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  • When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty
  • Bethany Schneider (bio)
Mark Rifkin. When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-19-975546-2. 436 pp.

Mark Rifkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty is a towering achievement in two fields, American Indian studies and sexuality studies, and ought to be celebrated as paradigm shifting for both areas of study. From its title to its final page, the book throws down the gauntlet: the two fields are much more than lenses that can be used to illuminate one another—if we truly engage them together, the way we ask questions in both fields will never be the same again. Rifkin here brings to maturity a critical body of scholarship that has been growing up for some time in the fissures between Native and queer studies. This is not work that develops directly from the important scholarship illuminating traditional Native genders and sexualities, nor from the essential work growing out of and supporting the Two Spirit movement. Rather, in a book that spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Rifkin shows us how, under the conditions of settler colonialism particular to the United States, the political and cultural complexities of Native America can only be fully understood if we also address the equally complex ways that Native and non-Native sexualities were and are policed and propagated in the service of state control.

The question “When Did Indians Become Straight?” asserts that straightness is not a natural condition but is something that happened and is happening to Native people somehow and sometime. But it is in the subtitle that we begin to comprehend the scope and ambition of this work. Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty weaves the title of Michel Foucault’s trilogy that inaugurated [End Page 111] a new era in the study of Euro-American sexualities in between two critical terms that have been the most dynamic concepts in American Indian studies for two decades and more: kinship and sovereignty. It is an interweaving that critiques and threatens the tendentious whiteness of queer studies, and that usefully triangulates the ways in which “kinship” can be misunderstood as a form of straightness and “sovereignty” as a form of collectivity recognizable and therefore ingestible by settler state governance. Rifkin’s volume, in other words, uses each field to illuminate historical and critical complacencies and lacunae in each other, in ways that explain the existence of those lacunae and then ultimately make each field stronger and more critically incisive. Across the whole Rifkin makes his connections boldly and with the respect and dauntless scholarly precision that we have come to expect from him.

The introduction is a complicated tour de force in its own right, but it lays out the overarching questions of the book quite simply in the opening pages:

What are heterosexuality’s contours and boundaries, and where in relation to them do indigenous forms of sex, gender, kinship, household formation, and eroticism lay? Pushing the matter a bit further, can the coordinated assault on native social formations that has characterized U.S. policy since its inception, conducted in the name of “civilization,” be understood as an organized effort to make heterosexuality compulsory as a key part of breaking up indigenous landholdings, “detribalizing” native peoples, and/or translating native territoriality and governance into the terms of U.S. liberalism and legal geography? What would such a formulation mean for rethinking the scope and direction of queer studies? These are the questions addressed by this study, exploring the ways placing native peoples at its center would alter the history of sexuality in the United States and how doing so would allow for a reconceptualization of both the meaning of heteronormativity and understandings of the scope and shape and native sovereignties.

(Rifkin 6–7) [End Page 112]

The most far-reaching work that the introduction does is to reconceptualize “sovereignty” and “kinship” through a critique of heteronormativity. Both kinship and sovereignty are, Rifkin reminds us, translations, and it is through an extended...


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