The Ancestors We Are Looking For We Have Become:
International Queer Indigenous Voices
Edited By Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran
Reviewed By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Near the end of my video interview with Daniel Heath Justice for this special week Celebrating Queer Indigenous Voices I asked, “…anything we’ve left out?”
“There’s a lot we’ve left out,” said Justice.
Although we had a table full of books we failed to mention Queer Indigenous writers from around the world. And I’m embarrassed to say that I did not mention an Indigenous, brown, queer woman who helped pave the way for a brown boy like me: Gloria Anzaldua. She was a Mestiza, Xicana who made an impact on the literature world and changed the way Indigeneity is seen, thought, read, written, and lived.
Justice and I focused on Indigenous writers such as Chrystos, Paula Gunn Allen, Gregory Scofield, Beth Brant, amazing writers who are Indigenous to Canada and the United States. A great interview (it’s always a pleasure chatting with Daniel) and resource for people, Justice was absolutely right: we left a lot out.
In comes Yellow Medicine Review: International Queer Voices to expose readers to a more broad canon of queer Indigenous writing.
Edited by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran the cover alone lets you know that you will be reading writers from Turtle Island (the Americas) and abroad. Three beautiful Polynesian women grace the cover, smiling, welcoming you to open the pages of one of the few literature journals celebrating Indigenous queerness on the page. Three shells float above their heads. I can hear the ocean just by looking at them. I feel calm, and a reassurance that this journal will teach me many things in a loving way.
The introduction is one unlike many: poetic, warm, welcoming, leaving you wanting more. Bodhran writes in English and Spanish (the two biggest colonial languages on Mother Earth) and he acknowledges his ancestors and relations and new family in the text. Included in the intro is the actual call for submissions followed by his response:
“Our kinfolk from around the world respond, offer me fabric, offer me fiber. Say: Weave with this. Weave with me. And we weave.”
The basket woven for the special issue holds stories from Canada, United States, Hawaii, Guam, Tonga, Australia, Palestine, New Zealand, Samoa, and the continent of Africa. (Yes, Africa is a continent, made up of 53 countries, inhabited by different peoples who live different cultures and speak different languages. It’s not a country with one group of people the way everyone describes it).
There are poems, short stories, plays, essays, letters, songs, and blog entries. It’s a mix that keeps you engaged through variety and good writing.
The art of letter writing is one that is dying and one that I appreciated being featured in the journal. Sadly, emails, texts and tweets have become the preferred way of communication. A snail-mail letter writer myself (I’m looking for new pen pals! Don’t be shy.), I feel there is still nothing like holding paper in your hand and reading someone’s carefully thought out words.
Aborigine Elder Noel Tovey of the land now known as Australia writes a letter to the Prime Minister: An open letter to the PM, (p. 202). Written January 14 2009, Tovey was born in 1933 and is one of the Stolen Generations in Australia. Wrongfully incarcerated for “The Abominable Crime of Buggery”, essentially being queer and having relations with folks, Tovey survived many hardships and wants to see those hardships end for others:
As an older Indigenous man is who is also gay, I am deeply concerned at the suffering of gay elderly people, who, like me, have experienced severe trauma in the past due to the ignorance of those around us.
I have grave concerns about the “same sex equal treatment” reforms and the way in which these compound the suffering of elderly gay, Including Indigenous people. Elderly gay people are from a generation that preceded civil rights and they were subjected to shock treatment, lobotomy, and other horrors. They hid from view and remain mostly hidden today. Nevertheless, they are elders of our gay community who deserve protection.
While reading the letter I was again reminded why our Elders are so important to us. The bravery, humility, and love in Tovey’s words come through with every paragraph. A short letter, you learn something with every sentence. Tovey shares who he is, where he is from, what he has lived, and his desires for a better future for his people. And he is not barking like so many activists tend to do. Tovey writes clear, calm, and with confidence. His letter is one to be referenced, studied, and used as a spark for future letters to many so called leaders around the globe.
Tonga writer Lao Niumeitolu’s Prison Notes, an essay followed a letter to a friend in prison, gets you thinking about incarceration and those who are incarcerated. With so many peoples who have colonial histories behind bars it’s an important piece. For example, in Canada 25% of the prison population is made up of First Nations Peoples who are 2% of the overall population. Some Canadian provinces see 70% of the prison population made up of First Nations, Aboriginal, and Metis peoples.
Do you see a problem here?
In My First Visit to San Quentin Prison (p. 204) Niumeitolu writes of Samoans, Tongans, and Cambodians doing time in the famous prison often written about and featured in films. She lets the reader know that it’s not only Latinos and African Americans who are incarcerated. There are many different faces of colour with colonial histories living in these neo-colonial extensions of slavery.
It’s Niumeitolu’s questions and insights that really make an impact:
The issue of incarceration does not begin only when you’re in lockdown or, as the brothers at San Quentin know so well, it doesn’t end after you’re let out.
Where do our prisons begin? What leads to the making of a prison? How am I contributing to the creation of a prison and the criminalization of people—women, men, and children?
We each have to stop contributing to the building of prisons, the making of something to be so different and separate from something else, that one can be said to be good and the other bad.
Niumeitolu offers a different way of thinking. She is out of the black and white box, no wehere near it, actually. Her questions are important. What is missing are suggestions for alternatives.
In many cultures names are important. Whether it’s the name of a person, place, story, there is meaning behind a name. Jennifer Lisa Vest (Seminole, African American, and German) takes you back in history through many names and leaves you knowing why she has the name she does. A four page poem is all Vest needs to take you on a ride spanning hundreds of years. Her poem Names (p. 28) is a call to action, a lesson in history, and reason for recognition. Vest sings to you. From start to finish you are with her; eyes opening, breath pattern changing, smiles formed, mouth open leaving you in awe.
Reading Names reminds me of why I am a poet and why poetry matters.
Although there is much more to be written of in this 300 page journal I feel it fitting to sign off with some of Vests words. She writes of a North American experience but it is one that Indigenous peoples around the globe can identify with. Read the knowledge in Vest’s verse, hear the power in Vest’s voice, and remember that International Queer Voices are here to stay and be read as well as heard:
But they could not defeat us
so they called us savages
Could not baptize us
so they called us heathens
Could not find us
so they called us wiped out
Could not understand us
so they called us mysterious
Could not educate us
so they called us backwards
Could not convince us
to learn their language
so they called us
hostile, shy, afraid
Vest continues her history lesson:
When they got tired of fighting us
we became a legend
They spent hundreds of years
Trying to find the
Last Unconquered Indians
Sent in the army
But we were untrackable
We cost the government
and embarrassment of riches
and white men
Vest ends her verbal punch to the colonial throat:
Before you left Spain in Search
of your splintered self
We were here
Before you realized England
Was cramped and dirty
We were here
Before you left France
For your piece of the pie
We were here
Before you tried to carve a nation
out of your expatriation
Before you defined your red-blooded
In terms of our absence
We were here
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet June 29, 2011 for interviews with 2-Spirit Queer Indigenous writers Nicole Tanguay and Robbie Madsen.