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Can the Other of Native Studies Speak?

February 1, 2016

by Billy-Ray Belcourt


Revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine

– Jack Halbertstam [1]

Like Judith Butler, I want to begin with a beginning. [2] At a session during the 2015 gathering of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association in Toronto, Dana Wesley asked panellists, panellists who were bent on teasing apart the matterings – indeed the matter of – the future for Indigenous peoples, if queer, trans, and two-spirit life would dwell inside that imagining. The question was answered with silence, posited in and as the negative space against which that world would, like this one, be demarcated. Perhaps the question was incoherent; the asker, and the life-forms she pointed to, could not be recognized as selves who could indeed question. Perhaps we wouldn’t, she answered. It was as if the question hadn’t been asked at all.

That negative space, something of a surrounding, to use Heidegger’s language, binds together queer Indigenous peoples not properly peopled in a purely metaphysical realm. The surrounding is where life is lived by those for whom the world isn’t theirs, and, in this, are blocked from dwelling “in the overtness of being.” [3] These are queernesses that exist outside the traditional and the identitarian borders of indigeneity, ones that the past cannot make sense of because they emerge in the most unexpected places. It is in the unthinkability between queer and Indigenous that some of us stage our lives. We are both nothing and everything at the same time.

This is for those for whom the past has never safely held up their world.

According to Halberstam, things, broadly construed, are fucked up, and we cannot create the conditions from which that fucked-up-ness atrophies by making recourse to the form we think of as “revolutionary” – “not as a masculinist surge or an armed encampment.” For him, to revolt is not merely to attack the fucked-up, to point to the problems, but to dream up worlds in which those problems cannot exist as such. [4] For those for whom life is something of a delayed funeral, this looks a lot like the work of survival. In the name of a different kind of revolution, the task of the subversive intellectual – the intellectual who is, as Moten and Harney put it, of but not for the university – is thus to do that dreaming. [5] But, for some of us, that dream turns into a nightmare. Which is to say that sometimes the labor of the subversive intellectual is that which keeps some of us – a queer us – from wanting and becoming in ways that our current conditions cannot bear.

Native Studies, putatively defined against the neoliberal university, is a discipline from which renegade knowledge is to be generated, one whose foundational object – the Native – shores up modes of intellectual production meant to depart from and, in this, attack the colonial episteme itself. In other words, theirs is a project, carried out in the name of social justice, that is by and for the Native. In the face of settler colonialism’s apocalyptic teleology, Native Studies is thus a discipline from which the future, a decolonial one, is to be rebelliously thought.

However, I intend to argue, perhaps to no avail if my argument holds, that Native Studies’ Native – its sine qua non – emerges as if it didn’t emerge at all, a phenomenon I’ve elsewhere called, à la Sara Ahmed, non-performativity. Which is to say that the Native is the subject, intelligible in form, who comes into being prior to study in order to conduct that study. There is a history of coming-into-being that needs to be fleshed out. Of course, this does not include those of us in the surrounding who are the ghostly residues against which Native Studies partly coheres.

This kind of academic enterprise is thrown into sharp relief in the wake of the institutionalization of “Indigenous Masculinities.” To say that “Indigenous Masculinities” is nascent or new is to duplicate and thus render Native Studies strange to itself. Native Studies is confronted with itself insofar as its revolutionary subject has stubbornly taken the form of the Red Power-like warrior – perhaps most pointedly rendered by Taiaiake Alfred’s “man on the land” or, as Lindsey Cornum puts it, the figure of Man as sovereign. Lee Maracle, for example, notes that the “woman question” surfaced in the shadows of the question of “Native self-government” and “the Native land question,” questions putatively bereft of identity politics but ones that nonetheless made the “Native woman” into something of an ontological nothing, rendered as the object against with Nativeness – only ever properly male – would take shape. [6] This is thus a confrontation – between Native Studies and itself – that is reconciled, in part, by absorbing and coterminously obliterating minoritarian lines of flight; the product of which is the fantasy that “Indigenous Masculinities” is doing something different.

In the introduction to “Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration,” Robert Innes and Kim Anderson sketch the field’s import by arguing that though Indigenous men supposedly experience more dramatic forms of colonial violence than Indigenous women, there is “a lack of theoretical and applied scholarly work about Indigenous men and masculinities.” The title of their introduction asks: “Who’s Walking with Our Brothers?”, perhaps pointing to the supposed failure of the “Walking With Our Sisters” commemorative art installation to bring Indigenous men into its political folds. Through what I’m qualifying as the ‘turn to victimize’ Indigenous men – men who must be healed in order to later govern as Sovereigns – Innes and Anderson take up the rate at which Indigenous men have been murdered in the last thirty years as the field’s entry point. For them, so-called “healthy” masculinities can therefore prevent the “social calamities” Indigenous peoples face. Yet, Innes and Anderson render “Indigenous Masculinities” impossible: “no one book,” they write, “can possibly reflect all those lived experiences” that are, in their formulation, “varied and complex.” [7] That masculinity becomes an object of inquiry – indeed, one that can remedy the social – is symptomatic of a kind of shortcutting whereby the future is thought vis-à-vis the analytics of the present, a present that, by all means, isn’t good for most of us.

But, what of 1) the uneven distribution of survivability in the aftermath of colonization such that some deaths or death-like socialities escape Statistics and the rubric of murder; and 2) the ways in which Man or masculinity always-already posits an other that it drags into a lopsided Hegelian struggle from which it recognizes its life as livable and the world as governable? In this formulation, queers can only cling to the world as its discontents, as the ontologically stunted entities from which masculinity’s conditions of possibility emerge, whether it is toxic or not. There is a painful distinction between being taken from the world and not being given a world in the first place.

Masculinity – tethered to a biological reading of gender, male or female – has always been a mode of being from which worldings happen; queerness, on the other hand, stands in as its non-social aberration. In short: to attach masculinity to the decolonial future might mean to repudiate queer life as such – queerness being that which germinates all over the place, without or beyond the aegis of gender. Said differently, queerness cannot tether itself to the real in a world in which masculinity operates as an organizing force, not just as something we do or perform. The normative project of “Indigenous Masculinities” – to make a healthy masculinity for Indigenous men in order to repair the social – therefore has to be done at the expense of queer life. To be sure, queer masculinities signify wildly and should not be thought with the masculinity that Native Studies attaches to. In fact, I would say that Tatonetti’s contribution to Innes’ and Anderson’s collection evidences the illusory form of its enterprise – that there is something of an obdurate ground from which to think Indigenous and masculinity together. [8]

If masculinity is an object we attach to, because we think we need it to keep going, I want to know what that object stands in for because no attachment is neutral. What happens when masculinity becomes something of a totality, reified through a narrowed form of gender, one that literally binds it to the world and its ongoingness? [9]

This is but one scene of study whereby Native Studies’ Native announces itself as anything but queer. Case in point: I presented a paper at the University of Alberta’s Symposium on Indigenous Masculinities in December 2015. I was part of a panel called “Heteropatriarchy and Tradition,” and my paper, “Post-Tradition Indigeneities,” labored to get at the ways tradition wasn’t working for me and the ways Indigenous Feminism was and is a world-building project, asking us to think about how to think about living differently without resorting to a kind of cruel nostalgia or to the putative givenness of qualifiers like “masculine.” For queers who are native and in but not of Native Studies, our modes of intellectual production are often paranoid readings of the discipline or provocations of sorts to do things differently. We are not interpellated into Native Studies’ Native, but, instead, into the token minoritarian interlocutors tasked with complaining about things, if you will, complaints that are too often met with cold shoulders, but ones that will nonetheless be used to evidence Native Studies’ interdisciplinarity. And, how does this turn to interdisciplinarity obfuscate Native Studies’ hetero- and cisnormative foundations, as if it has simply moved on or become better?

But, complaining also has a cultural history. As Sara Ahmed put it, “If [feminists] hadn’t complained some of us wouldn’t be here. If we don’t complain some of us won’t be here.” Sometimes complaining is a life-or-death matter. [10]

What does it mean that my work looks mostly like the heartbreak of disappointment, like a half-written suicide note, hinting at the ways the ‘fucked-up’ is keeping me from breathing? I am not doing Native Studies per se, but repeatedly staging interventions in it and to its Native. This is a different kind of Native Studies, one that Native Studies cannot recognize as such because it would not be able “to retrieve itself from the scandalous reflection of itself.” [11] Indeed, ours are thoughts that trouble Native Studies’ very continuity.

In sum: Native Studies’ Native cannot be queer. Queer is a floating signifier, refusing to attach to any one body, history, biology, or world, always-already that which we cannot fully enflesh or completely imagine. It points to an elsewhere so otherworldly it’s hard to think about how life might be lived there. For us, queer theory happens in the discursive and temporal openings created when questions are left unheard, in the archives of missing and murdered queer and trans Indigenous peoples that aren’t yet compiled, and in the symposia where we meet with others like us forced to intellectualize in places that can’t sustain us.

My concern is not with being included in Native Studies – as if being included was all that we wanted – but with epistemologies that build worlds that can’t hold all of us. There might be collections written and scholars researching under the rubric of “Queer Indigenous Studies,” but this does not mean that our work is being taken up in ways that recklessly generate radically new ways of being in the world. Like José Muñoz, I am seeking an intimacy “beyond the synchronous presence of” flesh [12], a something I don’t entirely know how to look for, but one I know I haven’t yet experienced.

We do not have an institutional home. We are the unhoused, left scavenging for ways to go on because waiting is the hardest thing to keep up with. To be queer and native and alive is to repeatedly bear witness to worlds being destroyed, over and over again. Perhaps, as Moten and Harney suggest, we need a mode of “being together in homelessness,” that “other side” that emerges “neither from self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other,” but in the void of the unasked question. [13] The world we want is waiting in the breakages between now and the next, what might get us there?

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a 2016 Rhodes Scholar-elect and is completing a BA (Hons.) in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. His current project is called “Masturbatory Ethics, Anarchic Objects: Notes on Decolonial Love.” He blogs and writes poetry at


[1] Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,” in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2013): 11.

[2] Judith Butler, “Can the ‘Other’ of Philosophy Speak?” in Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004): 232.

[3] Martin Heidegger cited in Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (New York: Routledge, 2004): 31.

[4] Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond,” 9.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lee Maracle, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism (Richmond: Press Gang, 1996): 16-17.

[7] Robert Innes and Kim Anderson, “Introduction: Who’s Walking With Our Brothers,” in Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2015): 4-15.

[8] To be sure, I’m not suggesting that “masculinity” is an object with fixed meaning; instead, I’m concerned with how it emerges in the social by way of gender essentialism, as if it had to be in this world.

[9] Lauren Berlant, “Interview with Lauren Berlant,” Society & Space,

[10] Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Complaint,” feministkilljoys, December 5, 2014,

[11] Butler, Undoing Gender, 233.

[12] José Muñoz referenced in Lauren Berlant, “On Persistence,” Social Text 32, no. 4 (2014): 36.

[13] Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond,” 11.

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