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  • The Indigenous Erotics of Riding Bareback, or, the West Has Always Been Queer
  • Lisa Tatonetti (bio)

As we ponder, on this fiftieth anniversary of the Western Literature Association, the subject of genealogies, “the queer West,” at least for any Foucauldians in the room, would seem a likely topic. For, as Foucault famously posited, queerness has always been with us. Like kudzu or, in the case of my backyard, trumpet vine, queer discourses proliferate wildly in the very act of their suppression. Thus, I approach my essay with the assumption that the queer West, though frequently posited as a relatively new subject of inquiry, arises from a long history in Western American studies. As I researched this essay, I came to decide that I was right. And I was wrong.

In terms of that wrongness, we can’t get around the fact that in reviewing the many years of Western American Literature that had been published at the time of the 2015 anniversary conference of the Western Literature Association, we find the journal forwards a kind of queer invisibility: while the first issue of the WAL appeared in spring 1966, there had not yet been a published essay with the terms “lesbian” or “gay” in the title, and only one 2015 piece had included the word “queer”—Lee Bebout’s “The First Last Generation: Queer Temporality, Heteropatriarchy, and Cultural Reproduction in Jovita González and Eve Raleigh’s Caballero.” Thus, while the recent years have included references to homosociality and transgressive gender representations, like Katie O. Arosteguy’s work on white masculinity in “’It Was All a Hard, Fast Ride that Ended in the Mud,’” we find significantly few analyses that reference homoerotic bonding between people or queer approaches to western studies. [End Page 1]

(I’m delighted to note that between the time of the fiftieth anniversary conference and the publication of this commemorative issue, a special issue devoted to Queer Wests was published by the journal in summer 2016, which includes articles on Bret Harte, Frank Norris, Helena María Viramontes, and The Laramie Project. This addition to the publication’s history is an important marker; yet even with the addition of these four essays, queer readings and approaches have not necessarily proliferated like the previously mentioned trumpet vines in a genealogical review of our journal and association.) Based on this observation, we can perhaps see why the ideological concept of “the queer West” might still be posited as a “new” subject of inquiry. We are, one might think, trembling together at the very start of something queer, or, as I prefer to think of it, about to plunge bareback into the erotic abyss.

Yet, here is where I circle back to my initial conjecture. Though I may have been wrong to assume that scholarly considerations of the queer West have an extensive history in western American literary studies, I was right, too. Because to posit the queer West as a new topic of inquiry exemplifies what some term “Columbusing”—the habit white folks have of employing rhetorics of origin in practices of (dis)possession. By contrast, as many WLA members well know, the ideological and geopolitical genealogies of the West were, without question, always already queer. In fact, queer Indigeneity, rather than white masculinity, monogamous heterocouplehood, and/or the heteropatriarchal nation-state, has long grounded public and intimate relations on Turtle Island.

A vibrant conversation about queer images, texts, and peoples in Native American and Aboriginal contexts has been ongoing since time immemorial in the land on which we currently meet. To name just a few instances, consider the pictographs of multiply gendered kachina figures holding both bow and corn in the Petroglyph National Monument on the outskirts of Albuquerque; Diné origin stories; the 1919 accounts of Osh-Tisch, a Crow boté and warrior; or the stories of Lozen, a renowned Apache warrior woman, who is just one of many women to hold such a position. Histories of gender fluidity and stories by and about what we might today define as queer Native people have existed in North America since the [End Page 2] first folks to live here emerged from the land, fell from the skies, or...


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