For this Thursday’s class I read Christian Conger’s article, “How Revisionist History Works.” Since I am absent from class attending the annual GLMA conference, I thought I would connect the commentary in Conger’s article to one of the lectures I attended at the conference, so that I may apply the lessons from class to my experiences outside of it.
Yesterday, I attended a lecture given by Harlan Pruden – a two-spirit activist and scholar and member of the First Nation Cree – in which he discussed two-spirit history and its connections to LGBTQ+ health. According to Conger, one way to practice revisionism is to use a “social or theoretical perspective to re-examine the past through different lenses,” and this is exactly what Harland did: He looked at the historical and modern constructions of gender through a Native lens to better understand the interrelations between gender, sex, sexuality, and healthcare. Harlan argued that in Western frameworks, we look at gender and sexuality in a linear fashion (e.g. an individual is gay, straight, or somewhere in between, or a man, women, or somewhere in between). In a native framework, however, gender and sexuality exist in a circular fashion, and Harlan argues that it is necessary to understand the history of colonization through a native lens to understand the circular nature of gender and sexuality. In most native tribes, there are four genders: Male, female, what we could consider a male assigned individual who perform female gender tasks, and vice versa. These “extra” genders were named by the French as Bardache – a word which essentially means the receptive male partner in anal sex. Today, however, we know these people as two-spirit.
Natives did not look at these individuals as “male assigned” or “female assigned” and thus it was normal for male warriors to court a “male assigned” two-spirit individual or for a female gatherer to court a “female assigned” two-spirit individual. These couples were not viewed as “gay” or “lesbian” by other Natives, as we would, but as a normal, valued, and healthy part of Native societies. In a Western framework, where we predominantly erase the history of natives, it is impossible to understand this conception of gender and sexuality and its power; however, using a revisionist lens gives that power back to us as non-Native scholars and to Natives who are trying to reclaim their culture.
Harlan also spoke of historical trauma which is a cross-generational perpetuation of systemic violence that results in individual and community emotional and psychological damage. For native Americans / aboriginal peoples this takes the form of loss of land, loss of language, and loss of customs, just to name a few. For Black people in the United States, this takes the form of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. For Japanese people, this takes the form of internment camps; Chinese people the form of West coast labor camps; queer and trans people the form of sodomy laws, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, marriage inequality, and bathroom bills. I bring up historical trauma because it is difficult if not impossible to understand and believe in without using revisionist lenses, and we as historians either contribute to or fight against this systemic violence with our readings and writings of history.
Ultimately, revisionism is powerful because it gives agency to marginalized individuals and groups to tell the history of their culture, and this reclamation promotes unity, activism, and community. Revisionism is dangerous, however, because it can give that same power of agency to the oppressor to erase those they find lesser.
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