#50 Overcoming the Noble Savage & the Sexy Squaw: Native Steampunk–Guest Blog by Monique Poirier

Monique in her steampunk attire. Image courtesy of author

I’m not one for preambles, so let’s get down to brass tacks here. I’m Monique Poirier. I’m a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe. I’m a Steampunk.

When I got into Steampunk several years ago, it didn’t really occur to me to even try to incorporate my cultural identity into my Steampunk presentation; my first Steampunk outfit (worn to Templecon 2009) was cobbled together from my existent goth attire, stuff from the renfaire costume trunk, and a duct-tape corset.

Then I read Jha’s articles at Tor.com. Then I started reading Beyond Victoriana. It was powwow season… and everything just -clicked-. When I attended The Steampunk World’s Fair in May 2010, I made an active effort to incorporate my ethnic identity more visibly in my Steampunk attire.

That’s where things get complicated.

Overcoming The Noble Savage and the Sexy Squaw

Making a deliberate choice to construct my Steampunk attire around Native attire often involves deciding between which pieces are appropriate and which will be recognized by a wide audience as being Native. It means working with and against existent images of What Indians Look Like–and it becomes extra difficult when I have to work against the fact that Native Americans are already assumed in the popular consciousness to be anachronistic. Am I subverting Victoriana-centric Steampunk with my Native attire, or am I just reinforcing the stereotype that Native folks all dress like it’s 1899 all the time because that’s when they stopped existing? Is being a Steampunk Native American just rehashing Indians In Aspic? When I put on a pair of buckskin leggings, or wear bead work that I have spent hours making by hand with skills taught to me by my mother–clothing and jewelry that I’ve also worn to powwows–am I marking myself as Other-Than-European or am I just reinforcing Braids, Beads, and Buckskins?

Beadwork necklace designed by Monique. Image courtesy of author.

It comes down to mythology, to narrative, and to what stories we’re telling with the personas we portray and how we present them. Some of the attire I own will never be worn outside of a powwow or tribal gathering. For example, I don’t wear prominent feathers–or any feather at all that look like This as part of my Steampunk attire; I treasure the feathers I’ve actually gained through ceremony and ritual too much to wear them to anything less solemn than a powwow or tribe meeting, and I am not comfortable in making mockup feathers that my character /persona would have similarly earned.

It’s pretty grating, then, to be at a convention and having someone comment, “If you’re trying to look like a Native American, you should incorporate more feathers,”‘ because I do understand where that comment comes from. How do you know that an Indian is and Indian if they’re not in the Hollywood Dress Code attire for Indians? A hard and fast rule I’m going by: “If I ran into another member of my tribe while wearing this here, would I feel the need to explain or apologize for it?” If so, I am not wearing that. Even if it means that I’m losing recognition.

There is a vast and predominantly grossly incorrect mythology surrounding Native Americans. Children in American Public Schools, unless they happen to be from an area that has a very prominent and active Native community (and sometimes even then) are generally spoon-fed the tidy and feel-good Story Of Thanksgiving as their first lesson in Native American Culture–depending on whether or not they’ve already seen Pocahontas and Peter Pan. They generally graduate to Westerns* and various other Hollywood mythologies so that by the time they’re attending cons all on their own they’ve built a distinct expectation of what ‘Native American’ should look like–and if an outfit doesn’t do that, it will not parse as Native American.

Which makes my costuming choices complicated.

Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.

Taking aim! Image courtesy of author.

Recognizing Native Technologies

Among the issues in creating a Native Steampunk Persona is overcoming the assumption that technological advancement is not something endemic to Native cultures. That any and all advanced technologies utilized by Native Americans must necessarily be adopted and adapted from European ones. Beyond Victoriana #9 does a good job talking about this and has an excellent link list already, so I won’t go into much detail here. But the gist is this: Native Tech is a real thing, and was a real thing in the 19th century. Contact Effect is a real thing, and any population that’s exposed to a piece of technology is just as likely as any other to reproduce it, to make innovations and modifications on it, and to take it and make it work in the most efficient and useful way for them. If one knows how to make/use rays, and someone introduces the concept of guns, well suddenly one gets the bright idea to develop ray guns, and then does so! If one is already utilizing solar energy in a number of ways, and the concept of electricity and steam power are introduced, one is very likely to pioneer development of photovoltaic cells and solar steam engines–if one doesn’t happen to be kept distracted by being at war or having genocide conducted upon one’s people. Indigenous cultures are just as ripe for internally-controlled industrialization and technological innovation, by themselves and for themselves, as any other population in the 19th-century landscape.

Native ray gun. Image courtesy of author.

There is no reason other than our own limited and stifled imaginations to assume that Native Americans would not have technologically advanced under their own innovative impetus had the historical cultural interplay been altered. Just look at the technological innovations they’d already given to Europe via contact effect, particularly in the area of biological engineering and materials: Latex rubber and the Vulcanization thereof, for example, is Native technology adapted by Europeans that’s pretty essential to a lot of Steampunk applications. To me that’s the most exciting part of Native Steampunk–thinking about what might have been radically different, and then doing it. Extrapolating and sussing out the historical paths of Native technology and culture as it might have developed through its own industrial and technological revolutions in the 19th century.

Toward a more inclusive Steampunk landscape

So Native Steampunk isn’t easy. It requires forethought and creativity and overcoming a lot of sociocultural baggage.

But isn’t that part of the fun of Steampunk?

I would ADORE seeing other people do it too! It would be incredibly awesome to see someone else rocking some Steampunk wampum jewelry, or steaming up a trade shirt. But the caveat here is that anyone who wants to undertake this really needs to take the time to not do it in an insulting, hurtful way. That means becoming apprised of what stereotypes exist and are hurtful and not using them. Things like NOT wearing warbonnets or face paint, and recognizing cultural appropriation. It means doing your research. If you’re still interested: Go for it! I know only a small handful of Steampunks who also identify as Native. I’d LOVE to hear more voices and see more Native Steampunk costuming. For those seeking research sources, I highly recommend NativeTech and NativeLanguages.org, as well as any of the books listed in Beyond Victoriana #9, most especially Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World.

There’s a lot of directions to move in in Steampunk. It’s still a relatively new genre and one that’s still being defined. We can definite it in inclusive ways if we want to. If we try to. We can do it right if we work hard. Let’s do this.

*So about Westerns. It is a personal thorn in my side that everyone who does recognize that my attire is Native automatically files me under ‘Weird West’ – as if there are/were no Native Americans present east of the Mississippi. Native Americans =/= West. Really. Some tribal nations are from there, yes. The Native Removals of the 1830’s moved a lot of tribal nations from the east into the west, yes. But alternate histories might not even include Native Removals, and tribal nations from the east were in the 19th century and still are today living cultures. I just wanted to get that out there for everyone. Native Steampunks need not be from the Weird West.

***
Monique Poirier is an author, costumer, maker, and gamer from North Providence, RI. Her short story “Concerning The Ars Mechanica” appears in the anthology Like Clockwork by Circlet Press.

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26 Comments

Filed under Essays

26 responses to “#50 Overcoming the Noble Savage & the Sexy Squaw: Native Steampunk–Guest Blog by Monique Poirier

  1. Sometime, I’d love to compare notes on our alternate-Americas — I’ve been looking at Garra’s Revolt in 1849 as the divergence point for some fiction I’m exploring.

  2. Jen

    Wow! What a great post.

    While one part of my brain is chewing on the intellectual goodies, my broke-a** fashionista is stuck on “duct-tape corset.” I’ve been cooking on how to even start such a project for about two weeks now.

  3. Ziggy

    For further reading on this subject, the blog The Steamer’s Trunk at http://thesteamerstrunk.blogspot.com/ is doing a whole series of articles (has been all November) on incorporating Native American garments, decorative motifs, and styles into one’s steampunk character. They’re all very well-documented and researched things, and include copious caveats about keeping respectful and doing your research. A very good resource.

  4. JN

    Thanks, Monique. I’m an author with a couple novels published, currently (absently) brainstorming a project that I think might shade into the steampunk, and the characters were all gonna either have ethnic backgrounds vaguely like mine (given the fictional world) or basically Mainstream Nothing. Because I doubt my ability to write, say, a Wampanoag Indian accurately, even in an alternate history world.

    But that’s a feeble excuse. Everyone _isn’t_ just like me. So thanks for the reminder.

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  6. Dr. Fidelius

    Excellent post. Thank you for forcing this blockhead to think a little further outside of his personal box. Again.

    One of my personal soapboxes is the misuse of real military decorations in costuming. You have helped me realize that I need to expand the crusade to include the misuse of other culturally significant symbols.

    So much to learn for an old man…

  7. Celine

    Ziggy beat me to the punch on this one! http://thesteamerstrunk.blogspot.com/ is doing a month-long study. You should get in contact with her about doing a guest entry!

  8. Thank you for opening up a new and exciting possibility for me, and for reminding me to tread carefully and respectfully on paths through cultures different from my own.

    You mentioned an alternate Steampunk timeline for Hawaii… I’ve been creatively “stuck” for a while with doing things in Second Life, but I see a way forward now that might be fun, exploring the Victorian era there if the monarchy had NOT been overthrown by American business interests.

    Not to mention the geothermic possibilities… thanks!

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  12. in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii)

    Wow. You really need to meet alt-reality. I’d love a map like that.

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  15. SarahNicole

    We’d LOVE for you to submit something to our special issue of TWC on this topic:

    http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/announcement/view/17

  16. I’m a mix of cultures, but mostly Cherokee and Choctaw with a lot of old country Irish that became tinkers, rather like Irish Gypsies.

    My Steampunk personae is patterned after a real ancestor whose father came to America from Ireland around the time of the Civil war and married a Cherokee woman. My character name being Spanish, most of the time, he sometimes uses the Irish name instead, is due to the extreme anti-Irish sentiment (and anti-native sentiment) that caused him to pretend to be something else in real life. If he had become a sailor, like my fictional version did, he might have made the same choice and learned Spanish on trade cruises there and south of the US, then taken a Spanish surname and identity to cover up and hide his ancestry. Once he was established as a powerful privateer, it became unnecessary, but sometimes useful, to use the same name.

    I do not currently use a lot of Native American attire in my Steampunk for all the reasons mentioned above, but we are about to start using more Aztec regalia (my wife and I were traditional Aztec Dancantes for years) in Steampunk and will eventually put together a wild west ensemble, which in my case, will look like a slightly odd gunslinger at first with a long black duster, but when I open my coat reveals an explosion of color and Native American dance attire (old style-cotton rather than buckskin). I don’t have any problems wearing feathers as none of mine were received in rituals. My eyes are so blue that I was not particularly welcome in Northern Native rituals until more recently. That is why I was so involved in Aztec rituals and dance for a long time. They had an extra 400+ years to get a little less sensitive to talking in the presence of blue eyed people like myself even though we do still remind them somewhat of the European conquerors, but not as badly as my northern relatives whose severe problems in that area ended much more recently (if ever).

    The point is that my character would want to avoid identification as native until he took off his coat and then make it as obvious as possible just before gunning down the local bad guys, who may have been making “drunk indian jokes” only moments before. The whole image gives me a smile. I just can’t help it.

  17. Perhaps your weaponry would have more of a Native American feel to it if it was ceramic rather than carbon steel. It might seem less like borrowed tech, and more like indigenous tech. Of course, I’m not a historian, and like those people you railed against, I too was raised on the image of the ‘Hollywood Injun’. No offense is intended.

    Overall, I love the look, and applaud the effort!

  18. Phil

    Honestly, im sorry to say this, but this is totally lame to me. Steampunk is a false reality that has been created by someone else that you have chosen to express yourself with. dont you have your own creative ideas that arent based off of somebody else’s conceptions? Dont you have the ability to tap into what makes you YOU? or are you subscribing to somebody else’s reality?

  19. I cannot agree MORE!!! You have hit all the points I’ve been reasearching, and I want to do it RIGHT, as well!

    Like you have already mentioned, I am one of those Natives who grew up in the American public school system, learning about Thanksgiving, Pocahontas etc etc the Hollywood way.

    When my family told me that they were finally going to ‘register’ with the tribe, I felt obligated to learn more. . . Hence a lot of research ensued.

    It still continues, but I can’t help but applaud great blog posts like yours. You should also check out this one, if you haven’t yet: http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/ Which touches base on a lot of the same things.
    Also, http://thesteamerstrunk.blogspot.com/ – She also did a NativePunk attire, and will debut the same one at World Steam Expo (I want to do the same, and join up!)

    I must say, that this is the first post I’ve ever seen that talks about this sort of subject, specifically in the Steampunk genre. It’s very enlightening, and I definitely do not want to do the wrong thing (especially since I am learning a lot about a culture I didn’t grow up in, but am a part of)~

    “A hard and fast rule I’m going by: “If I ran into another member of my tribe while wearing this here, would I feel the need to explain or apologize for it?” If so, I am not wearing that. Even if it means that I’m losing recognition.” – That is one of my favorite things you noted, and I’m glad to know my gut feelings feel the same way.

    Thanks again!!!

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  21. This is great! I’ve wondered about incorporating my Lakota heritage into a Steampunk outfit. Thanks for the inspiration.

  22. chicagofandom

    This article is seriously like a gust of the freshest air I’ve ever whiffed and a moment of sweet sweet clarity. As an African American, I’ve really been struggling with how this will incorporate itself into my persona. You’ve simplified my quest and given me a lot to think about. I’m truly grateful for your article. You gotta come party in the midwest sometime, We throw a fair shindig from time to time. Look me up. I’m Trudy Seabrook on Facebook and at http://chicagofandom.wordpress.com.

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