By Qwo-Li Driskill, Univer­sity of Ari­zona Press, 210 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Udantedi asegi taliqwo at­soine asegi udanto/udant[i/a]/ Val­boa throws some Sto­ries Asegi

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.

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