Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day, so in honor of that holiday, we’re talking about queer Native American history this week!
I sat down with Professor Andrés C. López, an Afro-Indio-Jamaican-Guatemalan-Trans-Queer scholar in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. His wide-ranging, interdisciplinary work includes a focus on the long reaching effects of colonization on Indigenous cultures’ understanding of gender and gender expression.
I first asked about how best one could even begin to understand the all-encompassing effects colonizers had on Indigenous communities. López started by pointing to the fact that Indigenous peoples often had very different conceptions of gender than did the colonizers, and he cited language as a point of comparison. He cited Maya K’iche’ language as a prime example: “The whole language doesn't have a gender. It's ungendered.”
But when the Spanish arrived, the conquistadors imposed their own (gendered) language on the Native population. He acknowledged the devastating impact of this imposition by tracing its effects on his own family: “Language shifts the paradigm by which you're able to even talk about things,” he explained. “My family has a really hard time with my pronouns, because in Spanish you can't think, do, or be anything without it being gendered.”
He also cited the example from Deborah Miranda’s work on Chumash people of California, who had three genders: male, female, and joya. Joyas crossed gender lines and performed both types of roles: “The joyas themselves have specific roles and responsibilities within the community that no other people could do, because they could move back and forth between different types of gender roles and responsibilities,” said López.
Because they didn’t fit within the gender binary, joyas often received the most severe punishments from their oppressors. Indigenous communities sometimes hid them from public (colonial) view as a protective measure, but that had the unintended effect of erasing their cultural roles. Eventually, these roles were eliminated, and the knowledge they carried was lost altogether.
I asked López how best we could understand what else was lost due to colonialism. He pointed to the erasure not only of people like the joyas, but also to the practices and traditions they carried. “We lost people, physical people,” said López. “And we've lost stories.”
While modern scholars have been able to identify the wide-ranging devastation that colonialism has caused and continues to cause, that doesn’t mean the effects are easily undone. “We can't go back to a pre-contact, or pre-colonization moment,” López acknowledged. “Because, again, people were removed from their home communities, they were assimilated in some way.” When these folks returned to their communities, they would often replicate the ideology that was forced upon them by colonizers.
But Indigenous people today are trying to remember and reclaim these lost traditions and re-integrate them into their lives and communities. Since 1990, some North American Indigenous peoples started using the term “Two-Spirit,” acknowledging their Indigenous heritage and the fact that they exist outside the gender binary. As López put it, “the way that gender and sexuality function in Indigenous communities is not the same as it would be in the dominant culture. [Two-Spirit identity is] an attempt at talking about stuff outside of the binary and talking about stuff within a specific Indigenous sovereignty.”
In his own work, López reckons with how colonization manifests itself in the modern era. He’s specifically focused on the surveillance of resistance groups, and he studies the Guatemalan Civil War and the genocide of Maya people. “The US had an invested interest in helping the Guatemalan military and police in pursuing similar types of surveillance practices used in the States, because they wanted to prevent communism,” he explained. He contended that this surveillance is a modern, insidious form of colonialism. After all, said López, “what Guatemala tries to do is always mitigated by the US’s interests.”
Above all, López is focused on justice for Indigenous peoples. But what does “justice” even mean to those who have been so wronged over the course of centuries? “What does justice look like for Indigenous communities?” asked López. It’s a conversation that continues to this day, and Indigenous activists are working tirelessly to combat the painful, ongoing legacy of colonialism. And thanks to the efforts of academics like López, Indigenous communities and their previously lost practices are being documented and enshrined via research and scholarship, helping to ensure that their traditions will never be lost––through violence or the passage of time––ever again.
To learn more about several topics López touched on above, and to access some of his own scholarly work, please see the links below:
Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California by Deborah A. Miranda
Ni de aquí ni de alla: A Mythohistoriography of Growing Up In-Between by Andrés C. López
Cover image: Katherine Davis-Young / The Washington Post via Getty Images