At the 2017 Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference in Vancouver, Jeneen Frei Njootli spoke on behalf of the Indigenous feminist arts collective Rematriate about burnout and community care (or lack thereof). “I'm running on empty,” said Frei Njootli, “Because that's what's expected of us.” So, when I say, “I’m exhausted,” I am one of many Indigenous women, gender variant, and sexually diverse peoples who have burned out on the community of institutional Indigenous thought (academia, publishing, and art), and who have worked themselves to a point of exhaustion because of the emotional labour that is expected of us, especially by Indigenous men.Anne Riley, “Indigeneity and the Work of Emotional Labor,” Anne Riley, MICE no. 1, http://micemagazine.ca/issue-one/%C4%AFladzeee%CC%81-pulse-wrist.
Don’t get me wrong: I know how lucky I am. “No people of colour, except a handful of men, are making a living off writing in Canada,” someone I respect deeply once said in a workshop. It’s true. But does being lucky mean that I’m not allowed to have boundaries with my time? My intellectual and emotional labour? With harmful Indigenous men, whose names we can only whisper over wine or in the offices of our most trusted women, gender variant, and sexually diverse colleagues? And if you do speak up, even if only to respond, you’re a rabble rouser and a troublemaker—a bitch even (such a self-fulfilling prophecy, to go from special ordering Bitch magazine to my small town as a youth, to a bitch writer in the flesh).
Even though mama Sarah Ahmed taught me that “when you expose a problem you pose a problem,”Sarah Ahmed, “The Problem of Perception,” Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/17/the-problem-of-perception.I wasn’t prepared for the reception of my writing confronting toxic masculinities and masculinist historicization within Indigenous thought, and the conflict that would result. I wish I could say that it was just men. Of course, I’ve been on the wrong side of what can only be described as a crisis of masculinity within Indigenous thought. But some Indigenous women, gender variant and sexually diverse people have also been perpetrators of scarcity-driven cruelty and obsession towards me—in-fighting, stalking, projections upon my personal life, colleagues, associates, and relations because of personal vendettas, and other general intensity. And I know I’m not the only one.
Institutional Indigenous thought—here referring to Indigenous knowledge production that emerges from Western institutions such as, though not limited to, publishing, art, not-for-profits, and academe—emerge from their respective Euro-Canadian individualist, egoist, and scarcity-driven economies. In turn, Indigenous scholars, writers, and creators can easily adopt the capitalist and neoliberal principles of our fields. We work our bodies until they break, putting in hours of free labour for the movement, and out of love for our communities. We work ourselves to exhaustion for our careers because, as millennials, we live in an economic wasteland left to us by the baby boomers, who also convinced us that we have to work numerous unpaid internships, edit our university’s art publication for free and/or show our art for free, if we are ever to even be considered for a job. We practice anti-relationality—viewing one another as competitors in this neoliberal race towards what we are told are limited opportunities—rather than kin, which can lead to lateral violence and intracommunity bullying, often undertaken online.
My intention is not to be cynical. Indigenous feminist networks of care like the auntie networkErica Violet Lee, “I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly,” February 5, 2016, https://moontimewarrior.com/2016/02/05/im-concerned-about-your-academic-career-if-you-talk-about-this-publicly/.have helped me survive the white-dominated spaces of CanLit, the academy, publishing, and art. But I have also been exhausted by this same community that I call home, which is not a value-laden statement—it just is. I’m not interested in evoking a hierarchy of values to make judgements about the tactics we choose to use in order to survive colonial institutions. Nor do I think that Indigenous thought is an inherently harmful space. Rather, scarcity-driven economies breed lateral violence, fatigue, and mental health duress on the body.
If it’s the community that has exhausted me (us), how can I (we) ever derive legitimate care from it? As a kinship-based person, where could I derive community care, reciprocity, and identity from if not from those I thought were my kin?
The Non-linear Queer Body of Colour
Julie Nagam has written that time, space, and place (the land) are intrinsically bound, and our bodies are the materiality that anchor us to this continuum of spatialities associated with being in the universe.Julie Nagam, “New Ground,” Canadian Art, (Winter 2017).While much of the universe is unknown to me, I do know that I have a body. I’m not interested in getting into a Phil bro 101 argument about Descartes here, nor in pandering to some ethicist’s po-mo fantasyDiane Bell and Renate Klein, “A Po-mo Quiz,” in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, ed. Diane Bell and Renate Klein (Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 1996), 558–-61; Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Postcoloniality (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000).or deconstructuralist jack-off about being post-bodies (and always conveniently post-race, non?). In fact, I know that race, class, and gender do exist because I feel the penetration of colonialism from the world that surrounds me, on and in my body.Erica Violet Lee, “My Ancestors Survived Colonization and All I Got Was This Lousy Eye Twitch,” Moontime Warrior, August 20, 2016, https://moontimewarrior.com/2016/08/20/my-ancestors-survived-colonization-and-all-i-got-was-this-lousy-eye-twitch/.But our bodies here on present earth, here on Turtle Island, are bound by what David L. Eng has called an “aesthetics of the present,”David L. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 196.one composed of white European and Euro-American historiographies—an ethnographic sampling that encompasses ideologies of dominance, genocide, and terra nullius, and events as fixed points on a linear timeline that moves only forwards.
Jolene Rickard has spoken critically about Indigenous thought’s emerging futurity narratives,Lindsay Nixon, “Visual Cultures of Indigenous Futurisms,” GUTS, May 20, 2016, http://gutsmagazine.ca/visual-cultures/; Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Concordia University, Montreal, http://abtec.org/iif/; Lou Cornum, “The Space NDN’s Star Map,” The New Inquiry, https://thenewinquiry.com/the-space-ndns-star-map/.arguing that “for the Haudenosaunee, the world began as a provocation in a dream, in the sky world … the time of the dream isn’t constructed on a linear visual … it’s a narrative.”Jolene Rickard, 1st Annual Future Imaginary Symposium, May 2, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwY1FFDKXFw.Through engagement with their traditional technologies, as Lou Cornum coined it,Cornum, “Space NDN’s Star Map.”Indigenous bodies generate refusal towards the linear passage of time. Bodies that are affected and affect correlate with a diverse entanglement of relations, teachings, philosophies, and sciences, which place their bodies in never-ending connection with the cosmos and all their relations within. Bodies that evoke the ancestors in their every action and are inextricably linked with their descendants forevermore—a circle of connection that links all its parts. How could bodies like these be anything other than time-fluid and space-fluid?
The non-linear queer body, then, is one that inhabits not only physical space, but spatial and temporal dimensions that encompass psychic realms, as well—such as the dream world, or aspects of ceremonial life. The non-linear body is one that doesn’t fit neatly into a dominant paradigm of linear time, instead embodying non-Western relationalities hardwired into its physicality like an advanced technology—early binary code, as Rickard saidRickard, 1st Annual Future Imaginary Symposium.—that disrupt Western ways of being in physical and temporal space.
What makes the non-linear body of colour especially unique is its connection with ancestral memories of gender-fucking—embodied rememberings of the fluid, plentiful genders that did not fit into Europe’s colonial gender binary, and thereby were cruelly diminished, controlled, and disciplined. If white people can’t dance because whiteness is a traumatized state of embodiment and colonialism has impacted the way we move our bodies,Tada, Hozumi, “Why white people can’t dance: they’re traumatized,” Selfish Activist, http://selfishactivist.com/why-white-people-cant-dance-theyre-traumatized/.then for the queer of colour, the body is the anchor through which we incite the spirits, and call forth our gender variant and sexually diverse ancestors of the past.
The non-linear queer body of colour is an embodied form of refusal towards inscriptions of linear time that attempt to colonize non-Western ways of understanding body and self—a calling forth of ancestors and ancient teachings, and a projection of these knowledges into a space-time continuum that, for kinship-based peoples, is held together by a never-ending chain of relations and relational responsibilities.
k4k (Kin 4 Kin)
“Thank Creator for music, dance, fashion and all other forms of art/culture I experience with my body before my intellect.” – nîtisân, Sasha SimmonsFacebook post, December 16, 2016.
In a 2017 photoshoot with Kinga Michalska, Phoebe Heintzman Hope attempted to visually capture their voice, movement, and choreographic practice Womb Cxre. As Michalska photographed them, Heintzman Hope distorted and moved their body, and that which lived in its deepest recesses, until it was shaking under the weight of mindful engagement. They had wrapped their body in gauze to create a mummifying effect, and smoke billowed from their mouth to show the intentional breath that paired with their movements. Smoke also rose from the ground, accumulating from a nearby smoke machine, and it was as if Heintzman Hope was an apparition—ephemeral and genderless, evoking the sensualities, pleasures, and embodied love of the ancestors. This is a body that is stuck both in the past and in the future, presumed extinct and unmodern,Scott Lauria Morgensen, Spaces Between Us (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).and yet somehow still here—the living, and loving, dead in death worlds.Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003), 11–40.
Blending dance, movement, physical therapy, and somatic practice, and by grounding therapeutic and personal development techniques associated with bodywork, Womb Cxre uses the body as a space of emotional excavation. As a self-described mixed-race diasporic alien baby, Heintzman Hope prioritizes making Womb Cxre available to other people of colour who can similarly draw from a space of racialized queerness, and creates a space wherein the non-linear body of colour can live. Intentional movement and performance becomes a space wherein we can speak the unspeakable, as Charlotte Townsend has written about Rebecca Belmore’s work,Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Rebecca Belmore: The Named and Unnamed (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2003).a space wherein we can contest colonial violence inscribed on our bodies.
Though bodies of colour are often presumed ancient, extinct and as inhabiting ghost worlds, Womb Cxre works to reanimate the queer body of colour by evoking alternative sensualities, tenderness, love, and pleasure. In fact, these body memories contend with colonial affect on the body, the uneasy aesthetic present, by drawing from the personal narratives and ancestral memories that live within the non-linear queer body of colour as an alternative to dominant historiographies.
Womb Cxre combines voice, movement, and choreographic practice to place bodies in conversation with their own unique histories, and contends with the aesthetic present by drawing from personal narratives and ancestral memories to create new worlds.A reference to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s robust scholarship and literary work around “worlding.”While the relation between body, space, and time can be violent, complex, and agitated, Womb Cxre wills us to recognize that queer bodies of colour aren’t simply walking wounds re-enacting unending trauma, but vessels for unique happiness, love, and joy, as well. Mantric statements—writhing, vocalizations, utterances, and guttural sounds—are a central component of Womb Cxre, used to heal bodies through the deepest personal intimacy and care. Womb Cxre pushes its participants to connect to their own body goals, centering on their personal knowledge of and relationship with their bodies, in order to speak to and pay attention to those parts of the body that need tenderness, care, or even shock.
The outcome of Womb Cxre isn’t to become a better dancer or to produce work that culminates in one final production, but a kind of anti-production instead. Womb Cxre breaks from a clinical, controlled, and obsessively conditioned choreography characteristic of forms of performance that emerge from a place of Western production, such as ballet’s capitalist and somewhat manic Black Swan-esque rigidity, and adherence to formality that pushes the body to its limits. Womb Cxre makes space for bodies of softnessA reference to the Plains Cree relational philosophy of “being soft,” which means essentially to speak and act with gentleness, and never from a place of anger, even if this means the process will be slower.that confuse the confrontationally masculinist and never-ceasing hustle and bustle of Western production.
I’m not sure where the tendency to disassociate from my body and the way it holds pain came from. Perhaps it’s a distrust of the Western medical system compounded by a simultaneous disconnection to my own medicines, or just a general affect of shame and fear of being stigmatized? Or maybe I’m just doing the colonizer’s work and inscribing my body as unworthy of care, and as inherently unhealthy, diseased, and degenerative? Maybe I’ve internalized racial uplift and the Cartesian divide by posturing intellectualism’s reverence of a strong mind over supposedly lesser important principles of bodywork that could help heal my trauma-ridden body. My bad shoulder that was sprained by a dirty Edmonton cop and never fully healed because I received bad health care, my tension headaches from years of anxiety about living in the city, and my back pain from years of slouched posture, as if I wanted to make myself disappear: what else could this be, if not some form of trauma induction on the body?
Womb Cxre taught me a language for the body I had been dissociating from for decades now. Of course, I recognize the extreme privilege of access, class, and institutional support that allow me healing supports like movement therapy in order to work through daily racism on my body. But I’ve been blown away by the vulnerability that was immediately apparent in my body when I started taking up space in new ways with my body: not diminishing myself by disengaging my core, for instance, focusing on my pelvis to ease shoulder tension, and rolling my hips to exercise sensualities I was taught as a hypersexualized “fat girl” weren’t mine.
Womb Cxre has become a space of refuge for me. As an urban Indigenous person, queer kinship, like that which I’ve developed with Heintzman Hope through their practice, has provided me with the care and tenderness I need to attempt healing my body, and to continue in the aesthetic present. Though not without their problems, spaces that have come to be labeled as QTBIPOC (queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) in Montreal, meant for all us children of the diaspora trying to find our way home, have been the collective spaces I have fled to when I was shielding myself from individualistic and harmful spaces that can exist within Indigenous thought—though to reiterate, do not define Indigenous thought as a whole, which also holds spaces of care and tenderness. These communities have offered me the reciprocity that I crave as a kinship-based person—a fluid, bound kinship beyond the limits of space, place, time, or production.