Another example of an ecosexual experience offered by Annie in her Herstory involves not touching her desired—a “big, erect” saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert, but an exchange of sexual energy nonetheless. Annie explains: “There was no touching of the cactus for obvious reasons, but I swear, that cactus and I exchanged our sexual energies.” This is another playful example that stretches not only who we see our human selves as in intimate relationship with, but it stretches the “sexual” experience into one that transcends matter and physical stimulation. It disrupts that spirit/matter binary that is so locked into our modern scientistic view of the world, a binary that is not so prevalent in indigenous ontologies.
Which leads me to a disclaimer: There are occasional references in ecosex literature to Native American knowledges in ways that are what I would classify as “New Age,” and I would advise caution around the appropriation of Native American knowledges and motifs to the ecosexual ceremonial and artistic repertoire. In plain language: Be cautious when a person calls themself a “shaman” and charges money for their services. Medicine people tend to work within a gift economy. And like many U.S. Americans, I do not see that they are especially open to foregrounding the role of sexuality in their work. Or if you do hang out with the shaman type, you should know that they probably do not have much standing among the very indigenous peoples they identify with. There are no easy, literal translations between indigenous ontologies and ecosexuality, at least among the indigenous people I run with. Rather, there are careful conversations with much careful thought to be had.
That said, in the North American indigenous traditions I have encountered, humans speak of having social relations with nonhumans. Our stories sometimes feature what we today would call sexual relations between humans and nonhumans, thus creating, for example, hybrid human-bear persons. But those relations don’t seem to be cohered into something, i.e. “sexuality” as we know it in Western modernity. Close physical relations do not seem so severed in these stories from other types of social relations. Our traditional stories also portray nonhuman persons in ways that to not adhere to another meaningful modern category, the “animal.” Our stories are complex and not romantic. They feature relationships in which human and nonhuman persons, and nonhuman persons between themselves, harass and trick one another; save one another from injury or death; prey upon, kill, and sometimes eat one another; or collaborate with one another. Speaking as a Dakota, and as I read in stories now documented rather than passed down orally, our peoples avoided the hierarchical nature/culture and animal/human split that has done so much damage. In Dakota thinking, nonhuman persons were both worthy of becoming family and they were worthy adversaries. But our ancestors did not view themselves as the owners of nonhumans, nor as gods who could see, study, name, control, and save everything.
I teach my students to recognize those pervasive boundaries and hardened categories that structure our minds, our College of Natural Resources, and our world today—boundaries between nature and culture and all of the subset binaries within that: animal/human, black/white, woman/man, heterosexual/homosexual, traditional knowledge/science, or society/science. These binaries go hand-in-hand with hierarchy—with the notion that some humans are god-like, capable of gazing on the world from above, from outside of nature, of apprehending it in the one true, universal way. This view facilitated human domination of Earth. It is naïve for those of us in the natural and social sciences to think this same view can save the planet.
To return to Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, they may use ecosexual language and imagery that sounds to many of us like it is rooted only in San Francisco queer or New Age cultures. I hope I’ve shown you that their language also reflects a more expansive history—oops, herstory—than that. There are also foundational and shared principles in what they do and in more mainstream (if that’s possible) feminist and indigenous critiques of scientific and nature discourses. There is also a possibility for conversation with the ideas of my cultural forebears, and what I do in my scholarship and teaching as a 21st century Dakota and indigenous intellectual. This is what makes me a new ally to ecosexuality in the same way that I have long been an ally of queer people and their work.
This is my first venture into thinking through ecosexuality and the relationship of its underlying principles to indigenous thought and feminist science studies. This is an exercise which will perturb some and excite others to continue the conversation. It is a work in progress. I thank you for your patience, and I welcome the feedback of my fellow thinkers from the multiple fields in which I work, both inside and outside the academy.
ADDENDUM: JULY 19, 2012
During the two weeks that followed the original June 29, 2012 post above, an intense discussion occurred on the Facebook page of an indigenous studies scholarly association in which I am active. One person in particular took issue with the post, and focused his critique on Annie Sprinkle. The critic is a non-academic, a self-described Cherokee nationalist, not a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, but a citizen of that tribal nation. He is a spokesperson for the cause of protecting Cherokee identity from those who make claims to be Cherokee absent official citizenship or documentable genealogy. Over the course of two weeks he directed several charges at Annie, particularly related to ecosexuality and its potential overlap with New Age practices that, as noted in the original post, many Native Americans see as appropriating and misrepresenting our cultures and spiritualities. This is an important point that deserves further attention in the dialogue between non-indigenous ecosexuals and Native Americans. (We don’t really know whether some indigenous folks might also identify as “ecosexual.”) But it also became clear as the Facebook conversation unfolded that the Cherokee nationalist, himself gay identified, was critical of other non-heteronormative sexual practices. It also became clear, and he admitted, that he didn’t really read my blog post. The convergence of his particular critiques, which I will outline and respond to below (with help from Annie Sprinkle who kindly sent me e-mail responses that she has given me permission to quote from) is a good reflection of one particular response among the diverse and visceral kinds of responses that topics related to sexuality elicit in our society. As I write above, the relatively recent cultural coherence of disparate practices and physical characteristics into this thing called “sex” or “sexuality,” like “nature,” has produced dichotomies between what is considered civilized and less evolved or animalistic, and what is considered normal and good versus what is considered deviant and bad. Such category-making enables wholesale dismissal of Annie Sprinkle and her sexual politics by the Cherokee critic. In our broader society it enables violence against those who are deemed sexually deviant. Not previously having been a scholar of sexuality, I still recognize the similarity with the way binaries are created between what is nature and what is not nature, and the implicit assumptions that make a category subject to violence without conscience. I was a little unprepared, however, for the ire I incurred in writing about the connections as an intellectual exploration.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Cherokee nationalist was also deeply critical of academia and our practices. His charges were pretty standard fare. I/we are elitists who use inaccessible language. My response: Every field from genetics, to the law, to car mechanics, to medicine, to finance, to hairdressing and yes, even tribal enrollment, has its technical language that is not immediately accessible to novices. It takes work to talk to one another in a world of increasing specialization. This blog is for me, one way of engaging in that work. I wish the Cherokee nationalist had approached it in this way.
I should note that scholars who frequent the indigenous studies Facebook page weighed in on the conversation. Some of them also expressed concern over any New Age appropriation that could potentially occur in the ecosex community. But they also challenged the non-academic Cherokee nationalist on his language that eventually exhibited condemnation of certain women, lesbians, ecosexuals and others. We have nearly four hundred members on that page. Less than ten of us (all from the U.S. and Canada) engaged in this conversation. I do know others followed the conversation closely from private e-mails I received from them.
The Criticisms and Responses
1. False claims to Cherokee identity. The Cherokee nationalist’s first charge was that Annie Sprinkle once claimed to be Cherokee. Her response to that charge was unequivocal: that she “never ever” said she was Cherokee, the charge is “erroneous.” She offered that perhaps the Cherokee nationalist is thinking of someone else, perhaps Hyapatia Lee, another former porn star who publicly identifies as one-quarter Cherokee. Annie explains that she is of Jewish descent. Furthermore, I responded to the Cherokee nationalist that if a person falsely claims to be Cherokee due to the complex racial politics that lead too many Americans to claim Native American identity absent demonstrable genealogical or political links, I would reject that claim. But I would not wholesale discredit her contributions to a conversation about which she knows something.
2. Ecosex associations with New Age appropriators of Native American cultures? The second concern of the Cherokee nationalist was Annie Sprinkle’s professional encounters with Harley SwiftDeer Reagan (HSR from here on out), who the Cherokee nationalist also accuses of identifying inappropriately as Cherokee, and of appropriating Native American cultural motifs through New Age practices. Indeed, HSR, I think it safe to say, from the view of most tribal citizens, seems a bit off. Many–not only the Cherokee nationalist–would characterize his claims as fraudulent. On his Web page, harley-swiftdeer-reagan.com, he seems to identify as “Metis,” however, and not Cherokee. Perhaps he has changed his identification. The Cherokee Nation is known to officially challenge claimants to Cherokee identity who cannot prove that lineage. HSR currently writes that he is “a founder of the Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society.” It is no less troublesome in its politics to claim to be Metis absent political affiliation with a Metis community. Like many people in our dominant racialized society, HSR seems to conflate the Metis category with a “mixed-blood” race category, having nowhere in sight the notion that Metis communities, as they exist in Canada for example, constitute peoples or nations. In addition, his Web page bio reflects a hodgepodge of cultural claims. To my eyes, he looks like a classic New Age appropriator of Native American cultural motifs.
HSR says nothing on his personal Web page about his work as a sex educator, which is the work through which Annie has engaged him. Annie writes: “I wrote about a workshop I did with Harley Swiftdeer, for Penthouse Magazine. Penthouse paid for my trip…and for the workshop. I wrote about many workshops and events for many sex magazines. I only did the one workshop with Harley. It was at that workshop that I learned the most important technique about sex of any ever…. the Fire breath Orgasm (he calls it that–although all sex positive cultures have some version of ecstatic breathing to energy orgasm). This said, the fact that I took one workshop with him and wrote about it didn’t make me a disciple. Or even great ‘supporter.’ … I do know that Harley is very controversial. …He’s teaching sexuality in very explicit ways… I don’t know about the quality of his native teachings/rituals, but as a sex educator, he’s pretty brave and powerful…His teaching of the fire breath orgasm changed my entire take on human sexuality. From being about the body, to being about energy flowing into and around and through the body.” Annie Sprinkle writes about HSR as a skilled sex educator. And she does have expertise in that area while most of us in indigenous studies do not. HSR’s own shoring up of his authority with reference to tribal traditions should be for us the crux of the problem, rather than Sprinkle’s engagement with his sexual teachings. Still a word of caution is in order.
Non-native people should be careful attributing Native American authenticity to folks when they have no basis for really judging that. (I see Sprinkle as being careful in this way in her conversation with us.) And ecosexual practitioners within that will want to be careful. The vast majority of people have very limited knowledge about indigenous histories and sovereignty. Highlighting those histories and authorities is a chief role of scholars in Native American and indigenous studies fields. Knowledge that indigenous peoples constitute nations and citizenries within our legal frameworks and not simply monolithic racial groups is lost on most people who believe we should be able to self identify however we choose. But citizenship is granted by tribal, Metis, and First Nations’ governments. Beyond citizenship, tribal communities recognize their own, although not always with love. That’s “community.” A purely individual right or choice to self-identify as something is insufficient in our indigenous world. We’re on heavily mined terrain here so we must be delicate in our steps. But let me say indelicately that HSR looks clearly to be a fraud on the tribal identity front. This was basically the critique of all of the indigenous studies scholars (not all of whom identify as indigenous by the way) and not only the Cherokee nationalist, in that Facebook conversation. I think it is safe to say that we in indigenous studies and out there in Indian Country would be happier if he’d drop the mystical Native American motifs in his teaching of sex techniques.
As for any personal charges that she is engaging herself in New Age appropriation, Annie Sprinkle explains that as far as religion goes, she was raised Unitarian. Today, she notes, she “can be partly agnostic” and also enjoys and believes in parts of all religions. She asks, “is this new age?” She further explains in a moving statement that “when AIDS hit like a huge tidal wave of death and illness and pain and I lost many friends and loved ones, I was searching for ways to cope and definitely explored lots of new age healing modalities. I also explored various cultures and how they coped and prevailed. I was very interested in “tantra”. I would admit that I’ve been guilty of some appropriation. However, when I did so, before I was (slightly) more educated, I saw it not as appropriation, but as honoring of other cultures. …I’d be very interested in hearing your take on New Age. Always open to learning more and seeing things from different perspectives.”
That “honoring” inclination is something that we in indigenous studies have criticized in supporters of Native American sports team mascots who often assert that by clinging to characters such as the infamous “Chief Illiniwek” at the University of Illinois, they are honoring us. We in Indian Country tend to disagree. Given the few ecosexuals that I know, all of whom are also scholars and/or accomplished artists (ecosexuality involves performance) I trust that the response of those folks will be much less totalitarian and straightforwardly racist than has been the hyperbole of sports fans and mascot defenders. I hope that they will tell their fellow ecosexuals to exercise caution. This addendum, like the original blog post is my next move in this conversation with my friends Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle and with others. As Annie wrote to me in an email: “Humor and experimentation are a big part of our work…I look forward to talking more about these things. We are learning and growing. Our ecosexuality is relatively new for us. And these critiques are certainly thought provoking. I am not new to controversy however. I like to think of it as part of the fun. That’s how I cope with the sex negativity all around in the culture that gets thrown at me. But I do learn from all critiques.” Which leads to the third major charge directed at Annie Sprinkle and at ecosexuality by the Cherokee nationalist, that she/it is “repulsive.”
3. The controversial politics of non-normative sexualities. After the Cherokee nationalist’s first charges, I had expected our indigenous studies Facebook page conversation to stay close to the topics of Native American identity and New Age appropriations. But he eventually issued scathing commentary of non-normative sexual practices and identities, characterizing Annie Sprinkle and others like her (porn actresses and sex workers, I presume) as “nasty women” who have “repulsive lifestyles.” He also issued a shocking charge, (I hesitate to quote extensively as I have not asked his permission), essentially that gay identity is marred by having deviant sexualities tied to it. So, being gay should not be considered deviant. I agree! But all/most (?) other non-heteronormative practices and identities should be considered deviant and perverse? He worries that the gay community becomes a haven for “every sexual dreg society has to offer…GLBTIIQLMFAO.” And now we should add “E” to that already too multiple term? He also mentions that the problem began when lesbians refused the gay moniker. I and other indigenous studies scholars–indigenous and non-indigenous, queer and straight–argued against such characterizations. Such derisive name-calling seems out of step with both honest academic inquiry and productive activism. And it is certainly not in the spirit of rigorous analysis and conversation that we like to promote in our indigenous studies community.
I highlight our conversation on the indigenous studies Facebook page in order to call attention to the varied kinds and tones of responses that will occur in our society around such issues. I saw intolerance and fear; anger, both righteous and abusive; openness; critical questioning; and generosity. Unlike Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, I am an academic newcomer to controversies having to do with the “sex negativity” that prevails in our contemporary society. (On a personal level most of us are influenced by sex negativity.) The response to my initial post and the politics of sexuality and nature at play in ecosexuality featured there affirms my sense that it is important work to engage in multi-disciplinary ways, carefully yet assertively, and with tolerance whenever possible with “nature” and “sex” topics, and their underlying binaries of nature/culture, purity/contamination, and normative/deviant. Such ways of dividing up the world into essentialist notions of good and evil (rather than defining good and bad, for example, according to suffering) help produce both nature and sexuality as rigid categories that end up doing violence to both humans and nonhumans. On our indigenous studies Facebook page we saw just a taste of the verbal violence that can ensue.
(Please note that some of the comments to this post were posted before the addendum appeared on this page.)