KIM TALLBEAR: THE POLYAMORIST THAT WANTS TO DESTROY SEX

INTERVIEW BY MONTSERRAT MADARIAGA-CARO

This is an English-language translation of a Spanish-language interview with me conducted by Montserrat Madariaga-Caro, and published in La Juguera Magazine, a cultural magazine based in Valparaíso, Chile. The interview was also produced as a podcast for Pterodáctilo. The interview was started in Austin Texas in January 2020 face-to-face, and was finished by e-mail while I was back in Canada and Montserrat Madariaga-Caro was in Chile. Madariaga-Caro is from Viña del Mar, Chile, a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, working on life relations at Mapuche Huilliche Territory in Chile. 

This English translation of this interview was originally published on The Critical Polyamorist blog on February 1, 2021.

To destroy sexuality as it is known in the Western world is for Kim TallBear the same as revealing an aspect of colonialism that hits us in the most intimate: The imposition of monogamy and singular marriage as a way of domination over the land and its lives. This Dakota thinker, affirms that her practice of polyamory does not focus on sex but on the multiple relationships that she maintains with different human and non-human people. About the current pandemic, she says there are too many monogamists moralizing contact and that it would do us good to learn from polyamorous agreements on risk management.

Kim TallBear is one of those octopus-people. With each tentacle she does something different. She is an academic, a theorist, a performer, and a tweeter. She wrote the book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and False Promise of Genetic Science. She is the author of erotic non-fiction texts that she regularly reads at the Tipi Confessions show, which she co-produces. She is invited to give talks, interviews and workshops at different universities around the world. And she has a blog called The Critical Polyamorist. Currently, she lives in Canada and teaches at the University of Alberta. TallBear is a tall, large, sexy woman who likes to wear big earrings and cowboy boots. She speaks without pause, except when she laughs. I interviewed her in January 2020 in Austin at the University of Texas. She was on an artistic visit in the city. She was coming from giving another interview when we met, but her energy was like that of a bullet train.

The interview you are about to read, for the most part, corresponds to a podcast published in Pterodáctilo online magazine of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of the University of Texas, Austin. Some questions were added later for this piece.

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Before we get into your work, can you talk a little bit about your upbringing, so the audience can know where you are from, and what is your relationship to indigeneity and colonization.

I grew up mostly in rural South Dakota, so I grew up between two Dakota reservations in the Northeast and the Southeast of the state, so right along the eastern Minnesota border. One of them is the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and that's where I grew up and I've many relatives there. But I am actually a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate on another reservation, which is up north on the same highway, and everybody is related between those two Dakota reservations, but our historic homelands are where Saint Paul and Minneapolis are today. In fact, downtown Saint Paul is where my fourth great grandfather’s village was, his name was Ta Oyate Duta, he was called in English Little Crow, which is not a translation of the Dakota [she laughs a little].Anyway, he was a reluctant leader of the Dakota war of 1862 against settlers in Minnesota, when they established the state, when they exiled Dakota people out onto reservations in what became South Dakota. But we still migrated back and forth between the Twin Cities and those Dakota reservations in the eastern side of the state.

And so I grew up there, raised by my great grandmother and my grandmother. Then, I finally moved back with my mom to the Twin Cities when I was in high school but I was such a grandmother's girl, l just wanted to be in the country with my grandmother and I did try living in the city as a child with my mom, but I couldn't hang. I just wasn't tough enough to live in South Minneapolis in the projects [she laughs]. But, finally, in high school I thought: there’s not enough opportunities on the reservation, it’s too racist, there is nowhere to work. I felt like I had more opportunities in the city and that it would be less anti-Indigenous. And it was, I mean it's a different kind. 

Then I went to the university, actually at Texas Christian University my fist two years of undergrad, just to get a thousand miles away from home. I knew nothing about Texas, I ended up loving it though ‘cause it's kind of like South Dakota but with more Spanish and better food, boots, and country music. It’s very much like home in many ways. Then I went to finish my undergrad to the East coast at the university of Massachusetts at Boston, where I did a Community Planning degree, and went to MIT for a Master in Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. Ended up working for tribal environmental organizations, for federal agencies on environmental science and technology projects, eventually did a PhD and wrote a book, Native American DNA. So, it's been a circuitous route throughout the work that I do.

DECOLONIZING SEX AND RELATIONS

Let’s talk about decolonizing sex. Last weekend a friend complained about people saying that they were polyamorous when really they were just sleeping with a lot of people. This friend said: "E-du-cate-your-sex!". You certainly have educated your sex. Can you share with us your take on being polyamorous.

Yeah, the common pushback by people in polyamorous communities is that this isn't just all about the sex. And stop using our words for your nefarious activities! [laughs]. Polyamorous people are largely very particular about what that term means, it means multiple loves. And it doesn't always means sex. I know polyamorous asexual people. Now, most of us when we love our romantic partners probably have sex with them but not everybody, and it's not a necessary component of that kind of relationship. So, I think that my experience with polyamory is that it's multiple loves. I'm polyamorous, I am not a swinger. Now, there might be overlaps between those two things, swingers tend to have multiple sexual relationships, but they tend to have rules that actually, from what I can tell from the people that I know, inhibit deep emotional engagements—there is a good conversation around that. Polyamorous people are a bit different, we actually seek the deep emotional engagement. Many of us are seeking longer term relationships, but in this kind of plural way. 

You talk about settler colonial sexuality, ¿could you explain what this is?

I use polyamory as a stepping stone to critique the imposition of compulsory monogamy and State-sanctioned one-on-one lifelong marriage by the settler colonial State. In Indigenous Studies and Indigenous communities we are always complaining about blood quantum and tribal citizenship rules, the colonial imposition of blood and racial ideology, and those kinds of exclusions, but going hand in hand with that was the imposition of monogamy and marriage, solo-marriage not plural marriage like my ancestors had—we were non-monogamistThe colonists divided up the collective Indigenous land-base into 160 acre allotments that they gave to the head of household, which was always a man, and he could get 80 acres for his wife and 40 acres for each child. So here you have this imposition of heteronormative settler sexuality and family structure onto the land.

All of this stuff came together so I don't understand how we can go after blood quantum and private property without going after monogamy and marriage. And so, many of us in Indigenous communities are so bought in, which leads to the next thing: that our sexuality has been made deviant. It has been made deviant the fact that our ancestors engaged in plural marriages, that they might had have same sex relations. If you look at the historical and anthropological record and our oral histories, Indigenous communities throughout the Americas had same-sex practices, had multiple genders, not this gender binary stuff that the colonizers imposed on us. And it was a site of tremendous violence, I mean they tortured and murdered people who engaged in same-sex practices. They made these practices illegal, they told us that we were sexually deviant and we have deeply absorbed this into our own psyche. It's not only the church that has done this, the state has told us this, and science has told us this. There are scientists at the turn of the Twentieth century assuming gender binaries, assuming heterosexuality as normal and good, and everything else is deviant.

“Non-critical polyamorists don’t understand monogamy and nonmonogamy within a structural analysis of racism and settler colonialism.”

This is one of the things that non-critical polyamorists do, they just have some vague notion where they blame the church. Those polyamorists don’t understand monogamy and nonmonogamy within a structural analysis of racism and settler colonialism. It isn’t just the church, it's the state, science and the church all working together in a settler structure to impose these violent gender binaries and compulsory monogamy and marriage practices onto us. And so, my own polyamory is a way of living the life I want to live, but also critically examining on a daily basis—I guess I do auto-ethnography on myself—what people are pushing against when they are doing polyamory. I think a lot of polyamorists deep down have some of the same resistance that I have but they don't have the theoretical language, they don't have the politicization that I have to actually blame the settler State for this problem, because settler colonialism doesn't only harm Indigenous Peoples, it harms all of us, and it’s devastating the planet.

BEING IN RELATION

Thank you for that. It's inspiring. Related to the last thing you said about settler colonialism destroying the planet, I understand you also talk about polyamory in relation to non-humans. How can we talk about caring relationships, loving relationships, without putting the focus on sexual relations, and opening it to non-human relationships as well?

I use the term polyamory because I want to be intelligible to people and that’s what I do in my own romantic and loving relationships. But ultimately the word “polyamory” would fail me in my ethic of relating, and the word “sex”, sexuality and all of its related words would fail me. Sex, as we define it, which is a conjoining usually of two bodies, it can be more than two bodies, it's overly focused on genitalia or certain erogenous zones. People have sex to relate, that is one important good way of relating but that's not the only way to relate, and so, ultimately, what I want to do by focusing on sexuality in my work, both in my performance and my scholarship, is to blow that category apart.

One of the theorists that I think with is my good friend David Delgado Shorter, who teaches at UCLA, and David has one article that is just called "Sexuality" and another one called "Spirituality". He looks at both sexuality and spirituality as objects that Western thinkers have cohered into these little manageable objects and concepts. And what he says is: We are not dealing with sex or spirituality at all, what we are dealing with are sets of relations, and by making sex and spirituality things or objects, or doing a lot of categorization, one actually inhibits intimacy and inhibits good relating. So, I work with that set of theories.

“In my work I do use the terms polyamory, sex, sexuality, but I am trying to get towards a more relational set of words: talking about relationality and relational ways of being, and kind of mixing that up with the sexuality stuff, so, eventually, I can get people to think more about being in relation.”

In my work I do use the terms polyamory, sex, sexuality, but I am trying to get towards a more relational set of words: talking about relationality and relational ways of being, and kind of mixing that up with the sexuality stuff, so, eventually, I can get people to think more about being in relation. Then, we don't have to make sex such a special thing. I think sex should not be so special, but neither do I think it should be stigmatized. For some of us, it's a very important way to relate, but it shouldn't be this special thing that gets put on the prize shelf or conversely in a little private box, and that is so special that either we have to scream from the mountain tops about it or we can't talk about it at all. Sex it's just sex. Why is it a thing, right?

“QUEER IN RELATION TO WHAT?”

How do you feel about identity politics in relation to gender and sexuality, for example to be cis, to be queer, to be a lesbian...
I understand the need in this settler colonial society for those kind of categories and the hard work that's gone into those kinds of identifications, as mostly non Indigenous Peoples push back on the settler State—again I don't think they articulate that that is what they are pushing back on. But when you talk about being queer, queer in relation to what? I was sitting with Kēhaulani Kauanui in a Native American and Indigenous Studies Association meeting one time, and there was a panel of Indigenous queer theorists up there. I was sitting next to her and we both looked at each other and I said: “Well, I guess you are queer if you want to identify yourself in relationship to settler sexuality. But if your point of reference is not the settler sex state, but it's your own Indigenous set of practices and relating, are you queer?”

I was raised to be heteronormative and very heterosexual. It took me a long time to come to the realization that I was not only physically and romantically attracted to men. I didn't realize this because I am attracted to men, a lot, and when you are a woman you don't have to question that, and you think you're straight. And now I'm like, well, I don't want to adopt these other terms. I mean, I know that I move through the world with straight and cis privilege and I acknowledge that, I own that because I've been socialized into that body and that subjectivity. But I am also Dakota, and I know the way that I was raised, in these kind of subtle non-verbalized ways to relate more fluidly.

“And so I would never say that I'm queer, ever. First of all, because I have so much straight and cis privilege. Number two, because I'm Dakota and that is my frame of reference.

And so I would never say that I'm queer, ever. First of all, because I have so much straight and cis privilege. Number two, because I'm Dakota and that is my frame of reference. I don't feel the need to adapt these categories for myself and there is a real political statement in me doing that, but I totally get why others do it. I totally get the need to advocate for rights around those categories. I have a pragmatic view of it. I think that as Indigenous Peoples we should have a more robust conversation about when we are identifying as queer what are we doing, versus say two-spirit, versus me saying I'm just Dakota and I'm going to relate accordingly. And maybe within that I might have some sexual practices that you settlers might think are queer but aren’t queer to me! 

I know there are people, like pan-Africanist thinkers, that are thinking about this as well, and I'm quietly paying attention to what they are doing. There is some resistance to the imposition of the LGBTQ and queer categories over there, which can be taken as homophobic or anti-trans, but I don't think that's all. From what I hear, I hear them saying “we have our own history and practices and ways of relating, and maybe we should use our own terms for that.” So this is a really great conversation to have, right?

RELATING IN TIMES OF PANDEMIC

¿What are your thoughts on this pandemic, from the perspective of your work on “being in relation” and confronting colonialism?

My initial thoughts about the Covid-19 pandemic have less to do with colonialism than they have to do with the lessons we can draw from consensual nonmonogamists to better manage risk in our societal relations. Many polyamorists, for example, are already practiced in mindful and safer physical interactions. We skillfully use protection for sexual relations. We talk openly about it, and in technical detail. We have pointed conversations with lovers or potential lovers about “fluid bonding,” unprotected sex. We agree to unprotected or protected (at some level) physical contact, but only after open conversation about current partners and risk tolerance.

Some of us belong to a “polycule,” a group of people who have sex within their group, but not outside that group. In a polycule, everyone involved might agree to adhere to (unprotected) sexually intimacy only within group, no outside lovers allowed. Acceptable levels of risk are agreed to within group. This is similar to a household in an era of Covid-19, or to two families who have similar risk avoidance practices and tolerances and who agree only to relate socially face-to-face with one another.

For polyamorists these kinds of explicitly discussed agreements are almost always combined with regular STI testing. All of this talk, health education, and testing combined minimize risk. Similarly, one can imagine universal and regular coronavirus testing along with education and open conversation being a wise approach to minimizing risk.

“Perhaps like the HIV crisis, heterosexist and racist North American observers thought this epidemic too was only deadly to the “others” they do not consider normal or advanced human societies.”

I have sarcastically wondered on social media if there are not too many monogamists and normative “western” thinkers in charge of health and other public policies. We saw early on in this pandemic wishful thinking in the US and Canada and too much denial of the seriousness of what we are facing. I think at play in this denial—so maybe that is US and Canadian settler-colonial exceptionalism—is an “othering” of China and the “east.” This othering includes talk of Covid-19 being the result of a “Chinese virus,” rumoured to be derived from strange (to us) Chinese social and cultural practices.

Perhaps like the HIV crisis, heterosexist and racist North American observers thought this epidemic too was only deadly to the “others” they do not consider normal or advanced human societies. Too many of our governmental leaders in the US and Canada, might have held beliefs similar to leaders in earlier decades who thought HIV would mainly ravage gay communities and African countries, and therefore mattered less since those communities were considered backwards and culturally deviant. 

It’s clear to me that normative thinkers—largely monogamists, I am sure—are making the Covid-19 situation worse. There is evidence that monogamists practice less safe sex, including when they “cheat”. I think we need more nonmonogamist policymakers and healthcare experts who are less moralizing about exposure to infection, who understand that we are all ultimately at risk because we are all organisms in which viruses and bacterial pathogens can thrive. But that risk and attendant suffering can be lessened with sufficient education, discussion, and proactive medical practice. 

What part does the connection between humans and other-than-human play in “being in relation” and in light of the pandemic?

Thinking in terms of categories of beings (e.g. races, genders, species, etc.) seems in human history to inevitably result in ranking forms of life, in hierarchy that brings cruelty and exploitation.

Whether one is speaking of relating well with humans or nonhumans, in the variety of ways in which we relate (sexually, intimately-but-not-sexually, as food, fuel, or material “resource”), we are talking about sustaining one another. This does not mean power relations are never involved in how beings relate. Power circulates. It can be shared. If one thinks of a web of relation, there is tension in the web and any movement ultimately has reverberations across that web. It is better to think of how our movements and actions affect many beings in relation.

Those hierarchies of life that we inherit from modern European thought do us a disservice when they view some forms of life as always or categorically “killable,” as Donna Haraway puts it. As she says and as Indigenous philosophies recognize, it’s not that we can live without killing, but we must understand that killing is always killing. It is not to be taken lightly. It is not to be done as a right or without consideration. There are consequences to killing. And we should not disregard the suffering of humans and our non-human relatives. The hierarchy of life that is so prevalent in “Western” religion, governance, and science seems to promote more rather than less suffering.

“Ending this deadly pandemic and preventing future pandemics will require acting with more consideration for the many diverse bodies within our collective, both human and nonhuman beings.”

To come back to this present pandemic, minimizing the movement of this virus through our human community requires recognizing like the virus does our expansive relatedness, not only among humans, but with nonhuman relations. Ending this deadly pandemic and preventing future pandemics will require acting with more consideration for the many diverse bodies within our collective, both human and nonhuman beings.

Scientists think the virus made a jump to humans due to loss of wildlife habitat and/or through the industrial food complex. This pandemic is rooted in disregard by powerful humans for the conditions of life for both less powerful humans and for our nonhuman relatives who suffer greatly in this global capitalist, colonial system.