Indigenous Masculinities

Reviewed by Margery Fee

McKegney uses Indigenous accounts as a way of imagining how to undo the stereotype of the innately “bloodthirsty savage” that figures Indigenous men as a violent danger to their families, communities, and wider society. This stereotype justifies the colonial theft of land, incarceration of Indigenous peoples on fragments of territory, the removal of children from their (implicitly dangerous or inadequate) parents into various forms of state “care,” and racist disparities in the policing of Indigenous youth, women, and men. McKegney provides a thought-provoking overview of how Indigenous artists, scholars, and activists are producing alternative visions.

 

In 2014 McKegney published twenty interviews with leading Indigenous artists, critics, activists, and Elders as Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood. He draws on this community to think through dominant heteropatriarchal constructions of masculinity. He provides a model, particularly for non-Indigenous literary scholars, to support decolonization without (as usual and yet again) taking over. Indeed, he further points out that even Indigenous formulations of masculinities should avoid any presumption of leadership. That said, he notes a problem with zero-sum thinking around power. Quoting a tweet by Glen Coulthard that “critical indigenous masculinities should vacate not occupy space that indigenous feminist, queer and trans voices should occupy” (qtd. xiii, 93), he responds, “What if ‘indigenous masculinities’ . . . could work in solidarity with these other voices to seize more space from settler colonial power while working creatively to generate more space overall?” (106-107). (Note that this argument could be extended to settler scholars.)

 

McKegney ignores the convention that academic studies should cover the literature in the field, which is still predominantly written by and centred on non-Indigenous men. He thus situates Indigenous thinkers and artists who think masculinity otherwise as experts. He proves it by citing them: Jeannette Armstrong, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Beth Brant, Daniel Heath Justice, Rauna Kuokkanen, Rick Monture, Eden Robinson, Greg Scofield, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Smokii Sumac, Richard Van Camp, and many more.

 

McKegney begins with recent cases where a few Indigenous men signally failed to walk their talk, showing the impact of the dominant discourse that represents men as invariably strong (sometimes coercive or violent) and silent (often unable to deal with “feminine” emotion). Power is attractive: who hasn’t identified with the cool “bad boy” or the white-hatted cowboy, defender of the weak? Resisting romanticizing the “noble savage” in response, McKegney quotes Emma LaRocque to the effect that the abuse of women and girls didn’t begin with the arrival of European men (210n33). However, occasionally McKegney seems to imply that toxic masculinity is a post-contact infection like smallpox. At times I wanted him to deploy the word “dominant,” since even in mainstream society, as he himself exemplifies, other masculinities do survive, even if discouraged or derided. Imagining new ways of flourishing for all men, their families, and wider collectivities is vital. His use of the expression “ecologies of gender” reminds us that the restoration of degraded ecosystems can encourage new growth, even abundance.

 

McKegney is rethinking masculinity studies “from below” in the company mainly of Fourth World scholars. Nonetheless, a throughline is his use of Deleuzian terms, which he explains with reference to Claire Colebrook’s Understanding Deleuze: “if territorialization refers to the ‘connective forces that allow any form of life to become what it is’ then deterritorialization is the process through which a form of life is coerced ‘to become what it is not’” (2; see also 203n1). McKegney connects bodies with agency to a larger sentient territory: the land. Under heteropatriarchy and extractive capitalism, lands, bodies, spirits, and desires have similarly been laid waste. Indigenous thought, however, prioritizes the whole person in relationship, rather than the Enlightenment’s rational self-sufficient man. McKegney makes clear that what we are is not determined by blood quantum (23), a notion that can “vanish” children with mixed parentage. But how do we come to know who we are? If Indigenous people adopted out as babies can’t be Indigenous by blood, for example, who can they be? Kin, even generously defined, has implicit limits in this book, but where these lie perhaps can only be worked out case by (sometimes painful) case.

 

Tags giving the national affiliations of the cited writers proliferate, demonstrating the many sovereignties at stake in resurgence. Here are a few from the introduction: “enrolled Cherokee scholar” (x), “Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg theorist,” “non-citizen Cherokee scholar” (xxviii), “settler” (xv), “Kanien’kaha:ka activist and artist” (xxxi). Many are self-identifications, but I suspect that some are not. McKegney also labels himself to expose what he sees as his experiential limitation as a “white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, settler male—who is father, husband, sibling, son, uncle, and university professor” (xv). He does note the “catastrophic” effects of “disciplinary structures of classification” used by residential schools to impose heteronormativity (28). Categorical tags or lists can have a downside. Right now we are in a cultural location where publicly stating what once were seen as private or irrelevant details is almost the norm. I know the arguments for positionality, for thinking about our privilege or lack of it, and for situating myself on stolen land, but how far need we go? As Drew Hayden Taylor once joked, soon we’ll want to have our credentials tattooed on our foreheads. This focus on identity is now likely necessary to reveal and unsettle systemic structures, but it can also pin people down.

 

By naming myself a white settler, acknowledging my complicity in land theft and genocide, I signal my role in Indigenous Studies. Both McKegney and I hope to change ourselves, our students, and our readers by engaging with Indigenous thinkers first. Early on, he quotes Leanne Simpson’s words: “there is virtually no room for white people in resurgence” (xvi). Not in resurgence, which by definition is led by Indigenous peoples, but certainly in the wider society and in the academy, which need ongoing work to become a place where Indigenous teachings are honoured. Carrying the Burden of Peace is a title for our times, when making peace with each other and the land requires the same engagement and care that McKegney has put into this study.

 

Works Cited

Colebrook, Claire. Understanding Deleuze. Allen and Unwin, 2002.

McKegney, Sam, editor. Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood. U of Manitoba P, 2014.

Taylor, Drew Hayden. “Introduction: Pretty Like a White Boy.” Funny, You Don’t Look Like One: Observations from a Blue-Eyed Ojibway, Theytus Books, 1996, pp. 9-14.



This review “Indigenous Masculinities” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Sep. 2022. Web.

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