Friday, January 6, 2012

Steampunk POC: Monique Poirer (Seaconke Wampanoag)

Some of you already know Monique Poirier, either from her Beyond Victoriana essay, or from Tumblr, or you know her from cons and stuff. So it seemed a pretty natural thing to get in touch with her for this series of steampunk POC interviews. I first met her at Steampunk World's Fair 2010, and found her again through K Tempest Bradford's musings about wearing steampunk fashion (Tempest said she couldn't imagine wearing the usual corsets and bustle stuff, then point to Monique as wearing very wearable, everyday stuff). We occasionally chat late into the night, and when I first thought about doing a series of interviews with steampunk POC, it made sense to get in touch with her.

So without further ado, gentlefolk, I present, Monique Poirier:

I know you covered this in your BV essay, about how you come to start doing Native Steampunk, but how did you first get to know about steampunk? What were your impressions of it? Were you like me, as in the "it looks pretty but but but white people and colonialism" sort of way? Or were you a participant in your own way?

I first became aware of teampunk through costuming sometime 2008-2009, and when I came into it I wasn't really involved in the non-European aspect. I originally loved steampunk for the pretty pretty clothes; not gonna lie, I am a sucker for lace and bustles and corsets and brass bits and top hats and waistcoats. I love cello music. I love clockwork. I was a goth in high school and college (this is what a Native steamgoth looks like). It hadn't even occurred to me then to incorporate my ethnic identity into my costuming, or to even notice the colonialism aspect because I was so USED to being invisible as an NDN person, in whiteness and European identity being the only explored aspect, that the problematic white mono-culture aspects just seemed normal to me – but then I started reading about Steampunk online to dig for costuming ideas, and came across your articles at Tor, and started reading Beyond Victoriana, and generally thought more about incorporating my indigeneity into my Steampunk attire. After the Beyond Victoriana panel at the first Steampunk World's Fair, where I (as an audience member) brought up the fact that colonialism effects NDN folks in that our colonizers never left, I was totally ready to make my outfits much more recognizably indigenous.

I remember being at the roundtable where you brought up how colonizers remain on Turtle Island. In fact, I was the one you corrected about colonizers leaving. Do you think people tend to forget this fact, or do you think steampunks are more aware of it?

It's very much a forgotten fact; steampunks may or may not be more aware of it than other folks; certainly the social justice contingent is. Steampunk lends itself to discussions of colonialism and the impact of colonization and empire on world cultures, but not everyone participates or wants to participate in those conversations.

How do YOU define steampunk? As an aesthetic? Genre? Life philosophy? Whatever? How does this compare to the "general" definitions of steampunk you hear?

Defining Steampunk is one of those questions that I think all steampunks are sick to death of by now. For me, Steampunk is alternate history with variant technological and cultural development as occurring in and around late 18th to very early 20th century, anywhere in the world. I'm not a lifestyle steampunk; I don't wear steampunk attire to my day job or live in a steampunk-decor house or try to live by the supposedly 'more genteel' social etiquette of a bygone age. For me it's about costuming and fiction; it's about exploring the past and envisioning how it could have been different and discussing it at length with other like-minded people. It's no surprise that I spend the overwhelming majority of my time at gatherings and conventions going to discussion panels.

I'm not sure how to compare it to general definitions of steampunk, because at this point I'm not sure there's any such thing as a general definition of steampunk.

How do you do steampunk? Or how do you steampunk or how do you participate in steampunk? Or what steampunk media do you do (lit, fashion, events)?

I steampunk through costuming and sundry making relating to costuming; I participate in the culture mostly through spending lavish amounts of time preparing for a few select events in the year (Templecon, Steampunk World's Fair, Steampunk Industrial Revolution) and talking about steampunk online. I've done some steampunk reading and guiltily feel that I should do more because so much of it is awesome. I have plans to write a steampunk novel, but that's had a lot of false starts and stops for a lot of different reasons.  I've talked about my envisioned universe here and here.

So tell us your feelings about steampunk in general. What do you think of the existing / canon literature? The fashions? The communities that have sprung up around them?

I love steampunk, but it's got problems. There are a lot of people who are very happy to fully and heartily embrace and celebrate, without exploring or reconstructing, the most problematic racist, sexist, classist, and imperial aspects of the 19th century. They tend to turn up in comment threads when one criticizes something problematic in steampunk. But these people are going to exist in any fandom or subculture, so you can't judge the subculture by them. Steampunk is awesome and pretty and bursting with potential. I rather wish I was more involved in some kind of local steampunk community, but the nearest regular gatherings to me are still an hour drive away, and since they seldom bring the kind of discussion I crave anyhow, I seldom bother. Come on Providence RI Steampunk scene, why won't you be a thing?!

For all its flaws, what makes steampunk compelling to you?

Let me cite for a moment the wonderful webcomic Married To The Sea, from March of 2006:

But aside from that aspect (which is not small thing, let me be honest) I think I'm drawn to Steampunk for the same reason I'm drawn to renfaires and halloween and goth: I love costuming. I love pageantry. I love enthusiasm about the same. I love the kind of toothy discussions about history and culture and human nature, about sociology and philosophy and how the world is and what shaped it and how it could be that only seem to occur in certain settings – and steampunk is one of those settings.

What do you think steampunk has to offer POC who usually find themselves saturated in white spaces?

I'm not sure how to answer this question; Steampunk gatherings tend to be pretty white-saturated spaces. Steampunk fandom reflects geekery in general, and while there are definitely POC contingents in fandom, it's still very much white majority. Steampunk offers what other fandoms offer; fun and interest and discussion and gaming and costuming and generally having a good time with like-minded people. I think steampunk fiction, by virtue of being a newish genre, has more room for POC voices than 'traditional' fantasy and sci-fi in terms of how it's viewed by publishers and audiences – the same goes for comics and visual art.

What's been the greatest challenge in incorporating being NDN into your steampunk?

Balance. Deciding what I want to incorporate into my attire that will be both recognized by outsiders as being NDN without making myself into a walking stereotype. Deciding what in my alternate universe to keep and what to scrap in favor of what else. I don't wear feathers, by and large. I do utilize a lot of bead work. I wear a lot of buckskin – by the 19th century in our timetime, buckskin had fallen out of use in favor of tradecloth and calico in lots of applications; I actively choose to use buckskin because it's pre-contact traditional and using it speaks directly to a rejection of European assimilation. On the other hand, the way that I cut my pieces reflect Victorian lines; I use diamond-shaped back panels and fitted bodices and bustles because these lines are what I love about steampunk and the Victorian aesthetic. In an imagined world, in a timeline where clothing choices were dictated by fashion and not by assimilation, such a garment can exist.

Have you told your family and other tribe members about this weird little thing you do? If yes, how have they reacted?

My mom and I actually sit around doing leatherwork together pretty frequently; she strictly on regalia, me on either reglalia or steampunk attire (or pieces that I intend to use for both applications – my moccasins and one of my dresses have seen conventions AND powwows...). She thinks it's awesome that I'm so enthusiastic about it, and she's happy that I'm incorporating NDN stuff into fandom. In general, my extended family and tribe members write it off as 'nerd stuff'. Some don't really comprehend why I'd want to play around with 19th century history, because the 19th century sucked. If I weren't being so mindful about what items I'm willing to use and which I am NOT willing to take out of a powwow setting because doing so would be disrespectful, I have no doubt that I'd get an earful from one or more of my elders.  In general the reaction has been between 'apathetic' and 'positive'.

Here is a touchy, possibly trigger-y question, feel free to skip: have you witnessed or experienced flat-out racism in steampunk spaces, beyond the online displays of flagrant appropriation? What about a microaggression that you didn't realize the breadth of until much later? 

At last year's Steampunk World's Fair some dude in a hallway jovially said 'Hey, Steampunk Trail of Tears!' at me in passing, and since I was on my way to a panel and didn't even see who'd said it, I wasn't able to stop and address how incredibly wrong that was with him. That's probably the most directly insipid thing I've had to deal with, everything else has been far more microagressive and mildly grating – assumptions that NDN folks = Weird West, gracious and positive reactions from white folks with an undercurrent of defensiveness about their own costuming choices, on more than one occasion people coming up to me to expound about their reported NDN ancestry and ask me how I 'got enrolled' in my tribe. That, in fact, segues nicely into the next question...

Could you tell us a bit about the Pretendian Wannabe Sue Tribe?

So there's this vast contingency of folks who have a Cherokee princess grandmother. This is never actually the case. Even more people claim to have 'Native Blood' – this is so prevalent that Stuff White People Do has a page about it. Now, identity policing, blood quantum, and inclusion vs. exclusion in NDN communities is a massive, thorny, problematic issue. It's one of the enduring painful legacies of colonization that NDN communities have often been forced to determine their membership by rules other than their own. I'm not contesting that there are PROBLEMS with identity policing.

But there are also a hell of a lot of white folks out there who are happy to pretend to be NDN, or who known damned well they aren't any part NDN and want to pretend they are anyway, because of romanticized stereotypes about NDN folks. You can find these people wearing headdresses, turquoise jewelry, assorted feathers, dreamcatchers, and pendleton prints on tumblr. They usually ascribe to some new agey woo-based worldview. Thier homes might be full of this crap. This is a hilariously accurate portrait of a hypothetical one. I've met these people at every single  open to the public powwow I've ever been at, as well at at steampunk events and in sundry 'real life' locations.

I dig this quote out a lot, but it's something that bears repeating: White people want to pretend to be Native, very often, out of misplaced guilt.
“There is a long colonial history of playing Indian, of settler-colonists assuming Native roles and cultures for themselves. [3] Philip Deloria even wrote a whole book about it. While I will not go so far as to suggest that white authors cannot, or must not, write from allegedly indigenous points of view, non-indigenous authors, and most especially white authors, must be aware of (and think hard about) the colonialist tropes of playing Indian when they write from an alleged indigenous point of view.
There are two points about “playing Indian” and white people writing children’s books about indigenous people that I wish to bring forward.
In “A Tribe Called Wannabe” (pdf), Rayna Green writes about an incident when white historical re-enactors went through some trouble to learn how to play lacrosse, and even make “authentic” lacrosse sticks, in order to “authentically” re-enact the roles of historical Iroquois and Ojibway in a particular battle. When asked why they didn’t just invite contemporary Iroquois and Ojibway to play those roles — people who already had the relevant knowledge — the white re-enactors eventually admitted that the point of even doing the re-enactment was that they had wanted to play the Iroquois and Ojibwe roles themselves. Green writes (emphasis mine),
The need to replay the roles, replay the battles, replay the historic scenes is there, especially when the distance of time has not resolved the historical ambiguity about the actions of one’s ancestors, or when the reconstruction of the past seems more glorious than the present. … In that world, not only do Indians not play Indian, but the role for whites to play is not the one they want. They already know that role. It is the “Indian” they want and want to be. 
When one lives in a settler-colonialist state, when one is ashamed of or conflicted about one’s settler privilege or the actions of one’s ancestors, it can appear to be emotionally simpler, easier, to identify with an indigenous viewpoint. “If I had lived then,” so many of these books and movies say, “I would have done differently. I would have been on the side of the Natives.” 
Almost always: would have done. Would have been.
Almost never: am doing.
I urge white people who are moved to pretend to connection with NDN identities to consider why they're driven to do so.


Elitists. Didactic whiners dicking over the definition of Steampunk to decide what to exclude. Racists, classists, sexists, fascists, etc who hide their very real and very problematic ideologies and behavior behind role play and pretend it's a joke. People who shut down discussions because they don't want to be involved in them or can't comprehend why the participants do. But these people? They're in the minority. It's a pretty loud minority, especially online, but still a minority. Most steampunk fans are not like this.


ENTHUSIASM! Steampunk is easily the most excited and enthusiastic subculture I've ever been involved in. Steampunk very much comes from a Rule of Cool and Rule of Awesome and Rule of Fun mindset, and there's something incredibly refreshing about that. Teddy Roosevelt riding a genetically engineered grizzly bear with robotic forearms and shoulder-mounted aether-powered ray guns? WHY NOT? Dirigibles with rockets on them piloted by sky pirates taking on the British Royal Fleet? SURE! Wearing your underwear on the outside? GO FOR IT! Your tophat is a functional sewing machine? You have giant brass and silk wings that run on clockwork and they're actually articulated? Your raygun is hamster-powered? YES YES AND YES. Steampunk fans are creative and full of ingenuity and the steampunk fandom is peopled by artists and writers and musicians and makers and all of them SO EXCITED. How can one not love a scene that has so much love to give back?

Have you met or seen many other NDNs participate in steampunk? 

Not in person. I'm aware of several other steampunk NDN's online; particular Elizabeth Lameman nee Dillon. I'm aware that Jeni Hellum identifies as a Potawatomi descendant, but I've written at length about my criticisms of the way she engages her identity with steampunk. I'd really like to see more NDN folks engage with steampunk, but I also understand the reasons that many don't; the 19th century kind of sucked for NDN folks just a bit, what with the genocide and forced relations and boarding schools and child theft, the legacy of which is still with us today...

What would you say to NDNs who want to get into steampunk but aren't sure how to start incorporating being NDN?

I'd say that steampunk is what you make of it; there's room there for NDN identities, but I'm not going to lie – you have to fight for it. Steampunk is a fun way to reimagine the past and explore time lines in which the atrocities of history didn't take pace, or didn't take place in the way they took place in our time line. You can make your own history, and in doing so get people talking about the realities of history in ways that they often ignore. I've educated more people about the realities of NDN history via steampunk than I'd ever have reached in 'traditional' gatherings – steampunk is inherently political and volatile and interesting. Also, it's a great way to get some regalia items (but certainly not others – I trust NDN folks to have the sense of what's appropriate to wear) out of your closet when it's not Powwow season.

And that's Monique Poirier, folks! Give her a big hand!