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  • When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty by Mark Rifkin
  • Jen Manion (bio)
When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty mark rifkin Oxford University Press, 2011 436 pp.

When Did Indians Become Straight? unpacks the multiple ways that changing ideals of kinship were harnessed by Anglo Americans to appropriate, manipulate, and destroy native cultures and people throughout history. In the process of nation building, no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson negated the very foundation of native kinship by advancing the idea of “Indianness” as a racial rather than cultural category. Jefferson hoped that through intermarriage and reproduction (aka heteronormative kinship) Indians could be whitened. Analysis of this early period of US nation building offers the first answer to the volume’s suggestive title question. Indians first became straight when heteronormativity became the framework for “recasting the geopolitics of settler-state occupation and indigenous sovereignty as a question of a negotiation among racial(ized) populations” (98). But Jefferson’s agenda was replaced by an equally problematic conception of Indianness as something that was in one’s blood and could not be assimilated out through intermarriage. This argument is based on James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826). Mark Rifkin uses Cooper’s novel to highlight the transmission of blood as an important [End Page 811] site of “native geopolitical formations” and the mischaracterizing of native desire for racial mixing with whites as a naive approach to diplomacy rather than a deliberate use of kinship in the service of politics (87).

A contrast to these naturalized discourses emerges in the deployment of adoption as a means to “native-settler family making” (99). Offering a counterargument to the previous texts, Rifkin focuses on Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827) by Catharine Maria Sedgwick to show how the language of familial feeling provides possibilities for “networks of care and concern” that expand far beyond heteronuclear pairings to a broad conception of family and community regardless of bloodlines (100). This text is an important piece of the book’s claim in highlighting how the queerness of native conjugal relations were both strategically deployed and casually dismissed in the advancement of federal Indian policies that aimed to subsume them within an Anglo-American system of government represented by a white affective middle-class aesthetic.

These two contradictory representations of the early national period illustrate a key way that sexuality and kinship were not only deployed as part of the deliberate strategy adopted by federal Indian policy but stood central in some of the most important texts that grappled with interactions between natives and settlers. Rifkin’s sweeping study reveals how native gender, sexual, and social norms were intimately linked to their political system and cultural values—something that settler colonialists consistently refused to recognize. From early national erasures of distinctly Indian culture to the celebration of monogamous marriage, to contemporary queer appropriations of historic native values, the expansion of the US nation-state and disregard for native sovereignty was achieved by manipulation of and changing ideas about racial difference and an increasing celebration of one proper kind of family.

Federal Indian policy marched toward the enforcement of heteronuclear family structures as a way to weaken and refute the political dimensions of native kinship structures. Rifkin calls this a “romance plot” defined as “a narration organized around the ineluctable movement towards marriage as the culmination of the education/civilization process” (147). This explicitly political agenda delegitimized alternative kinship and privileged “heterogendered bourgeois domesticity” as the core for nation building. This reading is based on the writings of Thomas J. Morgan, commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1887 to 1892, who was obsessed with advancing [End Page 812] Anglo notions of “home” and “family” (150). Native people wrote their own stories of life, love, family, and community. Rifkin provides a nuanced reading of Zitkala-Sa’s accounts of native life, careful to show how even the most “authentic” of texts that capture and celebrate so much that is prized within the community is interpolated by the imperial march toward heteronormativity. This is partly demonstrated by the text’s own...


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