Two-spirit film criticism: Fancydancing with Imitates Dog, Desjarlais and Alexie.
Native Americans (Achievements and awards)
Estrada, Gabriel S.
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Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 29 Source Issue: 3
Product Code: 9103570 Nationalism NAICS Code: 92812 International Affairs
Named Person: Alexie, Sherman

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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 remains unresolved.

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 population'(4).

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 greater.

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 2003, 134):


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 explains:

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 heterosexuality.

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.

Works Cited

Adams, Evan. "Theater and AIDS Education in a North American Native Community." A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art and Contemporary Cultures. Ed. Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison. (Montreal: Vehicule P, 1992): 247-263.

Alexie, Sherman. "The Business of Fancydancing." The Official Sherman Alexie (Nov 15, 2009) , 2009.

--. The Business of Fancydancing: The Screenplay. New York: Hanging Loose P, 2003.

--. Dir. and Screenplay, The Business of Fancydancing. Seattle: FallsApart Productions, 2002.

--. The Toughest Indian in the World. New York: Atlantic Monthly P, 2000.

--. The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems. New York: Hang Loose P, 1992.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon P, 1992.

Becket, Nanobah. "Evan Adams Interview," Native Networks: Smithsonian National Musueum of the American Indian. (2004). http://www.nativenetworks. htm#open (Nov. 16, 2009)

Bird, Gloria. "The Exaggeration of Despair in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues." Wicazo Sa Review 11.2 (Autumn 1995): 47-52.

Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry. Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition: Sherman Alexie, M. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Luci Tapahonso. Tucson: U of Arizona, 1999.

Desjarlais, Sharon. Dir. and Screenplay. Two-Spirited: First Stories Volume III. Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.

DesJarlait, Robert. "The Contest Powwow versus the Traditional Powwow and the Role of the Native American Community," Wicazo Sa Review 12.1 (Spring, 1997): 115-127.

Dilworth, Leah. Imagining Indians in the Southwest: Persistent Visions of a Primitive Past. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2001.

Driskill, Qwo-Li. "Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 16.1-2 (2010): 69-92.

Gilley, Brian Joseph. Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2006.

Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2005.

Gyzen, Kiope. Dir. and Screenplay. The Making of Two Spirits, One Journey. Los Angeles: Southern California Indian Center's Creative Spirit Program, 2008.

Heame, Joanna. "John Wayne's Teeth: Speech, Sound and Representation in Smoke Signals and Imagining Indians," Western Folklore 64.3-4 (2005): 189-208.

Imitates Dog, Shawn. Prod. and Screenplay. Dirs. Arthur Allan Seidelan and Chad Richman. Two Spirits, One Journey. Los Angeles: Inter Tribal Entertainment: Southern California Indian Center, 2007.

Kettle Point '08-Switch Dance- Men's Fancy (Shawl). (Oct. 30, 2009).

Klopotek, Brian. "I Guess Your Warrior Look Doesn't Work Every Time: Challenging Indian Masculinity in the Cinema." Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West. Eds. Matthew Basso, Laura McCall, and Dee Garceau. Routledge: New York, 2001. 251-273.

LaFortune, Richard. "Background & Recent developments in Two-Spirit organizing." Official Website of The International Two-Spirit Gathering (Dec. 19, 2009) (2007).

Lang, Sabine. "Variance in Kinds of Two-Spirit People: Gender Variance and Homosexuality in Native American Communities." Two-Spirit Peoples: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Eds. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1997. 100-118.

Mayer, Sophie. "This Bridge of Two Backs Making the Two-Spirit Erotics of Community." Studies in American Indian Literature 20.1 (Spring 2008): 1-26.

Schmidt, Rob, "Creative Spirit Films Premier at Paramount Studios," NativeVue: Film and Media Connection. (Dec. 29, 2007). (Oct. 30, 2009).

Tatonetti, Lisa. "Visible Sexualities or Invisible Nations: Forced to Choose in Big Eden, Johnny Greyeyes, and The Business of Fancydancing." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16.1-2 (2010): 157-181.

Vogt, Andrea. "Sherman Alexie- 'It's All Good.'" Washington State Magazine. Feb. 2003 (Oct. 30, 2009).

Womack, Craig. Drowning in Fire: A Novel. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2001.

--. Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.

Youngberg, Quentin. "Interpenetrations: Reencoding the Queer Indian in Sherman Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing." Studies of American Indian Literature 27.1 (Spring 2008): 55-75.


(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 First Nations.

(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 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 the film.

(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 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
   your back?

   Where do you go when you
   leave here?

   ... Memories hold you tight
   When there's no comfort in
   white arms

   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.
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