In our old way, the Two-Spirit People were very important to our
ancestors because they could see the world in a way the rest of the
people couldn't. That's what made them wise and strong. Just
like you. (Unci in Two Spirits, One Journey)
In the epigraph, a Lakota grandmother (Unci) accepts her Two-Spirit
grandson on film and makes a powerful statement about the increasing
value of Two-Spirit traditions in contemporary Native North American
cinema. (1) Two-Spirit Studies rises out of such family conversations.
It also builds upon Two-Spirit nationalisms and grass-root
organizations, Native American Studies, and multidisciplinary queer,
feminist, and ethnic discourses. As new Two-Spirit films emerge from
growing Two-Spirit cultural movements, overlapping Two-Spirit and queer
Native film criticisms also develop to distinguish the evolving
representations in these recent films. While both Two-Spirit and queer
Native film criticisms note Native American resistance to white and
Native American heterosexisms in cinema, TwoSpirit film criticism draws
more awareness to specific nationalist, traditionalist and
community-oriented perspectives of TwoSpirit peoples. Intersecting queer
and Native film criticisms tend to apply broader white or multicultural
queer theory to Native representations of gender and sexuality. In order
to articulate Indigenous filmmakers' explorations of Two-Spirit and
queer Native American experiences, this essay engages ideas from Qwo-Li
Driskill, Lisa Tatonetti and Quentin Youngberg. Two Spirit critiques
allow an appreciation of how Imitates Dog's Two Spirits, One
Journey and Desjarlais' Two-Spirited short films embrace the
Two-Spirit traditions, communities and spiritualities that Alexie's
The Business of Fancydancing ultimately cannot as a queer Native movie.
Before applying Two-Spirit and queer Native film criticism to these
three films, a clearer understanding of the term Two-Spirit and the call
for action around it is necessary. The 1990 International Two-Spirit
Gathering originally popularized the term Two-Spirit, borrowing from a
Northern Algonquian term "niizh manitoag (Two-Spirits)" that
"indicates the presence of both a feminine and a masculine spirit
in one person" (Driskill 72). It arose in a time of Native
American, AIDS and queer activisms. The current Two-Spirit Gathering
webpage further defines Two-Spirit people as those "who...have
traditional respected roles within most Aboriginal cultures and
societies.., some also identify as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or
transgender [GLBT]" (LaFortune). Qwo-Li Driskill claims
"Native histories, politics, and decolonial struggles"
differentiate Two-Spirit theoretical critiques from other queer
critiques (71). S/he is mindful of the erasure of Two-Spirit traditions
and roles in most people of color and white queer writings even as s /
he notes how both queer and Two-Spirit critiques voice the need to
challenge "heteropatriarchal dominance and notions, gender
binaries, and the policing and control of sexualized and gendered
bodies" (71). In order to address the differences between queer and
Two-Spirit, Driskill adds several categories of inquiry specific to
Two-Spirit critiques. S/he notes that Two-Spirit critiques define
"identities in relationship with spirituality and medicine" of
specific Native traditions (85). S/he also specifies the need for
Two-Spirit "artistic and activist work" to remain accountable
to overlapping communities of Native American "nations" and
"Native urban spaces" (81). For Driskill, Two-Spirit critiques
align with Native feminisms "by seeing sexism, homophobia, and
transphobia as colonial tools" (83) and by exploring the decolonial
"erotic" (85). Such an articulated sense of queer and
Two-Spirit Studies allows this essay to form a Two-Spirit focus on
spiritually supported traditions, decolonial eroticisms, community
activisms and other challenges to white heteropatriarchy in Two-Spirit
and queer Native film.
Our discussion begins with Shawn Imitates Dog's
eighteen-minute film, Two Spirits, One Journey (2007), which reinforces
a traditional understanding of Two-Spirit roles in the face of
contemporary homophobia. The film takes place primarily within the
Oglala Sioux Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where
Imitates Dog grew up. It tells the story of two closeted lovers, Luke
(Alex Meraz) and Chris (Patrick David), whose erotic passions conflict
with the internalized homophobia prevalent on Pine Ridge. In the
film's beginning, the closeted Luke confronts the even more
closeted Chris and asks him to leave the reservation with him to pursue
their relationship openly. As the two athletic young Native men nuzzle
in their underwear, Luke entreats his lover, "Don't you ever
want to get off the fez? I'm sick of hiding." Chris glares
back, "What are we supposed to do? Hmmm? Get the shit kicked out of
us, every day!?" Chris attempts to end the ongoing argument by
kissing Luke's lips and neck. "Stop. Stop!" Luke pleads
while pushing Chris just out of kissing range. Luke concludes his
original thought as he caresses Chris' bare muscular shoulders and
neck, "What kind of future do we got here? No good jobs. No place
for us to be just ourselves." Chris responds by slowly taking one
of Luke's hands off of his neck as he warns, "Don't make
this harder than it already is." Luke lets his other hand slip off
Chris' neck as he recognizes that their lovers' quarrel
In this scene, Imitates Dog depicts a strong desire to form an
erotically charged and communally acknowledged relationship. Like many
Two-Spirit people, Luke would not be satisfied with the occasional
secret sexual encounter that allows the perception of colonial
heteronormativity to thrive on the reservation. This scene tends to
demarcate Chris as the more masculine type who will impose his
homophobic desires on the relationship. Luke resists heterosexism by
focusing on the quality of the relationship and inverts the
heteropatriarchal expectation that the more masculine figure directs
relationships, erotic desire and openness regarding sexuality. However,
because Imitates Dog's film foregrounds the necessity to find
public openness as a Two-Spirit person, the audience never gets to see
an extended scene in which the men simply enjoy each other's bodies
in resistance to the homophobia that is driving them apart. Sophie Mayer
comments on the obstacles Two-Spirit artists have in expressing erotic
desire by noting "it may be that a crucial level of physical safety
must be reached before erotica can be publicly shared by an oppressed
This appears to be the reality in a following party scene in which
Chris kisses one of his many girlfriends while Luke looks on in
jealousy. "You know," Luke later confronts Chris in a private
car conversation, "I can't keep doing this, Chris! You come to
these places and you act like you don't even see me, hanging out
with your boys... I feel like you are using me!" Because Chris and
his peer group of young men have lost an appreciation of Two-Spirit
roles, Chris cannot publically acknowledge queer or Two-Spirit
relationships. Chris' heterosexist decision to go home with the
flirtatious Rosie rather than stay with Luke motivates Luke to leave
Pine Ridge. To live openly in a community that will not assail queer and
Two-Spirit relationships is a need that Luke and Imitates Dog
understandably long to fulfill. Emotional and physical survival takes
precedence over the cultivation of decolonial erotic desire and play
between the lovers that the film intimates but never fully depicts on
the Pine Ridge reservation.
Prior to leaving for Hollywood, Luke visits his grandmother and
receives her blessing and an unexpected traditional approval that he is
a Two-Spirit person, or winkte, as some Sioux gay men identity. Luke
fingers sage while his grandmother (Darlene Cross), or unci in Lakota,
and an even more elderly woman (Jennie Imitates Dog) sit and quilt next
to him. Luke builds up the courage to tell his grandmother that he is
leaving Pine Ridge, and they begin to converse fluently in Lakota. The
subtitled translation from Lakota follows:
Luke: Grandma. I'm leaving in the morning.
Unci: I know. All young men must one day go out and make their own
way. Be careful. You hear? And remember that you can always come back.
No matter what happens, this will always be your home.
Luke: I'm scared.
Unci: Yes, the world can be a scary place. But you'll do just
fine. You know how I know? In our old way, the Two-Spirit People were
very important to our ancestors because they could see the world in a
way the rest of the people couldn't. That's what made them
wise and strong. Just like you. Feeling his traditional
grandmother's acceptance of his sexuality and journey, Luke smiles
and kisses his grandmother on the cheek.
As mentioned above, that a Lakota unci would convey this Two-Spirit
acceptance in her own language and on her own traditional land is one of
the more powerful statements that could be made on film. Decolonization
certainly includes efforts to reclaim Native languages and dialogues
that elders can share with younger generations. If being Two-Spirited
means embodying both male and female spirits and honoring tradition as
the Two-Spirit Gathering definition suggests, then to absorb female
spirit and teachings from a traditional grandmother is of central
importance. In addition, Two-Spirit reliance upon grandmothers for
support in identity formation challenges popular white heteronormative
colonization by privileging Two-Spirit forms of family and clan
formation that do not match those of popular culture. Non-Native queer
films hardly ever bother to entertain the acceptance of grandmothers
because they do not make the traditions that pass down through
generations central to identity as Two-Spirit people often do. Not only
does the unci accept her grandson, she lets him know that he will
succeed apart from the world of Pine Ridge because he is a winkte. Her
acceptance makes a bridge of accountability across reservation and urban
spaces as she foresees a bright future for him in the city based upon
his positive development on the reservation. That the even more elderly
woman played by Imitates Dog's own grandmother, Jennie Imitates
Dog, is listening and present is also a tacit acknowledgement of the
sanctity of these Two-Spirit traditions through the generations despite
the colonizing effects of Christianity and U.S. Indian policy.
More traditional Lakota systems of gender identification now tend
to conflict with contemporary Westernized understandings of sexuality,
especially as winkte spiritual and cultural roles have diminished over
time. Brian Joseph Gilley explains the difficult path by which winkte
traditions managed to exist after decades of wars, colonization and
forced cultural assimilation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, winktes
were severly repressed in Christian boarding schools that condemned
"homosexuality" and gender "deviance." In fact, the
Religious Crimes Code legally attacked all forms of sexuality that
deviated from official Christian norms of monogamous marriage.
"Tribal peoples who did not abide by the Code were arrested and
punished" (14). Sabine Lang explains that traditional winkte sexual
relationships with men did not entail sexual deviance for either party
since the genders of the winkte and the men were clearly different. The
men were not considered to be winkte, gay or bisexual because they
maintained their gender identity as men whether their partners were
women or winkte. Winkte relationships did not face social pressures to
remain hidden until colonization (104-105). Part of what complicates the
relationship between Chris and Luke is that Chris may not culturally
identify as gay, bisexual or winkte despite that fact that he is
popularly labeled as a homosexual for desiring Luke. While Chris'
identity is ambiguously queer, Imitates Dog reinforces the older Lakota
oral traditions that identify Luke as a Two-Spirit person and that
supersede Eurocentric notions of homosexuality and homophobia.
A modern day winkte, Luke leaves Pine Ridge for Hollywood to escape
the homophobic and economic stresses on his relationship with Chris--a
metaphoric reflection on a history of Eurocentric colonization and
oppression. Imitates Dog's final scene shows an ebullient Luke as
he walks down Hollywood Boulevard. His eyes are wide and he smiles as he
marvels at the prospects of being able to live openly as a winkte. The
glow on his skin also reflects the shine of the affluent Hollywood
lights that offer the promise of higher paying jobs that are mostly
unavailable on the poverty-stricken Pine Ridge. Luke's Hollywood
glow is not just the promise of greater economic opportunity and sexual
liberty, it is a gift received with permission from Luke's unci
with an open invitation to return to the reservation.
Lisa Tatonetti would comment that the film's conclusion could
lead one to interpret that one cannot enjoy a Two-Spirit relationship on
the reservation, a theme she establishes in Johnny Greyeyes, Big Eden,
and The Business of Fancydancing (175). To designate reservations as
heteronormative spaces is to coerce the viewer to deny the richness of
Two-Spirit traditions and relationships that also flourish on
reservations apart from or in relation to urban queer movements and
communities. (3) However, unlike the three films Tatonetti reviews, Two
Spirits, One Journey does at least begin to depict a Two-Spirit
relationship on the reservation, albeit complicated by issues of
homophobia. While Luke could have lived as a Two-Spirit person in Pine
Ridge supported by his grandmother, best friend and perhaps a new
partner, he finds it more appealing to journey away from the
relationship with Chris that once consumed him. That journey allows him
time to both heal and explore Hollywood, where job opportunities are
Had Imitates Dog expanded the eighteen-minute Two Spirits, One
Journey to reflect more of his own urban experience, it would have
included references to his conscious efforts to expand Two-Spirit
participation in media, powwows and HIV education. Imitates Dog's
Los Angeles Native American and Two-Spirit activism demonstrates a
concern for Two-Spirit issues of Native cultural resistance, health and
poverty that the film does not fully develop. Once in Los Angeles,
Imitates Dog supported the Red Circle Project coordinated by Elton
Naswood (Navajo) under the umbrella AIDS Project of Los Angles (APLA).
With a degree in business, Imitates Dog served two years as the Board of
Directors President of the Southern California Indian Center (SCIC).
During this time, he helped to fund SCIC powwows where the Red Circle
Project provided outreach and HIV testing for Two-Spirit people.
Imitates Dog affirms the need for Two-Spirit representation saying,
"It's good for the community to accept it, and understand it,
that it does exist." He adds, "With HIV/AIDS being on the rise
on reservations, I think the timing of [the film] coming out was
perfect" (Schmidt). The Red Circle Project's association with
powwows is noted by their online use of an image of a fancydancing
bustle above the prayerful "KEEP US DANCING. MOVING. STRONG. SAFE.
KEEP US HEALTHY." The openness that Luke's unci offers to Luke
reflects the openness that Imitates Dog helped to extend out to
reconnect Two-Spirit peoples back to intertribal traditions and services
in Los Angeles.
Sharon Desjarlais' five-minute documentary, Two-Spirited, also
features a winkte revival, but from a related Nakoda culture, the
Chiniki band of the Stoney Nation in Alberta, Canada. The film edits a
combination of interviews and dance sequences to trace Two-Spirit jingle
dress dancer Rodney "Geeyo" Poucette's (Chiniki) recovery
of his Jingle Dress tradition after being disqualified from performing
in a woman's dance by an elder in 2000 on the Kamloops Nation in
British Columbia. Like the grandmother figure of Two Spirits, One
Journey, Geeyo's grandmother accepts the winkte as an honored part
of traditional Two-Spirit society. Geeyo recalls his grandmother's
"stories about Two-Spirited people way back in the past." She
stands in opposition to the historical repression of Two-Spirit ways
that culminated in Geeyo's disqualification from the powwow arena.
Geeyo recalls, "Some Two-Spirited people became Holy People.
Two-Spirited people was a blessing for the people....They were the
persons who looked after the camps." He later shares a dream that
confirms the healing from drinking and other unhealthy behavior that
Two-Spirit Jingle Dress dancing is destined to bring him. As we learn
from the film, Geeyo's grandmother's stories and Geeyo's
dreams motivate him to return to the Kamloops powwow arena as a Jingle
Dress dancer six years after his disqualification.
Driskill confirms that Two-Spirit roles are not necessarily about
sexuality, but can also center on spirituality or work roles. He notes,
"Two-Spirit critiques position TwoSpirit identities as part of
responsible spiritual relationships with Native communities, land bases,
and historical memory" (85). We see this in Desjarlais' film
when Geeyo eventually teaches younger Aboriginal women to Jingle Dress
dance. He stresses that the dance's traditional purpose is to heal,
not to make money in competition. Jingle Dress dancing derives from
Ojibwe healing ceremonies created over a hundred years ago that were
then passed on to Sioux nations and incorporated in more fancy forms at
powwows. (4) Desjarlais' film reminds us of this healing aspect as
well as the tradition of Two-Spirit healers through a series of
interviews. Geeyo's continued presence as a winkte Jingle Dress
dancer draws upon the historical memory of Two-Spirit medicines and
roles in order to reconstruct a healing practice that benefits the next
generation of Two-Spirit and women dancers on Aboriginal land.
Sharon Desjarlais' film also stresses the traditional respect
that male Two-Spirits have for women's ceremonial roles and the
community support that Geeyo helped to build to sustain that role. As an
elder Aboriginal woman in the film affirms, "When he was dancing,
jingle dancing, he was honoring the female spirit in him. There was
nothing wrong with him dancing as a jingle dancer." The final
scenes of film depict Geeyo as he triumphantly returns in full Jingle
Dress regalia to dance again and heal at reserve powwows. Geeyo's
ornate beaded regalia, erect posture and direct gaze indicate his
willingness and strength to heal both family and Nation. He is greeted
by both male and female dancers in the Kamloops powwow arena at the
film's conclusion showing that he has essential, though perhaps not
universal, acceptance. Geeyo's seriousness in representing First
Nations contrasts with male switch dancing in which men don women's
jingle dresses and other women's regalia to elicit powwow
audiences' laughter. Clearly, Geeyo's wounding and traditional
healing as a Two-Spirit person is no joke. The film honors his six-year
journey of gender and community healing.
That U.S. Native Americans are among those depicted dancing with
Geeyo at Kamloops highlights the international nature of Two-Spirt
movements and dance. Across the United States and Canada, we see the
resurrection of traditional Two-Spirit roles as illustrated in
Two-Spirited surfacing through various tribal dance forms. Joseph Gilley
highlights U.S. Two-Spirit dancing traditions in his book Becoming
Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. He
notes how Two-Spirit peoples are evolving traditions through Jingle
Dress dance, Stomp Dances, and powwows that allow for cross-gender
regalia as valued, spiritual expression. A Lakota winkte, Sheila, honors
female traditions that include the Jingle Dress dance that spread from
Ojibwe healing traditions over the last century (DesJarlait 122). Gilley
also recounts that some Two-Spirit Cherokee, Creek and Seminole
"shake shells" around their calves within Oklahoma stomp
dances, a role that is typically feminine. At times, Two-Spirit men mix
male and female vestments, wearing both women's skirts and
men's hats with an eagle feather attached (141-142). Gilley
documents these Two-Spirit Jingle Dress dances, stomp dances and powwows
as important steps in integrating open Two-Spirit participation back
into larger American Indian communities.
In contrast to Two Spirits, One Journey and Two-Spirited, The
Business of Fancydancing features a queer Native American protagonist
without a strong Two-Spirit path or community. The protagonist of The
Business of Fancydancing ultimately flees the possibility of forming a
Two-Spirit community or relationship on the reservation because of the
violence and rampant alcoholism that plague his experiences there.
Sherman Alexie writes a plot surrounding Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams),
an edgy queer urban Spokane poet. (5) Like Alexie, Seymour is a
recovered alcoholic who.wins literary praise from popular urban white
audiences and bitter criticism from vocal reservation Spokane.
Seymour's college roommate, exbest friend and possible lover,
Aristotle (Gene Tagaban), rejects both Seymour's work and the white
Seattle academic world before returning to drink on the Spokane
Reservation with Mouse (Swil Kanim), a talented violinist who
subsequently dies from drug-related causes. Seymour abandons his white
lover and fans in Seattle to journey to the Spokane Reservation and to
face his community critics at Mouse's funeral. The only person to
defend Seymour's presence at Mouse's wake against a sea of
cultural criticism is his college sweetheart, Agnes Roth (Michelle St.
John). A fatigued Seymour hurriedly abandons the reservation once again,
returns home to his relatively assimilated queer lifestyle in Seattle
and embraces his white male lover, Steven (Kevin Phillip), in bed.
Critical gaps in intersecting queer and Native scholarly approaches
to The Business of Fancydancing justify the need for further Two-Spirit
film analysis. Quentin Youngberg bases his analysis upon the notion that
"queer" theory works to "collapse the apparent
dichotomies between the hetero- and homosexual," to question the
very existence of pure heterosexuality and hence challenge
heteronormativity (58). Youngberg feels that Sherman Alexie's The
Business of Fancydancing film primarily succeeds because it both
"queers the Native American sphere" and disrupts white
fantasies of "utopic" Native American "homosexual"
traditions (55). While both statements are insightful, Youngberg cannot
account for the way in which Two-Spirit people differentiate their own
traditions from Eurocentric "homosexuality." When Youngberg
claims "little has been written at all about homosexuality in the
broader field of Native American studies outside those authored by white
anthropologists and historians" (56), he silences milestone
Two-Spirit literatures by Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux), Craig
Womack (Muskogee Creek/Cherokee) and others who challenge white
heteronormativity through critically reclaiming Two-Spirit nationalist,
spiritual and sexual legacies.
Youngberg's fairly positive review of Alexie's film
demonstrates the limitation of merely applying multicultural queer
theory to Native American film. Because Youngberg is primarily utilizing
African American and Latino queer theory, he overlooks important
national critiques that Native American authors make about Alexie's
work. Youngberg references the "queer codes" defined by Jose
Quiroga's Latino essay "Tropics of Desire" as a basis for
articulating queer Native American film codes (59). Youngberg later
argues that Darieck Scott's "Jungle Fever" formulation of
self-hating gay blacks who prefer white lovers makes a tempting vehicle
by which to explain the Indian-white relationship in which Seymour
Polatkin engages as a "sexual sell-out" (66). While these
interpretations framed by Quiroga and Scott add valid cross-cultural
insight, they preclude an interrogation of the particular politics of
American Indian sovereignty and a clearer understanding of individual
Native American cultures.
In contrast, Driskill formulates Two-Spirit analysis to both
incorporate a defense and criticism of specific Native American
nationalisms and identities (81). Nationalism is important as Spokane
and Native American nationalists are among those who are most critical
of Alexie's work. The depictions of Mouse's rage and lethal
addictions on the Spokane Reservation would concern Spokane poet and
educator Gloria Bird who rejects Alexie's past
"cinematic" portrayals of rampant American Indian alcoholism
as a negative "stereotype" (51). Alexie himself jokes about
the "7/8ths" negative reception" to his film "on the
Spokane Reservation" (Evans 47). The negativity of Mouse's
enraged and drunken images may have motivated alcoholic-sensitive Native
Americans to dislike the film. The same multicultural queer acceptance
that won The Business of Fancydancing awards for best picture,
screenplay or actor at several independent and gay film festivals may
have also alienated homophobic Native American audiences, although not
in a Two-Spirit way. (6) When Lisa Tatonetti incorporates Two-Spirit
Studies as a basis for film analysis, she is easily able to criticize
The Business of Fancydancing for the heteronormative representations of
the Spokane Nation (75). Tatonetti signals reservation and
non-reservation areas as key cinematic sites of resistances, and notes
that the film only portrays queer relationships off the reservation.
Such a vital insight escapes Quentin Youngberg's multiracial queer
analysis of The Business of Fancydancing (55), which mutes discourses of
Native American nationalism and traditionalism.
As Seymour flees Mouse's wake to rejoin his queer lifestyle
with Steven in Seattle, Seymour's adult repulsion from Two-Spirit
traditions and the Spokane reservation climaxes. Agnes' Spokane
song "Oshinilshatin" opens up heterosexual invitation into
Spokane physical, cultural and spiritual intimacy that Seymour chooses
to reject as he leaves Mouse's wake. St. John (Sree) seductively
sings the song she wrote with Ulali vocalist and composer, Jennifer
Kreisberg (Tuscarora). The translation from Spokane follows (Alexie
Because Lillian Alexie, Sherman's mother, was able to
translate the song into Spokane, the song is especially powerful in its
iteration of heterosexual Spokane love and spiritual traditions (Brill
de Ramirez 194-195). Agnes sings the song at the wake both for the
deceased Mouse who had a white girlfriend and for Seymour who has a
white male lover. "Where you belong" refers to Mouse's
ultimate going home to the spiritual afterlife as well as to
Seymour's "going home" to the reservation and Agnes'
heterosexual desire for Seymour. Seymour resists the heterosexual and
national invitation of this song and decides that where he belongs is at
home with Steven and the economic stability white privilege helps to
provide. Seymour's flight ensures that only the fond
"memory" of the reservation will "embrace" him, not
Agnes' living "brown arms." Tatonetti notes "Seymour
can only imagine himself as straight, or at least as living a
heteronormative life when he envisions himself on the reservation"
and questions the lack of queer relationships on the reservation (172).
In the city, Seymour becomes one of the "gay Indians" who
frequents white social circles. He does not return to his traditions as
some urban Two-Spirit people consciously attempt to do through
participation in Native American and Two-Spirit communities.
Alexie does not clearly pursue TwoSpirit community needs in part
because he is focused more on exploring his personal interest in queer
fantasy that never comes to community fruition and recognition.
Ambiguously queer, Alexie effectively destabilizes pure Native American
heterosexuality and homosexuality by presenting permutations of erotic
desire between Seymour and other male and female-bodied characters.
Seymour pursues sexual relations with Agnes and at least fantasizes
about Aristotle. In a queer scene with Aristotle, Seymour struggles with
writer's block while dressed in pajama bottoms in the bed he
normally shares with Steven in Seattle. Aristotle randomly appears
similarly half dressed, half undressed, with his long black hair
trailing down his exposed brown back. He takes Seymour's writing
pad and beats it with a pencil as he sings an improvised 49 song made
from the words Seymour has already written. Both men join the song that
crescendos and ends in a quick kiss on the lips. In the commentary of
the scene in which Aristotle seduces and kisses Seymour in bed, Alexie
Aristotle may embody Alexie's own queer need to deconstruct
stark separations of gay and straight sexuality that are colonially
imposed upon traditional Spokane gender systems. Given Alexie's
previous, sexually explicit writings on Indian male-male penetration
(2000, 32), the desire to explore queer intimacy rather than the need to
censor out homoeroticism seems to be the clearest reason why Aristotle
is not obviously gay or bisexual. Perhaps this scene's queer
intimacy only goes as far as Alexie would find personally interesting at
that point in his life. Had Alexie allowed intimacy between the
alcoholic Aristotle and the urban-dwelling Seymour to move beyond
ambiguous queer fantasy, The Business of Fancydancing could have also
made more profound statements regarding the detrimental impact of
alcoholism and urban relocation upon Two-Spirit relationships.
The Business of Fancydancing ultimately favors culturally alienated
queer urban life over the completely unromantic heterosexual adult male
poverty and drug addition of the reservation. Seymour's
individualistic queer success and Mouse's death from a drug
overdose are central in destroying the romanticization of the stoic male
heterosexual Indian warrior prevalent in classic American Westerns and
photography (Klopotek 252). Biographer Daniel Grassian notes "...
Alexie celebrates homosexuality as an alternative to male-dominated
heterosexuality, suggesting that homosexuals are ultimately superior ...
to heterosexual men whom Alexie considers to be more aggressive, violent
and destructive"(158). Before one violent scene, Mouse accidentally
spits on the lens of his small video camera and stops to clean it, and
in doing do, momentarily obliterates his own Indian warrior image with
his finger. This spitting on the lens reminds one of Victor
Masayesva's Imagining Indians scene in which a frustrated Native
American women destroys the camera's clean image of herself with
the dental drill, effectively "effacing a history of romanticized
representations of Indians" as Laura Dilworth points out (231).
Subsequently, Mouse roughly sets his video camera down on a highway and
films himself out of focus, brutally kicking a white male stranger who
had the misfortune of running out of gas on a forested highway. Here
Alexie demonstrates nontraditional "indigenous video
practices" that highlight ongoing American Indian male anger that
stems from historical and contemporary oppression. Through Mouse, Alexie
continues a cinematic theme he established in his popular film Smoke
Signals that "disrupts" mainstream U.S. "popular
images" of Indians that merely focus on historical depictions
(Hearne 193). Alexie prefers Seymour's queer urban intellectual
prowess as the contemporary antithesis of the physical and brutal nature
that poor Native American heterosexual men on the reservation embody. He
queerly foils established expectations of traditional warrior roles by
situating Mouse's death as the death of hegemonic male
Two-Spirit critiques would note how this demise of Native male
heterosexuality and reservation life does not create a desired rise in
Two-Spirit consciousness or activism. For Alexie, Two-Spirit and Native
feminist issues on or off the reservation are overshadowed by racial and
national conflicts, whether queer or straight. Seymour erases homophobia
throughout the film by claiming that being gay is simply an accepted
part of being Indian, a tradition that Alexie affirms in his
director's commentary. When Seymour explains to Agnes that he is
gay after they've had sex in college, she is only mad that he
didn't tell her before they began sexual relations. She otherwise
accepts his orientation, although they later nostalgically discuss the
possibility of the partnership they have left behind. Seymour's
kiss with Aristotle also suffers no negative reaction from either
character. If anything, their intimacy only makes Aristotle's need
to have Seymour return to the reservation more believable and intense.
Aristotle spits on Seymour for leaving the reservation and assimilating
into white culture, not for being gay. No one even criticizes Seymour
for his gay relationship with his white lover, Steven. Seymour himself
is only critical of the fact that the relationship is racially mixed, a
criticism that explodes between the couple throughout the film. When
Steven snaps at Seymour, "Funny how that works, isn't it? You
being a racist jerk yet finding the need to get me naked," Seymour
retorts "I just pretend you are Custer," highlighting the
cultural, sexual and historical tension between the two races and
masculinities. It may be that Alexie's privilege as a married,
heterosexually-identified man with queer tendencies prevents him from
realizing the seriousness that homophobia has on Two-Spirit peoples, a
problem that Imitates Dog and Desjarlais depict in their films.
From a Two-Spirit critical perspective, Alexie does not embrace the
traditional "relationship with spirituality and medicine" that
Driskill identifies as central to Two-Spirit identification (85).
Although Seymour does identify as "Two-Spirited" and links
with his grandmother's Spokane traditions, the term ultimately
doesn't fit him. Alexie casts dispersion upon Spokane traditions
that would facilitate a stronger Two-Spirit identity in his film. In
fact, Alexie questions the feasibility of any young Spokane saying that
they are really traditional through his Agnes Roth character. She chides
Aristotle and other reservation Spokane while defending Seymour's
urban life by saying, "you're just a bunch of born-again
traditionalists ... just sit around here on your flabby behinds ...
he's fighting the war ... he's telling everyone that
we're still here." The term "born-again
traditionalists" references the difficulty that Native American
nations have In maintaining their languages and traditions after years
of attempted genocide, removal and assimilation. Through Agnes, Alexie
defends urban Indians who resist white domination outside of the
reservation, but at the expense of Native traditionalists on the
reservation. Perhaps the most anti-traditional scene occurs when Seymour
abruptly leaves Mouse's wake. While he does partake in some
traditional ceremony for Mouse on the reservation, he runs out of the
wake before properly speaking to the mourning crowd. He reaches his car
only to find himself still in it, as if he had never even left it to see
the body. Seymour's double bodies show his unwillingness to commit
himself fully to the communal ceremony of death at hand. He neglects
traditional ceremonial duties in part because he cannot face the harsh
reality of Mouse's suicide, which reverberates with his own
alcoholic family and personal addiction history. Seymour never finds a
Two-Spirit friend or community that could help him connect back to
tradition and ceremony. His white lover certainly cannot provide that
when Seymour returns to him in their urban Seattle home.
Seymour's adult decision to remain apart from his nation and
ceremonial life reflects in the commentary around the humorous way in
which Seymour performs a Fancy Shawl dance. From the opening credits,
Seymour's separation from any community is subtly evident as he
dances alone on a black screen. Commenting upon this scene, Evan Adams
says, "It's an actor's job to look foolish."
"Uh, case in point ... Here's me doing a girl's fancy
dance," he continues as the image of himself appears swirling
around onscreen in a brightly striped shawl. In a later scene, he grins
as both he and Agnes Fancy Shawl dance. Because Adams merely feels
"foolish" doing this dance (Becker 2004), he is not reclaiming
women's medicine in the scene as a Two-Spirit traditionalist like
Geeyo does in Two-Spirited. Adams' "foolish" performance
resonates with the Men's Fancy Shawl dance, a competition category
in many contemporary powwows that is usually meant to amuse onlookers.
(7) According to Youngberg, Seymour's "... Shawl Dance comes
as a bearer of the sell-out theme in two senses: that of the Native
American poet selling out to the white world outside the reservation,
and that of the homosexual male selling out his gender" (64). After
some debate, Youngberg concludes that Seymour's relationship with a
white man is more about redemption than a clear indication of
self-hatred or "selling out" sexually as a Native American.
Youngberg also notes that the flashiness of the Fancy Shawl Dance may
have evolved from a mourning dance to suit white tourist tastes in the
1950's. Youngberg suggests that Seymour's dance references
that Seymour is selling out as an Indian poet for a mostly white
audience. Because Alexie writes in his poem "The Business of
Fancydancing" that "... Money/Is an Indian Boy who can
Fancydance" in order to win beer funds, images of fancydancing may
reflect the need for impoverished American Indians to make money rather
than perform ceremony (1992, 69). While Youngberg's conclusion that
Alexie provides queer representations of Native Americans is fitting, a
Two-Spirit analysis helps detect how Alexie dances away from a
traditional and communal sense of being Two-Spirited as well.
Two-Spirit film criticism allows one to go beyond the restrictions
of merely applying queer theory to Native American film. Driskill and
Tatonetti set out a trajectory of analysis that brings the reader back
to Two-Spirit traditional and community concerns of diverse Native
American communities and Nations as articulated to broader queer
perspectives. This essay foregrounds Two-Spirit filmmakers Imitates Dog
and Desjarlais who celebrate and recover dynamic Two-Spirit traditions
and communities in order to resist white and Native heterosexism.
Alexie's queer Native perspective is meant to clash with Two-Spirit
ways in order to highlight the cultural fragmentation that occurs among
urban Indian diasporas. For example, while all three films relate an
acceptance of Two-Spirit peoples through the wisdom and wit of Native
American grandmothers, only the two winkte films consistently return to
that tradition for healing and strength in times of need. The Business
of Fancydancing and Two Spirits, One Journey both take brave stands that
defend queer American Indian urban lifestyles, but only Two Spirits, One
Journey is able to ground an urban Indian identity in positive
reservation teachings that reinforce traditional knowledge. Imitates
Dog's outlines decolonial Two-Spirit desires that resist the
homophobia of Pine Ridge within a context of his unci's blessing on
Pine Ridge and Two-Spirit collaboration with the Red Circle Project in
Los Angeles. In contrast, Alexie focuses on assimilated queer identity
that cannot relate to any relative or community for long. Desjarlais
films a beautiful example of one Two-Spirit person's fight to
recover a healing place in the Jingle Dress powwow traditions. It
differs with Alexie's ambiguously queer urban Indian film that can
neither reclaim Two-Spirit healing dances nor resist overt homophobia in
reservation spaces. In short, Alexie does not challenge white and Native
heterosexism to the extent that the Two-Spirit filmmakers do because
Alexie resists heteronormativity in a popular queer way that excludes
many of the central Two-Spirit means of resistance available from within
Native American communities and Nations. Ideally, this Two-Spirit film
criticism of Two Spirits, One Journey, Two-Spirited and The Business of
Fancydancing helps to further articulate key differences and
relationships between Two-Spirit and queer Native American film.
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(1) While this paper focuses on US Native American film, it does
incorporate some Aboriginal Canadian film as well. My use of
"Native" when comparing all the films will include Canadian
(2) This film was Alex Meraz's first speaking part before
being cast as Paul, the werewolf, in the blockbuster Twilight series.
For more information on the mostly Native American cast and production
of Two Spirits, One Journey, view Kiope Gyzen's The Making of Two
Spirits, One Journey on www.youtube. com.
(3) The Business of Fancydancing star Evan Adams proudly recounts
how his Salish family accepted him as a gay man and also accepted his
partner of three years who had AIDS. Native American families are often
more accepting of Two-Spirit partnerships than is the popular culture at
large. See Evan Adams, 247.
(4) ... the origin of the jingle dress is attributed to the Mille
Lacs Ojibwe, the Red Lake Ojibwe, and the White Fish Bay Ojibwe
(Ontario)" (DesJarlait, 122).
(5) The Business of Fancydancing' s plot is only loosely based
around Alexie's sametitled 1991 poetry collection that launched an
ongoing string of popular writing success. Much of the plot actually
resonates with the biographies of Alexie and the Native American actors
chosen to play the parts. As a screenwriter and a first-time director,
Alexie centrally represents his own controversial career through
Seymour, who reads Alexie's provocative poems as his own throughout
(6) Awards listed for The Business of Fancydancing are: Victoria
Film Festival: Audience Award; Durango Film Festival: Best Narrative
Feature Film; San Francisco Film Festival: Audience Award; OUTFEST:
Outstanding Actor Award (Evan Adams) and Outstanding Screenwriting Award
(Sherman Alexie); Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film
Festival: Audience Award; Spliced Wire: Best Films of 2002 Honorable
Mention; Spokane Northwest International Film Festival: Best Feature
Film; Best Actor (Evan Adams). See Alexie 2009.
(7) A www.YouTube.com search for "Men's Fancy Shawl
Dance" finds several video clips of men dancing with exaggerated
hip motions in feigned flirtation. As one woman laughingly screamed out
to a Men's Fancy Shawl Dance contestant at the Kettle Point 08 Pow
Wow in Ontario, "Shake your booty!" Kettle
Point'08-Switch Dance--Men's Fancy (Shawl).
Who are you when you turn
Where do you go when you
... Memories hold you tight
When there's no comfort in
Loneliness will bring you back
Where you belong.
I love this, two brown boys in bed together.
And I was always curious myself
... when I think about my relationships
with people ... straight and gay.... When
you love somebody ... your friend ...
there is always some aspect of attraction
there ... along the spectrum somewhere I
think ... I was curious about when two
men are this close, two friends, childhood
friends, and one is gay and one is
straight ... how much sexual attraction
is in the relationship? I shot this to play
with that idea.