Without quite knowing

17 Aug 2021

Jared Field discusses beautifully the search through story for a word that sheds colonial norms and labels.

Without quite knowing, I have been searching for a new word. This word needs to capture something that is sometimes like queerness but most often is not. It is a state of being that First Nations’ people who might be labeled queer, such as myself, know intimately. It is also, however, a state that is difficult to articulate in the language of our colonisers. So comes the need for this new word. 

This need, however, originates not simply from the discomfort of a language forced or translations gone awry. It originates first and foremost from the following observation: much of queerness is really just whiteness struggling with whiteness. In this way, to borrow Audrey Lorde’s words, it increasingly feels like the Master’s Tool. And as Lorde so brilliantly put it, those tools will never dismantle the master’s house. 

But let me return to the observation that begets the need. There is often the suggestion, for example, that queerness and all the theorising around it may be the salve to, say, heteronormativity. Or that it may help break down the barrier between accepted and not. This feels very odd to a person like me; an imported solution is being offered for an imported problem. Of course, sometimes that is the correct course of action. In this case, however, it hints at a wilful lack of imagination: an alternative future is already presented by our very own past. Those that push queerness as saviour so uncritically seem to not want any part in either. 

Now this may sound all a bit vague and theoretical, but to any First Nations people who are a bit unsure I challenge you to think about the above words in the context of Marriage Equality. Marriage both as an institution as well as part of a legal system – next of kin rights, tax benefits etc. all came on a boat. So too did any exclusions from it as a system. Pushes against those exclusions aid us only insofar as they make being colonised ever so slightly easier. That of course is not a bad thing, but that alone as aspiration will not get you free. The future where access to marriage is the job done, and I assure you it was for many a settler queer, remains a future where you die a decade younger than your non-First Nations spouse. 

Another example, which I hope to treat delicately, is the preponderance on pronouns. Before I do, I need to say this: I do not want to discount the value of a person rejecting he or she—if they do not serve you then throw them aside. But I also need to say this: in my language, as with many others on this dhawun, gender is not expressed through pronouns. The sentence ‘nhama gaba, nhama gaba, nhama gaba’, for instance, may be correctly translated as ‘she is good, he is good, it is good’. In this way, gender in our languages is no way near as omnipresent as it is in European ones. Many of my people then, who do not fit the binary, are being subjected to its violence with an awful frequency that necessarily did not exist pre-colonisation. The point here is that the First Nations person that rejects gendered pronouns is, as above, struggling with an imported problem. The solution for the settler queer need not at all be the same as that for the person like me. 

Before I continue, some things, I think, need to be made very clear. The push back against gendered pronouns in European languages can be a very good thing, not least because many have been forced to speak them. The pushback remains, however, usually one safely placed within the bounds of colonialism. Which is to say, more generally, queerness and queer theory absolutely have value – what I am attempting to bring into question is just how much and for whom. Or rather, I am trying to get more people like me to think about its limits. This brings me to the second thing that must be unequivocally made clear: precisely who are these people like me. In this case, I mean others from this dhawun connected directly or indirectly through songlines from their walaay to mine. If this is not you, you are welcome to listen. You are not, however, welcome to speak. 

Though I have not used the word directly yet, I hope it is clear that this is all really about sovereignty. The queerness of settlers, of any colour, can be a valuable pushback against accepted norms. It is, nonetheless, a pushback that is predicated on my displacement. The very displacement that tempts me to blindly pushback in the same way. But the thing that is like queerness in First Nations people can be much more expansive, precisely because it is not dependent on dispossession. Otherwise put, just as my Gamilaraay-ness does not exist in opposition – unlike my Indigeneity, for there is no Indigenous without the coloniser – my like-queerness exists equally independently.

I do not mean to suggest that my like-queerness is more noble, or any other such rubbish. I simply wish to point out that it is different, and that the one thing that may help me and mine – land back – is usually at odds with queer settlers. This difference also means that terms borrowed from other contexts, such as ‘qtipoc’, so devoid of notions of sovereignty, do only so much for me. 

The reason they are devoid of notions of sovereignty, I suspect, is not in fact because they are imported. They lack these notions instead because they are detached from place. This is an issue, more generally, with a great deal of thinking that originates from across the seas and one that can’t be dealt with in a few words. It’s important to note, however, because while my like-queerness is independent, it is not static. Instead, it changes in interesting but subtle ways depending on where I am, and what my relationship to that place is. It is, however, never truly queerness; its origins and its goals are not the same.  

I’m not quite sure why, but whenever I try to think of this new word, so that others like me might push these ideas further, my mind wanders to a nursery rhyme told to Gamilaraay kids – the story of Wahn, the cheeky old Crow. This story tells of how Wahn, attempting to steal food from a campfire, picks up by mistake Gulu-wii – hot coal – and so becomes burnt all black. It warns of the dangers of stealing, but also, more importantly to me, the type of love we should keep for those that do. The focus is, rightly so, normally on Wahn and those who were stolen from.  

But my attention here is drawn instead to the Gulu-wii. On the one hand, it is mistaken by Wahn for something that it is not and, more fitting still, assumed to be a sort of nourishment for her body. This is not unlike my experience with queer settlers. On the other hand, some of those that made the fire, presume it to be extinguished or to have never existed. Again, this is not unlike my experience but instead with some of my own people. I bear no grudge, mind you: it is not their fault they happen to slip with a little more ease into some colonial norms.

It is not perfect, not by a long shot, but I am tempted to describe this thing like queerness in First Nations people as Gulu-wii. For the reasons above, of course, but also because I like the feel of it in my mouth—I am Gulu-wii, feels correct. Mostly, however, I am tempted by this word because, with a little breath, Gulu-wii can start new fires.    

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