The Work of Beth Brant

Tamai Kobayashi

As we've seen, the stereotypes of the 'Indian Princess' and the 'Easy Squaw' exults and degrades. Although these images are an imaginary construct, they have very real effect on the lives of First Nations women. First Nations women writers battle these stereotypes in different ways. Beth Brant is one of them.

Beth Brant is a Mohawk lesbian writer, a mother, a grandmother who has written books articles, edited anthologies, gathered oral histories, mentored younger First Nation writers. She began writing when she was forty years old. She's the editor of Gathering of Spirit, a collection by North American Indian Women, author of Mohawk Trail, Food and Spirits, I'll Sing 'till the Day I Die, conversations with Tyendinaga Elders, Writing as Witness and the forthcoming Testimony from the Faithful.

In Writing as Witness, she speaks of homophobia as a sickness that was introduced by colonialism, just as smallpox and alcohol were introduced by the Europeans to weaken and destroy the first peoples of the land (see also E. Galeano, We Say No, on how homosexuality was used by the Christian Fathers as 'proof' of the heathens wickedness). She writes about the gathering of Two-spirited people at the Basket and the Bow, the themes of recovery and transformation - recovery being stronger that the disease of homophobia, asking the hard questions of internalized hatreds and transforming these hatreds into a journey of healing and the transformative power of sexuality. Although she has not found the word for 'lesbian' in Mohawk, in her research she has found the names in the language of many other first nations ('Nadle, shopan, a-go-kwa, ayekkewe, bade, winkte, geenumu gesallagee, ma ai, pote are the words in Navajo, Aleut, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Lakota, Micmac, Shoshone respectively, that are still in use' p.48 Writing as Witness.) And this uncovering, this searching of other two-spirited people, Beth Brant gains strength in numbers and determination. Writing is survival. In Mohawk Trail, she casts the Coyote as trickster tricked by her own trick. In "The Long Story" she parallels the theft of First Nations children by the state in the past with the present day theft of children of First Nation lesbian mothers by the state. Beth Brant writes about community as well. She cites the work of other two-spirited people, work of women such as Two Feathers, Nicole Tanguay, Chrystos, Mary Moran, Janice Gould, Anna Lee Walters, Susan Beaver, Lena Manyarrows, Vickie Sears, Elaine Hall, Donna Marchand, Donna Goodleaf, Barbara Cameron, Connie Fife, Sharon Day and Shirley Brozzo, and the range and breadth of their work (this is not a comprehensive list). And she has written of other First Nations women's writing, the legacy of stories from authors as diverse as Leslie Marmon Silko and E. Pauline Johnston. She also speaks of the commodification of sex and spiritual belief, critiquing the sex phobia that divorces sexuality from life, and the selling of so called 'Native Spirituality' that the New Age movement excels. She writes about the 'enforcement of amnesia,' the co-optation and falsification in the myths of 'Pocahontas' and retells the story of the historical woman trapped in the myth (see also Cherrie Moraga's "A Long Line of Vendidas" for a re-telling of the Malinche myth).

Brant also writes about family, her family history, or her mixed blood origins, her early shame of being 'light skinned' in a family of dark hair, dark eyes, and later, her shame of being Indian and the childhood 'passing' as white - the lives of what Linda Hogan calls 'New People'. She situates herself concretely, as lesbian, Mohawk, urban, mother, grandmother, as daughter of Irish-Scots mother and Mohawk father.

Beth Brant writes about her process of writing and publishing. In writing she writes 'back' to her family, as forgotten Mohawk works jump into her computer. She writes that "writing is/was Medicine" against the lies and 'colonial untruths'. She writes of how white reviewers who do not know her references, dismiss her stories, or pluck out details that suit their needs - the comments that come from ignorance, how publishers who will publish the fake shamans, the Tony Hillerman's and Lynn Andrews of the world, how the world will try to classify, ghettoize her work into artifical arbitrary fragments - categorize (identify, genre, nationality, class) compartimentalize, reduce, dismiss. Brant writes of the power of language, the fears, the procrastination, knows how words can be used against you. Not that represents all First Nations women, but that the mechanism of colonial thought will try to divide and conquer, to flaten and erase. She places herself in a specific time and a specific space. The dichotomy that Janice Acoose carefully exposed in Iskwewak, the stereotypes of "Princess" and "squaw" is challenged in Brant's writing. Clearly in poems such as "Her Name is Helen" she brings out the beauty of the woman, the strength of survival, even as she is being named by the white women as "a tragedy," she reveals how stereotypes give power to whiteness, the european system of thought that splits, divides and contains. Yes Helen takes pictures of herself - it is interesting that the words she quotes are the masters words of 'dumb, ugly, fat, squaw'. And although she takes those words into herself, there are others who see her beauty, the lived experience of her life - she survives and one day those pictures may tell her who she is - against the lies. But there are other words that Helen has yet to find. For Beth Brant, as for other First Nations writers, writing is survival, for community, against lies - writing is witness.

Some websites of interest

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