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Sex talk

A Q&A with Henrietta Harvey lecturer Dr. Kim TallBear


By Jennifer Snow

Dr. Kim TallBear is associate professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta, and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment.

She is also a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellow. The author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, Dr. TallBear will deliver the 2019 Henrietta Harvey Lecture on Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. in the Medical Education Building, room M1M101.

Her discussion will centre on the Edmonton-based sexy storytelling show, Tipi Confessions, that she co-produces with two other Indigenous womenShe is a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and was raised on another Dakota reservation, that of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and also in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. She tweets @KimTallBear and her work can be found on her research website.

JS: Tipi Confessions, “a Sexy Storytelling Show,” features sexually themed performances, such as comedy, burlesque, short stage readings and anonymous confessions. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

KT: It is actually a spin-off of an Austin, Texas, based show, called Bedpost Confessions™ that was started by three women back in 2010. I lived in Austin from 2012-15 and got to be friends with one of the producers. After I moved to Alberta, we had a symposium on Indigenous masculinities and were trying to think of an event for the final night, and I mentioned Bedpost Confessions™ to my colleagues and an Indigenous version was suggested. And I wrote Julie Gillis, my friend and a founding producer, and pitched the idea to her and she said yes.

We eventually signed a contract with them, as we did not want to take their intellectual property, we wanted to do the show and do it in a different way. So, Tipi Confessions is run by three Indigenous women. We have non-Indigenous performers as well, and we had that conversation early on because we believe that everyone is welcome in our Tipi. We began getting requests to do the show at other symposiums; we have done the show in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Vancouver and Winnipeg and are doing a show in Toronto on June 4.

In addition to the performances, the thing that makes the show really unique is that we ask the audience members to write down anonymous confessions and we have what we call “condom fairies” — they go around and distribute condoms and lubricant, and we sometimes have a table set up for sexual health organizations, and they donate the safer-sex supplies.

The condom fairies deliver the supplies to audience members and pick up their confessions so we can review them, and our emcee reads confessions in between performances. We also usually have a sponsor from a sex-toy shop so that we can provide prizes and giveaways. It really is a lot of fun.

JS: Can you expand on Tipi Confessions’ mission regarding the “decolonization of sexualities?” And what inspired you to create this project?

KT: The main thing for us is to speak openly about the past, especially for Indigenous Peoples. Repression of our traditional, cultural and sexual practices informed our project, and of course within the residential schools in Canada and the boarding schools in the United States, physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse was rampant. So, we recognize that when we speak publicly about Indigenous Peoples and sexualities, there is a violent relationship that has really done a lot of damage in our communities.

Tracy Bear, our emcee, teaches an Indigenous erotica class here at the University of Alberta. She works with Walking With Our Sisters and other responses to missing and murdered Indigenous women, and she said that if you Google “Indigenous women” and “sex” what you get is violence and terror, and she said that really broke her heart. That’s when she decided to teach that Indigenous erotica class at the undergraduate level — to begin to talk about positive forms of Indigenous sexuality.

Speaking openly about sexuality is another way in which we can try to address some of the damage that has conflated sex and violence in a very negative way for Indigenous Peoples. We [Tipi Confessions] sometimes get confessions about sexual trauma and recovering from that to inform positive sexual relationships for the future. We do get, not only “sexy confessions,” but also funny ones and powerful, moving ones.

We are careful about trying to deal with the wide range of emotions that may come up during one of our shows, but I would say that predominately the atmosphere is one of laughter. I think that, theoretically, we are working with an Indigenous framework to inform good-relations and to move away from the objectification of sex and sexuality, which is one of the reasons that we not only have sexual material in our show, but we sometimes have environmental material, as well. We try to tie in environmental issues with sex and sexuality issues because we are speaking about being in good relationships with our relatives, for both humans and non-humans.

JS: Do you think that the concept for Tipi Confessions (and thus, Bedpost Confessions™) would benefit other marginalized communities? Do you think the “confessions” platform will expand in the future?

KT: Right now, we are the only show that is particularly run by Indigenous people, or another racial/ ethnic group. The way that Bedpost Confessions™ operates is through personal contacts — they are not willing to sign a contract with just anybody.

We have more opportunities to produce this show than we could possibly fulfill, as both Tracy Bear and myself have full-time jobs as university professors, and Kristen Lindquist, our co-producer, is a full-time PhD student. Tipi Confessions started as a show, but now we are doing a research-creation initiative around it. We definitely do not have time to be on the road all of the time, otherwise we would!

JH: Is there a story, event or performance from Tipi Confessions that has impacted you the most?

KT: We did a show in Vancouver in May 2017 at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association annual conference (NAISA). We had several dancers from Virago Nation, an Indigenous burlesque collective in Vancouver. One of the dancers, Mother Girth, came out in this beautiful and sexy blue sequin dress and started dancing to  hyped-up modern powwow music.

To my eye, she was dancing with Men’s Fancy dance moves, which women don’t typically do. She was gyrating, and it seemed very athletic and more sexual, but I had never thought about it like that before. But while watching Mother Girth perform the Men’s Fancy on stage, in that dress, I thought, ‘There is something very transgressive going on here.’

The subtle kinds of transgression of the gender binary that dictates how it is appropriate, or not, for women to move, but in particular how it is, or is not, appropriate for women to move in a dress. I was really surprised at myself when I was watching, I almost started crying as it was just so powerful. They were so self-possessed and comfortable in their own bodies and with their sexuality and I absolutely loved it.

Another example would be when Joshua Whitehead performed some spoken word at the first Tipi Confessions. That was the first time that I had ever read or heard of his work. He did a piece where he was talking about one of his relatives who was murdered. It was about meeting her in a dream, and she was cooking for all of these other missing and murdered Indigenous women — positive representations. Both of those would definitely be some of my favourites, but there are so many.

JS: In your personal blog, The Critical Polyamorist, you write that “young feminist and queer thinkers are theorizing the relationships between violence to the land and violence to Indigenous women’s and other marginalized bodies.” Has this changed the performances/submissions in recent shows?

KT: Well, we are still getting a lot of submissions that deal primarily with sex and sexuality, although we also have had a singer who is inspired by R&B and reggae who sings in Cree, and her music has a type of eco-erotic energy to it, but it does not explicitly tie sexuality and nature together.

We also have been asked to potentially do a show in Northern Scandinavia, which would still operate as a sexy-storytelling show, but would predominately look at environmental issues and relationships to the land. I think that there is a feeling among these people that they don’t have to foreground sexual healing, in the way that we necessarily do. That may be the first show that focuses on Indigenous eco-erotics.

JS: How does RELAB relate to all of this? And what is a research-creation approach?

KT: Research-creation is a term that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) uses to approach arts-based research. It is basically theory-informed performance and creative work, so there may be artists whose work is informed by social theory; or for us, as social scientists, we might depart from our normal social science outputs, like papers and articles, and think about bodies of work that are influenced and performed by artists.

It can be artists doing more theoretic or academic work in combination with creative works, or academics trying to do more creative work. I think some of the main people who are driving the research-creation approach in Canada are people who are more in performance studies or fine art departments, but we are seeing social scientists and academics moving in that direction, as well.

When you bring the politics to the stage in a performative way, you could reach a lot more people than you might in academic writing. I always considered myself a bit of a weird person that liked to work in the in-between of creative works and academic theory. The research-creation language that SSHRC uses, and other Canadian academics are using, really helped me frame the work I was already doing. Basically, its arts-based research. 

JS: Lastly, if you could offer one piece of advice on healthy sex and sexualities for young feminists, and members of marginalized communities, what would it be?

KT: I learn a lot about healthy and safer sex and sexuality from younger people, mostly young, queer people. They really know what they are doing more than people in my generation. During the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings, the sexual pressure during the ’80s at parties was discussed and it really rang true to my memories of those times. Girls were taught that we were responsible for not getting sexually assaulted. There was no language of consent. Kids now are more aware of healthy and safe sex.

I don’t know what advice I would have to offer or teach younger people. The type of advice I tend to have is don’t over-extend yourself. You are not superhuman. Take care of yourself. Take care of your body. Sleep. Move around. Those things are important.

The things that I have learned as I grow older is that we all need to take care of ourselves and recognizing that I need to not push so hard. I don’t really have something that I could teach young people, they ultimately teach me.

The 2019 Henrietta Harvey lecture will be livestreamed on the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Facebook page.

The lecture takes place in room M1M101 of the Medical Education Building starts at 7 p.m. All are welcome and free parking is available in area 27 parking garage (levels two and three).

Henrietta Harvey was a Nova Scotian who came to Newfoundland in 1905 to visit her aunt, Lady Whiteway, the wife of Newfoundland’s prime minister. A year later, she settled in St. John’s as the wife of St. John’s businessman John Harvey. When she died in 1964, her will directed a substantial portion of her estate to Memorial University. The Henrietta Harvey lectureship is possible in any year where there are funds left over from the funding of the Henrietta Harvey research chair, the primary purpose of the endowment fund.

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