Note from Ay-leen: I got in touch with Michael Redturtle—a steampunk enthusiast from the Southern US—a few months back and we’ve chatted about how steampunk can become integrated with someone’s personal and cultural identity. He offered to pen a few thoughts about his Native ancestry, the journey he took to discover it, and what that has to do with how he steampunks.
Since you’re reading this, you’re aware that there are many of us who prefer to look at steampunk from the viewpoint of outside neo-Victoriana. I was asked by Ay-leen to talk about my preference: that being Native American steampunk.
My name is Michael Redturtle. This is not the name of my “character/persona/whatever”; it is my actual name (some of you may know me on LiveJournal and other similar sites as Lucv_Cate, or LocaCate: which is Redturtle in two different Mvskoke dialects). I know one question that you probably have is: “is that your ‘real name’?” Well, it depends on what you call a “real name.”
No, it is not my legal last name….that is because it is more akin to a second first name. It is a name given to me by an Elder during a Naming Ceremony following a Vision Quest I went on quite some time ago. It is a name that is as much who I am, as my legal name.
I call myself a mix-blood: Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) and Irish on my mother’s side, and Dutch on my father’s side. So, why am I talking about the Mvsoke if my Ancestors come from the Kanien’kehaka? Because I did not learn of my heritage until I had already moved down south and began learning the ways of my Elder’s People; the Mvskoke (also seen written as Muscogee). The foundation of my life is the ways taught to me by my Elder.
My family has always lived in upstate NY (ever since the first Dutch Ancestor landed in 1620, and the first Irish Ancestor landed in 1752…and my Mohawk Ancestors from time immemorial), around an area we all call the Finger Lakes…land where my Mohawk Ancestors traditionally lived before Europeans came over. I was adopted at birth, so I grew up knowing nothing of my heritage. I moved down south when I was 30, a few years after I did finally meet my birth family. But, it was not until after I moved down here that my birth-Mother told me of our heritage and some of the stories that our family has told for many generations. At that point though, I was already learning about the ways of the Mvskoke people (which are one the southeastern tribes collectively called The Five Civilized Tribes).
(A sidenote about names—as I said, the Mvskoke are one of The Five Civilized Tribes: the others being the Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw. This name was given to them by the Europeans. In fact, most of the names that tribes are know by, are names that the Europeans used to denote who was who…and it often was more about a relationship with a geographical point of interest. For instance, the Mvskoke belong to a larger Nation, called the Creek Nation, called that by the Europeans because they are traditionally a farming people, and they lived near creeks. How inventive of the Europeans huh?…LOL. Sometimes, the name Europeans called a tribe was the actual tribal name for themselves, but altered because the various European languages are very different from the various Native languages and they could not say the names properly…so you get Muscogee—from Mvskoke).
Currently, I know nothing of my Kanien’kehaka relations’ heritage and traditions, although I am meeting people who can teach me.
I moved down south on the offer of a friend to move in with him. About 9 months after moving here, I was invited by a new friend to come to a Sweat Lodge. It was there I met the man who I came to call my Elder. He offered to teach me the ways of his people, and it is these ways that have formed the foundations of my life.
But back to my learning with my Elder; his teachings included the traditions, the Ceremonies, the crafts, and the traditional stories of the Mvskoke people. It also included learning about the traditional clothing. They are called The Five Civilized Tribes because they were among the first tribes to recognize the value of European clothing (etc)…the coolness of cotton in the humid south was a blessing over wearing buckskin clothing. But, this is not to say that it replaced buckskin entirely. Some people modified buckskin clothing patterns to be made with cloth, then mixed and matched buckskin and cloth, some people still wore all buckskin, some people wore all cloth. Their willingness to adopt European clothing also was related to them being less confrontational when it came to adopting European ways (which is not say that everyone in the tribe welcomed the European ways into the tribe…such can be seen in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, also called the Red Stick Rebellion, or the Creek Civil War).
When it came time to create an outfit, I thought of some pretty neat ideas. And while they seemed interesting and I had fun thinking about all sorts of bizarre things I could do with them…they didn’t feel right. I realize that many people get involved in role-playing and all that, as a chance to break out and play a role that is not who you normally are, but I am who I am, I like who I am, and I have no need to want to be someone else. So, I decided to create a steampunk version of traditional Mvskoke clothing. My idea was: “Native first, steampunk second”. I met someone and got to talking to him about steampunk costuming (he also works with leather). He was saying that his idea for his outfit is based on Daniel Day Lewis’s character in Gangs of New York. I replied, “interesting, mine is based on Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans.” We had a good laugh over that.
It actually is a bit trickier than just creating a steampunk costume from scratch, because I have this base that I wanted to keep. So, my questions that arose were (and still are): what would a steampunk version of traditional clothing look like? How far might my Ancestors have gone from traditional clothing? How steamy can I take traditional clothing and have it remain so that your first reaction is “that is Native American clothing” (especially since my complexion seems to come primarily from my European ancestors)?
While it’s more difficult in that aspect, it is also much easier because I already have quite a bit of buckskin clothing, moccasins, jewelry, etc. And since I make all my clothing (well, only the leather stuff), and I make leather goods (plus gear, accessories and etc), adding to my wardrobe is not too difficult. I have all sorts of inspiration for steampunk versions of traditional clothing, and have begun making my own costuming, as well as some prototypes of pieces that will most likely be produced for my website. I am also working towards setting up at Revolutionary War re-enactments as a sutler…a merchant who followed around an army and set up a shop just outside the camp, and sold their wares to soldiers. In my case, it’ll be leather clothing and gear.
I am very interested in an alternate history America…potentially where the Revolutionary War was not fought at all, where maybe there is no “America”, where maybe each tribe (whether as their own individual tribe, or a small Nation of a few tribes, or as a Territory…a large collective of Nations banded together for this reason or that) controls sizeable territories, maybe where the European nations are still squabbling over colonization rights. Since it is an alternate history, the limits are merely the imagination.