By Qwo-Li Driskill, University of Arizona Press, 210 pages
A spate of words in the Cherokee language describe Two-Spirits, “a contemporary term being used in Native communities to describe someone whose gender exists outside of colonial logic.” Among the many traditional monikers are asgayusd’ udant[i/a] (s/he feels/thinks like a man), ageyusd udant[i/a] (s/he feels/thinks like a woman), nudale ageyha udantedi (different-spirited woman), nudale asgaya udantedi (different-spirited man), sgigi (”that way”), uligisdidegi (flirt), didantvn (s/he has two hearts), utselidv (special), nudale udanto/udantedi (different heart/spirit), (s/he is third, as in gender), and
(strange heart/spirit[ed]. It’s this final term — — that Qwo-Li Driskill, a Cherokee poet, academic, and activist, uses as both a book title and as a larger cultural project. In his scholarly work, he is essentially performing asegi readings of settler-colonial history in Cherokee country in much the same way that gender studies scholars have conducted “queer readings” of popular films and classic books.
As a writer, Driskill veers constantly between the vernacular and the scholarly in a manner that can be frustrating to the casual reader. A perfectly fine sentence begins with “Cherokee Two-Spirit and queer people have been largely hidden or ignored in the colonial past or present,” before quickly descending into academic cant, “and through the restorying of Cherokee histories, Cherokee Two-Spirit people are performing a politics of decolonial imagination.”
Huh? Stripped of its jargon, Driskill’s sentence might more clearly state, “Cherokee Two-Spirit people carry with them an ancient heritage of affirming multiple genders, even as a dominant Anglo society is only beginning to recognize transgendered people.”
Fortunately, Driskill’s prose is grounded in the frank language of letters and diary entries of 16th- and 17thcentury European explorers who were both baffled and outraged by their encounters with gender-defying Cherokees. The contemporary portions of the book also feature transcribed interviews with present-day Native American Two-Spirits who have taken up traditional crafts, clothing, and customs in an attempt to reassert their gender identity as a proud historical tradition supported by their indigenous roots.
Driskill’s goal with this book is twofold. The first half revisits European colonial encounters with TwoSpirit Cherokee and other indigenous tribal members. The second half looks at a present-day network of Two-Spirit activists who Driskill believes are helping to create a notion of the “sovereign erotic.” It’s a seductive if unevenly described term that, in Driskill’s words, describes a set of cultural strategies used by Two-Spirit indigenous people “that can resist settler-colonial sexual violence and heal the wounds of colonization.” In other words, Two-Spirits find deep affirmation in a traditional cultural identity that supports and values their genders and sexualities. If anything, the author argues, Natives who identify as Two-Spirits, instead of being shoehorned into ill-fitting terms like gay or transgender, can form an identity based on communal knowledge of gender identities that are both ancient and supported by their culture’s values.
When he revisits initial encounters between Europeans and Cherokees, Driskill makes the case that such violent episodes against sexual minorities weren’t incidental to the European colonization of indigenous people and lands. Instead, he claims, the differing sexualities and genders of Cherokee and other Southeastern indigenous tribes were cited by the British as a reason to colonize Native Americans.
Much of what Driskill finds in the past is brutal. Shocked and scandalized by Natives who saw nothing shameful about their bodies or erotic desires, early European conquerors responded violently. The book includes a reprint of a 1594 Spanish painting, Indians, who had committed the terrible sin of sodomy, to the dogs to be torn apart, in which artist Theodor de Bry creates a tableaux of large-breed mastiffs savaging terrified Natives as their Spanish conquerors look on with detached amusement. The event captured in the painting did not directly involve Cherokee Two-Spirits in the Southeast; instead, it records a 1515 incident in Panama under the command of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a conquistador who trained Hernando De Soto. Schooled in such barbarity, De Soto frequently turned his dogs loose on Natives of the Southeast as he crossed the Indian hunting trails of what is now Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.
In a meandering but revealing chapter, “The Queer Lady of Cofitachequi,” Driskill revisits De Soto’s 1540 march through the indigenous lands of southeastern North America. Driskill focuses on the woman army chroniclers called the Lady of Cofitachequi — who he readily admits was not Two-Spirit — because he believes her position as a powerful female Cherokee leader upset European notions of gender and power in ways that were traditionally and defiantly Cherokee. Driskill’s inclusion of the case of the Lady of Cofitachequi in
seems to require a looser interpretation of the Two-Spirit tradition — but it’s clear why it’s included. The image of a strong, rebellious, indigenous woman who can hold her own against men and European conquerors is a reminder that the Two-Spirit designation is far more than a gender identity or sexual orientation issue — it carries on a lineage from the pre-colonial past of Native Americans. — C.S.