Radical Indigenous Queer Feminism is Ceremony

"I talk about my identity openly because of the Indigenous and queer voices that were silenced before me."

When I was a young girl, I remember asking my mom what a “feminist” was, and if she considered herself one. I was so shy about it—it wasn’t a word we ever used in our household, yet I felt like what I knew of feminism was definitely present in our lives. My mother is very strong and, at times, was often the parent earning more income. My mom replied, “Yes, I am a feminist,” to which I responded: “Well, can I be one too?” An “Of course!” automatically came after.

This was the conception of how I would come to describe myself as a radical Indigenous queer feminist. To know this identity within myself as a first person of the land I live on is to be radical in each of my identities: Indigenous, queer, and feminist. It is in the way our people practice our culture, and how native womxn’s feminism doesn’t have to adhere to colonized “waves” of it—rather, it flows as a river in the generations of our trauma and celebrations as native people. There is no wave.

I’m currently on a big tour around the USA and am getting a first-hand look at what colonization has evolved into, through freeway sightseeing, neighborhood strolls, various weird gas station stops, and the ever-present entity that is capitalism in the USA. This isn’t my first tour rodeo and yet, the way North America is set up hasn’t seemed to change much throughout my years of touring. Before I left on my tour, my band Black Belt Eagle Scout played an Indigenous music and art event in Seattle, Washington set up by my friend Demien DinéYazhi’ (Diné). The event was at the University of Washington’s small museum called The Henry Art Gallery. Demien had invited poets from around the Northwest and some of their friends’ bands, including Weedrat (Diné) and NizhóníGirls (Diné and Laguna Pueblo) from Albuquerque, New Mexico. This was my first time playing with all Indigenous bands and, not to sound dramatic, but it changed my life.

There is a special magic that happens, I think, when indigenous people get together to share creatively. Just like at powwows or Canoe Journeys, the event was ceremony to me. It was also different from all other shows I’ve played, because the majority of the crowd seemed to be made up of Indigenous people and people of color. Most of the shows I play are to an almost all-white crowd; with the kind of political feelings in the music I play, it can be hard to only play to that demographic. There is little to no understanding there—the sort of understanding that people of color have for one another—and it reminds me of the kind of emotional labor people of color experience when they have to explain time and again the intricacies of racism to white people. It reminded me that I need to do more to change the kinds of shows I play so that they are inclusive of all identities.

When I was in college, I studied anthropology, sociology, gender, and French. My anthropology and gender studies classes always seemed to melt together, so that became the focus of my major. I had a pretty good experience as an undergrad student. I met so many incredible people and got to explore the queer side of my identity—partly from the newfound freedom of being an adult outside of my parents’ house, but also because the city of Portland, Oregon has always had a vibrant queer scene. As with any good experience, there were still some misgivings involved, and one of the biggest for me was feeling isolated as an indigenous and queer womxn at my school. I remember feeling so frustrated in my upper level feminist theory class, because the “feminist theory” defined in the course did not include any indigenous voices, nor were there very many POC voices in our syllabus. Feminist theory was a required course for my Gender Studies minor, and it was rooted in a Marxist and white-feminist theory that was so cringe-worthy at times. Even if you get out of the reservation and into college, colonization still follows you into these institutions like a ghost.

Part of me wishes I would have sought out a different educational system, one that had more of a cultural root to it, but I have to admit, I was young and wanted to experience the life Portland had to offer. That being said, the frustration that I felt built up to my next step of expressing these feelings through music. I wish that someday, all of our educational systems within the United States will consist of the native voices of those who have come before us. I think there is so much rich history to learn about within native communities, and yet the reason we don’t learn about that is because our government is still rooted in this country’s colonization and the genocide of its Indigenous people. It is a forced system that wouldn’t have to exist if we could open up to see how cross-cultural studies can be helpful to human life.

I started Black Belt Eagle Scout as a way to express myself solely and in a genuine way. I had been playing in bands where I was a contributing member, but never in a band where I was the only songwriter and recording artist. Going into my late 20s, I desperately needed this kind of project in my life to feel like all of the time and energy put into learning my instruments was being put to a fulfilling creative force. I talk about my identity openly because of the Indigenous and queer voices that were silenced before me. I talk about my identity openly because my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught me to. I talk about my identity openly because I have the privilege to. I talk about my identity openly because there are more identities out there like mine that don’t get a platform to be visible. I talk about my identity openly for them, and I talk about my identity openly because I want Indigenous and queer youth to have the ability to as well. My sense of Radical Indigenous Queer Feminism is not just for me—it is for all people to embrace in their own way. It is for ceremony. It is for fighting for our rights as indigenous people and as queer people and as womxn. It is for writing in the English language as a way to decolonize how feminism is made up today. It is for love of my people. Quyana/Asium.   

Katherine Paul is Black Belt Eagle Scout, and after releasing an EP in 2014, Paul has wrapped up the band’s first full-length. Recorded in the middle of winter near her hometown in Northwest Washington, the landscape’s eerie beauty and Paul’s connection to it are palpable on Mother of My Children. Stemming from this place, the album traces the full spectrum of confronting buried feelings and the loss of what life was supposed to look like.

Paul grew up in a small Indian reservation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, surrounded by family focused on native drumming, singing, and arts. “Indigenous music is the foundation for all of my music,” Paul explains. From an early age, Paul was singing and dancing at powwows with one of her strongest memories at her family’s own powwow, called the All My Relations Powwow. Paul reminisces, “When I was younger, my only form of music was through the songs my ancestors taught the generations of my family. Singing in our language is a spiritual process and it carries on through me in how I create music today.”

Mother of My Children is a life chapter gently preserved, and the access listeners have to such vulnerability feels special and generous. We are left wanting more, and all signs point to Black Belt Eagle Scout just getting started.

(Photo Credit: Jason Quigley)