedish academy for these conversations. In turn, I am reminded by my encounters here with indigenous studies scholars from Asia, Latin America, and Europe that indigenous peoples face different challenges at different times and in relation to different state contexts. Thus we organize our cultural-political work differently sometimes. We should support each other in whatever partial ways we can, and as always, learn from one another. We indigenous thinkers from different parts of the world are one another’s students and teachers simultaneously. We can and should offer each other both theoretical and technical assistance in the form of sharing analytical and social protest frameworks for opposing colonial states. And it is productive to work both within and outside of the academy. In the indigenous networks that I inhabit, the boundary between the academy and the “real world” is fluid, and indigenous thinkers, whether they have PhDs or not, help lead the charge in dismantling that boundary. We continue to do so this week in Uppsala.
Democratizing technoscience: from theory to practice -- an inspiring tribal/university greenbuilding collaboration (Update)
UPDATE: I originally posted this video in January 2012 that features the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN) - UC Berkeley collaboration to co-design an environmentally and culturally sustainable house on the PPN reservation. This week several of the principal players in that collaboration published an article in Science, Technology, & Human Values, "Tribal Housing, Co-Design & Cultural Sovereignty." I humbly theorized around the edges of this innovative project. Thanks to the PPN and Berkeley folks for allowing me to co-author this particular article with them for a Science and Technology Studies Journal. They are publishing more in the literature of their respective fields. For example, also see Shelby, R., Perez, Y., and Agogino, A. (2012). “Partnering with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation: Co-Design Methodology Case Study for Creating Sustainable, Culturally Inspired Renewable Energy Systems and Infrastructure. Sustainability. 4(5), pp. 794-818.
Check out this moving video featuring the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN) - UC Berkeley collaboration to co-design an environmentally and culturally sustainable house on the PPN reservation in Mendocino County, California. Featured (@ about 2 minutes into the video) are tribal community members (including youth!), tribal planners and leaders, UC Berkeley engineers--faculty, graduate and undergraduate students--who are collectively reconceptualizing green building in ways that are situated in the lives and values of the people at Pinoleville. This project is a good example of one avenue for democratizing technoscience. The tribal community worked closely over the course of a few years with a UC Berkeley team comprised of engineering and architecture students and faculty to "co-design" a plan for constructing houses that tribal members could not only live in, but thrive in. In the course of design and building, several innovative things happened. The community's expertise was valued. This collaborative group did not only build a house, but they dismantled the usual hierarchical relationships between the technical experts and the "end users," or the community. Accordingly, this group built more than a house. In other design/building and research efforts (this collaboration was both) the technical capacity of experts and researchers gets built and refined while end users get a product. And research subjects, if they are lucky, get vague indications of potential benefits down the road, or simply satisfaction from offering their bodies, communities, or cultural practices for examination by researchers who produce "knowledge for the good of all." The PPN-Berkeley collaboration turns all of that on its head. The capacity of students, faculty, tribal planners, and community members got built. There are now tribal youth who have encountered Berkeley and can envision themselves attending this institution one day. Not only the research institution but the tribal institution got built during the course of this project. The tribe, importantly, controlled some of the project funding. In fact, the collaboration in large part began as a tribally-driven research project when the tribe approached the university with an idea. There are many lessons to be gained from this project, too much for this blog post. Watch the video. You too will be inspired. And if you want to learn more about this project go to the Web site of one of the lead engineering graduate students involved in the collaboration,Ryan L. Shelby. (The video also includes a brief treatment of a "sustainable surfing" project--so cool--that Berkeley faculty and grad students are involved in.) If you're in the Bay Area Ryan Shelby and Pinoleville Pomo Nation environmental director, David S. Edmunds will speak to my undergraduate class on Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. here at UC Berkeley, 126 Barrows Hall. I'll be happy to welcome you to join in the learning.
An Indigenous Ontological Reading of Cryopreservation Practices and Ethics (and Why I'd Rather Think about Pipestone)
As presented at the American Anthropological Association 111th annual meeting, San Francisco, CA, on the panel: “Defrost: The Social After-lives of Biological Substance.”
Cryopreservation—or deep freeze of tissues—enables storage and maintenance of bio-specimens from whole human bodies, to plant materials, to blood samples taken from indigenous peoples’ bodies. And all of this happens within ontological, ethical, and racial regimes that never belonged to indigenous peoples. It allows the suspended animation and temporal transport of cells and within them DNA, life’s so called code, into realms beyond the bodies whose lives these biologicals helped constitute. That we have barely begun to read that code matters less, as my co-panelist Joanna Radin has pointed out elsewhere, than “desperate” desires “to accumulate fragments of a world whose inherent plasticity, augmented by the corrosive forces of modernity, seemed poised to render certain life forms extinct.
Radin calls for “cryopolitics,“a strategy for grappling with the unresolved problem of the appropriate use of old tissue for new purposes,” a response to the ethical shortcomings of narratives and practices past. In other enlightening ethnographic work, my co-panelist Emma Kowal explains the “biovalue” constituted by the ethical work and network construction of bio-scientists as they build collections of samples and curate them throughout their lives, hoping to cultivate intellectual descendants to whom they might bequeath their treasured bio-valuables—indigenous biological patrimony.
Bioethical responses emerging from non-indigenous institutions and philosophical terrain, including the incisive analyses of my co-panelists, teach me much. And leave me… speechless.
I have found myself these past months unable to think or write or do fieldwork for this project. I have not understood my own resistance. Faced with standing before you today, I had to admit simply that I am weary of having the agenda for what will be responded to set by those who are trying to figure out a way to do things better, but things that indigenous people never asked to have done in the first place. I learn much from my colleagues from around the world who chip away at tired old hierarchical regimes of knowledge production.
And I have been aided in my own critiques of the politics that inhere in the genome sciences by my grounding in feminist technoscientific epistemologies and ethics, including the concept of “feminist objectivity” that calls for inquiry from multiple, especially marginalized, standpoints. The argument is that inquiry from marginalized lives produces a more rigorous reading of the world, and knowledge for the benefit of peoples who have too often been treated not as the beneficiaries of research, but as its raw materials. Indeed, this is an indigenous standpoint talk.
But all of this is focused on response, and I’m running out of steam for that.
So I turn to yet another feminist scholar, Neferti Tadiar, who articulates a concept of faith that enables me to write—to speak here today—in a faithful attempt to regain speech: Informed by the voices of other Oceti Sakowin thinkers within and without the academy. More commonly known as Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples, today we comprise multiple “tribes” in the upper Midwest of the U.S. and south-central Canada. Some of the thinkers who influence me are living and—like the biologicals this panel is attuned to—some are now beyond bodies. As I lean on their thoughts, words, and imperatives, I speak “in concert with” these people I call my own. Tadiar explains this as being “already caught up in the claims that others act out.” Refusing to be excised from them by some imperialistic, naïve notion of exact representation, I try to turn speechlessness into more than response, into claims about the world that I would rather see made.
Tadiar’s particular concept of faith helps me move beyond critiquing a non-feminist politics of objectivity such as pervades the genome sciences. That kind of critique comprised my work of the past ten years. Today, I hope to demonstrate how an indigenous standpoint can take us to an analysis of life and vibrancy that even a Western feminist standpoint cannot take us to.
But let me first highlight three critiques of the technology and practices we consider today, that are in part gestured to in my co-panelists’ analyses, but which I would cast in the shadow of an indigenous standpoint.
Cryopreservation aims to preserve “life,” but is predicated on death
Cryopreservation of indigenous biological samples is about life, the extension of life, the study of life, the preservation of life. But a notion of “life” focused on the largely indecipherable patterns and instructions that comprise DNA’s scaffolding. It is a materialist conception of life that I do not disagree with. Indeed, there is bibliographic beauty in it. But I know now why I don’t want to talk about it.
Cryopreservation recalls the poverty of the genetic articulation of indigeneity that becomes ever more salient in our world of genomics-as-nation-building. Cryopreservation, like genetic indigeneity, emerges not only out of technoscientific innovations but also from a discourse of death. Cryopreservation’s co-constitutive narrative is that gathering indigenous DNA is about staving off certain death, preserving remnants of human groups and their nonhuman relations, defined in molecular terms, and archiving those molecular patterns and instructions before peoples or species “vanish,” the so-called genetic signatures of founding populations obscured forever in a sea of genetic admixture. Death by admixture. Or actual extinction in the case of nonhuman species.
As Joanna Radin explains:
“Groups like the Yanomami or the Babinga did not live on the electric grid in real life—a signifier of their primitiveness—they, or at least pieces of them, could be frozen on it via the laboratory freezer. In this way, these populations would continue to live outside of time, and even outside of death”...Technologies of cryopreservation appeared a powerful way to keep them—or at least their genes—from going extinct.”
Genetic indigeneity, which grounds cryopreservation practices surrounding indigenous samples, and which is implicitly political, might focus on connection to the land and cultural cohesion, like indigenous peoples ourselves do. In biological sampling of a group, the idea of geographic and cultural isolation and longevity in place is paramount. But genetic indigeneity also fundamentally contradicts a definition of indigenous in its explicitly political social movement formation. For indigenous peoples ourselves, indigeneity as an organizing category is added to our people-specific understandings of ourselves. It helps us articulate our resistance as peoples to the assimilative state. It is about indigenous peoples’ survival, a “we are still here, and we are proliferating” discourse. Indeed, numbers of indigenous people have risen worldwide during the past two decades. This is not only about birthrates but about the generative success of the category. It is a source of power for peoples.
My forthcoming book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and the last ten years of work have been about responding to the erasure of indigenous peoples’ survival in bio-scientific research practices and narratives over several hundred years. Notwithstanding recent collaborative efforts, the interplay of genome-focused narratives and the political economy of genome research both pre-suppose and enable the erasure of indigenous peoples and their cultures.
Cryopreservation enables appropriation of indigenous natural resources
Radin explains that the International Biological Program (IBP) that ran from the early 1960s through 1974, and which set the 20th-century scientific stage for the biological sampling of indigenous peoples (along with nonhuman communities) as remnants of a bygone world, an increasingly “civilizing” yet ironically toxic world. She reminds us that “The stated goal of research on primitive isolates was to salvage information that might benefit civilized communities’ understandings of themselves.”
But the conception of indigenous bodies as “natural resources,” the raw materials upon which nations are built, did not begin in 1960. In the 18th and 19th centuries too the U.S. nation building project relied on the appropriation of indigenous peoples’ lands. The U.S. positioned itself—positioned whites—as the rational agent capable of transforming nature in to productive property, and indigenous peoples in these lands as incapable of developing, indeed surviving in the face of the modern industrial state.
Whereas indigenous land (and bones and cultures ready for study) were seen as the rightful inheritance of whites in the 18th and 19th centuries and before—the live Indian has apparently been vanishing since contact, literally meeting death in the face of Westward expansion, or transformed biologically and culturally beyond recognition. Today rare, precious indigenous DNA is the remaining natural resource to be appropriated or stewarded “before it is too late.”
As Jenny Reardon and I wrote in a recent Current Anthropology article, in the 21st century, the goal is to transform the raw natural resources that are genomes into something of value for humans: Genome knowledge supposedly “for the good of all.” But who in pragmatic terms counts as fully human, and as recipient of those benefits is the question. Certainly a vanished Indian cannot make a claim.
Cryopreservation enables social relations, including with indigenous people, even while it continues to de-animate them
We see a partial de-colonization of Western disciplinary thinking and a dismantling of hierarchies between Westerners’ and their non-human others, indeed also their previously less animated human others, in this move to caretake biological samples via cryopreservation. We see recognition of non-human animacy, even if it is not explicitly stated in the analyses of my co-panelists, of human biological substance and the social relations it helps effect, especially that substance derived from indigenous bodies. Stewarded by non-indigenous scientists and institutions, the substance acts as object of mutual concern and desire by both scientists and the indigenous communities that lay claim to it. Inspiring, frightening, challenging and empowering the humans involved with it, archived biologicals help constitute social relations.
Co-panelist Emma Kowal offers something slightly different as well. In the process of stewarding cryopreserved samples, she explains that indigenous people become vibrant in the way that genome scientists newly pay attention to the affective networks and biovalue co-constituted with indigenous DNA. But this is paradoxical as Kowal points out because biovalue, “the production of scientific value from human body parts,” is a form of “surplus value” actually produced when “marginal forms of vitality…[including] the bodies and body parts of the socially marginalized –are transformed into technologies to aid in the intensification of vitality for other living beings.”
So indigenous bodies are both de-animated (After Mel Chen I think in terms of animacy) in the hierarchies of civilizing, scientific knowledge production. And yet, re-animated as living indigenous people become scientists literally or in name as co-authors or co-Principal investigators within new, more collaborative ethical regimes.
Entrance to quarries. Expansive skies (photo: K. TallBear)
Life, blood, and stone
Vibrancy. Animacy. These are among the words through which disciplines are recently articulating the force of nonhumans in our cultural, political, and economic lives. And though this work is innovative, both methodologically and ethically, it only partially engages indigenous standpoints.
Indigenous cultures” have not forgotten that nonhuman organisms are agential beings engaged in social relations that profoundly shape human lives. In addition, for indigenous peoples, their nonhuman others may not be understood in even critical western frameworks as living. “Objects” and “forces” such as stones, thunder, or stars are known within our ontologies to be sentient and knowing persons. This is where new materialisms intersect animal studies, and helps us to see that violence against nonhumans—water, earth, plant, animal—is linked to violence against particular humans who have historically been de-animated, made “less-than-human,” made “animal.”
Koyungkawi poet and acorn mushmaker, Linda Noel, explains to me that she doesn’t mind “being considered part of nature.” But she knows what they mean by that, and that’s not what she means. For Noel, non-human is not less than human, nor less alive.
On that note, I turn from indigenous DNA—human biological substance frozen out of place and time—to stone. I want to talk about stone, the life that inheres in a stone, the social relations that proliferate as that stone emerges from the earth, is carved into pipe, is passed from hand to hand. (You may have heard them called “peace pipes”—that’s not quite right.) I speak of Pipestone, otherwise known as Catlinite after the 19th-century U.S. American artist who painted the site where the red stone is cut from the earth.
There is a story that tells us about the blood in that stone, that along with our loving attention to its materiality enables us to apprehend its vibrancy, its fundamental role in our peoplehood. Unlike with indigenous DNA, this is not a cellular vibrancy. Yet without it, prayers would be grounded, social relations impaired, and everyday lives of quarriers and carvers depleted of the meaning they derive from working with stone. Here is that story:
It rained for many days, non-stop. A young girl saw a high hill and ran up there. Many of her people had already drowned. Alone, she began to pray. The rain suddenly stopped. She stood there, seeing nothing around her but water. Above in the sky she heard and saw a giant bird. He opened his wings. A man emerged. The man told her not to be afraid. He had come to rescue her. All of her people were killed in the flood, he told her. He wanted to marry her. Through their marriage together the humans would begin anew. When the water receded it all drained into one place. There in that place was the blood of all the people who had drowned. That place became the cannupa ok’e. The blood of the people, the red stone. 
Red is a sacred color for the Dakota, and so this place is taken to be sacred. The cannupa ok’e, the quarry, is also special to many other peoples whose members dig there today. The stone there is sometimes spoken of as a relative.
But U.S. Park Service pamphlets from the Pipestone, Minnesota quarry represent pipes as artifacts, as craft objects, and detail the history of white incursion in the area, into the quarry where Natives produced their artifacts, and the regulatory response of the U.S. government. These ways of understanding the stone and the landscape from which it is quarried—these material and regulatory histories—are not unimportant, but like the politics that enabled the production of indigenous biological samples abstracted from living bodies and vibrant peoples, these politics resulted in a de-animating representation of the red stone. Like bio-scientists in the 20th and 21st centuries with their imperative to bleed indigenous peoples before it was too late, a 19th century Euro-American painter and early 20th century geologists and government agents saw the place where the red stone lies as an artifact of a waning culture and time. They produced a “National Monument” to conserve it.
But like indigenous people who insist on their continuing survival and involvement with their DNA, indigenous quarriers and carvers, medicine people, and just everyday people who pray insist on living with the red stone daily. And they make decisions—some of them seen as compromised about how to best work with the vibrant objects of their attention. Some indigenous people agree to engage in research or commercial activities related to DNA. Others sell pipestone jewellery and craft pieces to make a living while also holding the stone and ceremonial pipes carved from it as sacred. Literal red human blood and the blood red stone have been translated into “resources.” And while this characterization is troubled by Dakota and other indigenous quarriers and carvers, it is not undone.
And here I am at the end of this talk with a response after all, because this is the fundamental condition of indigeneity. It is predicated on there being a settler, an invader to whom we must always respond. Yet I hope that I am also moving into a stage of inquiry guided by the needs, desires, arguments, critiques, and material lives of the people from whom I derive. In the next couple of years I will turn my attention to pipestone as an agent in Oceti Sakowin lives, one imposed upon by processes of colonization, but a subject that also preceded such things.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas, Austin (where I am a Donald D. Harrington Fellow in 2012-13) for funding support this year as I bring together the threads of multiple lines of inquiry. Thanks to David S. Edmunds for his always incisive editorial feedback and to Chris Andersen (UAlberta) for when I lose faith helping me see that what I know and need to write about is right in front of me. Finally, a big thanks to my colleagues and fellow panelists Joanna Radin (YaleU), Emma Kowal (UMelbourne), Tiffany Romain (Ricoh Innovations), Jennifer Brown (UPenn), and to discussants Jenny Reardon (UCSC) and Warwick Anderson (USydney) for our own productive social relations, and for having such fertile minds from which I can appropriate intellectual resources, transforming them into productive goods for the benefit of indigenous people.
 Joanna Radin, “Latent Life: Concepts and Practice of Human Tissue Preservation in the International Biological Program, 1964-1974," forthcoming, 32.
 Donna J. Haraway, 1991a. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge: 149-181; Donna Haraway, 2000. “Morphing the Order: Flexible Strategies, Feminist Science studies, and Primate Revisions.” In Primate Encounters, edited by S. Strum and L. Fedigan, 398-420. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Donna J. Haraway, 1991b. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privolege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge: 183-201; Sandra Harding. 2008. Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities. Durham and London: Duke University Press; Sandra Harding. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 Neferti X.M. Tadiar. 2001. “The Noranian Imaginary.” In Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures, ed. Rolando B. Tolentino. Ateneo de Manila University Press: 61-76.
 Radin forthcoming 31.
 Radin forthcoming, 32.
 Radin forthcoming, 22.
 Cheryl I. Harris. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 8 (June): 1707-1791.
 Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear. 2012. “Your DNA is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology53(S5): S233-S245.
 Kowal 7, forthcoming.
 Mel Chen. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
 Kowal 29, forthcoming.
 Adapted from the story as told in the Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy, DVD.
Stephens and Sprinkle (center left and right) with friends at Dyke March 2012
We’re changing the metaphor from “Earth as Mother” to “Earth as Lover.”
---Elizabeth Stephens, Artist, Ecosexual, Professor
We aim to make the environmental movement more sexy, fun and diverse.
----Annie Sprinkle, Ph.D., Artist, Ecosexual, Sexologist
“Who wants to fuck a tree?” An attendee at the San Francisco Dyke March asked when she saw Beth Stephens’ and Annie Sprinkle’s flower and vine-laden signs, “Ecosexuals,” which we marched under this past sunny Saturday in the Mission district. Most novices to the idea were less dismissive. Many curious young queer people came up to Annie and Beth and asked, eyes full of curiosity, “What’s an ecosexual?” Many more seasoned folks knew Beth and Annie well. Beth Stephens is a Professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-founder with Annie of the Love Art Laboratory. Annie Sprinkle is Beth’s artistic collaborator and her wife. Annie is especially legend as a former famous porn star—the first porn star to earn a Ph.D.—a former sex worker, a sex-positive feminist, sexologist, and sex worker rights’ and health activist. Annie’s activist work, her intellectual work, and her art humanizes folks in the sex industry, and across a spectrum of sexual identities and practices. Many adoring fans gushed to Annie about how much they adore her and how important her work has been for them. Many wanted to have their photos taken with her on those crowded joyous streets of San Francisco. The most touching were the young queer women and trans men, so out, so effusive, clearly so happy to be who they are or are becoming, and to be amidst many other dykes and their allies.
Beth Stephens, Annie Sprinkle, Earth
Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle are my friends. We were hanging out last Saturday. It happened to be the day of the Dyke March. We decided to go. Plus queer folks’ re-thinking how to be and have family is helping me at this point in my life. They remind me of something I was raised with in my Dakota culture. Family is not only about biology and state-sanctioned legal relationships. We can choose and make our family. It is about love and not ownership, reciprocity and not debt. It is about respect. I am grateful for queer folks’ courage and creativity in challenging oppressive heteronormative kinship standards that too often imply ownership and hierarchy because they enforce rigid categories. (I will come back to that category-hierarchy relationship shortly.) In creatively re-making and living gender and family, they make a better world for all of us. I was happy to be welcomed to go in support to the San Francisco Dyke March.
I am also not an ecosexual. Yet I carried a sign, an ally too in that regard. When Beth Stephens first told me about ecosexuality it did not resonate with me. Earth as lover? But I keep coming back to the concept after meeting Beth 18 months ago when she enrolled in my UC Berkeley graduate seminar on feminist and indigenous approaches to science, technology, and environment. Beth and I have lots to talk about. We both come from economically and geographically marginal backgrounds, from places and peoples with rich cultures, lands, and resources, thus the exploitation of our peoples and lands. I come from a South Dakota reservation and Beth from the coal mining country of West Virginia. We both ended up in Northern California eco-feminist academic worlds. I liked Beth from the beginning, and trusted that she had something to teach me as well.
Ecosexuality Challenges Dominant Notions of Sex and Nature
This blog post is my first attempt to begin to theorize what ecosexual thinking might mean for me and for the broader intellectual worlds in which I work: indigenous, environmental, and science studies. How can ecosexual thinking be in conversation with indigenous and feminist critiques colonial and chauvinistically scientistic approaches to articulating and studying this thing we call “nature” and its close relatives, “environment” and “race”? What does ecosexual theory offer the world, especially as our institutions of governance and higher learning try to find new ways to solve environmental problems (in addition to continuing to create them), but too often at the expense of those who are less powerful. As an indigenous and feminist scholar of science studies, I continue to search for voices that can provide more inclusive alternatives to the less democratic knowledge practices espoused by nature’s self-appointed spokespersons, the overwhelmingly white, male, heteronormative scientific establishment that mistakenly equates its own historically-specific norms and knowledges with neutrality and universal truth. The dyke march and my first encounters with ecosexuality this past year, it turns out, constitute a pivotal intellectual moment of growth for me. I am learning that queer sexuality and politics—acknowledging and helping love and desire flourish beyond rigidly enforced heterosexuality—not only helps us re-make our human relationships. It provides us tools for living better with the planet.
Beth and Annie refuse to relegate sexuality or sexual identities—like nature—to discrete and essential categories, to something that is only primal or instinctual, to be spoken of in whispers (sexuality), or different (nature), something outside of the cultural dynamism of everyday life, something outside of art. In their own way, Annie and Beth refuse the nature/culture divide. They work to bring into view what we have been told should be kept separate, managed, alternately exploited and violated, or saved and kept pure. In addition to the idea that they are simply found-in-nature categories, this is what “sex” and “nature” have in common. This is what draws me to Beth and Annie’s ecosexual thinking. With the rise of scientific authority and management approaches, both sex and nature have been rendered as discrete, coherent, troublesome, yet manageable objects. Both sex and nature are at the heart of struggles involving ideas of purity and contamination, life and death, but which only scientifically trained experts or rational subjects (read historically white, Western men) are seen as fit to name, manage, and to set the terms of legitimate encounter.
Annie’s and Beth’s art and activism disrupts these dominant ideas. Sexual practices and identities do and should be allowed to take multiple, shifting forms over time as our needs for different kinds of intimacies change. Thus the transformation of Beth and Annie from queer to also ecosexual. Practices and identities are fluid. This is good, something to be open about and celebrated. Likewise, we are in nature. Nature is us. We have close intimate everyday relations with nonhumans, and they do not always accord with the dominant, heteronormative, scientistic view of things. Sex is both nature and culture, both instinct and art. As Annie told my surprised undergraduates at UC Berkeley this past spring when she passed around a flower in full bloom for them to smell: “You put your nose in to smell that flower’s sex organ. You just had sex with that flower.” The seemingly mundane can be revelatory.
As ecosexuals, Sprinkle and Stephens have married various entities of Earth, Sky, Moon, and Sea but they began by marrying each other. Part of their collaborative performance art has been over the past seven years to “orchestrate one or more interactive performance art weddings …then display the ephemera in art galleries.” Their wedding years each incorporate the colors and themes of the chakras. From 2005-2011, they did a red, orange, yellow, green (earth), blue (sky), purple (moon), and white (snow) wedding, one color for each year. Photos of their colorful, choreographed weddings involving lots of community participation can be viewed on their Web site, LoveArt Laboratory.
Yet another Web site features a photo of Sprinkle and Stephens tongue kissing tree bark. And another, the two of them kissing while placing their hands on a rock: “three way kiss with a rock hard rock,” Annie comments on her Facebook page. Giggle. They playfully talk about lying on their backs and gazing at clouds, “having cloudgasms,” or giving “grassalingus.” Now, I don’t get turned on by clouds, or tree bark, or rocks. (I once dead-ended into the tight, closed end of a tunnel inside a rock hard mountain while caving in Colorado and had the realization that this great, old being did not need me poking around inside its body.) On the other hand, some of my UC Berkeley students probably do get turned on by trees if they open up their minds to think about it that way.
But Beth and Annie’s work causes me to get theoretically excited. When I intensely start talking theory, Beth reminds me, “You know this is supposed to be fun, right? We don’t take it (ecosexual performance) too seriously.” Yet it is part of the art that is at the center of their lives. And if Annie and Beth’s agenda is to bring some light heartedness, joy, and fun to what they see as a sanctimonious and dour environmental movement that turns off potentially sympathetic folks, that is serious business, is it not? In my work, I want to diversify who does science, question the divide between science and traditional knowledge, question who gets to name the world and narrate its problems, and who gets to decide how best to solve them. Similarly, Beth and Annie want to diversify the environmental movement, its actors, discourses, and strategies for change. I also increasingly embrace laughter as a response to the absurdly hateful politics of our time. Laughter sustains me when anger wears me down and feels unproductive.
In a slightly different way than an academic strand of queer theory—queer ecologies—intends it, Beth and Annie are both queering the environmental movement and greening queer culture. Like ecosexual thinking, “queer ecologies” (see Mortimer-Sandilands’ and Erickson’s 2010 edited volume by that title) disrupts the nature/culture boundary and it seeks to undermine the heteronormative biases that inform environmental sciences and discourses. Heteronormative bias naturalizes heterosexual relations in nature while ignoring or making deviant queer or same sex relations. But for Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, queering doesn’t just mean bringing LGBTQI folks into the mix. Beth and Annie are also involved in activism against mountain top removal in Beth’s home state of West Virginia. Their film, still in production, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, foregrounds the lives disrupted and the work of resistance of a very diverse group of people in the West Virginia hills who fight this particularly violent treatment of the earth. The film spotlights oppositional local folks and transplants, people whose critical voices the state and coal mining companies render as marginal and therefore illegitimate. Legitimating marginal voices, queering discourses, is something Stephens and Sprinkle do in both their environmental activism and in Sprinkle’s sex worker activism.
Bringing Indigenous and Ecosexual Stories Carefully into Conversation
Sprinkle and Stephens, because of the artistic and sex positive feminist work that they do, emphasize what we think of as sexual relations when they talk about being intimate with trees, rocks, the sea, clouds, mountains. Their ideas of social relations are grounded in their specific historical and cultural backgrounds and detailed in their “herstories” on their SexEcology Web site:
Growing up in the mountains alongside the Kanawha River, the winter, spring, summer and fall nurtured this young ecosexual from the start. The fragrance of the mountains’ forests and waters permeated my every waking and sleeping moment. My body was tuned to the cycle of budding leaves turning to dark green fully unfurled then slowly dying in oranges, reds and yellows and finally cold winter browns dropping off to rot in the emptiness that reveals the naked mountains. Even in their nakedness the mountains were laced with rhododendron, mountain laurel, dogwood, redbuds, magnolias, wild azaleas, hickory, oak, sycamore and sassafras...Hunting salamanders for fish bait in the fresh water creek running down off the mountain and into Daniel Boone’s Bathtub, forming swirls underneath Suicide Rock, then passing below route 60, to empty into the slow, caramel green of the Kanawha, made for some of the dreamiest moments of my childhood.----Beth Stephens
When I knew that I was an ecosexual I was nine. My dad discovered Yosemite and he fell in love. In retrospect, my dad must have been an ecosexual too. Our family visited Yosemite several times a year. That’s when it started, between me, and the redwood trees. I liked them BIG. And they were HUGE! Big, round, hard, but soft, redwood trees. Gentle giants. I loved the scent of the trunk, like vanilla mixed with soil. I have a strong memory of coming across a redwood that had fallen over from a storm. I walked around and peeked at its freshly exposed roots. So soft, so sensuous, so sexy! I had to touch them.--Annie Sprinkle
Another example of an ecosexual experience offered by Annie in her Herstory involves not touching her desired—a “big, erect” saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert, but an exchange of sexual energy nonetheless. Annie explains: “There was no touching of the cactus for obvious reasons, but I swear, that cactus and I exchanged our sexual energies.” This is another playful example that stretches not only who we see our human selves as in intimate relationship with, but it stretches the “sexual” experience into one that transcends matter and physical stimulation. It disrupts that spirit/matter binary that is so locked into our modern scientistic view of the world, a binary that is not so prevalent in indigenous ontologies.
Which leads me to a disclaimer: There are occasional references in ecosex literature to Native American knowledges in ways that are what I would classify as “New Age,” and I would advise caution around the appropriation of Native American knowledges and motifs to the ecosexual ceremonial and artistic repertoire. In plain language: Be cautious when a person calls themself a “shaman” and charges money for their services. Medicine people tend to work within a gift economy. And like many U.S. Americans, I do not see that they are especially open to foregrounding the role of sexuality in their work. Or if you do hang out with the shaman type, you should know that they probably do not have much standing among the very indigenous peoples they identify with. There are no easy, literal translations between indigenous ontologies and ecosexuality, at least among the indigenous people I run with. Rather, there are careful conversations with much careful thought to be had.
That said, in the North American indigenous traditions I have encountered, humans speak of having social relations with nonhumans. Our stories sometimes feature what we today would call sexual relations between humans and nonhumans, thus creating, for example, hybrid human-bear persons. But those relations don’t seem to be cohered into something, i.e. “sexuality” as we know it in Western modernity. Close physical relations do not seem so severed in these stories from other types of social relations. Our traditional stories also portray nonhuman persons in ways that to not adhere to another meaningful modern category, the “animal.” Our stories are complex and not romantic. They feature relationships in which human and nonhuman persons, and nonhuman persons between themselves, harass and trick one another; save one another from injury or death; prey upon, kill, and sometimes eat one another; or collaborate with one another. Speaking as a Dakota, and as I read in stories now documented rather than passed down orally, our peoples avoided the hierarchical nature/culture and animal/human split that has done so much damage. In Dakota thinking, nonhuman persons were both worthy of becoming family and they were worthy adversaries. But our ancestors did not view themselves as the owners of nonhumans, nor as gods who could see, study, name, control, and save everything.
I teach my students to recognize those pervasive boundaries and hardened categories that structure our minds, our College of Natural Resources, and our world today—boundaries between nature and culture and all of the subset binaries within that: animal/human, black/white, woman/man, heterosexual/homosexual, traditional knowledge/science, or society/science. These binaries go hand-in-hand with hierarchy—with the notion that some humans are god-like, capable of gazing on the world from above, from outside of nature, of apprehending it in the one true, universal way. This view facilitated human domination of Earth. It is naïve for those of us in the natural and social sciences to think this same view can save the planet.
To return to Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, they may use ecosexual language and imagery that sounds to many of us like it is rooted only in San Francisco queer or New Age cultures. I hope I’ve shown you that their language also reflects a more expansive history—oops, herstory—than that. There are also foundational and shared principles in what they do and in more mainstream (if that’s possible) feminist and indigenous critiques of scientific and nature discourses. There is also a possibility for conversation with the ideas of my cultural forebears, and what I do in my scholarship and teaching as a 21st century Dakota and indigenous intellectual. This is what makes me a new ally to ecosexuality in the same way that I have long been an ally of queer people and their work.
This is my first venture into thinking through ecosexuality and the relationship of its underlying principles to indigenous thought and feminist science studies. This is an exercise which will perturb some and excite others to continue the conversation. It is a work in progress. I thank you for your patience, and I welcome the feedback of my fellow thinkers from the multiple fields in which I work, both inside and outside the academy.
ADDENDUM: JULY 19, 2012
During the two weeks that followed the original June 29, 2012 post above, an intense discussion occurred on the Facebook page of an indigenous studies scholarly association in which I am active. One person in particular took issue with the post, and focused his critique on Annie Sprinkle. The critic is a non-academic, a self-described Cherokee nationalist, not a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, but a citizen of that tribal nation. He is a spokesperson for the cause of protecting Cherokee identity from those who make claims to be Cherokee absent official citizenship or documentable genealogy. Over the course of two weeks he directed several charges at Annie, particularly related to ecosexuality and its potential overlap with New Age practices that, as noted in the original post, many Native Americans see as appropriating and misrepresenting our cultures and spiritualities. This is an important point that deserves further attention in the dialogue between non-indigenous ecosexuals and Native Americans. (We don’t really know whether some indigenous folks might also identify as “ecosexual.”) But it also became clear as the Facebook conversation unfolded that the Cherokee nationalist, himself gay identified, was critical of other non-heteronormative sexual practices. It also became clear, and he admitted, that he didn’t really read my blog post. The convergence of his particular critiques, which I will outline and respond to below (with help from Annie Sprinkle who kindly sent me e-mail responses that she has given me permission to quote from) is a good reflection of one particular response among the diverse and visceral kinds of responses that topics related to sexuality elicit in our society. As I write above, the relatively recent cultural coherence of disparate practices and physical characteristics into this thing called "sex" or "sexuality," like "nature," has produced dichotomies between what is considered civilized and less evolved or animalistic, and what is considered normal and good versus what is considered deviant and bad. Such category-making enables wholesale dismissal of Annie Sprinkle and her sexual politics by the Cherokee critic. In our broader society it enables violence against those who are deemed sexually deviant. Not previously having been a scholar of sexuality, I still recognize the similarity with the way binaries are created between what is nature and what is not nature, and the implicit assumptions that make a category subject to violence without conscience. I was a little unprepared, however, for the ire I incurred in writing about the connections as an intellectual exploration.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Cherokee nationalist was also deeply critical of academia and our practices. His charges were pretty standard fare. I/we are elitists who use inaccessible language. My response: Every field from genetics, to the law, to car mechanics, to medicine, to finance, to hairdressing and yes, even tribal enrollment, has its technical language that is not immediately accessible to novices. It takes work to talk to one another in a world of increasing specialization. This blog is for me, one way of engaging in that work. I wish the Cherokee nationalist had approached it in this way.
I should note that scholars who frequent the indigenous studies Facebook page weighed in on the conversation. Some of them also expressed concern over any New Age appropriation that could potentially occur in the ecosex community. But they also challenged the non-academic Cherokee nationalist on his language that eventually exhibited condemnation of certain women, lesbians, ecosexuals and others. We have nearly four hundred members on that page. Less than ten of us (all from the U.S. and Canada) engaged in this conversation. I do know others followed the conversation closely from private e-mails I received from them.
The Criticisms and Responses
1. False claims to Cherokee identity. The Cherokee nationalist's first charge was that Annie Sprinkle once claimed to be Cherokee. Her response to that charge was unequivocal: that she "never ever" said she was Cherokee, the charge is "erroneous." She offered that perhaps the Cherokee nationalist is thinking of someone else, perhaps Hyapatia Lee, another former porn star who publicly identifies as one-quarter Cherokee. Annie explains that she is of Jewish descent. Furthermore, I responded to the Cherokee nationalist that if a person falsely claims to be Cherokee due to the complex racial politics that lead too many Americans to claim Native American identity absent demonstrable genealogical or political links, I would reject that claim. But I would not wholesale discredit her contributions to a conversation about which she knows something.
2. Ecosex associations with New Age appropriators of Native American cultures? The second concern of the Cherokee nationalist was Annie Sprinkle's professional encounters with Harley SwiftDeer Reagan (HSR from here on out), who the Cherokee nationalist also accuses of identifying inappropriately as Cherokee, and of appropriating Native American cultural motifs through New Age practices. Indeed, HSR, I think it safe to say, from the view of most tribal citizens, seems a bit off. Many--not only the Cherokee nationalist--would characterize his claims as fraudulent. On his Web page, harley-swiftdeer-reagan.com, he seems to identify as "Metis," however, and not Cherokee. Perhaps he has changed his identification. The Cherokee Nation is known to officially challenge claimants to Cherokee identity who cannot prove that lineage. HSR currently writes that he is "a founder of the Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society." It is no less troublesome in its politics to claim to be Metis absent political affiliation with a Metis community. Like many people in our dominant racialized society, HSR seems to conflate the Metis category with a "mixed-blood" race category, having nowhere in sight the notion that Metis communities, as they exist in Canada for example, constitute peoples or nations. In addition, his Web page bio reflects a hodgepodge of cultural claims. To my eyes, he looks like a classic New Age appropriator of Native American cultural motifs.
HSR says nothing on his personal Web page about his work as a sex educator, which is the work through which Annie has engaged him. Annie writes: “I wrote about a workshop I did with Harley Swiftdeer, for Penthouse Magazine. Penthouse paid for my trip...and for the workshop. I wrote about many workshops and events for many sex magazines. I only did the one workshop with Harley. It was at that workshop that I learned the most important technique about sex of any ever…. the Fire breath Orgasm (he calls it that--although all sex positive cultures have some version of ecstatic breathing to energy orgasm). This said, the fact that I took one workshop with him and wrote about it didn't make me a disciple. Or even great 'supporter.' … I do know that Harley is very controversial. …He's teaching sexuality in very explicit ways… I don't know about the quality of his native teachings/rituals, but as a sex educator, he's pretty brave and powerful...His teaching of the fire breath orgasm changed my entire take on human sexuality. From being about the body, to being about energy flowing into and around and through the body.” Annie Sprinkle writes about HSR as a skilled sex educator. And she does have expertise in that area while most of us in indigenous studies do not. HSR's own shoring up of his authority with reference to tribal traditions should be for us the crux of the problem, rather than Sprinkle's engagement with his sexual teachings. Still a word of caution is in order.
Non-native people should be careful attributing Native American authenticity to folks when they have no basis for really judging that. (I see Sprinkle as being careful in this way in her conversation with us.) And ecosexual practitioners within that will want to be careful. The vast majority of people have very limited knowledge about indigenous histories and sovereignty. Highlighting those histories and authorities is a chief role of scholars in Native American and indigenous studies fields. Knowledge that indigenous peoples constitute nations and citizenries within our legal frameworks and not simply monolithic racial groups is lost on most people who believe we should be able to self identify however we choose. But citizenship is granted by tribal, Metis, and First Nations' governments. Beyond citizenship, tribal communities recognize their own, although not always with love. That’s “community.” A purely individual right or choice to self-identify as something is insufficient in our indigenous world. We're on heavily mined terrain here so we must be delicate in our steps. But let me say indelicately that HSR looks clearly to be a fraud on the tribal identity front. This was basically the critique of all of the indigenous studies scholars (not all of whom identify as indigenous by the way) and not only the Cherokee nationalist, in that Facebook conversation. I think it is safe to say that we in indigenous studies and out there in Indian Country would be happier if he'd drop the mystical Native American motifs in his teaching of sex techniques.
As for any personal charges that she is engaging herself in New Age appropriation, Annie Sprinkle explains that as far as religion goes, she was raised Unitarian. Today, she notes, she "can be partly agnostic" and also enjoys and believes in parts of all religions. She asks, "is this new age?” She further explains in a moving statement that "when AIDS hit like a huge tidal wave of death and illness and pain and I lost many friends and loved ones, I was searching for ways to cope and definitely explored lots of new age healing modalities. I also explored various cultures and how they coped and prevailed. I was very interested in "tantra". I would admit that I've been guilty of some appropriation. However, when I did so, before I was (slightly) more educated, I saw it not as appropriation, but as honoring of other cultures. …I'd be very interested in hearing your take on New Age. Always open to learning more and seeing things from different perspectives.”
That “honoring” inclination is something that we in indigenous studies have criticized in supporters of Native American sports team mascots who often assert that by clinging to characters such as the infamous "Chief Illiniwek" at the University of Illinois, they are honoring us. We in Indian Country tend to disagree. Given the few ecosexuals that I know, all of whom are also scholars and/or accomplished artists (ecosexuality involves performance) I trust that the response of those folks will be much less totalitarian and straightforwardly racist than has been the hyperbole of sports fans and mascot defenders. I hope that they will tell their fellow ecosexuals to exercise caution. This addendum, like the original blog post is my next move in this conversation with my friends Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle and with others. As Annie wrote to me in an email: "Humor and experimentation are a big part of our work...I look forward to talking more about these things. We are learning and growing. Our ecosexuality is relatively new for us. And these critiques are certainly thought provoking. I am not new to controversy however. I like to think of it as part of the fun. That's how I cope with the sex negativity all around in the culture that gets thrown at me. But I do learn from all critiques." Which leads to the third major charge directed at Annie Sprinkle and at ecosexuality by the Cherokee nationalist, that she/it is "repulsive."
3. The controversial politics of non-normative sexualities. After the Cherokee nationalist's first charges, I had expected our indigenous studies Facebook page conversation to stay close to the topics of Native American identity and New Age appropriations. But he eventually issued scathing commentary of non-normative sexual practices and identities, characterizing Annie Sprinkle and others like her (porn actresses and sex workers, I presume) as "nasty women" who have "repulsive lifestyles." He also issued a shocking charge, (I hesitate to quote extensively as I have not asked his permission), essentially that gay identity is marred by having deviant sexualities tied to it. So, being gay should not be considered deviant. I agree! But all/most (?) other non-heteronormative practices and identities should be considered deviant and perverse? He worries that the gay community becomes a haven for "every sexual dreg society has to offer...GLBTIIQLMFAO." And now we should add "E" to that already too multiple term? He also mentions that the problem began when lesbians refused the gay moniker. I and other indigenous studies scholars--indigenous and non-indigenous, queer and straight--argued against such characterizations. Such derisive name-calling seems out of step with both honest academic inquiry and productive activism. And it is certainly not in the spirit of rigorous analysis and conversation that we like to promote in our indigenous studies community.
I highlight our conversation on the indigenous studies Facebook page in order to call attention to the varied kinds and tones of responses that will occur in our society around such issues. I saw intolerance and fear; anger, both righteous and abusive; openness; critical questioning; and generosity. Unlike Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, I am an academic newcomer to controversies having to do with the "sex negativity" that prevails in our contemporary society. (On a personal level most of us are influenced by sex negativity.) The response to my initial post and the politics of sexuality and nature at play in ecosexuality featured there affirms my sense that it is important work to engage in multi-disciplinary ways, carefully yet assertively, and with tolerance whenever possible with "nature" and "sex" topics, and their underlying binaries of nature/culture, purity/contamination, and normative/deviant. Such ways of dividing up the world into essentialist notions of good and evil (rather than defining good and bad, for example, according to suffering) help produce both nature and sexuality as rigid categories that end up doing violence to both humans and nonhumans. On our indigenous studies Facebook page we saw just a taste of the verbal violence that can ensue.
(Please note that some of the comments to this post were posted before the addendum appeared on this page.)
L to R: H. Arai, M. Hakoda, M. Yamaguchi, K. TallBear, K. Kinase, and K. Ando
Through a UC Berkeley-Meiji University exchange program, I have had the honor this month of leading a seminar at Meiji's School of Political Science and Economics. On the first day of the seminar, “Indigenous & Feminist Approaches to Technoscience & Environment,” the students and I began by “situating” ourselves. The exercise accomplished the task of introducing us to one another, but it did more than that; it introduced students to a key body of theory in feminist science studies, one of my fields of expertise.
I take the term “situated” from feminist science studies scholar, Donna Haraway, and her seminal chapter, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In class that first day, Meiji students and I had a conversation—not easy given Haraway’s highly theoretical language, the students’ intermediate English, and my illiteracy (!) in Japanese—about “partial knowledges” and what it means to be not “biased,” but rather “situated” within particular historical and cultural streams. As feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding explains, as scholars we inquire from within our particular lives. We stand somewhere. The usual understanding of “objectivity” assumes that researchers or scientists can play God—that they can stand nowhere and everywhere at the same time—looking out at a world and naming it in some universal scientific language. The Meiji students and I combined theory with our personal stories to have a conversation about how we are all situated in specific ways in relation to our fields. As individual cultural beings, we come to ask particular research questions (or get interested in the disciplines and majors we do) and not others. We are attracted to certain methods and ethics and not others because of the lives we live and our histories. Thus the knowledge we produce will be partial. However, that does not mean that we cannot strive for objectivity. Indeed Harding and Haraway call us to strive for “strong objectivity,” or “feminist objectivity,” an objectivity that is not conflated with neutrality but one that is more rigorous than that by virtue of laying out and discussing how our different experiences shape what we see and how we see it. Feminists are critical of science that is dominated by men and by class-privileged European (American) cultural values. They advocate making room for a greater diversity of voices, experiences, and standpoints in science. If we diversify who does research, we stand a chance of capturing a broader array of hypotheses, and of developing new research methods and ethical frameworks. We will understand more, and work more effectively – thus the claim to strong objectivity. Science might also then become more “democratic,” meaning it might serve the interests and needs of a broader set of societal actors.
Whew! We had to get through all of that theory during our first meeting, and it was not easy. But Meiji students work hard. Their persistence was a call to me to work very hard, especially to speak more slowly and carefully. I am from the upper Midwest of the U.S. where we are famous for speaking quickly. (My students at the University of California, Berkeley also tell me that I speak too quickly.) I am also a professor who reaches for the most theoretical term on the shelf of words. It is easier. I need to think hard to find plainer English. But Meiji students and I struggled together to communicate across our language barriers. As we went around the room, each of seven students situated themselves as young scholars. Three women and four men, they explained their interests at Meiji University and how their particular experiences growing up conditioned their particular interests in economy, environment, and politics. Born during the 1980s, a decade of economic difficulties in Japan, a couple students spoke of becoming interested in economics. One of the women spoke of becoming interested in gender politics and analyses because of gender dynamics she had encountered in her own life.
I also situated myself. I am a Native American woman who was born in 1968, a year of political upheaval in the U.S. and worldwide. I was raised by my grandmothers and by my young mother who was also a college student in a small South Dakota university town. I was politicized at a young age by my mother and her student activist friends who protested against the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism and colonialism at home and overseas. Native American scholars were also important in my politicization. At the age of five I asked my mother, “What does it mean, Custer Died for Your Sins?” I referred to the title of Vine Deloria Jr.’s important 1969 collection of essays by that title. In that book, which I heard mentioned many times by my mother and her friends, Deloria, the most prominent 20th century Native American scholar, analyzed the role of policymakers, Christian churches, and academics in the colonization of Native Americans. In his darkly humorous essay, “Anthropologists and Other Friends,” he especially criticized the role of Anthropology as a discipline in the U.S. colonization of Native Americans. Yet despite understanding that universities were culpable in colonization, my mother also emphasized to me that a university education was the best route to a better life, to opportunities beyond the racism and poverty in South Dakota. One can perhaps see why I will publish a book next year about the colonial politics of biological anthropology and other genetic research on Native Americans. I was situated in a very particular way and found it quite easy to ask the research questions that I do. Not just anyone would think of these questions in the way that I think of them. That is because no one else stands exactly where I stand. And yet because of that, my vision is also partial. It is both open and limited in ways that are different from the visions of other scholars. That is why we need diverse persons and views to make the disciplines and the university more rigorous in its knowledge production. We need to also not be chauvinistic about our own disciplines. We need to find trusted intellectual allies across fields and work together to craft knowledge that is multidisciplinary in a way needed to solve problems in our multicultural world.
The feminist and indigenous (or Native American) scholars that I assign my students also help them re-think relations between humans and animals as “social relations,” thereby according more agency to nonhumans that shape and make our lives as humans possible. The human/animal split is a violent split in Western “ontologies” or knowledges. It is a split that implies hierarchy and that is used to justify not only the mistreatment of the Earth and destruction of the environment, but it is also a split used historically to de-humanize and oppress some humans. These ideas set the tone for our seminar at Meiji University. For their final paper, I assigned the students to write about a relationship that they have with a “nonhuman.” They could choose an animal or organism, but also any other nonhuman that scientists might not classify as “living.” The important thing is that the students should explain the “life force” or agency of that nonhuman in a convincing way. As the students read in class, some peoples, including indigenous peoples, understand stars, rocks, and spirits to be living beings in ways that Western science would reject.
I assign Berkeley students this same paper. Meiji students and UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources students both choose to write about nonhumans with which they interact regularly and to which they are ethically committed. But because they stand physically and culturally in very different places, students from the two schools choose some very different nonhumans about which to write. My Berkeley students often do environmental science and tend to be “outdoors” people. They often write about the trees, fish, wildlife, or particular ecosystems with which they work and to which they are committed. Likewise, Meiji students this year thought of paper topics that are so very situated in their particular lives and experiences in Tokyo. To me, their projects are surprising and fascinating. With their permission, I share a couple of insights from student papers based on conversations we’ve had in class. As I write this, their papers are not due until tomorrow.
A second year student, Masato Yamaguchi, is writing about his relationship with trains. As I understand him, trains are not simply mechanisms of convenience, not simply physical matter, a collection of materials and parts assembled into a useful technology. The train as a figure has been central to his life since before he can remember. His family tells him that when he was a baby he would instantly stop crying when a train passed by. He speaks also of the destruction caused by the tsunami at Sendai, and the desire of the people there to get the trains back on line as soon as possible. Masato indicated that like him, the people of Sendai were not only concerned about convenience, but the train’s role in everyday human practice. The sounds and feelings of its movement through geographic space are central to peoples’ very sense of a normal life and to inner well-being. The train he indicates has a life force of sorts. It is not only people who made the train but the train helps make a good and normal human life. His analysis is simply brilliant, and so different from what I read from Berkeley students, or what I hear in Native American communities. Of course, it took us some time to communicate these complex ideas across our language barrier, with my shortcomings being much more profound than those of my students who are working hard to learn English. (I should take a Japanese language class back in Berkeley!)
A fourth year student, Manami Hakoda turned her paper in early. Yes, early. She speaks and writes of her relationship with the English language and how she not only learns to wield English, using it and shaping it to her own ends, but how she is reconfigured as a different kind of person as she engages the English language. Manami writes of becoming more assertive and outgoing in English than she is in Japanese. English and the way it is spoken also causes her to gesture, to move her body more as she speaks it. She also writes of Japanese language being “softer” and more “polite.” She writes of the way in which language and culture construct one another, and the way in which an individual and a language also construct one another. Similarly to how Masato describes the train, Manami speaks of coming to see English as a living thing in and of itself and not simply as a tool for human use. She also takes a lesson from Sandra Harding about strong objectivity and writes of using both languages to be more intellectually rigorous in how one engages with the world. She values both languages for the different things they can see and do.
Kim with friend Jun Kamata: writer, professor, photographer
I learned much from Meiji students. Their insights reinforce in me the sense that a stronger, truer understanding of the world emerges when we listen to and value knowledge produced from within very specific experiences and situations, rather than trying to filter out our differences, hoping to find a “neutral” language. I look forward to reading the rest of their papers, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared the past few weeks with them. I hope they feel similarly. I would be proud if I could speak and write Japanese as well as my Meiji students speak and write English.
This piece was originally written for publication in the Seikei Forum of the School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University. It is posted here with permission.
is associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. I tweet about science, technology, environment, indigenous cultures, and governance @ http://twitter.com/KimTallBear. Reach me at email@example.com