#22 Native Steampunk with Michael RedTurtle: A Personal Essay

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.

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Michael RedTurtle

Michael RedTurtle Dancing at a Pow Wow

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).

Different Ways of Native Steampunk

My friend Mark (a black/Seminole man) and me at DragonCon: examples of two different Native mixed race people doing Native Steampunk… One who looks Native and dresses in European clothes and one who looks European wearing traditional clothing.

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)?

Michael Redturle at DragonCon - Another view

Michael Redturtle at DragonCon – Another view

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.

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15 responses to “#22 Native Steampunk with Michael RedTurtle: A Personal Essay

  1. Jha

    Wonderful post, Michael! Thank you for sharing your questions on how to approach steampunk and how you negotiate them for yourself. I look forward to hearing from you more! ^^

  2. Bryce Carlson

    A wonderful post, and great to have available. As an American of AniYumiwi (Cherokee) descent, I can appreciate the non-Victoriana approach to steampunk, and look forward to seeing much more of it, in the future.

  3. Fascinating! Since the essence of Steampunk for me has always been the combination of old-fashioned clothing with an anachronistic level of technology,I see no reason it couldn’t work-and I think it would look fantastic going up the tech scale (cyber-traditional, whoo!)

  4. Aitsu_83

    I love the fact that this was on a steampunk forum that I subscribe to. I have been in the process of putting together a steampunk Graphic novel functioning very closely to what you are suggesting. I like the Idea of a small USA so that Natives have some how maintained their hold over a majority of the continent. Trying to make it as historically accurate as possible so that people who read it learn something too. Would love to learn whatever you can share about the 1st nations that you are familiar with. Compiling a boat load of data at the moment, and “Native American History” is easily the most difficult part since tribes and territories were both fluid concepts and written history was/is practically nonexistent. Please feel free to email me. I would love to discuss anything you are willing to share.

  5. NoTokenAzn

    I’m bummed that I missed seeing your design at Dragon*Con. I was keeping an eye out for non-euro Steampunks to get pictures of having been all but ignored in my Steampunk Asian Miner/Gunslinger costume.

    Great Design!

  6. Michael Redturtle

    Thank you all for your responses. Sorry I’ve not gotten back in here til now- this semester is winding down and studying hardcore is kicking into gear.

    NoTokenAzn…I’ll be at DragonCon (most likely), and I’ll (most likely) be sitting on a few more panels this year (I sat on a few last year, and I suppose William and Cindy will want me to sit on some this time as well). And, my costuming will be “more steamy” this year…last year it was basic traditional clothing with one thing that can be called “steampunk” (if I took it off…I looked like I belonged in a Rev War re-enactment or at a Pow Wow, not at DragonCon…lol)

    For those in the Atlanta area (or who feel like travelling here), there is a smaller History/Steampunk/ Alternate History con on 4/30- 52…called Anachrocon (www.Anachrocon.com). I’ll be speaking about Native Americana…not in a steampunk sense, but in a historical & contemporary sense (sitting with me will be a Cherokee Grandmother).

    I met Ay-leen in an online discussion and we ended up talking about this blog over the course of time. I never thought about writing it til she asked me.

    Of all the non-Eurocentric steampunk out there, Native American-style is the least represented. I have a bunch of ideas why that might be, but I won’t go into that. I wanted to do it because- it’s who I am, it’s comfortable, and I’ve always loved doing things others *aren’t*/avoiding doing things everyone else *is* doing.

    Again, thanks for reading and the the comments.

    mvto,
    Michael Redturtle

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  8. Lesleyanne

    I am doing a portrait of my friend and his girlfriend. He is half Mohawk and she is Spainish Mantilla . They love their hertiage and I want to incorporate that into their painting. I was wondering where I could get more informations on the Mohawk traditional warriors/hunting clothing from 17th century. Thank you for your time.
    Lesleyanne

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  11. Lawst

    I’m glad to see someone bringing Native Americans into the Steampunk realm. I’m both Haudenosaunee (Seneca) and Hungarian Rom with a smattering of other European lines. I have been reluctant to touch on the traditional styles of the People for fear of…I’m not sure. Showing disrespect? My costume is slowly coming together and, in spite of myself, it’s the little touches of my heritage that seem right. Considering that Iorquois beadwork was popular with the Victorians, I don’t think it will be difficult to Steam it up.

  12. Taby

    I love this idea. I’m part Cherokee and hoping I’d learn more about them when I moved to Oklahoma. course most Cherokee seem to be near Tulsa and I’m in okc. but its driving distance. My family were the type to hide in the mountains in Tennessee so they never took the trail of tears and were too proud to be registered. strangely I was looking at little girl books based on a native American in Victorian times and I thought that would be a great idea for steampunk.

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  14. Micheal, I love your write up, I am too trying to add in my ancestry as well into my Steam personal, thinking of doing a Scott / Cherokee mix. Though I am doing a mixture of the “Western American and Native” Hope I can pull this off. lol