Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Re-invented Traditions: Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

Before I criticize Drew Hayden Taylor's anthology Me Sexy any more, I want to praise the best piece in it, the final one, "First Wives' Club: Salish Style" by Lee Maracle.  For one thing, the writing feels embodied.  Despite all the prattle by the other writers about how First Nations don't apply a body/spirit divide to sex, most of them write about sex like white people.  (Not that I'm in any position to point fingers there: I am a white person.)  In a way, that's only to be expected.  Against all the queer-theory academics who say they're gonna write about queer embodiment (following Foucault's exhortation to think and write about bodies and pleasures -- which, weirdly, he seemed to think were somehow pre-theoretical -- writing doesn't produce a body; at best it's a projection of a body.  Writing isn't pleasure (though the act of writing, like reading, can be pleasurable): it's a shadow or at best an evocation of pleasure.  I think that instead of trying to make writing less intangible, we should recognize it for what it is and rejoice that we have such a useful tool.  No matter what theoretical tools you apply, though, writing about bodies and pleasures produces only more texts.  The best cookbook, with the most delicious-looking full-color photographic illustrations, still won't nourish you.  In the end you have to set aside representations and cook and eat, or make love.

Still, some writers give me the impression of not trying to pretend they don't have bodies, and their writing evokes bodies and pleasures in such a way that it seems fair to call it embodied.  Most of the writers who bring this off are female; I'm thinking of Joan Nestle, for one.  Lee Maracle is another, maybe because (like Nestle and the other writers I'm thinking of) she's older, apparently about my age.  Her sense of humor, which also stands out in the collection, helps too.  Try this anecdote from her contribution to Me Sexy:
As a young person my chiefs asked me to organize the youth and encourage them to attend the first all chiefs’ conference in Kamloops, B.C. So I called a youth gathering to be held at the local Indian Friendship Centre in Vancouver, notified all the young people I knew and made a presentation on behalf of the not-quite-fully-formed Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. It was 1968, the year the skimpy, sexy T-shirt came on the scene for young women. I was wearing one. Along with my skimpy T-shirt I had on a pretty snug pair of jeans and no bra (it was the sixties). An elder from Saskatchewan named Ernest Tatoosis came up after my talk and complimented my speech. After a pregnant pause he added, staring at my cleavage (small though it was), “But maybe you should dress more traditional,” and he pointed at my shirt. I knew what he meant. He was well known for scolding women for wearing sexy clothing. “Real Indian women wore dresses, long dresses, covering their legs and buttoned to the neck.” I suddenly remembered a picture of a group of First Nations men dressed in Western pants, shirts, and sporting little mini-skirts and holding old rifles. Should I tell him that I will wear a long dress buttoned to the neck if he wears that mini-skirt? He probably wouldn’t get it. “You’re right,” I answered instead, and I removed my shirt.

Cree women apparently wore long dresses (deerskin) before Europeans arrived and traditionally covered their bodies pretty much head to toe. What Tatoosis did not know was that, prior to the arrival of the good Oblates, Salish women did not wear shirts during the summer or at a good old bone game.
In this era of Aboriginal Studies, there is a tendency to red-wash or clean up our past before passing on our traditions, and sometimes it gets cleaned up in accordance with someone else’s current morality. I am not advocating a return to the old lahal games practices, in which women sang and danced half-naked, enthusiastically cupping and bouncing their beautiful breasts in an attempt to distract the other team, but we should know a little about who we are before we become someone else’s idea of who we should be [172-3].
In Craig Womack's Red on Red (Minnesota, 1999), he complains, "It is way too premature for Native scholars to deconstruct history when we haven't yet constructed it" (3).  As I wrote before about his complaint, deconstruction really isn't the issue.  I've heard similar complaints from African-Americans and some of my Homo-American brethren as well when they are confronted with anti-essentialist arguments.  It doesn't really matter what you replace it with: the standard -- traditional? -- academic approach to history is seriously flawed, not just in content and European bias but in method.

I wonder what Womack would make of Lee Maracle's story.  When Native peoples are under attack, when (as an elder Womack quotes put it) "We may look like Indians, we have the color of an Indian, but what are we thinking? What are we doing to our own children who are losing their language, their own ways?" (55), shouldn't Maracle have held her tongue and covered up, instead of insulting an elder to his face in public?  Shouldn't she have reined in her rebellion until the First Nations were safe and secure again?  Shouldn't Native women be supporting their men instead of tearing them down?

Of course not.  The hard part about living in the world is that you have to do everything at once -- recover the past, invent the future, and balance the present -- and this task is all the harder for oppressed groups struggling for survival.  Being embattled is no excuse for falsifying the past, though, or imposing irrelevant restrictions on your fellows in the present.  I don't know whether Ernest Tatoosis got his prudery from Christian missionaries or the parallel mindset in Cree culture, though what an amazing coincidence that his ideal woman's outfit sounds so suspiciously Victorian.  But it doesn't matter: why should Maracle have dressed "more traditional"?  How would it have helped her as an (evidently very effective) organizer?  His phrase "real Indian women" gave the game away: as though Maracle wasn't a real Indian woman.  Every divisive stumbling block ever thrown into the path of an organization has been justified by someone as being necessary, and for the group's own good, when it's more likely they sprang from someone's neurotic compulsions: notice again Tatoosis staring at Maracle's cleavage.  There's no principle for deciding the question in advance, but I do think people need to be more skeptical of such moves.  I think Maracle made the right response in that moment, though I'd love to hear more about Tatoosis' reaction, and I wish more of the writers in Me Sexy had her attitude.