I recently read: Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, eds. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997). What follows are my initial thoughts on this book, which I have written out in preparation for writing an article about the Cree two-spirit artist Kent Monkman (https://www.artsy.net/artist/kent-monkman-1).
This books resulted from two conferences held by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research dedicated to the issue of gender and sexuality in Native American and Indigenous First Nation populations. The editors acknowledge the originally unpublished manuscript of Beatrice Medicine (Standing Rock Lakota), “Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context” (1979) as a pivotal moment in the scholarship on this issue.
Though the title of the book presents “Two-Spirit People” as the primary matter of inquiry and investigation, the individual contributions never settle on a fixed definition for this key term. While the authorial identities of the contributors—some self-identified two-spirits, some Native anthropologists, and some non-Native anthropologists and ethnographers—ensures that consensus will never truly coalesce, there is a great deal of productivity churning within the dissensual voice emanating from the book as a whole. “Two-spirit” is not a static category, neither is it a label that gives itself over to felicitous translation to and from distinct indigenous languages.
The term two-spirit is, instead, delightfully asymmetrical and unstable. It is not, therefore, a conventional term within the realm of identity politics where identity markers seek to stabilize the identity of minority groups and/or oppressed peoples. It acts, instead, like a promise of sorts, one that calls specific male- and female-bodied indigenous peoples from a number of tribes together in order to obtain a kind of balance. Carry H. House (Navajo/Oneida) calls this a balancing of the male and female, female and male aspects of both individuals and the universe (225). Claire R. Ferrer sees the balance as a straddling between two ages serving the purpose of opening and closing what she calls a “chiasm.” For her, Bernard Second, a Mescalero Apache multigendered singer of ceremonies, opens and closes the chiasm in order to help others understand how the mythic present and lived present are truly the same (247). And yet, any homogenous understanding of the healthful effects of such acts acquires a kind of asymmetry when non-Native people such as myself try to zoom out and understand the two-spirit identity as a Pan-Indian phenomenon.
Sabine Lang writes the following: "Native American gay and lesbian communities all over the United States and Canada are made up of people from various tribes as well as those of mixed descent. Perhaps for that reason, the two-spirit identity seems to be basically pan-Indian; participants at two-spirit gatherings, for example, are united by common symbols and actions, mainly of Plains provenance, regardless of the participants’ specific tribal background" (112). As Medicine adds, however, "The use of 'two-spirit' as a Pan-Indian term is not intended to be translated from English to Native Languages, however. To do so changes the common meaning it has acquired by self-identified two-spirit Native Americans" (147).
Here, again, we run into what I keep referring to as the term’s asymmetrical relation. The identity “two-spirit” joins together a number of individuals from different tribes, thereby enacting a unification and manufacturing a kind of solidarity, and yet by translating the term “two-spirit” back into the distinct tribal languages of these newly unified individuals we end up entering back into a somewhat contentious heterogeneity. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas (Navajo), and Sabine Lang’s introduction clarifies this contentiousness by explaining that, "In some cultural contexts, translating it to a Native language could even be dangerous. For example, if 'two-spirit' were translated into one of the Athapaskan languages (such as Navajo or Apache) the word could be understood to mean that such a person possesses both a living and a dead spirit—not a desirable situation [...] If 'two-spirit' were translated into Shoshone, the literal translation would be 'ghost'" (3). In sum, this book presents “Two-Spirit” people as a disjunctively unified group, and it presents the enterprise of understanding two-spirit culture and belief as a deft undertaking requiring recourse to multiple native languages and epistemologies as well as to fraught historiographies drafted through Western modes of seeing and knowing.
Composed as it was in the early 1990s, this book decides first to plough through the historical ground composed by the word “berdache” that features so prominently in colonial narratives of, for example, men dressing as woman in Native groups between the 16th and 19th centuries. If there is one thing upon which all the contributors to this book agree, it is that the word “berdache” carries a harmful legacy of colonization and enforced homogeneity and should no longer be used by anyone to discuss any type of person. Even once that word is put aside, however, the thorniness of language and naming presents another obstacle.
Tucked within the name “two-spirit,” one finds the words Winkte (Lakota), Nádleeh (Navajo), Kwidó (Tewa), Tainna wa’ippe (Shoshone), Dubuds (Paiute), Lhamana (Zuni), Warharmi (Kamia), and Hwame (Mohave). Each of these words, in turn, leads to contested stories that require the employment of still more contested terms if those stories are to be translated into English for the benefit of Western-trained scholars. So as not to go astray, Western scholars need to adjust the philosophical frames that structures the appraisal of two-spirit stories and histories, as Carolyn Epple writes in her article about the Navajo nádleehi: "How then to define nádleehí? Presently, it would appear to be a nearly impossible task. Western epistemologies do not accommodate persons who are both herself and himself as well as everything else. Instead, we must adopt a different way of perceiving the universe, one that is processual, interconnected, and dynamic" (184). This non-Native perspective is balanced by Wesley Thomas’s observations that a fluid and processual understanding of identity hides beneath the colonizing activities of Christian missionaries who sought to “civilize” the Navajo. Beyond the binary male/female genders so crucial to the Christian morality system, researchers like Thomas find five gender categories, three of which rely on ontological nuances unlocked by the nádleeh, which, properly speaking, is more of a social role than a stable identity category. Even the word “gender” isn’t quite right because, as Farrer points out, “The Athapaskan languages, in which the Apachean languages and Navajo fall, are languages where there are no gender-specific pronouns and where gender is not coded in nouns either” (245). To enter the world of two-spirit scholarship requires a loose grip on the supposed certainties of analytical language as well as an open mind capable of rethinking the functionality of terms like “sexuality” and “gender,” which, upon first glance, seem so necessary in thinking about two-spirits.
What I find in these pages is a necessarily fragmented picture of two-spirit history and contemporary life, one that forces a confrontation with the language I use (and want to use) to identify both individuals and individual expressions. Two-Spirit artistic works, then, offer a tremendously complicated matter of study since the works themselves will surely contain as many asymmetrical and ever-shifting relationships as the word “two-spirit.” Preparing to write about the words of Kent Monkman, I will listen especially carefully to this thought on the term two-spirit from Terry Tafoya (Taos/Warm Springs): “[The term is] Not born but created and, once created for a specific purpose, [it gains] a life of its own, surpassing the intentions of its creator, and eventually providing something life-affirming and nurturing” (193). It is a word belonging to what Cindy Patton calls a “dissident vernacular” in which “meanings created by and in communities are upsetting to the dominant culture precisely because speaking in one’s own fashion is a means of resistance, a strengthening of the subculture that has created the new meaning’ (1990:148)” (cit. Tafoya 193-194).
Scholars of theatre and performance studies frequently wander into the neighboring disciplines of cultural anthropology and ethnography in order to locate primary source material about groups who fall outside of the “Western” subject position. As such, it is highly likely that theatre and performance studies scholars interested in two-spirit people will find this book. For those who do, I think it is important to allow for the disagreements of the individual contributions to ring out and the tension between first-person accounts from Native authors, on the one hand, and third-person accounts of academics, on the other hand, to open up productive spaces of philosophical inquiry.
[Originally posted at theater-historiography.org]
Say No to Know Nothingsby WILL DADDARIO on JULY 16TH, 2016
While reading The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, I found a footnote to the historic Know Nothing party of the mid-nineteenth century ensconced in a passage about the institutional history of U.S. slavery. The name of the party rang a bell in my memory, but I couldn’t come up with any particulars so I looked into it. After a few minutes of online research, I found myself wondering at the repetition of history, especially Marx’s (oft-cited) famous addendum, “…first as tragedy, then as farce.” Is not Donald Trump the new, more farcical version of John Bell who ran for president on the Know Nothing ticket in 1859, or, perhaps more accurately, the new Henry J. Gardner who became Massachusetts’s Know Nothing governor in 1854? What started off as a historical retracing of one trail of tears soon led to the recognition of another equally troubling road.
Several news outlets have posted articles and op-eds about the similarities between Trump, the current GOP, and the Know Nothings of the 1850s (see notes below and links/footnotes along the way). Such similarities include an overt racist-nationalist platform of exclusion, a party membership of mostly working class white men seeking personal economic improvement, and an honest (if not also ironic) embrace of ignorance (“I Know Nothing!”) as the party’s shibboleth. Indeed, the link between Trump and Gardner emerges from research into these similarities, specifically in the fact that, despite the party’s working class base, the eventual Massachusetts governor was a wool merchant who improved upon his already-considerable wealth thanks to his elite family’s connections. Like Trump, Gardner seemed to have had little in common with his constituents’ economic identities and needs.
My own addition to these publications comes in the form of a connection between Trump, the Know Nothings (past and present, official party members and merely like-minded), and that which Michel Foucault dubbed the “Ubus” of power. In the early lectures of the 1974-1975 academic year now published as Abnormal, Foucault links specific historical political leaders with the protagonist in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. What allows this link is Foucault’s observation of “the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited” (13). Nero and Hitler, for example, populate what Jana Sawicki calls this “tradition of vile and buffoonish sovereigns.” Hesitant to facilitate any overly simplistic connections between Trump and Hitler, thereby allowing dialogue and debate to dissolve into platitudes, I do support adding Trump to Foucault’s category of Ubu Rulers. We are witnessing not only the farcical (and, therefore, post-tragic) return of the Know Nothings today but also an index of the racist-nationalist conditions that allow such Ubus to take center stage in the U.S. theatre of politics.
Sawicki underscores a similar point in her speculation on the whereabouts of Ubu-power’s many residences: “Perhaps it also resides in a lack of critical reflection on the historical conditions in which such forms of authority arose.” Indeed, when Foucault, in his 1978 essay “What is Enlightenment?” ends by calling for a “critical ontology of ourselves,” which amounts to a historiography of the present, he is asking us all to refuse Ubu government:
The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.
The only chance we have of out-maneuvering the vile buffoonery of the persona known as “Trump” is to create a series of conditions that excoriates pride in ignorance, the likes of which we see not only in the mass of Trumpeteers but also in the belligerent leftist supporters who instigate violence at Trump rallies. As the perspicacious George Saunders has recently outlined in The New Yorker, the true damage of the current political fracas has become visible not as a divisive and sickeningly facile binary opposition between Right and Left ideologies but, rather, as a perpetuation of willful ignorance that keeps the U.S. electorate from participating in meaningful conversations dedicated to the nuanced weave of our country’s political fabric.
To my mind, the disaster that has given rise to the resurgence of Know-Nothing-ness is the evacuation of (yes, I’ll say it and mean it) critical thinking from the halls of Secondary and Higher Education. Given Foucault’s astute reference to Jarry’s theatricality, and my own predilection for performance theory and theatre historiography, I am confident that theatre education (both theory and practice) can thrive as a system capable of performing a critical ontology of ourselves, particularly through its recourse to the study of theatricality in everyday life and the performativity of language. Conversely, however, I am fearful that the ossification of theatre and performance studies in higher education, not to mention the almost complete absence of a fine-arts based critical vocabulary in primary and secondary education, can aid in the momentum of the Know Nothings. Without a self-reflexive and philosophical appraisal of the politics of representation, theatre can easily devolve into thoroughly commodified spectacle, and from there spectacle can be freed up to celebrate the Ubus of the world.
With the highly theatrical and absurd conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties coming up, I urge us to attend to the conditions that make specific statements possible, to the representational practices that manufacture instrumental visibility, and to the everyday silences that create moral vacuums.
From Encyclopedia Britannica online
“When Congress assembled on Dec. 3, 1855, 43 representatives were avowed members of the Know-Nothing party.”
“the American Party fell apart after 1856. Antislavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party, while Southern members flocked to the proslavery banner still held aloft by the Democratic Party. By 1859 the American Party’s strength was largely confined to the border states. In 1860 remnants of the Know-Nothings joined old-line Whigs to form the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president.”
From Ashefield Historical Society
“Although the Know-Nothing party or the American Party was a national political organization, it was strongest in Massachusetts. This party was based on nativistic beliefs and its members were native born male Protestants who were opposed to immigrants being able to vote or hold political office.”
“One of the most influential party members was Henry J. Gardner who was elected as the Commonwealth’s Governor in 1854. Most of the party’s members were from the working class and wished for many reforms that would affect their lives. Gardner, however, was a wealthy wool merchant and a member of the so-called Boston Brahmins (a small elite group of families who were extremely wealthy and well-educated).”
“Eric Heavner taught political science at Towson University for 10 years and now works for a Baltimore real estate developer.”
“Despite the years that separate Mr. Trump and the Know-Nothing Party, they have much in common. […] their message is virtually the same: Immigrants take away jobs from true Americans and threaten the American way of life. There are other similarities. The Know-Nothings’ were anti-Catholic. Mr. Trump is anti-Muslim. The know-Nothings believed only native-born Americans should be allowed to vote and hold public office. Mr. Trump played the native-born American card by questioning President Obama’s birthplace.”
From HuffPo’s “The GOP: The New Know Nothing Part?”
January 18, 2016
John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations, University of Texas, Austin
Conclusion: “When we look at the GOP of 2016, it seems very much as though we are witnessing a new version of the Know Nothings of the 1850s. One can only hope that this time it is equally short-lived.”
Will Daddario is a historiographer, philosopher, and teacher. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.