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In the first part of January, there was an exchange over the email list of the Association of Internet Researchers that started with a scholar looking for pointers to sources on social-media-based tribes. In addition to responses that just answered the question came some that were critical of the racist/colonialist underpinnings of the term “tribe” itself.

(I’m torn here between giving those contributors credit and respecting that what they said was not, strictly, public, particularly given AoIR’s long history of thinking about online research ethics and protecting the identities of one’s sources. So I’m erring on the side of not naming names or even quoting, since that would be Google-able).

The conversation about “tribe” raised a question for me: Can we separate out the usefulness of “tribe” as a type-of-social-organization term from its racist/primitivist history? And if we can’t, how can we talk about those forms of social organization?

It just so happened that I had an upcoming meeting of my queer studies reading group that was going to look at queer indigenous studies, so I put the topic on hold in anticipation of the insight that reading and group discussion would provide. And, sure enough, it did.

(What follows is heavily influenced by having read and discussed excerpts from Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, but in a way that makes it hard to point to specific page numbers. So, this is both a blanket citation and a blanket disclaimer that he may not think about this the same way I do. It might be more accurate to say, like those old anti-drug commercials: This is my brain on Morgensen.)

It seems clear that “tribe” in online contexts works in much the same way as it does in other white folks’ appropriations of nativeness. It gestures toward an untainted, pre-civilizational past upheld as pure and superior, which seems like a positive representation until you realize that it relies on a primitivizing logic and on actual indigenous people disappearing into the past.  (Which I wish advocates of a certain mascot on my campus could comprehend.)

Because of what I’ve read recently, in terms of appropriations of nativeness I’m thinking primarily about gay, lesbian, and transgender social movement uses of indigenous histories of gender and sexual diversity here (I’m not aware of any bisexual organizing using this tactic, but I’m happy to be corrected), but one of the AIR-L contributors mentioned the use of Native American imagery to demonstrate masculinist pride and martial prowess through things like “Apache” helicopters.

Like these uses, the use of “tribe” or “neo-tribe” to describe online forms of social organization both grounds a way of being in a historical, “natural” and so uncontestable, precedent and perpetuates the subordination of the both the thing it defends and the precedent.

How does that work? Well, in saying that “tribal” groupings are legitimate because they have a precedent in real, live indigenous people somewhere, this logic perpetuates the idea that such groupings need a justification rather than being legitimate on their own merits. This is then advocacy for “premodern” forms of social organization without contesting the ways “modern” forms of organization—bureaucracy, say—are considered inherently good. This perfectly demonstrates Morgensen’s contention that “impersonating indigeneity and believing in colonial modernity are noncontradictory acts” (p. 17).

On top of this, and more importantly, the valorization of supposedly spontaneous and natural ways of being aligns nativeness with nature rather than culture and constructs indigenous peoples as the antithesis of civilization, a logic which played a major role in justifying dispossession and genocide in the first place. It relies on a primitivist—or, indeed, primitivizing—logic. So much for this being a sign of respect.

Morgensen discusses this dynamic as establishing “anthropological authority to determine Native truth while leaving their desire for it unexamined” (p. 15). People decide what indigeneity means and then either want to eliminate it or celebrate it (and mourn its elimination), eliding their own process of construction and not questioning the logic that makes nativeness a screen for those anxieties or desires.

But I want to take a step further.

Even if we stop using these loaded tribal logics and languages, we have to also examine the desire for historical legitimacy itself. On one hand, that is, to be able to point to people who have done things differently disrupts the naturalization of contemporary norms—“it doesn’t have to look this way, look, someone else did it differently!” Authenticity begets authorization. But this slides very quickly into resting the legitimacy of one’s difference on there being a precedent rather than making a robust argument for difference as inherently legitimate.

This contention perhaps sounds familiar, as this is the same structure by which people claim homosexuality is biological to legitimize it. What Shannon Weber calls biological homonormativity, in using nature as a cover, supports the idea that no one would ever choose same-sex desire if they weren’t compelled, and in the same way the appropriative logic of tribal authenticity relies on a belief that collective organization is lesser but legitimate because “pure.”

And instead of participating in these logics, I think the arguments in favor of diverse forms of human community need to be much queerer.

This isn’t, of course, to say that indigenous folks can’t or shouldn’t make arguments about authenticity and authority with regard to their own cultures and histories in order to make claims to things like land. I’m not legislating a queer approach to everything or for everyone, because it’s not for everything. (Also, it would be radically unqueer to do so.) Queer is a screwdriver, and sometimes you need a hammer; not recognizing that will lead to trying to screw everything when sometimes it needs nailing.

But I am arguing that appropriating “tribe” to legitimize collectivist forms of organization is not only racist, primitivizing, and reproductive of the crimes of colonization—which would be enough reason to dispense with it—but it’s actually not even productive for the purpose to which it’s set.

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  1. […] of pure, uncorrupted-by-civilization (and thus implicitly uncivilized) indigeneity I critiqued in The Trouble with Tribals.  So, to be clear, the idea of indigenous intellectual property is being used here to think with, […]

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