On Decolonizing Sexuality through Critical Polyamory
Kim TallBear is Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta, and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Environment. She is also a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellow. Dr. TallBear is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Building on her research on the role of technoscience in settler colonialism, TallBear examines the overlapping ideas of “sexuality” and “nature” in the colonization of Indigenous peoples. She is a regular commentator in US, Canadian, and UK media outlets on issues related to Indigenous peoples, science, technology and critical non-monogamy, and is a regular panelist on the weekly podcast, Media Indigena. She also is a co-producer of the sexy storytelling and burlesque show, Tipi Confessions. Dr. Tallbear is a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota and is also descended from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.
Dr. Tallbear’s bio
Non-monogamy and multi-amory
Settler and state sexuality
Dakota language and history
Reproduction, race, and class
Autoethnography & Critical Poly 100s
Lianne: I'm Lianne. Welcome to Strippers and Sages, a podcast that explores sex and eroticism through the lenses of art, culture, politics, spirituality and racial justice. Today it is a true honor to speak with Dr. Kim Tallbear, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Dr. Tallbear is also a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous peoples, technoscience, and environment, and a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation fellow. Dr. Tallbear is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Building on her own research on the role of technoscience and settler colonialism. Dr. Tallbear also studies the roles of the overlapping ideas of sexuality and nature, and the colonization of Indigenous peoples. She is a regular commentator in US, Canadian, and UK media outlets on issues related to Indigenous peoples, science, and technology, as well as critical non-monogamy. She is a regular panelist on the weekly podcast Media Indigena, and has been a guest on podcasts including All My Relations, Medicine for the Resistance, For the Wild Podcast, and Multi-Amory. Dr. Tallbear is a co-producer of the sexy storytelling and burlesque show Tipi Confessions. She is a citizen of the Sisseton Wapatone Oyate in South Dakota and is also descended from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. We will link to her research websites and her blog on critical polyamory.
And before I bring you Dr. Kim, I also just want to remind you that we are looking for participants in a new series we will be launching called Street Talks. If you like talking about sex as much as I do, please reach out to us. I would love to get into a juicy and salacious conversation with you.
To preface this interview, I just want to give a little bit of an introduction to some of the ideas that we're talking about by quoting Dr. Kim. I didn't get to read this in the interview itself, but I think that it really encapsulates beautifully the synthesis of the many ideas and disciplines that she is weaving together in her fantastic body of work. So Dr. Kim writes: “Just like nations have staked a sole sovereign claim to land, or male heads of household to their private acreage, in a compulsory monogamy society, it is the norm for one to stick a sole sovereign claim in a beloved's body, writing over all previous names, loves and relations that land and body have known.”
Dr. Tallbear, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It's truly an honor to have you on the show and to discuss your tremendous body of work.
Dr. Tallbear: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Lianne: So I'd love to just start by talking about how you found your way to critical polyamory as a pedagogy as well as an intellectual and sexual practice. What were the personal and the academic influences that steered you toward this body of work?
Dr. Tallbear: Well, I started personally practicing polyamory a few months after I started researching it. So because I'm a researcher, and I knew it would be a time-consuming and challenging life transition, I decided to read up on it first, you know, to make sure I understood what the politics were. And also because I'm a scholar who studies race and decolonization, a lot of what I had seen in polyamory communities in the Bay Area, when I was a monogamous married person, was that it looked, like, pretty white, you know, pretty middle or upper middle class. And even though I guess I'm middle class now, that's not my cultural background. And you know, and I thought, okay, that's not the kind of community I necessarily want to inhabit and build, but there's a lot that they're thinking about and doing around relationship practices that I think we could all think about. So that was really intriguing to me, but I knew they weren't necessarily my people, right? So I started reading all the relationship literature, which I think most of polyamory literature is. Both for practical guidance on, you know, communication and what agreements look like and things like that, because I was coming out of a 15-year marriage.
And that stuff was helpful, but I was really troubled by the political assumptions and the class and racial assumptions, the complete lack of critique of monogamy as part of a state structure, it was some vague notion that religion might be part of, you know, monogamy, compulsory monogamy, and things like that. So I took both positive things from that relationship literature, and began to build a critique before I even started doing it. And then when I started officially trying to pursue polyamory in January of 2013, I was already equipped with kind of an embryonic critique. And then I quickly started my blog because I thought, well, if I'm going to really do this, and it is so time-consuming to make such a life transition, right, and polyamorists talk about that. You might have infinite love, but you have limited time, so you need to make some choices, right? I thought, the only way I'm going to really be able to do this in a really thoughtful, purposeful way is to write about it and turn it into part of my work. So I did that almost from the beginning, but I blogged anonymously for the first few years. And it was really a nice back-and-forth between reflecting on what I was learning and thinking, beginning to gather literature in the field. So one of the first things I came upon was, I think it was a 2006 special Journal of Sexualities on polyamory, in which I first encountered Angela Willie's work. And she wrote the book on doing monogamy that was published a few years ago. So I got into some of that literature early on, and then went back and forth between that and the relationship literature, and then my own relationships, which sort of served as de facto field observations. But of course, I don't write about them that way. Because it would be a lot of anthropological work to get all of that consented. So I don't really do that. But, yeah.
Lianne: So certainly, I mean, coming from the Bay Area myself, I know what that culture is that you're speaking about. And that it, you know, it has this, this emphasis, you've even written about it, the usual definition of promiscuity as random and indiscriminate. So how, now that you've been deep in this inquiry, how can we strive to confront and critique a settler polyamory that focuses on this accumulation of partners, which has its own capitalist logic, instead of a critical cultivation of relationships with multiple partners, including non-human partners, as you also speak about? What are sort of the methodologies or the relationships that you've been cultivating in your community that veer away from that stereotype?
Dr. Tallbear: Well, it's interesting. So, do you mind expanding on… when you talk about an accumulation of partners, and that being a capitalist logic, can you say more about that?
Lianne: Yeah, you know, I think that when I think about critical relating that, there's... you speak also about de-fetishizing sex and de-centering it as well. And so I think some, you know, everyone has their own way into polyamory. But if you maybe examine the dating sites, there's a lot of like, “looking for the unicorn,” or it can become an accrual game, right? Or a numbers game where I'm looking for these partners, or it's like a consumption of, I'm consuming these sexual experiences.
Dr. Tallbear: Oh, okay. I'd be interested to know if there's people that have written about that, in particular, I'd love to read it, because I haven't actually made that critique, but my Marxism is really rudimentary. Yeah. So... but I think that's really interesting. You're right. And that's exactly what I'm not interested in, you know, I mean, and part of that could be my age, as well. I mean, I was 40. Let's see, I'm 52 now, so I guess in 2013, what, I was 45, or something, you know? I was not in, I was just in a different world, I had already settled into, even after being married for so long, and finding that monogamous marriage didn't work for me, I'm still old enough to know myself well enough to say, I want some sustained long-term connections, because I got a lot of other stuff to do, right. I can't be just dating around, and also when you get older, I mean, I hate to say it, but it's kind of true, because I live even though I'm very non-mainstream in my politics, I'm very lefty,I look mainstream on the outside. And I kind of go for people like that, because I come from a kind of small-town, conservative background. And everybody my age that is somebody I'd be attracted to, they've been married for a long time. So it's... how did I get to that? Yeah, so it's not like the, it's not like the polyamory dating sites that all the young cool hip people... I'm not like in that crowd. That's not my thing, you know. But definitely,I knew right away, that was not going to work for me. That is not what I'm interested in, I'm not interested in those people, even when they seem interested in me, I don't get it. So I think it... I really quickly jumped to the kind of relationality stuff, right? Because that's also what I write about in terms of my genetics. And I figured this out recently, I just wrote a new paper talking, comparing the relational politics of genetic ancestry testing and DNA research, which, the politics of DNA research, which my first book was on, to the concepts of relating in critical polyamory, and I thought those two were completely different projects, but it turns out in both of them, I'm critiquing settler notions of relating. And in the first instance, I'm critiquing settler notions of genetic kinship becoming hegemonic, you know, and displacing Indigenous notions of kinship. And in the second body of work and in my life, I'm critiquing settler notions of both monogamy and non-monogamy. Right? And settler notions of non-monogamy and monogamy probably get at some of what you just referred to, right, which is this kind of politics of consumption, right?
And so I'm probably not going to fully answer your question, I'll skip ahead to the relation stuff. Because I study relationality and Indigenous relational frameworks, it became clear to me that my politics of romantic relations were also entangled with my politics of relating with the planet. And that's then what I also began to write about. And that led me to also think with my friend David Shorter at UCLA about disaggregating sexuality, the object of sexuality, back into relations. That's something that he talks about. So my relationships, my life, living in Austin, Texas at the time, relating to all of the things around me in that city, and that landscape, and the literature on sexuality and polyamory, we're all kind of cross-fertilizing one another.
Lianne: Well, there's so much you just touched on that I want to unpack with you. I mean, first, I'd love for you to expand on some of the themes that you uncovered when you thought that you you had these two different disciplines that you were working on in terms of the DNA testing, and settler sexuality. Well, I’ll let you start there.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah. So the first thing, and I think the title of that chapter, which is coming out in a critical Indigenous Studies volume on Routledge press is called “‘Identity’ is a poor substitute for relations.” Identity in quotes, right? And then it's something like Critical Polyamory, Genetic Ancestry, blah, blah, blah. It's a long, boring title. But what I'm thinking,,, what I came to understand was this notion of identity as it is talked about in relationship to genetics and genetic testing, and this notion of identity that gets talked about in relationship to non-monogamy have similar kinds of problems. So, like polyamory, you know, there's a there's been a debate, is, are we polyamorous by nature? Is it social? It's not a choice, I feel like this is... it's a similar kind of argument that happens with sexual orientation, right? What are the entanglements of the biological versus the social. And it's a big debate that we have, people who think about these things. And I don't want polyamory or non-monogamy necessarily to calcify into an identity. And I write about this in relationship to sexuality top, why does the sexual orientation need to calcify into an identity? Now, I'm not one of the leading scholars in this area yet. So I'm doing some sort of experimental thinking around this. Recognizing that we need to make these hard identity claims in order to fight for rights, correct. I mean, I'm not saying we shouldn't there are strategic reasons to make those claims, because the rights of people who are not heterosexual, who are not willing to live according to a gender binary, you know, they're violated all of the time, and people's lives are made really difficult. But if we could think about relating, right, in this kind of dynamic way. How do we relate? And that may change over the course of our life. With whom do we relate, and how do we relate with them, may change over the course of our life. And I like to think about those practices, which allows for dynamism and change, versus calcifying our practices into an identity claim. And so I don't want to necessarily, I'm not invested in this idea that to be polyamorous is some sort of natural biological inclination. It doesn't really, that's not what I'm invested in, right. But I am invested in making space for people to relate in a variety of ways because compulsory monogamy, compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory marriage, this is crushing people's souls, and it's actually violence and committing violence in their lives. Right? And so, did I answer that question?
Lianne: Yeah, you know, that it's really a conversation.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, yeah.
Lianne: Um, I mean, I think this idea of compulsory monogamy is one I really want to underscore because I don't think that of course, the dominant culture doesn't think about it this way. And in the way that, well, queerness is just the alternative to the established, like, “normie” sexuality, or polyamory is just the aberration, right? That I think is what also becomes problematic about these identities is that it so often privileges one identity as the standard and others as the default.
Dr. Tallbear: Right, I was just saying, and I've been saying this lately, queer in relationship to what? So I was in an Indigenous queer theory panel and Two-Spirit panel, and people kept throwing the word queer around, and I looked at my friend, who also studies indigenous sexualities, and we both went, “Queer in relationship to what?” You know, a Hawaiian kind of practice of sexuality, same-sex practices, that wasn't queer. That was a norm. Right? So yeah, yeah.
Lianne: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you write in terms also of this expansive idea of polyamory, right? “In my Indigenous and Dakota traditions, polyamorous political multiplicity is not only about human relations, it's an ethic that also focuses on multiple relations with place and values, the hard work of relating to and translating among different knowledges.” So can you talk more about this expansive view of polyamory as it extends to the nonhuman? And how does this idea of polyamorous multiplicity deepen or complicate traditional Indigenous perspectives on our relationship to the land? And what are the ecological implications of that for us as a culture? Were we able to embrace it? Us as a culture a little bit?
Dr. Tallbear: Oh, you mean non-Indigenous people?
Lianne: Yeah. No, I was actually rescinding that statement because I —
Dr. Tallbear: Oh, okay. So let's, we can talk about the first thing, and then maybe you can remind me what the other part of the question are. So how do I think about polyamory in relationship to other kinds of multiple relating that are not romantic or sexual?
Lianne: Yeah, just thinking about that view that you have in terms of multi-species relating, or relationship to earth.
Dr. Tallbear: I don't know. Gosh, to me, it seems so natural to relate multiply now that it's hard for me to think about that “aha” moment that I first had. I mean, I think a lot of what I've been doing, what polyamory has taught me in the way that I practice it and think about it, is it — and other people talk about this, particularly relationship anarchists, which I actually think relationship anarchy is probably closer to the type of relating I'm thinking about, than mainstream polyamory, if there is such a mainstream — this idea, not only should we allow for dynamism in terms of who and how we have sex, and the kinds of identities that might produce over time and space, but also even within particular relationships. You know, I'm trying to get away from finiteness, from hard categories. This idea that there is a blossoming of a relationship, and then a solidification of it in the form of marriage or commitment, or there's a breakup, and it's over, and it's failed. I like to think more about the, you know, the transitions in the way that two or more people relate. So when I left Austin, Texas, I didn't break up with a couple of the people that I was seeing. I'm still in relationship with them. Now I don't see them every day, because I don't live there, and our relationships might have evolved into something less sexual, rights? But that could just be because we're not close together right now, or it could be because they would have evolved that way anyway. I still call them sweeties, right? I still call them... I mean, you struggle to find language for this, right? But I would also call my sweetie, who I have a relationship with there, I would call his wife a sweetie too, even though she's not a romantic partner. Because I love her so much. You know, my love for her might be slightly different than my love for him. But so I'm, we struggle, or I do, and I think a lot of us do, struggle to find language to capture the dynamism of the way that two or more people relate over the course of time and space. And that's what I'm struggling to articulate. And then you begin to see how it's really easy to go from human to nonhuman. I I love the landscape of Austin, Texas. I loved the little green lizard that lived in my backyard. I loved having the bats fly over every night. I love the smell after a really hard rain. I'm a thunderstorm and river and sky person, I lived right next to a river there. You know I live next to a river now, I get up and every morning, this is my, this is my rock. The river is my rock. Not a nesting partner, I don't have one. The river is my rock and it's always there, right? I don't know, did I..?
Lianne: Yeah, um, you know, you've also spoken, I think you were expanding upon Audre Lorde’s idea of the erotic, and that's been a jumping-off point for this podcast as well, where again, it's our relationality, I think, is what you're getting. And it's what makes us feel connected to, and that what we feel connected to is, of course it goes beyond the nonhuman. It's actually such a right and obvious concept if you think about it.
Dr. Tallbear: And I think this leaves space, too, I have so enjoyed when I've gone to, say, ConvergeCon, or Solo PolyCon, meeting asexual polyamorists because they really get and demonstrate relationality in a way that just defetishizes sex. It's not that they never have sex, but it's just not at the center of what they pursue in relating, right? And so you'll have romantic asexual polyamorists, you'll have aromantic polyamorous who really like to relate through sex, but they don't have a romantic kind of heart, and I just, I love people like that. Because even though we're working through these categories, and like, why do we have to, but we do, because what they're doing is nonnormative, right? But I, there are so many people out there who even though I might say I'm using Indigenous relational frameworks, there are plenty of non-Indigenous people that are already living in ways where they're trying to decolonize from what we call settler sexuality, even though they may not have had that term. And I, when I meet non-Indigenous people, which most of them are at these kinds of conferences, they are trying to do decolonial work, they just don't always think about what they're doing as against the state. I think a lot of more radical queer people do. Angela Willie, who wrote Undoing Monogamy, said “to be queer is to be against the state.” I'm like, yeah, but not everybody thinks about it as that definition, right?
Lianne: Totally, totally. Well, that's a good segue, you know, I'd love to read Scott Morgensen's definition of settler sexuality, and then maybe have you unpack it for us, because it's a mouthful. And we can get into that history that we're talking about. So he defines it as “a white national hetero- and homo-normativity that regulates Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler subjects. And his abridged version would be, it's essentially the heteropatriarchal and sexual modernity, exemplary of white settler civilization. So, help us understand this idea, and especially, I'd love you to comment on the sexual modernity part, because I think that there's a history there that that points to, of course, which is to say that monogamy, which is now the status quo, really became the status quo at a particular moment in this nation’s shaping.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, there are multiple scholars, if people are so inclined to read on this, Scott Morgensen is an anthropologist at Queen's University in Ontario. And he's got a book called The Spaces Between Us, and he's also got some articles where he, for example, in his book has a chapter on the Radical Fairies in Oregon and California, and he looks at different gay communities or queer communities, and the work that they do that is in part, I mean, is in part radical, but it's also in part kind of scripted by their desire to either uphold or reform the state. It's scripted by histories of settler colonialism, the theft of Indigenous land, Indigenous eraser. So he's really good about looking at the rise of both normative and non-normative sexualities within the settler colonial state of the US, and how that's entangled with state-making, right? So it's... so yes, we might have natural inclinations to relate in a certain way. But the ways in which we have romantic or sexual relationships, room for that is made within an ongoing narrative about the state. I don't know how to put that more simply, I'd have to give you an example. I think when he's talking about the Radical Fairies, for example, so men leaving these urban areas to go back to the land, you know, to try to find some kind of queer mode of life in the country. He's like, well, what makes that possible? The theft of Indigenous land, the emptying of this land of indigenous people, right? And so then people aren't even thinking about that. And then those narratives of the vanishing Indian, the vanishing Native, allow those same queer subjects to appropriate these kinds of representations of Indigeneity to help themselves belong to the land. And you can have sympathy in part for what they're doing because they're pushing back against a severely oppressive heteronormative culture. On the other hand, in order to build their own alternative way of living and their own space, they are also relying on cultural and actual appropriation of land. And so he has this really rich chapter on that. And that's in part what he's talking about when he's talking about pushing back against settler sexuality. There have also been a couple of feminist historians who have looked at, Sarah Carter in Canada and Nancy Cod in the US, who have looked at the role of compulsory monogamy in building the US and Canada, and the imposition of monogamy not only on Indigenous peoples, but all other kinds of cultures that were immigrating to the US. So also on people from certain parts of Asia or Africa, Mormons, you know, and the role that that played in controlling women, controlling children, and controlling land, and facilitating the inheritance of property according to a heteropatriarchal system. There's also Angela Willie, who I mentioned, who has some really great chapters on the history of sexology to get to the science part. And so at the turn of the 20th century, or the late 19th century, you've got sexologists, especially in Europe, where they're going through this transition from arranged marriage to love marriage, and they're advocating that love marriage is a sign of a more evolved people. So that's a very classist and racist argument that's happening among sexological scientists at the turn of the 20th century where they're promoting love marriages. They're portraying arranged marriages as backwards, which in a sense, is helping dismantle the extended family. Foucault’s written about how homosexuality becomes an object or an idea before heterosexuality, and the rise of the state after the fall of the monarchies, they're trying to control the population. Well, without the king, one of the ways the state controls the population is through these kinds of techniques of management, right? The imposition of new norms, of what's normal, right? How should we live? What's a more evolved citizen supposed to do? So there's all kinds of scholars you can read to look at the different aspects of how monogamy becomes the norm, how heterosexuality becomes the norm, when in many places across time and space, humans have been relating in much more multiple ways, right? Not only Indigenous people.
Lianne: Yeah, absolutely. And this is going to be a very rich resources page, from this interview. We’ll link to everything that you just mentioned. So can you elaborate a little bit on what Indigenous relational models look like in your own Dakota lineage prior to this particular moment of colonization in the 19th century?
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, I can. And there is some interesting scholarship on that too. But some of it’s really compromised, like some of what we have are old anthropological accounts, right? And, you know, there's a lot of, there are Indigenous Studies scholars who have critiqued the way that anthropology looked at Indigenous sexual practices and family practices, it's always through that colonial lens, right? So we need to go back and look at the archive with a grain of salt, but it's still helpful to us, right? Because missionaries in the States, you know, outlawed non-monogamy. I mean, they actively outlawed it. They actively, of course, suppressed same-sex practices. So we have, in a sense, lost, I think, some of the knowledge about our ancestors’ kinship and sexual practices, because we were so, or they were so brutally suppressed by the church, right? Because different church denominations were given like, different tribes and areas to go in and missionise, right, by the state. So. But Catherine Denile has a book on, I think it's called Marriage in Dakota and Ojibwe country, I can give you the reference later, where she talks a little bit about the kinds of non-monogamous marriages, country marriages, and then more formal marriages that were happening between Indigenous people and settlers. So there was this kind of, and then among Indigenous people as well, there were much, there was marriage and divorce, I guess, as you can translate it, but it's... among our people, it seemed to be a bit more flexible. We also know that men in our community had multiple wives, but it's not always clear that all those relationships were sexual. So I suspect, and there's some evidence to this that, you know, we talk a lot now in polyamorous communities about why do we have to be living with the same — or maybe relationship anarchists talk about this more — why must we live in nest with the same person whom we have children with? Whom we share bank accounts with? Who we have sex with? Why do all those things have to go together? Can we not disaggregate those ways of relating? It's very, very rigid and oppressive to think you need to find the one person and do all of those things with them, when you may be compatible for a couple of those things, but not all of those things. Right? And so taking that lesson and thinking about my ancestors, it seems like there was a bit more picking and choosing of what went together. So we had a tradition of if a man's wife’s sister lost her, her spouse, her husband, you know, her co-parent, whatever, totally, not totally appropriate term we want to take now to death, that he could take her on as another wife. Now, did they have sex? Who knows? Maybe not, you know, but it was taking on, it was taking her and her children on, right, as part of the extended family. Divorce was flexible, as far as we know. So there were also punishments for adultery, I guess it's really hard to talk about these things, because we're speaking in English. There's not a one-to-one translation. So this is what I want to do in my next book, too. I want to go back through these problematic archives. And look at what some of those practices were. But in short, they were quite a bit more flexible as far as we can tell. Yeah.
Lianne: Can you talk a little bit more about the history in terms of how marriage became a tool for the accrual of private property? I know that there were like, for men as households qualifying for a certain acreage and why, again, yeah.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, for Native people in the US and Canada, so you had these homestead acts, right? So you had, once the land was emptied of Native people, once they were relocated, once there'd been massacres, starvation, epidemic and pandemics, which there were, and the land was more empty, then that was when the federal governments came in and said, Okay, we're going to give a certain amount of acreage away to new homesteaders, you know, either new immigrants or people moving from other places in the country. And you get a certain amount of acreage if you're the head of household, which is always a man, a woman could never be a head of household. You'd get a certain amount of acreage for a wife, well, right there, they're promoting marriage, right? And they're promoting heterosexual unions, you get a certain amount of acreage for each additional child. So there's a real promotion of the heterosexual nuclear family and state sanctioned marriage. So this is, and then this happened that one, they would not only give land to non-Indigenous people, to settlers, they would also give it to Indigenous people, as a way to getting them to assimilate into the heterosexual nuclear family. Well, what do you do when you have plural marriage? Well, you need to give up all those other wives. So you're supposed to just cut out the rest of your family. Right? But you need land, right. And there were some other kinds of amenities that went along with that. This is also the imposition of private property, a man wills his property to his sons, right? And you can see where in this kind of tying of marriage and family to land inheritance, the women and children become property in a sense as well. Because they're, they're valuable, right, they're valuable. They help you get land and resources.
Lianne: Right. Yeah, I mean, and I think with that history is where, why we can understand, when we say how monogamy continues to be compulsory today that we're not untethered from that, and it's still how our society is completely operating.
Dr. Tallbear: Well, there are so, I mean, there are so many incentives. I was talking to a relative yesterday who's getting married and, and I was, you know, like, every time any of my friends or relatives get married, I wish people all the happiness in the world. I just don't know why marriage… I don't actually think that long-term marriage provides us much happiness like, but whatever. But they were saying, Well, you know, we're gonna get like less, we're gonna pay less taxes, I'm going to get this, this, and this benefit. I'm like, exactly, exactly! This is what the state wants, you know, they tie all of these benefits to marriage. Why doesn't everybody... this is, especially in the United States, right? In Canada, we have more universal health care. But in the US, like, how do you get health care? You either get it through your job, or you get it through your spouse, and it just promotes marriage, you know, really promotes marriage.
Lianne: And I can see how it's a vestige of a system… in what way is it still serving the state for monogamy and marriage to become so incentivized?
Dr. Tallbear: Who was I reading that was really talking about… and this would go back to, I can't remember who I was reading now, because I'm on a polyamory, a non-monogamist researchers listserv. So who knows? I think. So I'm just going to have to think through this a bit. I know somebody has written about the fact that if we are spending more time building relations, acting on our desires, none of this is good for capitalism, right? I'm sure somebody has written on this. And I just can't remember because this isn't really my area. But you know, it's better for capitalism that we are in these kinds of really structured nuclear family and marriage relationships where we're thinking about being productive, right? Versus out there consorting in these kind of multiple ways. It takes a lot of time, too, to be polyamorous. And I'm sure there's polyamory researchers that have looked at that. Because there is some anecdotal evidence in the polyamory relationship literature that kind of maps on to what I've seen in my own personal life. A lot of polyamorous people are actually people who spend more time thinking through communication processes, relationship-building processes, and seem less career-focused, you know, less money driven. I think that's really interesting, right? Because all it, as I said, and all of these and we always say this in polyamory communities, this takes so much time. Well, the more time you're spending on relationship-building and communicating, the less time you're spending working for the man, right? Building as well.
Lianne: Yeah, I mean, I think the nuclear family is a very weak entity as well. And so I think that plays into state power, and I've just been watching… here we are in this pandemic, where, you know, I think so much of this has risen to the surface when we're all quarantined. Or if you're single, then you're totally in this isolated bubble, if you don't have these systems, and how much more... and then we're looking at our upcoming election and just, when I look at who has the energy to be putting towards that as well, like it's, as you're saying, you either have the energy to be putting towards polyamory or your job, or you also have the energy to put towards overthrowing the state or your job. And so I think that why we see these, these more radical communities experimenting with the relationships that they're also thinking... And that the working for the man also has this individualism behind it as well it goes into your own survival, your small nuclear bubble. And like, that's who I have to protect and yes, I would like, yes I believe in these other systems but I don't have the time or the energy and I have to take care of only these few people in my life. And so those are my priorities. And so..
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, my friend Kami Chisholm is always talking about this, do you know Kami’s work?
Lianne: No, I don't.
Dr. Tallbear: Oh, Kami also, Kami’s also went to History of Consciousness. She's a filmmaker who lives in Toronto now, but has a film called Pride Denied. And is making a new film about citizenship and the kind of violence I think of citizenship and national borders. But it's often talking about this kind of stuff. Yeah.
Lianne: On a related note, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts recently became one of the first cities to recognize polyamorous relationships. And so as we're talking about how the nuclear family is serving the status quo in the state, can you help us envision what the widespread systemic implications might be were such an ordinance adopted on a national level? Like if we get to really imagine, what is the restructuring?
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, I had some critiques of that though, because I know I was reading the ordinance and we were discussing it on my non-monogamous researcher listserv. I think they require only one, two of the people in a like, multiple relationship can actually be married. There's, there's still a privileging of marriage. And there's still couple privileging in that right. But of course, it's still great. Like, there's a lot they’re trying to do. Yeah, but it's really hard. I think. So already, people are looking at the ways in which it's maybe more in the mode of marriage equality, it's doing a little bit, but it's still ultimately reinforcing the kinds of dominance structures we're really trying to push up against. But your question was, if that was implemented in a widespread way, then what?
Lianne: Yeah, well, or just if we were able to dismantle the structural hegemony of monogamy, what might the restructuring of society look like? What are some of the places where these systems can be remade that we might know? Right?
Dr. Tallbear: Right away, we either have to have marriage among as many people want to be married or no marriage. I mean, right, you know, right away, because one of the chief problems that's gonna come out of this is the fact that only two people can be married no matter what their sex is. So I think that's one of the first things. Also healthcare stuff. And so this is also why people are getting marriage or commitment ceremonies in the states that allow that, right, is that they need healthcare. I mean, we need universal health care. And when we don't have universal health care, when it's tied to jobs, and it's tied to marriage, you're barely going to be able to tweak those systems.
Lianne: Right. It's all about the privatization is what we're talking about. So that if you can extend your kin network, which I want to talk about what that means more, yeah, I think that point that you have been making of just how the state is set up, when we don't have the social fabrics or the universal health care in place to support individuals, then that also kind of strong-arms us into these, these partnerships. And so part of perhaps making space for reimagining relationality between people will require like more of a social network and a state network that is supporting basic human needs. So that it's not, it's not just about survival that you're not mating to survive.
Dr. Tallbear: Mmhmm.
Lianne: Um, you've spoken about language before. And of course, you know, we're using English, the colonizing language, that is limiting in so many ways. And so I'm curious if there is any Dakota language that you would share with us that has a more expansive view about some of the ideas that we're talking about.
Dr. Tallbear: So this is some of the research I need to do. I've been taught, because I didn't grow up speaking the language. We started language revival — I grew up hearing it. So my great-grandparents’ generation, and my great grandmother raised me, were the last generation to really speak it and they were born in the, around 1900. My grandmother's generation, so born in the ‘20s, and my mother born in the ‘40s, they were all in residential school where the language was not allowed. And so then you get to my generation where we're no longer in residential school, but the two generations before us had the language taken from them. And so when I was a teenager, we started tribal schools and language nests and language revitalization. So now 30, 40 years later, you have young people learning the language in school. So we're in this moment of incredible language revitalization. And I was on Facebook, because all of Indian country's on Facebook, and I was talking to some young Dakota language learners, people that are really into it. And there's a really vibrant program at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, a lot of the tribal colleges have Dakota, Lakota language programs. And we were talking about this, the need to have some kind of conversation and language group around terms around sexuality, because that's the other thing, a lot of our grandparents and great-grandparents even though they might have been speakers or their parents were... Sexuality was so repressed, that they're not comfortable. And I've seen that up here as well, among Cree speakers, they're not... the older, fluent people are not necessarily comfortable speaking about these things, right? So that's one of the projects, I think. And I think that would be really, and I've brought this up, too, with Cree language speakers up here, and Dakota language speakers, and some of the some of the more conservative, and they're lovely, because they're just, they have this such a wealth of knowledge about the language and the worldview, but they're like, I don't really want to talk about sex.
Dr. Tallbear: And so that's one of the projects.
Lianne: That's a great project. Well, tell us a little bit more about your personal upbringing. And if sex wasn't spoken about, at least what sort of kinship structures you grew up with and how they influenced…
Dr. Tallbear: Well, I mean, if it was spoken about, it would be whispered. And that is also... I remember my great-grandmother. She was Metis and Cree, she came from Saskatchewan and then married my Dakota great-grandfather. There's a… and I can't even say it because it was like, it was like the c-word, right? Like, that's how she said it. And it was a Native word. I knew that. And then she went, when she was talking about your vagina, she would use this word. And I've since heard it up here. And I'm like, I knew that one’s from up here. And she'd whisper it, or they would whisper or speak the language if they wanted to talk about something dirty, quote, unquote, that the kids weren't supposed to hear. So in fact, I do think some of this stuff survives, but it's in that kind of moment. Right? And so can you reclaim it? So yeah, I was raised by my great-grandmother, for, until I was 11. My mom was, I lived a little bit with my mom, but she was often in Minneapolis working on urban Native projects. She was a planner and a grant-writer, and I preferred living on the reservation with my great-grandmother, I just, I liked living with her. It was a quiet, safe, you know, nurturing environment. My mom was always working. And then I was also raised with my grandmother, I moved across town when I was a teenager because my great grandmother had such a tiny house. I had to sleep with her every night, which I didn't mind but when you're a teenager, you want your own space, right? So I moved across town to my grandma's house, where I got a bedroom, and then finally moved with my mom the last few years of high school. But I always was going between grandma, mom, and great-grandma, you know, the women in my family raised the children. My dad was never around that much. And in my hometown, my grandmother's, 10 of her 11 grandchildren lived in that town, except my mom was the only one. Almost all of her great-grandchildren were there, we had a huge extended family and people would just come over, walk into grandma's house, not knock, you know, because her door’s always open. And my uncle would come for lunch every day when he, you know, take lunch off, you know, from work. And it was just, it was nice. That was nice. We didn't have a ton of money. And there was a lot of racism because in any reservation border town, it's a white-Native town. White people control the banks, the farms, the schools, all the businesses. But there was such a huge social support there. Like, my grandma never drove her whole life. But she had enough children and grandchildren around to run all her errands for her, it was not a problem that she never learned how to drive. Right? You know, when she would lend money to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And there was a real circulation of resources. It's not, it wasn't all like, we all got along all the time. Of course, you know, any extended family has its negative dynamics too. But it was despite, I think, being a little bit poor. And there, it being a lot of racism there. It was still a, also a nurturing environment where I learned a lot of oral history and a lot about our history. And, yeah.
Lianne: You can see how being raised in a network like that would also lay a foundation for how you choose to relate now, in your romantic…
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, and how I raised my child, too. I think, you know, people either didn't get married, or they’d get married and get divorced. It was, I mean, there was the intention to marry, and the more middle-class, aspiring to be middle-class people in our family had white weddings, but that was like, what the, you know, white people would often say to you, “Oh, you're not like those other Indians.” You know, you're, and I would hear that, or, you know, I mean, so the ideal was, you have the white wedding, you're monogamous. Stop being dysfunctional, but really, our system really worked, you know, and so we both, I think, have the lived experience of it working, and yet we are still stigmatized by whites and sometimes stigmatize ourselves. And this is why I'm open about this stuff. I want us to stop stigmatizing the ways that we live in extended relation that actually work despite the horrors of colonization, we have retained a lot of ways of relating that still really work. The thing is they're just stigmatized as dysfunctional because our kids were taken away too, for a lot of these reasons, right?
Lianne: Can you talk, as you're talking now, you're illustrating what I sort of deduced in terms of your work with Donna Haraway and particularly the Kin not Population project. I know that you're a part of that forum. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about that. And again, how these extended kin networks play into that idea.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, you know, that was an interesting project. So Donna Haraway and Adele Clark decided to edit this little prickly Paradigm Press book called Making Kin Not Population. Probably, I think, we did the first panel at the 4S meeting, which was the Society for Social Studies of Science. Denver, it might have been in 2015. I can't remember exactly. So we did that panel. And there were multiple scholars on there. And originally, Donna wanted to call it “Make Kin not Babies.” And that was pretty controversial. That was controversial. She even had stickers made up. It wasn't controversial to me because I'm non-natalist. I'm, like, you know, somebody in our family is going to have kids, you know, this doesn't need to be a goal for everybody. Right, like, you know, people are gonna breed. I mean, we don't need to encourage it, it's going to happen anyway. So, you know, we should hold up the role of the auntie and the uncle. And, you know, I just… anyway, I just think compulsory breeding, I know, that's a, is there a more politically correct term for that? Compulsory childbearing? You know, I just think it's a problem. I think it's a problem for individuals. And I think it's... and I do think it's a problem for the planet, because there's so much consumption, and there's such an aspiration to consumption, right? And it's true, rich people in the US and Canada consume way more than all of these brown and Black populations around the world that are looked at as the population problem. They're hardly consuming anything, right? So we talked about that, in that panel, you know, we're like, and I'll say, I'm not talking about brown people not having babies. I don't think rich white people should have them because they consume everything, you know, and they're, the lifestyle that they're holding up as the one we should all aspire to, is not sustainable. And so, and their kind of pro-childbearing, pro-natalism, pro-marriage is also part of that. But I, it's true, I was probably the only person on the panel that would say that so strongly, and I know people didn't expect that from an Indigenous woman, a lot of other people on the panel were... so we had a discussion as a group, let's change it to “Make Kin Not Population,” in order to kind of get away from that critique that this is Malthusian, right? But we were always really clear. We're making a strong class and race critique here. We're not going after poor brown and Black people with this critique at all.
Lianne: Right, and you're here, of course, taking into consideration, also the forced sterilization that has occurred over history, who’s traditionally had access to resources.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, but you know, it's interesting, too, that choice discourse, right, also is really strong. Among, you know, we also heard back from middle-class non-white women, you know, this idea that it's my choice, and I just, you know, I got to write about that more. I don't know, I think it's, I think it's too individualistic of an interpretation of what it is to produce a new human and bring them into this world, right? I really do like to think more about, you know, when you make that decision, if we want to get into a kind of group relational thing, you're not only making that decision for yourself, you're making it for others as well. And Donna says in the book, “Children should be rare but precious.” I'm kind of of that mindset too right now. But you know, we're definitely in the minority in thinking that way. And, anyway.
Lianne: It's a valuable conversation, and a brave one.
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah. Most of our co-panelists and co-authors were not in the same boat on that one. And I'm even, I think, more hardcore about it than Donna.
Lianne: I know that you studied under her, or that she was your thesis advisor. And of course, so technoscience plays a large role in your work. Can you speak a little bit more about just technoscience in terms of how it informs some of the themes that we’re dissecting?
Dr. Tallbear: Well, she co-advised me with James Clifford. Which was a really great duo of people to advise me, because I was writing on the politics of science and technology, which is, we say technoscience instead of science and technology. But I was also writing on the politics of Indigeneity. And that's sort of what Jim had written about, right, this sort of notion of Indigeneity. And how is it defined? And how does it work itself out in different parts of the world? So it was great that they were both there. But you mean, how does the technoscience stuff fit into my work?
Lianne: Yeah, because you started with that, and then you…
Dr. Tallbear: Yep. And then I moved into polyamory. Yeah. Because I'm looking at the politics of science and the way that Indigenous bodies have been looked upon as subjects of experimentation, as the raw materials of the biological sciences, you know, and anthropological sciences, so bones, blood, DNA, get used to shore up settler narratives about the population of the world, about human evolution. They get used... our bodies, and the bodies of our ancestors help build research labs, research careers, you know, scholarship universities, I mean, it's not only our land that have been the raw materials of building the nation-state, it's our literal bodies, our literal blood and DNA continue to be appropriated and developed, right, by the capitalist state in order to build that state. So a lot of my work is looking at how science was deeply embedded in colonialism. People think it's the church, it's, you know, it's racist federal policy, science was right in there as part of that.
Lianne: Mm hmm. Well, just to pivot, you helped to produce the sexy storytelling and burlesque show Tipi Confessions, a performance event with anonymous audience confessions. So what can one expect at a Tipi Confession performance? And why is performance a platform, and perhaps burlesque in particular, for reimagining and decolonizing sexuality?
Dr. Tallbear: Well, so our parent show is Bedpost Confessions in Austin, Texas, and it was founded by four women down there, and it's a wonderful show, and they agreed to sign a contract with us and give us the template for the show. When I moved to Edmonton in 2015, we were doing an Indigenous Masculinity symposium, and we needed a final night's entertainment. And I called my friend Julie Gillis, one of the founders of Bedpost Confessions, and asked if we might replicate their show and they loved the idea of us indigenizing the show and doing it up here. So the Tipi Confession show has four performers, usually, so we will have 12- to 15-minute performances. They can be spoken word artists, storytellers, burlesque dancers. We've had a rope tie demonstration before.
Lianne: So what were the kind of confessions that people were sharing?
Dr. Tallbear: Oh my goodness, they share, well, gosh, can I remember them now?
Lianne: Or what stands out in your memory?
Dr. Tallbear: Yeah, people will have confessions about things they've done with their partners. You know, new kinds of kinky things, or they'll have funny ones. Like somebody said they farted during sex and they lied and said it was the blinds rattling in the wind. Or they'll, sometimes people make really funny ones, like having, somebody said they had a dream that they were in some, it was a guy saying they were in some kink scene with Justin Trudeau. And then, so what we'll do is we'll take confessions from the previous show. And we will find visuals online that are not pornographic, but kind of funny or illustrative. And we'll then put them on the PowerPoint for the next show. So at the beginning of the show, and then during intermission, we have a scrolling PowerPoint with performer bios and pictures, with sample confessions, with advertising information for our sponsors, sex toy stores and stuff like that. So as the audience is filing in, and then during intermission, they can kind of laugh, they'll laugh at all the confessions coming across. Sometimes we get poignant ones, too. I remember one time, somebody saying that they had been celibate for 15 years, and it was just absolutely torture. People will talk about the lack of intimacy. We got another one, too that was both pointed and funny. Somebody said they had extreme erectile dysfunction, but they're really good with their tongue. And you know, it's just, they had really, they're funny, they're sexy, sometimes people will have a confession where they'll say thank you for helping me think about being able to come back to a place of sex positivity after a sexual assault that I've been struggling with for years, you know, and we... so it's, we'll go back and forth between the MCs deciding on who wants to read what, and we give content warnings as well. They just, they run the gamut. From from sexy to kinky to funny to poignant to sad, but in a way where people are attempting to try to find a way to think again about embracing sexuality when it had been used as a form of violence against them. And of course, because we do an Indigenised sexy storytelling show. We've done it in Edmonton. We've done it in Saskatoon, which is a really, it's a big Native city, and in Saskatchewan. We've done it in Winnipeg, another city with a large Indigenous population. We've done it in Toronto. We've done it in Seattle. We had a show scheduled for Connecticut, but it got canceled due to COVID. Our San Francisco show got canceled due to COVID. So we've done it all across Canada, we've done it in Vancouver as well, at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. So we do tend to have, when we do the show in Canada, more Indigenous people in the audience than you would have, say, if you did it in many parts of the US. But we've certainly got invitations to do it across the US. We're just a little bit on hiatus now, because of COVID. And we're doing a lot of administrative work, starting a theater cooperative and getting our bank accounts and everything in order right now. So when we can come back to the theater, we're ready to do that in a kind of new way in which our institutional infrastructure is built a bit better. But where was I? So I was talking about having a lot of Indigenous people in our audience. And because sexuality has been used as a tool of colonization, sexual violence, I should say, and the repression of Indigenous sexualities, right, this compulsory heteronormativity, this compulsory gender, this gender binarism, there are people who... Indigenous people, I mean, there's a lot of Indigenous people who are very pro, very sex-positive. But there's also a lot of people, multigenerational, that have been harmed through sexual violence. We’ve got missing and murdered Indigenous women, you know, as a critical problem across Canada and the United States. We've had a tremendous amount of sexual violence and other kinds of abuse in residential schools in Canada and boarding schools in the United States. The squashing of, you know, alternative sexualities, which were traditional in our communities. So we've got a lot of people who need to do a lot of sexual healing. And so the show can be challenging for some, but I think it can also be really healing. And they talk about that in Bedpost Confessions too, in Texas, even though that's mostly non-Indigenous audience, they talk about the kind of sexual healing that can happen. Because of course, they've had incredibly religious, a kind of oppressive Christian anti-sex practices across Texas because it's such a part of the Bible Belt, right? And so it's this really kind of important place of reflection, of being able to be open and unashamed because there's so much shame around sex. And of course, the state, as we were speaking earlier, wants you to feel shame around sex, right? Because it's not productive, to be off having sex and expressing your desire and relating in these kinds of ways. So you know, that that goes back to what I was saying earlier about compulsory pro-reproduction, right? Sex is only supposed to be for reproduction. It's okay to talk about it in that aspect, but not for pleasure.
So as part of Tipi Confessions, I have a co-producer who's a graduate student. Her name is Kirsten Lindquist. And she and another one of my graduate students, Brittany Johnson. They, Kirstin's doing her PhD in our faculty of Native Studies, and Brittany is across campus doing her PhD in English and Film Studies, but has a Master's degree from Native Studies. They are both doing Indigenized burlesque and they started an Indigenous burlesque collective as a kind of spinoff of Tipi Confessions called Beaver Hills Burlesque. Beaver Hills is a double entendre. Because Beaver Hills in English means, it's the English language translation for Edmonton, for what was Edmonton. And then it was renamed by settlers, the city of Edmonton where the University of Alberta is. So they do some pretty politicized burlesque. They will, for example, Kirstin does a piece called Working for the Government, which is a Buffy Sainte Marie song. And for those who don't know, Buffy Sainte Marie is a well-known Cree rock singer, very well-known up here, but she's been around since the 1960s. And in this song Working for the Government, I think it's about a Native person working for the federal government, and that's kind of a stereotype or a trope in our communities, the Government Indian. And so Kirsten plays the song which is super rockin’ and she comes on stage in her suit, with a briefcase, and her government-issue shades on, and then she starts stripping. And she strips first down to tighty whities, very unsexy, but she turns around and on her butt is written The White Paper. And the white paper was a policy paper, I think, put out by the first Trudeau government, Justin Trudeau, his father, Pierre Trudeau. And it was, again kind of late 20th century sort of, patronizing federal Indian policy. And Indigenous communities at the time really spoke back to the white paper. So for people in Canada, especially Indigenous people, they'll know exactly what she's doing, what's the story being told and pushed back against in that particular performance. So that's the kind of burlesque that burlesque dancers do in Beaver Hills burlesque. And so both Kirsten Lindquist and Brittany Johnson are writing their dissertations in part around the practice of burlesque as an act of sexual decolonization, they're looking at the politics of, that they can sort of work out on stage. And they're also, they'll dance, they're doing I think burlesque workshops with other people who want to get involved in a sort of decolonial burlesque practice.
Lianne: Well I would love to attend one of these events. And I also produce erotic performance events. And just think that it's such such a delightful platform to share about these topics. And so on that note, I just want to hear from you. Why do you think it's important to publicly share about intimacy and sex? And how does performance and burlesque in particular serve as a platform of inquiry for decolonizing sexuality?
Dr. Tallbear: I may already have talked about that a little bit. And I think you caught most of my last comments where Tipi Confessions as a show, in general is a place where people can find the space to not feel shame about sexuality, to see others being open about it, to laugh about it right, to be able to take joy in talking about sex explicitly and openly. So I'm going to think about the platform of inquiry for decolonizing sexuality more in terms of burlesque. Just another example, Brittany Johnson did a really interesting piece that was like, unlike Kirsten Lindquist’s piece, which was a critique of federal Indian policy in Canada, Brittany Johnson, because she's a literary scholar, took on a literary controversy that happened up here a few years ago in Canada. There's, one of the most well-known writers in Canada is Joseph Boyden, who had been identifying as Metis and other indigenous peoples for a while, and it comes, we come to find out that he's probably not. This is kind of a common problem of people claiming to be Native or have Native ancestry who don't, like Elizabeth Warren in the United States, or it's so distant we can't really affiliate it with any particular community. So Brittany did a piece, she danced to Miranda Lambert’s song, because Brittany is also a country music singer, beautiful voice. So she knows country music. She danced to Miranda Lambert’s song, I Feel a Sin Coming On, or I think actually, it's with Miranda Lambert's other group, Pistol Annies. And so I Feel a Sin Coming On is about a woman getting all hot and bothered. And so Brittany comes onstage in this very puritanical outfit, a long black skirt, a high-collared white lace shirt with a brooch at the neck, I think, or it's all buttoned up to the top, and she comes on and she's sitting on stage in a chair and she's getting all hot and bothered listening to I Feel a Sin Coming On. So it looks like Brittany Johnson is reading the Bible when she sits down on stage, and she starts undoing her shirt and stripping because she's getting all hot and bothered. And by the end of the song, it turns out that she's reading Joseph Boyden’s book, The Arenda. And the Arenda as sort of a literary Bible, like, again, he's huge in Canada. And she does this dance at the time that he's being taken down by Indigenous people for pretending to be Native. And so at the end of the song, she rips up The Arenda and throws it. So it's sort of a form of throwing off the colonisation of sexual, of repressive sexuality. But it's also throwing off the colonial move that happens when white people claim to be Native, and I write a lot about this in my own work, sort of as a way to not feel complicit in colonialism, as a way to exercise other kinds of ownership claims. So there's a lot going on in their burlesque. And especially if you're Indigenous, you'll really understand what they're doing. So it's very sexy, but it's also super intellectual. And they're going to be writing about this in this process, in their dissertations. And so, for us, burlesque has been, and for these graduate students, it's been such an important mode of expressing decolonial kinds of ideas, or anti-colonial kinds of ideas, because to be clear, the way that we use decolonization follows Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang's definition, which is that it requires giving land back. And decolonization requires returning Indigenous land and life. But we can think about this as a return of Indigenous life because you're thinking about a return of sexuality, of another way of relating.
Lianne: You started writing these hundred-word pieces called Critical Poly One Hundreds, as part of a writing group, I think with other women. So I'm curious how you chose this format as an avenue of expression, and what reflections you have on the process of autoethnographic writing. Particularly in relation to sex, sexuality, and sexual experiences, since these autoethnographies, I think, unsettle the clinical ethnographic voice of colonial anthropology, and would you be so kind to share some with us?
Dr. Tallbear: So, the Critical Poly One Hundreds, I started writing those as part of a weekly writing group with my friend Circe Sturm, who's an anthropologist at the University of Texas. She's also an actor, so like me, she goes back and forth between anthropology and creative practice. And we would, each woman, it was seven women, each woman would take a day of the week and we'd write our One Hundred, which is 100 words, it could be from anything. It could be from a novel you're working on. It could be a paper you're working on, it could be a poem, it could be... for me, I decided to turn it into discrete 100-word vignettes that in and of themselves were a finished piece of work. I think a lot of the other women did 100 words as part of a broader writing project. And I love the discipline of it. So this is interesting. I'm a super vanilla person, really vanilla. But I guess, the way in which I want to be bound, and I find it generative, really generative is to be limited, strictly limited to 100 words. I find it so generative and so powerful, and I find that I reach a level of incisiveness in my analysis that wouldn't be possible if I had 1000 words, right? So it's been a really generative but restrictive practice so that's kind of been interesting to watch myself really just love the restriction, the inhibition of 100 words. And I started out writing these hundred-word vignettes to be about my polyamorous practice, but they very quickly transitioned into also being about other kinds of relations. So for example, I have a Critical Polyamorous 100 called YEG, #YEG Summer Sex. And #YEG is our airport code for Edmonton. And that one is both about sex, but it's also thinking about the relations of the the air around me. So this one's called #YEG Summer Sex, and it was written on 8/3/17.
Our breath slows. Ceiling fan turns the cool into a flock of birds, tiny ghosts. Their wings flutter across my outturned calves and the arch of your tapered back. The swells and concaves everywhere on you, pro ballplayer length. Forgive me my shallow ways. I love your legs. Sweat shines in the coolie between your pectorals, they expand to my breasts, warm and soft. You will recover quickly. I am awed by your power. After twenty minutes, twenty laughs, we'll go again. I am your least strenuous exercise. In the wan Edmonton summer, the sheet stayed dry, no sweat rivulets.
So I think by that time, this is I think three or four years into writing the hundreds, I had gotten pretty good about going back and forth all the time between these moments of relating with another human body and also relating with the elements in the air around me. Let me see if I can find another one to read. Oh, this one's kind of funny and interesting. This is about another podcast interview I did where I was asked this question by this podcaster. And you'll hear his name in the vignette. But it's recounting a story of somebody I dated when I lived in Austin, Texas. A relationship that, I won't say it didn't work out, even though it ended, because we both transitioned into other really interesting kinds of realizations about our relationship practice. So this one is called sex Ergonomics and it was written on 6/18/17.
What is your favorite position? Dominus Blue commanded. It depends? Bodies fit together differently. I like my hair pulled, but didn't know until my firefighter roped it round his wrist. A tether for rear end thrusting traction. I thought breasts were my lubrication, until hardcore Alberta cyclists neglected them, needing instead my bottom like bread. Huge hands. I didn't know that I could love a smaller woman's body. Then I did. I didn't know the drug of melting chocolate with two tongues until the monogamist who kissed hard through his suffering. Before he left me, and his wife, for that homeschooling mom.
So that was kind of funny. Poor thing. He did try non-monogamy. It just wasn't for him. You know, it wasn't for him. But he really gave it a good try. I do take autoethnography as a guide to thinking about how I write. And this is partly why I came to write the Critical Poly One Hundreds. I don't want to do traditional ethnography on polyamory. I don't want to consent it, I don't want to set up the study that way, I don't want to turn my relations, either people I'm in a relationship with or other non-monogamists in the world that I'm friends with, or that I'm in community with even if I don't know them, they're potentially part of my broader national and global community, I don't want to turn them into research subjects. And I talk about this in my Native American DNA book. I didn't want to interview Indigenous people or Native people about their thoughts about DNA testing. I don't want to make my own people research subjects. So I decided to make scientists research subjects, because I thought the power dynamics were a little bit better. I was studying across or studying up instead of quote unquote, “studying down” a less powerful subject. And so I've already learned that lesson with polyamory, I'm not going to go study other polyamorists, I'm not going to inhibit my good relations with them by making them research subjects. But, you know, it is hard for me to turn off my anthropological mind when I'm involved in these polyamorous relationships, even if they're not partners, but they're friends, and poly meetup groups, and poly Facebook pages and things. I'm always thinking like an anthropologist, everything to me is looking at cultural practice. So I decided one of the ways that I could capture some of those insights without having to do old-school anthropology is to write creative nonfiction vignettes. So I mix up the genders, I mix up the places, I mix up experiences, and I always run 100, even though it is in a part-fictional part non-fictional, it's totally anonymous. I always run it by my partner, or, and also if they're married, their wives, if they're implicated in it, or their other partners, to get their consent to make sure they feel fully anonymized. And I've never, I've had people at the beginning of a relationship, say, I don't want you to write about me. And then later on, when they see my hundreds or they see my blog, they're like, oh, oh, well, that would be okay. I'd actually be really flattered if you wrote about me, and then I, but I will wait until they say that, and then I will, I'll bring it to them and make sure that they feel. And they love it. People love, they're flattered by it quite often. So that's why I decided to actually start writing creatively, was because really to write ethically about these things without having to frankly give the state and the university kind of some kind of jurisdiction over my love life. And you can't write about, you can't write about, you really shouldn't be doing… it's hard to do research with people you're having sex with, which is a whole other thing for Sexuality Studie, researchers, I'm sure. You know, it's difficult to do that kind of work. So this is the autoethnography and the creative nonfiction vignettes are a way that I found to capture some of those insights without actually doing anthropology. But certainly the history of ethical and unethical anthropology and methodological history certainly inform the creative work that I do, as well as the method of the hundreds, which was founded by, I think her name is Emily Bernard at the University of Vermont, a creative writing professor who founded this method. And it's really taken off, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of writing groups that do the hundreds and there's a couple of books on the hundreds now, too. I think Katie Stewart and Laura Berlant co edited a book on the method.
It's really a pleasure talking to you, Lianne.
Lianne: Dr. Kim and I had a bit of a Zoom catastrophe at the end of our call. And so I didn't get to thank her. But I am so incredibly grateful to her for her generosity of spirit, and for joining us in this conversation. It really gave me a lot to think about, and I hope that you felt similarly provoked and enriched by this discourse. We will link to all of the incredible resources that she mentioned in the show. And as always, if this conversation moved you and you feel like dropping us a five rating, or sending this episode to a friend, subscribing, all of that really helps people find our conversations, which we are trying to continue to put out into the world so that they can reach more and more audiences.
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