- When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty
Mark Rifkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight? adds to the burgeoning field of queer Native studies an incisive critique of the ways sexual discourses have participated in eroding Native self-determination. Rifkin rewrites the cultural history of the United States by focusing on sexuality as a technology of colonization. Using scholarly literatures, captivity narratives, novels, popular discourses, law, and archival documents, Rifkin traces how the settler colonial project relied on and was simultaneously constituted by the heterosexualizing of Native America.
When Did Indians Become Straight? is a theoretically rich text with complex renderings of what is at stake in the way kinship, sexuality, tradition, and sovereignty are thought of. It is an expansive study that works through the early years of the United States as a republic, tracing historical representations of Native peoples to present-day configurations. Stylistically, Rifkin challenges readers with nuanced critiques and deep readings of literature. He weaves together queer theory and Native studies to critique the heteronormativity of settler colonialism using literary and cultural analysis. Unlike previous studies that focused on “two-spirit,” “Joyas,” “Nadle,” or other “third-gender” Native people, Rifkin’s book focuses on intellectual and political formations that rendered Indians as either aberrations or celebratory exceptions. By being either aberrations or exceptions, indigenous social practices continue to be judged against a European American heteroreferent. Privileging that referent as the naturalized elemental of sociality was the excuse by which indigenous populations were and continue to be denied sovereignty.
In other words, heteronormativity and settler colonialism were responsible for the imperial conclusion that Native social structures were inadequate foundations on which to forge a structure of governance. Here Rifkin shifts the focus of queer Native critique away from those subjects easily identified as queer or nonheteronormative, focusing instead on the wider field of technologies of normalization that settler colonialism relies on.
Throughout the text Rifkin skillfully highlights the ways kinship, sovereignty, tradition, and racialization are implicated within a heterosexualizing agenda invested in the ongoing management of indigenous peoples. Rifkin foregrounds Rick Santorum’s claim that all civilizations throughout history have been based on the unique conjugal bond between one man and one woman. In response, Rifkin calls readers’ attention to those peoples who have been precluded from inclusion in the category of “civilized.” He asks, “If ‘every civilization’ has acknowledged [End Page 385] the ‘unique bond’ of heteroconjugality, what about those parts of history, and peoples, that have not been characterized as having ‘civilization,’ that have provided the savage counterpoint against which to define the civilized and that have been made the object of a mission to bring to them the saving grace of enlightenment?” (4). Rifkin begins to answer this question by arguing that Native peoples offer an understanding of how sexuality has a contested but imbricated relationship to settler colonialism.
According to Rifkin, the settler colonial sexual order of the United States has attempted to make Native people the mirrored image of the Anglo-American heterosexual nuclear family. For example, Rifkin argues that “kinship” as a term was used to mark Native social practices as something other than the normative nuclear heterosexual arrangement. Part of the justification for colonization and settler government regulation of indigenous governance was the marking of Native kinship as different from the heteronuclear family and thus an inappropriate and inadequate foundation on which to base a government structure. These heteronormative proscriptions have been enforced through dispersing land allotments based on individual nuclear family units, limiting recognition of Native governance to those tribes that properly conform to Anglo-American government structures, and belittling as savage and uncivilized any governing structure that allows for a more open and communal system. While “kinship” as a scholarly term has a problematic history as the basis for the denial of indigenous self-determination, it also draws attention to the taken-for-granted assumption that heterosexuality and heteronormative gender roles are the basis of Native society. This means that heteronormativity in...