This essay analyzes disability representations in a handful of late-nineties AIDS-related novels by indigenous people. The focus of my argument is The Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) by Tomson Highway (Canadian Cree), which follows a young indigenous dancer who dies of AIDS-related illness. I argue that Highway radically resists the imperative toward rehabilitation—a concept that has a corollary in the imperative to "assimilate" Native people by pushing them onto reservations. As a foil I also read two murder mysteries by Carole LaFavor (Ojibwe), an AIDS activist who, despite living with the disease for many years, chooses not represent it directly in her novels. Examining the forces that might enable or disable queer Native critiques of rehabilitation and reservations, I also seek to encourage a broader dialogue between disability studies and Native American studies.
This essay seeks to encourage a dialogue between disability studies and Native American studies 1 by juxtaposing "rehabilitation" and "reservation"—two terms that are at once foundational, and objects of critique, in their respective fields. Rehabilitation is the bread and butter of the professions serving people with disabilities; it is supposed to reverse, or at least ameliorate, impairment and improve individuals' lives. On the other hand, rehabilitation also carries an ideology of normalcy, striving to bring all people up to some assumed standard of able-bodiedness, rather than generating any systemic accommodations for people with disabilities, or indeed raising any questions about what "able-bodied" might mean or imply. For these reasons, we might say, disability scholars and activists have expressed serious reservations about rehabilitation. Scholars in Native studies, similarly, have expressed reservations about reservations. In treaty discourse, reservations are supposed to be places set aside for indigenous people, in perpetuity. However, they have also become sites where colonial governments historically have tried to rehabilitate indigenous people by assimilating them into the ideals of new bodies politic. Reservations are thus obvious sites of cultural production and inquiry for Native Studies—places where Native people and practices can always be found—but they are also most assuredly the constructions and legacies of colonialism. Both "rehabilitation" and "reservation," then, signify loci of study, but also objects of deep concern and suspicion.
I will ground my discussion in a reading of Canadian Cree author Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998). This remarkable novel is little known outside of Native American studies, but it deserves a much wider audience. Based largely on events in Highway's own life, it follows the stories of two brothers born to a traditional Cree family in the remotest reaches of northwestern Manitoba, on a fictional reserve modeled after Highway's home community of Brochet. Like Highway, who is almost always described in biographies as having been "born on his father's trapline," the Okimasis brothers live in a tent with their father, a caribou hunter and champion musher. Like Highway and his brother René, Jeremiah and Gabriel are sent away to residential school, where both are sexually abused by Catholic priests. Traveling back and forth from the reserve to Winnipeg and then Toronto, Jeremiah becomes a concert pianist, while his brother takes up ballet. Highway himself trained as a classical pianist, still plays cabaret, and recently wrote the libretto for the first Cree-language opera; his brother René became an acclaimed dancer. Also like his literary incarnation Gabriel, René died in 1990 of an AIDS-related illness.
Although AIDS is "not susceptible to rehabilitation in the strict sense of return or restoration of a former state or capacity," it is, in the evaluation of Crip Theory author Robert McRuer, nonetheless governed by a "rehabilitative contract" (121). This contract stipulates that "in return for integration, no complaints will be made, no suggestions for how the world, and not the disabled body or mind, might be molded differently. No complaints will be made even if the contract in effect relegates disabled people to the margins" (113). In what follows, I would like to read Highway's novel as thoroughly noncompliant with the rehabilitative contract. It refuses to make indigenous and disabled bodies and minds play by the rules—the rules of reservations, the rules of rehabilitation, even the rules of narrative and language. It does, though, make plenty of complaints about the failure of the world to be "molded differently."
I will also ask how and why, as a Native novelist, Highway might be inclined to figure disability in such radical ways. For him, and for his readers, it seems impossible to keep any discussion of indigenous bodies (disabled, ill, or otherwise) grounded in individual physiology or individual narrative. Indeed, Cree people who were interviewed about "health" issues by the ethnographer Naomi Adelson kept redirecting her to a discussion of their indigenous territory, particularly the bush. The bush is a non-reservation space, "a special place—both a space and a time for people to live outside the structures and constraints of the village" (108). Adelson's Cree interviewees were clear: their health was tied to their land, to (neo)colonial re-drawing, exploitation, and destruction of that land. Keeping in mind these ties between Cree bodies and Cree lands, as we attend to the sick and disabled bodies in Kiss of the Fur Queen, we can learn to ask new questions about the implication of all bodies in colonialism, geopolitical spatialization, and environmental degradation, and about the attendant production of categories—sick/not-sick, disabled/able-bodied—within those spaces.
It's worth noting that Highway started writing an autobiography, which sometimes looks like the preferred endpoint of disability literature, 2 and instead chose the novel—a form that, according to Lennard Davis, "promotes and symbolically produces normative structures" (41). 3 And yet Fur Queen steadfastly resists constructing normalcy; here are no pitiable limping figures begging to be cured, no supercrips triumphing over adverse circumstances. This novel also resists deploying its sick and disabled characters as the "opportunistic metaphorical devices" (47) that David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have so thoroughly critiqued as "narrative prostheses." Here are no malevolent hunchbacks performing their cautionary moral work.
On the contrary, we get a wide range of variously abled, and variously embodied, characters, all active participants in contingent, impromptu communities. The fur queen of the title (a character to which I return in the conclusion to this essay) is a case in point: in the opening scene, she is the literal beauty queen who kisses Abraham Okimasis when he wins a mushing trophy; in the closing scene, she kisses Gabriel on his deathbed. Along the way, she shape-shifts (sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes ghost) and occupies a variety of roles (sometimes sinister, sometimes protective, sometimes hilarious). I contend that the fur queen (and Fur Queen) articulates a dynamic, mobile Cree narrative tradition that decenters the reserve as the primary site of Native identity and resilience, even as it articulates the close ties between the production of bodies and the production of space.
Formally and aesthetically, Highway has written a resistant, maddening novel all around—recursive, dreamlike, almost fantastic, so that first-time readers often don't know whether they're seeing something like magic realism, or a postmodern linguistic adventure, or an attempt at rendering traditional Cree narrative, or some combination of all of those. Highway has said that traditional Cree storytelling is circular and given to exaggeration (Fur Queen 38). Imported into the novel form, this narrative style heralds a Cree/crip/queer aesthetic that resists reservations and rehabilitations.
Reservations about Rehabilitation
Given that rehabilitation relies so heavily on a paradigm of disability as deficiency—a model that cultural disability studies roundly rejects—the critical standpoint of scholars in this field isn't surprising. For individuals with physical and psychological impairments, rehabilitation (in the form of physical or occupational therapy, for example) proffers restoration to some earlier, pristine capacity—implying, in that event, normalcy, productivity and personhood.
Some of the foundational texts in disability studies have historicized the economic and ideological forces driving rehabilitation as a profession. Henri-Jacques Stiker's A History of Disability (1999) located the birth of modern rehabilitation practices after World War I, with the rise of new prosthetics for wounded soldiers, but also with new physical, mental, and social therapies—what he describes as a "technocracy of absorption" (164), an all-encompassing regime of "care" that purports to bring everyone into the same norm, namely able-bodiedness. Extending this analysis into the United States after World War II, David Serlin's Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (2004) examined how an expanded industry in prosthetic production alleviated national anxieties about the damaged male bodies in (re)circulation, and kept the national economy humming. Other cogent examinations of how capitalism both produces and manages disability included Gary Albrecht's The Disability Business (1992), which explored how individual and cultural ideas of able-bodiedness and capability were driven by the need to get back to work—or to put people back to work.
Rehabilitation exercises a snowballing force. In modern health insurance systems, which are predicated on the distinction between sick and not-sick, rehabilitation even governs conditions in which a "return to an earlier state" would seem impossible or inapplicable. Dana Lee Baker, who has interviewed parents and primary caregivers of children with autism, finds a stubborn lag between cultural disability theory, which has persuasively critiqued the idea of cure or normalization, and the behavior of many health-care professionals, whom she finds "struggl[ing] with differences they cannot (and, perhaps, should not) attempt to cure." Stiker describes the system this way:
Rehabilitation—without anyone paying attention to it or resisting it, rehabilitation as a fact—accepts as its norm the empirical norm. The very name alone indicates this. The most widely held belief is, in fact, that if you devote sufficient resources, it is possible to reduce the distance and bring each person, however great the burden she carries, to reoccupy a normal place in the group of the able (the normal). (135)
Rehabilitation thus goes much further than helping people walk after car accidents, or relieving the symptoms of PTSD. As Robert McRuer shows, it takes the distinctiveness of identities away; it confers identity in the sense of "generic sameness" without guaranteeing identity in the sense of equality; on the contrary, it tends to erase identity in the sense of distinctiveness or distinction (113). Rehabilitation, in other words, requires compliance with the status quo, a point that will become a critical point of resistance for Tomson Highway's protagonists.
Reservations about (Rehabilitative) Reservations
Reservations—the physical, geographic spaces "set aside" for indigenous people—make the people who live there sick. The creation of reserves, worldwide, was (and is) a land grab. By promising forever to protect designated tracts for aboriginal people, invaders neatly "open up" all the land "left over" for colonial settlement. In so doing, they don't simply move a land's original inhabitants out of the way. They also cut off indigenous people's access to traditional and sustainable food sources, either by limiting the territories needed for hunting and gathering or removing people to new (and often undesirable) territory altogether. The initial creation of reserves the world over thus caused starvation and malnutrition, and continues to cause related illnesses like diabetes. Overcrowding in substandard reservation housing has also tended to produce diseases like tuberculosis and asthma. These patterns have been well-documented by historians including Mary-Ellen Kelm, who in Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia explains the intimate connection between indigenous land and indigenous health: "chiefs knew that the 'land question' would be answered in the bodies of their children"; "when [they] approached the Canadian government to protest inadequate reserve allocations, restrictions on the food fishery, over-hunting and over-trapping, images of the weakening bodies of their people stood before them" (37).
Kelm might easily add that the image of weakened chiefs, in turn, stood before the government officials. But there is no indication that colonial officials recognized weakened Native bodies as the products of their own policies; instead, they pathologized Native bodies and Native cultures. Even today, we continue to hear that Indians were too weak to resist New World microbes, that they have some kind of genetic predispositions to diabetes or alcoholism, they need intervention and management in the form of the Indian Health Service, substance abuse programming, and so forth. But this discourse is actually quite old. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson pontificated about the health risks of Native subsistence practices: "No wonder then if they multiply less than we do": tribes, he said, were overly dependent "upon the gleanings of the forest; that is, they experience a famine once in every year" (113). The solution—conveniently, for Jefferson and his fellow yeoman farmers—was to convert Native practices to Anglo-American agrarian styles of food production and land ownership. Thus, although return to an "earlier state" is unthinkable under settler colonialism—that "earlier state" being a precolonial one, in which indigenous people employ the sustainable subsistence methods that have in turn sustained them and their cultures for centuries—the creation of reservations was underwritten by its own entirely hypocritical rehabilitative logic. Reservations were declared necessary for the normalization, sanitation and rescue of people unable to take care of themselves. And they were definitely about compliance, about making indigenous people stay put. 4
Cree people in northern Manitoba, where Kiss of the Fur Queen is set, managed to elude this kind of wholesale relocation and consolidation until the decade the anthropologist Robert Brightman calls "the centrifugal 1950s" (17). At that point, the Canadian government's hunt for mineral resources pushed more aggressively northward, and, with that, so did increased plane and train transportation, new forms of wage labor, government housing, schools, and so forth. But until the end of World War II, many Cree people continued traditional patterns of seasonal movement for hunting and fishing, in traditionally organized small family bands. This is the picture Tomson Highway paints, at least, when he opens his novel in 1951. The caribou hunter Abraham Okimasis is heading home by dogsled after winning the championship dog derby. His neighbors are still tending their fires, living in extended families, telling their traditional stories.
While the novel doesn't romanticize the life that preceded major land development, it does offer early representations of a community that accommodates people who are disabled or differently abled: "addled" Cousin Annie, "half-crazed" Cousin Kookoos (16), a one-eyed Uncle (25), a woman with an unexplained head bump (25), and several alcoholic characters who are not doing much harm. These characters do not appear as metaphors of moral failing, nor as allegories of what impending modernization might do to humans. Nor do they appear as the flip side of those representations, what Michael Bérubé characterizes as a "linkage of exceptionality with disability…whereby disability is rendered as exceptionality and thereby redeemed" (569). These characters do not even appear, particularly, as the kind of "embodied dissent" that Michelle Jarman finds in the unruly, disabled characters of Leslie Silko's Almanac of the Dead, who have unique critical purchase on hegemonic systems and boundaries. Rather, Highway's disabled characters are no more, and no less, remarkable or "colorful" than any others, equal participants in the community's everyday life.
But this matter-of-fact approach to disability changes in subsequent chapters, set in 1958, when the colonial juggernaut is bringing a new wave of illness, trauma, disability and dysfunction. Under encouragement from the local priest and over the objections of his wife, Abraham decides to put Jeremiah on a seaplane to the Birch Lake Indian Residential school, to be followed by younger Gabriel the next year. This is made possible by the arrival of a new airstrip and road at the home village. Meanwhile, Sooni-ee-gimow, or the Department of Indian Affairs, has been relocating more and more people to this village, away from the bush and remote family bands on the supposition that, once concentrated, they could be given better housing and services. But the old "lopsided log cabins" (15) are being traded in for linoleum-lined plywood boxes (110), which one old neighbor complains have "walls so thin a man could hear his neighbor fart and chip off the ice on February mornings" (111).
All these "improvements" literally make Cree people sick. Both brothers are raped and traumatized at the boarding school (110). The new planes coming into the reserve bring caseloads of whisky, which, coupled with the removal of people from the caribou hunting that traditionally sustained them, ushers in immediate community decline. By the middle of the book, set around 1969, the Okimasis boys' mother has a full time job spying on all the "child murders, wife beatings and fire bombings" (135). With "the booze flowing in like blood from slaughtered caribou," comments Abraham, "they don't shoot guns into the air to mark the new year [anymore], they shoot each other" (137). Caribou blood is no mere metaphor for liquor; it is a material substance on which Cree survival, health, and able-bodiedness depend, a substance that alcohol, a colonial import, has physically replaced.
Highway realizes this point in a slapstick scene: the plane that has just unloaded all the whisky is also Gabriel's ride to residential school. As the plane lifts off, one of the drunken revelers at this surreal cargo cult 5 chases Gabriel's godmother into the outhouse with an empty bottle. When she tries to get out, the wind-blown door knocks her out, leaving her on the ground "lifeless as a day-old corpse" (112). As economically as he linked the destruction of the caribou hunt to community alcohol abuse, Highway dramatizes the violent cycle of rehabilitative government policy and genocide. Residential schools, like government housing, were supposed to be for the betterment of Native people; but Native "betterment" and cultural erasure were two sides of the same coin, as far as colonial authorities were concerned. One of Canada's most notorious Superintendents of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, infamously said that the goal of the residential school system was "to get rid of the Indian problem…to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic"(qtd. in McKegney 28). 6 The result, highly publicized now in Canada but by no means peculiar to that country, is widespread trauma and community dissolution as the result of the abuse that young people like Gabriel routinely experienced in the schools, from outright sexual assault to the severing of their family ties to the suppression of their language and other cultural practices. 7 The airplane that takes Gabriel steals one of the community's most precious resources—its children—only to replace him with poison. In this, Gabriel's twisted ascension brings to mind an observation by Mary-Ellen Kelm, who found that Native elders knew that colonial policies would be worked out "in the bodies of their children" (37).
Years later, Gabriel and his brother attend their first fancy black-tie party, where they overhear a further, revealing exchange:
"Northern Manitoba? … Ripe for the plucking" …
"Diamonds? … Try uranium, try natural gas …" (141).
Once indigenous people have been pathologized, labeled "the Indian problem," the path is clear for colonial exploitation. Native dis-ability means that they are unable to manage their own resources—their children, their trees and game, their uranium. Native mortality means that their land is available for the taking. Native health and well-being likewise depend on the health and stewardship of the land. Temporarily, at least, Gabriel and Jeremiah turn their backs on the troubled Cree reserve, as though it has ceased to be a space that can accommodate any Cree people—sick or well, able-bodied or otherwise.
Rehabilitating the Reservation
It is all too common to pathologize reservations as places of chronic dysfunction, and a number of indigenous writers and activists have attempted to rehabilitate the reservation as a site of Native self-determination and self-renewal. A particular Native novelistic tradition, in fact, identified by William Bevis, uses the "homing in" plot: if mainstream Euro-American bildungsromans have their protagonists always leaving home in search of self-actualization, Bevis argued, then many Native novels work in the opposite direction, bringing their characters back to tribal communities, very often to heal. By no means are "tribal communities" located solely on reservations; but in Bevis's reading—based on now-canonical works like D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded; N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn; Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony; James Welch's Death of Jim Loney—"home" is usually a reservation.
It will be instructive to examine how "homing in" works as rehabilitation in two murder mysteries published by another queer Native author at around the same time as Kiss of the Fur Queen: Along the Journey River (1996) and Evil Dead Center (1997). Both of these books are out of print and have received next to no critical attention. Their author, however, is known, as the subject of Mona Smith's (Dakota) 1988 documentary, Her Giveaway. In it, Carole LaFavor recounts her experiences recovering from substance abuse and living with HIV/AIDS. LaFavor served on President Clinton's Task Force for HIV/AIDS between 1995 and 1997, and has written about the disease in several essays. 8 In her novels, though, she chooses not to represent AIDS directly.
Rehabilitation, on the other hand, is very much present in these books, embodied in their protagonist. LaFavor's detective, Renee LaRoche, has been active in the Red Sobriety movement for several years, recovering from the alcoholism that killed most of her family. She "homes in" on the Red Earth Reservation, 9 leaving Minneapolis's seedy Franklin Avenue behind. The city "encouraged her descent into drugs and alcohol" (Journey 116), but the reservation is a space for healing; LaRoche finds she's "glad she'd returned to the reservation—coming back to herself, to who she really was" (Evil 19). Return to the reservation in this case means rehabilitation in the sense of full re-integration—psychically, culturally, and familially, and physically. Back at home, LaRoche offers cultural classes to local youth, and enjoys a stable, monogamous relationship with a white women's studies professor, Samantha. She's also an avid runner, with a healthy, attractive body that can nimbly cover the reservation's rugged terrain and cliffs. 10
Although compulsory able-bodiedness is suspect in disability studies, some scholars have begun carving out a compelling place for such representations, especially in the writings of people of color. In her study of pre-Vietnam African-American war literature, for instance, Jennifer James traces a profound "hesitance to offer graphic descriptions of black bodies and minds physically and psychically wounded in warfare" (232); she finds that the cultural assumptions linking black disability to exclusion from the body politic have historically run so deep that writers were prompted to endorse a "black politics of rehabilitation." Anna Mollow, meanwhile, has worked to recuperate "stories of overcoming [illness]" which are usually anathema in disability studies. Mollow argues that, for women of color in particular, lack of access to medical resources is a much more threatening and immediate problem than is incorporation into any ideology of normalcy. In this case, she writes, "[h]ighlighting individuals' power in relation to oppressive political and economic structures" can work as "powerful antidote to despair"(284). Narratives of able-bodiedness, then, can sometimes do useful cultural work, depending on who is writing them, and who is receiving them.
This would likely be LaFavor's position, especially given her grounding in the Native Recovery movement, which does deploy a distinct rehabilitative logic, as illustrated in the movement's foundational text, The Red Road to Wellbriety:
…recovery is more than the removal of alcohol and other drugs from an otherwise unchanged life. Wellbriety is a larger change in personal identity and values and a visible change in one's relationship with others. It is about physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health. Wellbriety is founded on the recognition that we cannot bring one part of our lives under control while other parts are out of control. It is the beginning of a quest for harmony and wholeness within the self, the family and the tribe.(f)
Underwritten by this logic, LaFavor's novels do imply a contract: in exchange for giving up alcohol, Renee gets "wholeness within her self" (her health), within her family (monogamy), and within her tribe (her cultural re-integration). She appears, that is, to be under control. It's worth noting, though, that unlike the contract described by McRuer (in which, in exchange for assimilation, "no complaints will be made"), the indigenous rehabilitative contract contains an important loophole: it is generally concerned with communities, not just individuals; and it is generally in the service of indigenous cultural difference. Indeed, most indigenous leaders and activists construe substance abuse as the direct product of colonialism, in contradistinction to discourses about genetic or physiological predispositions to disease, which serve only to pathologize Native people further. They see dramatic experiential and statistical correlations between public health issues like alcoholism, domestic violence, and youth suicide, on the one hand, and government policies like forced relocation away from traditional subsistence economies, environmental degradation, residential school abuse, and the suppression of their cultural practices on the other. 11 And they present recovery explicitly as decolonization. 12
Thus, far from making "no complaints," LaFavor is "vigorous about exposing the complicity of state-sanctioned institutions in damaging and subjugating" indigenous people, in the words of one of the few literary studies to mention her work (Pepper 165). We can read her exposé specifically in terms of those institutions' complicity in compromising indigenous health. Along the Journey River, for example, shows that Native men are used—and then discarded—by a racist U.S. military (137); that entire families are suffering, "crammed into the four-room rectangles" of BIA housing (101). In fact, the crimes that Renee helps the tribal police solve are usually crimes against Ojibwa lands and bodies: a marijuana ring in the Chippewa National Forest (Journey 40); the wholesale theft of, and global black-market trade in, ceremonial objects from sacred sites (the subject of Journey); a pornography ring run by a social service agency legally bound to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act (the subject of Evil Dead Center). As in Kelm's study, the very institutions that arrive on the reservation to "protect" Native people and "manage" their problems are the sources of those problems. Grave robbers, social workers, federal officials, archaeologists all swarm the reservation, threatening the people and their land.
Purged of such ills, the reservation becomes a home for a range of people with visible and less-visible disabilities. LaFavor attributes these accommodations to pre-colonial ideals maintained by the elders. The rehabilitated Ojibwa community has room for people often discarded by the world outside the reservation, including Two-Spirited people, sexual abuse survivors, alcoholics and the mentally ill: "Ojibwa madness didn't mean throwing people away," the elders explained; rather, it meant accommodating "someone caught between two realities, the elders explained, with a soul in such a hurry to come back to this world it hadn't disengaged from the spirit world" (Journey 16-17). Rennie gathers medicines with her grandmother on the family homestead, a peaceful and pristine cabin, lake and forest that "government rhetoric labeled 'without improvements'" (9). From this base, Gram works as a medicine woman, "called to doctor bruises, pneumonia, or problems brought on by decades of stoop labor" (10). It's as though the reservation itself, like Renee, is in recovery.
LaFavor's novels offer an opportunity to examine the productive possibilities of imaginatively rehabilitating reservations. At the same time, however, that rehabilitation comes with an evident cost, insofar as the books ironically revert to distinctions among the "good" disabled and the bad. The villain of Evil Dead Center is a child pornographer who is crippled (not "cripped") by polio (102). At the story's climax, he chases Renee with "only minor difficulty for a man with his disability" (161), nearly overpowering her by throwing one of his leg braces at her (183). This is all too familiar: "disability as bearer of moral deficit/evil," to invoke Ato Quayson's useful taxonomy of disability representations (52). The question is, does the production of such disabled and evil Others owe anything to reliance on the reservation as the site of identity, community, and renewal? At least in this instance, LaFavor's language would seem to suggest that it does: "some sickies had taken root in [the nearby town of] Granite Rock and on the rez, like deadly nightshade growing in the community" (130). The ethnobotanical metaphor points to the limits of the rehabilitative contract. For while LaFavor's novels suggest how appealing it might be to reclaim the colonial space of the reservation and the language of rehabilitation, they can't seem to avoid construing these rehabbed spaces and bodies as needing to be protected against toxic and invasive outsiders.
I return now to a book in which there is no promise of a particular geopolitical space for Cree renewal, and in which the character who has AIDS dies; and yet it is a book that is infinitely more optimistic and imaginative about life beyond rehabilitation and reservations.
From Reservations and Rehabilitation to Reciprocity
Like Along the Journey River and Evil Dead Center, Kiss of the Fur Queen depicts cities as dangerous places for Native people, 13 and it attributes indigenous illness and disability directly to colonialism. But unlike LaFavor's books, it cannot seem to send the Okimasis brothers home to get well or reclaim their identities. Instead, Jeremiah and Gabriel shuttle back and forth from the reservation to the city, and between varying forms of sickness and health.
A Cree writer might have deeply embedded, traditional reasons for being resistant to rehabilitating the reservation. As I noted above, the ethnographic literature suggests that, well into the twentieth century, many Cree families were still living in small, mobile, and flexible bands. Echoing Naomi Adelman, who finds Cree people strongly identified with the unbounded space of "the bush," Robert Brightman also finds "no indication that the regional or local bands had definite territorial boundaries, and families were free to leave one and join another, permanently or temporarily, in which they had kinsmen. The flexibility of band size and composition was directly related to the environmental exploitation and seasonal adaptations" (259). Without a specific, bounded land base compelling the formation of identity, and without a homogenous or fixed community doing the same—or without, at least, wishing to comply with such structures, Tomson Highway imagines other forms of identification as and with Cree.
He also imagines other forms of well-being. Indeed, compliance would appear to be anathema to this queer novelist, who, in 1998, managed to write a gay Native protagonist with AIDS, who at the same time must be one of the healthiest, horniest such characters in Native literature. An entire, and entirely enjoyable paper could be written on Gabriel's transgressive, unremitting homosexual desire and activity—when he's shopping in a department store, when he's walking city streets, when (best of all) he's receiving communion in church. Gabriel does it everywhere, and wants it everywhere, especially in colonial spaces. But I am interested here in two key scenes where Gabriel has sex right outside of AIDS clinics, and right after getting bad news.
Immediately upon getting his blood test, Gabriel zeroes in on a newspaper showing a famous and handsome singer; as soon as he's outside the building, still distracted by the image, he trips over a small dog, and ducks behind the clinic to fellate the dog's owner, a man "squished like paté into motorcycle leather…while the pretty white poodle watch[es] philosophically" (282). And he's not done there: in the very next scene Gabriel goes to a bathhouse and picks up the famous singer he's just read about, after which the two are seen "skip[ping] across the boulevard…singing, sliding, and dancing through a park aglitter with moonlight and ice" (283). Far from restricting, stigmatizing or domesticating the pleasures of men having sex with men (like a good deal of mainstream writing from the 1980s and early 1990s), Fur Queen presents Gabriel's desire as beautiful, as fabulous—the basis of contingent connections of trust and delight. Without essentializing the "Cree-ness" of his movements, we might recall Robert Brightman's characterization of Cree families—"free to leave one and join another, permanently or temporarily, [wherever] they had kinsmen," and see, perhaps, that Gabriel is queering the Cree, or Cree-ing the queer, while cripping both of those identities. When he goes down on the leatherman, "employing all the trickery" he has learned in his travels, he is likewise both trick and trickster—queer, Cree and crip all at once.
The second episode (that is, the second episode of anonymous sex outside a clinic after getting bad news) starts with Gabriel's doctor telling him he has pneumonia and advising him, "You'll have to be extra careful. Conserve your energy, no alcohol, no drugs…folks in your position have gone on to lead full lives for a dozen, fifteen years. It's all in the attitude." Accordingly, Gabriel leaves with his new medical equipment, lights a cigarette, and picks up the businessman who "ambled by, did a double-take, then stopped, apparently to revel in the view. The old charge shot up Gabriel's vertebrae, then back down to his groin. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the alleyway behind the clinic, respirator in hand like a briefcase, a hundred bucks tucked away" (295). Highway never elides the complicated questions of power in these encounters—between, for instance, a businessman (who is presumably, though not necessarily, part of the colonial apparatus) and a young Native artist who needs money. But when Gabriel carries the respirator "in hand like a briefcase," he has at least temporarily disturbed or inverted that power relation. By carrying it like a briefcase, too, like an ancillary tool of highly paid work, he has also subverted the power of the respirator, which is ostensibly designed to prolong his life, but which will also slow him down. On the eve of his biggest dance performance, Gabriel reserves the right to determine what constitutes "a full life." He will spend his energy, not "conserve" it. 14 In Gabriel's "attitude," queer desire, coursing "up his vertebrae and down to his groin," wins.
The word "compliance" is commonly bandied about people with AIDS: are they "compliant" with their drug regimens, for instance. AIDS now presents long-term survivors with a host of conditions that beg either to be cured, or at least managed to the point of invisibility. Again, though, rehabilitation comes with serious costs. Reducing visible symptoms like Kaposi's sarcoma might mean spending most of the day on the toilet with the side effects of powerful drugs. The body with AIDS, in some arenas like film and magazines, now looks healthy and robust (the Tom Hanks of Philadelphia has given way to the supermodels of Bristol Myer-Squibb), which arguably serves the comfort of the surrounding culture more than it does the people who must live with the disease. Tomson Highway avoids both traps: Gabriel's body is neither abject and pitiable, nor seamlessly rehabilitated and toned. It is, however, beautiful. In the last weeks of his life, even as the now-famous Cree dancer searches his body for lesions and looks in his dressing-room mirror for signs of thrush, a newspaper reports him to be "surely the most beautiful man who ever walked the earth" (285). In this sense, Highway's novel is a tender homage to his brother René, for the character Gabriel is an angel, gracefully floating away from the rehabilitative contract.
Ultimately, Gabriel shows Jeremiah the way to escape that contract, as well. The two are estranged for a period, as Jeremiah turns sour in the city, flirting with alcoholism, misogyny, and homophobia. In Toronto, he even tries a job in rehabilitation, scooping drunks off the streets and working with Indian children from broken homes. But he runs up against the inadequacies of the legal system for redressing colonial violence when a six-year old boy tells him, "a Weetigo ate me" (271). The Weetigo is the cannibalistic monster of Cree and Anishinaabe oral tradition, often invoked today by indigenous people as a metaphor for colonialism—violent and voracious. Jeremiah has seen this monster earlier, when he comes upon a priest raping Gabriel at residential school, "a dark, hulking figure hover[ing] over him, like a crow…the Weetigo feasting on human flesh" (79). Throughout the novel, Weetigo comes to symbolize not only predatory colonial sexual violence, but also the internalization of that violence. Indeed, Weetigo was traditionally understood among Cree as a mental illness or psychosis. 15 Jeremiah, himself a survivor of residential school abuse, feels himself dangerously turning Weetigo—when he condemns his brother for being gay, or when he finds himself disturbed by a "raging hard-on" (271) when that young child at the Indian center discloses his abuse.
He eventually turns back to Gabriel for help, and together, the Okimasis brothers address their trauma (their own, and the trauma of indigenous people writ large) by resisting rehabilitation and reservations. They update and perform the old Cree stories in the city, with Jeremiah writing the music and Gabriel providing the choreography. In this sense, they are doing what one Cree culture hero, Ayash, is told to do, especially to fight the Weetigo: "The world," his mother tells him, "has become too evil. With these magic weapons, make a new world" (227). In one performance, then, a muslin-wrapped Gabriel wrestles the Weetigo to the stage. In another, Jeremiah composes a "controversial" show called "Chachagathoo, the Shaman" (296), after the medicine woman in his home community. Chachagathoo had the ability to heal Weetigos—people who became "crazy" after the disappearance of the caribou—but because of this, the missionaries feared her, and sent her away to prison in Winnipeg (246), telling their parishioners that she had gone to hell for having "flouted the church…practiced witchcraft…(197). Once again, Kiss of the Fur Queen ties indigenous illness and disability to colonialism, for settler authorities commonly outlawed traditional healing practices. Jesuit missionary accounts from seventeenth-century Canada lobbed especial vitriol at what one priest called "miserable sorcerers" (Greer 73); even the allegedly sympathetic colonial writer Roger Williams complained that "the poore people commonly dye under [shamans'] hands, for alas, they administer nothing but howle and roare, and hollow over them" (198). Native people ostensibly had much less to fear from settler encroachment and depletion of their resources than they did from their own misguided practices.
Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis (and their incarnations, Tomson and René Highway) thus rank among the "medicine women, shamans, artists and visionaries" (17) who can save the Cree, though not by "homing in" to a reserve or other geographic haven, nor by rehabilitating themselves in any conventional sense. It is critical that Highway chooses to stage Cree renewal in dance and theater. As Jacqueline Shea Murphy explains in her history of Native American modern dance, many indigenous choreographers see "Aboriginal dancers' bodies as sites of investigation and connection to Native history, politics, and worldviews" (241). They are adamant that "the body [is] not just a site of individual memory, but of collective, ancestral memory spanning thousands of years" (242). With its deep roots in ritual, dance connects indigenous performers and audiences to ancestors, to animals, to spirits.
Dance and theater participate in and renew what Gros Ventre psychologist Joseph Gone calls "an ethos of reciprocity," which utterly depends on "a ceremonial practice in which ritual offerings …are made to powerful other-than-human Persons in exchange for gifts of long life, good health, guidance, survival, or 'a good, clean mind'" (295). Gone contends that, since Native people fully apprehend that the disruption of their traditional practices has been responsible for illness and dysfunction, "[i]t stands to reason…that the return to right relationships through revitalized ritual practice would be the most appropriate and effective of therapeutic intervention toward the healing of this community" (296). The challenge, of course, to a revitalized ritual practice is that so many of the tools needed for its enactment—particular plants or geographic locations, certain oral traditions, and indigenous language itself—have been eliminated or suppressed. In this context, Tomson Highway imagines new rituals, physical embodiments of colonial histories, and restorations to right practices.
"A Goddess in Fur": No Reservations
Gabriel Okimasis—the angel with AIDS—is only one of many disabled characters who refuse to comply with colonial regimes. Imagined as a baby who dropped into his family from the heavens, in accordance with Cree legend, he embraces a large community including his family and neighbors, his urban non-Aboriginal lovers and spectators, as well as animals, ancestors, and mythical figures. This last group includes the trickster, a role that, as suggested above, Gabriel himself sometimes plays. The multivalent Cree trickster, Weesageechak, appears all over this book, perhaps most powerfully in the figure of the fur queen. The blond bombshell who awards Abraham Okimasis his mushing trophy in the first chapter reappears in the last as a "creature of unearthly beauty…floating" towards Gabriel to usher him back into the "swirling mist" from which he came (306). Along the way, she watches, waits, and winks: she is a drunken transvestite in a bar, a murdered aboriginal woman, a weirdly grinning fox face at the end of a fur stole on a rich theater patron. The final sentence of the book has her looking back over Gabriel's shoulder at the mourning Jeremiah: "And winked" (306).
Diana Brydon reads this wink—initially disturbing, but ultimately reassuring—in postcolonial terms, as "an invitation to complicity, an ironic acknowledgement of doubleness," showing that "Cree perspectives survive, but in reconstituted and ambiguous forms" (21). To this we might add: the fur queen blankets tradition and modernity, bush subsistence as well as colonial trading economy and shopping-mall commodity. The fur queen is both colonial authority and queerly fabulous. In the end, even though she takes Gabriel away, she leaves him still able, in a sense, to perform. As one of Highway's chosen epigraphs puts it,
At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them, and still love this beautiful land. The whiteman will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people. For the dead are not powerless. (Chief Seattle of the Squamish, 1853)
Kiss of the Fur Queen therefore ends (and begins?) not with a particular earthly place (reservation) nor with a particular individual body or set of bodies (rehabilitated or otherwise). It shuttles, instead, between city and bush, "real" and "mythic," past, present and future. Many people have observed that Native American literature emphasizes "interconnectedness." The observation can be a little superficial, but Clare Barker offers a way to think through this ethos in terms useful to disability studies. In her reading of the New Zealand Maori novelists Keri Hulme and Patricia Grace, Barker finds a vision of "interdependence…advocating the centralization of disability in a redefined notion of community" (136). If disability studies can centralize disability in indigenous studies, then perhaps indigenous studies, for its part, can bring to disability studies new purchase on the relations between bodies and territories, and on varying forms of embodiment, including dis-embodiment.
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Siobhan Senier is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where she teaches Native American literature. She is the author of Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance (University of Oklahoma, 2000), editor of the online anthology Writing of Indigenous New England, and editor of the print anthology Dawnland Voices: Writing from Indigenous New England (forthcoming, University of Nebraska). She is also the editor, with Clare Barker, of a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies on "Indigeneity and Disability."
In the United States, many scholarly publications use the terms "Native American" or "American Indian." Among Native American writers and activists, "Indian" is also commonly used. In Canada, the preferred terms include "First Nations" and "Aboriginal." "Indigenous" is a term that seems to satisfy many people, although to some it implies an appeal to trans-global, politicized unity among different nations' original inhabitants. Like many scholars, I try many of these terms interchangeably, reflecting their contested nature, except when I can use tribally specific designations. I never mean to conflate the experiences of autochthonous (yet another term, rarely used) people, though this essay will be touching on historical events (land dispossession, forced relocations, residential schools) that are common to indigenous people in the United States and Canada, particularly.
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See McKegney for a discussion of the story's circuitous evolution from memoir to stage script to possible television screenplay, and then to novel. For a discussion of the ascendancy of the memoir in disability literature, see Thomas Couser.
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Novels, Davis has persuasively demonstrated, have since the mid-nineteenth century generated casts of disabled characters (blind, deaf, crippled, mentally ill), all in the service of underscoring their protagonists' normalcy. Davis ties this phenomenon to the consolidation of industrialization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and ideologies of progress, observing that "even in texts that do not appear to be about disability," there is an obsession with "surveying the terrain of the body" (48).
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During the mid- to late-nineteenth centuries, the heaviest period of reservation-making in the United States, Indian people who left reservations were forcibly returned by the military. For a fascinating discussion of late nineteenth-century panics over the travel of allegedly smallpox-carrying Indians across the U.S.-British Columbia border, see Jennifer Seltz.
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"Cargo cult" is the name applied to a phenomenon that has usually occurred in the southwest Pacific, where indigenous people have sometimes responded to the arrival of Western, manufactured goods by incorporating these into traditional rituals. During World War II, particularly, when Japanese and Allied forces airdropped large quantities of supplies in Melanesia, indigenous communities created replicas of these materials, and sometimes imitated soldiers' behavior and dress in an attempt to prompt further airdrops.
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A sentiment also infamously expressed in the United States by Carlisle Indian School founded Richard Henry Pratt, who called for schools to "kill the Indian and save the man."
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The literature on Indian boarding schools, and the abuse and trauma they produced, is extensive. See, for instance, histories by David Wallace Adams and Brenda Child; and memoirs by Basil Johnston (Ojibwa) and Isabelle Knockwood (Mi'kmaq).
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Her personal essay, "Walking the Red Road," appears in Rudd and Taylor (262-266). Her essay, "Native Women Living beyond HIV/AIDS Infection," co-authored with Linda Burhansstipanov et al., appears in Manlowe (337-356).
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Fictional, and probably a conflation of the names for "White Earth" and "Red Lake," two reservations in contemporary Minnesota.
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In Native communities and scholarship, running is often associated with health and healing, not just of the individual, but of entire communities. For a fascinating discussion of Hopi runners' purpose in restoring health to their communities and even home territories and landscapes, see Gilbert.
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The Lakota anthropologist Beatrice Medicine posthumously published a study of Native American drinking behaviors that she founded were directly influenced and taught by traders. For a history of the Native American recovery movement from a Native American persepective, see Don Coyhis. For an overview of the Aboriginal recovery movement in Canada, see Marie Wadden; and for a case study of the precipitous rise in alcoholism at Grassy Narrows, Ontario, after that community that was relocated to make way for a hydroelectric dam, see Anasatasia Shkilnyk.
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Joseph Gone (Gros Ventre) finds "the identification of colonization as the problem and cultural revitalization as the solution for personal and communal disorder and distress would appear to enjoy widespread appeal throughout many forums in contemporary Native America (292).
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Highway is especially concerned with the city as a violent place for aboriginal women. See Tompkins and Male.
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In queer studies, Lee Edelman has powerfully argued that the value of homosexuality lies in its rejection of a sentimental, and ultimately destructive "reproductive futurism."
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There is a large body of literature on the so-called "Weetigo [also spelled Windigo] psychosis." For a cogent overview, see Brightman's essay, "The Windigo in the Material World"; and for a discussion of windigos as metaphors for colonialism, see Forbes.
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