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  • When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty by Mark Rifkin
  • Gabriel S. Estrada
When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. By Mark Rifkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 440 pages, $35.00.

The subtitle of Rifkin’s variable When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty intimates the book’s true center of analysis: the literary and historical struggle of various American Indian pansexual kinship polities to resist assimilation into the Euroamerican state as defined by the heterosexual nuclear family. Rifkin informs his queer non-Native interpretations of key Native and non-Native literatures from the 1820s to the 2000s with a parallel chronology of evolving American Indian law and policy, emphasizing the 1830 Removal Act, the 1887 Allotment Act, and the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. While chapters 1 and 2 adhere to a hegemonic early nineteenth-century Eurocentric literary canon, chapters 3–6 feature mostly Native-authored texts. Queer studies scholars should note that the first sustained analysis of hetero/queer binaries begins on page 173, only concluding a discussion of 1920s literature. Ultimately, the literary analysis documents a legally grounded history of indigenous struggles to uphold American Indian non-nuclear, non-heterosexist kinship practices, struggles that sustain political opposition to historically specific US political, sexual, and cultural dominations. [End Page 420]

Considering James Seavers’s Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827) in chapters 1 and 2, Rifkin focuses on military and removal policies that contextualize the 1820s straight, white literary rejection or romanticization of heterosexual and platonic aspects of American Indian kinship systems. The second chapter’s final brief consideration of Hendrick Aupaumut’s Mahican account “A Short Narration of My Last Journey to the Western Country” (1792) begins a pattern of recognizing that American Indians’ defense of their Nations is bound by kinship practices. These initial chapters analyze disruptions of Native sovereignty in the patriarchal context of American Indian laws, Eurocentric narratives, and the ideal of US heterosexual, nuclear kinship. Paradoxically, Rifkin’s focus on American Indian legalities does not fully address US sexist and antisodomy laws and policies that contextualize the larger legal framework of the heterosexual, nuclear family. Once Rifkin turns to Native-authored literature midway through the book, the American Indian legal premises of the first chapters provide a historical context for those subsequent Native voices.

Comparing the post-Allotment 1920s with the post-Indian Reorganization 1940s literatures in chapters 3 and 4, Rifkin introduces two Yankton Sioux women as educators and ethnologists who strategically defend their kinship systems that structure Sioux self-governance and sovereignty. Mindful of ongoing American Indian sovereignty discourses, he examines how both writers disavow their culture’s acceptance of either polygamy or non-straight roles that conflict with US heterosexual, nuclear family norms. These close readings clearly demonstrate why Zitkala-Ša’s American Indian Stories (1921) and Ella Deloria’s Speaking of Indians (1944) offer only heteronormative descriptions of Dakota kinship in partial resistance to federally imposed governance systems that sought to displace traditional relations of kinship to government leadership.

The fourth and fifth chapters cover post-Relocation white, Mohawk, and Creek authors from the last thirty years who openly identify as queer. Rifkin contrasts Leslie Feinberg’s white urban appropriation of idealized Seneca queer kinship in Stone Butch Blues (1992) with Beth Brant’s Mohawk Trail (1983), a novel grounded in Brant’s urban Mohawk culture that is characterized by its queer alienation and its cultural resistance. The book’s final chapter on Craig Womack’s Drowning in Fire (2001) is the best formulated and broadest historically, combining political and religious analysis of queer desire, kinship, symbolism, located within Muskogee Creek struggles to maintain sovereignty across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This insightful, previously published chapter incorporates the concepts of queer American Indian literary nationalism that Womack himself helped to articulate, a theoretical inclusion that produces a richer understanding of Native American literature.

As the first full-length historical book to offer a queer, pan-Native American...


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pp. 420-422
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