Friday, August 3, 2012

Steampunk POC: Mrs. Mary Lou Sullivan (Southern Pomo)

Mary Lou Sullivan, PDX resident,
co-founder of the Rose City Steampunks
It's the first Friday of the month! And you know what that means... another steampunk POC interview! I'm happy to be interviewing a thoughtful lady I met last year at PDX GearCon. When I first met her, I didn't even know to code her as POC because you know how it is with some people where you just don't know and omg it might be offensive to ask?? and so I just didn't count her in, until she set me straight! And she's expressed to me the frustration of being a Native American, whereby people think she's Italian or something that's not Native American.

When I interviewed her, she gave me "just a few facts to round out the picture - I was born in Sebastopol, CA on May 2, 1957.  I grew up and lived the first 47 years of my life in Sonoma Co., CA, which is our historical tribal territory.  I have two children and three grandchildren, all of whom are enrolled tribal members. I am an enrolled member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.  I currently live in Portland, Oregon, where I work as a family therapist for NARA Northwest (Native American Rehabilitation Association).  I have a BA in English Literature and an MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, CA. I am happily married to my husband of 16 years, Hal Sullivan, who is tolerant of my whimsies."

Onward to candidness and free education under the cut!

How did you first get into steampunk? What was your first impression of it?

It's been a few years ago - can't really remember when.  I was working with a young man who was into the Gothic Lolita/Aristocrat thing.  He kept talking about Steampunk in the context of Victorian fashion and literature, two things I've always been deeply interested in.  He was a really interesting person himself, so I thought "this is something I need to look into."  Being a nerdy sort, I did an internet search for "Steampunk".  It was early on and really hard to find any information; I think I only got a couple of hits using the "S" word.  One of them led to the Brass Goggles forum.

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 think of Steampunk as a community.  At least, that's how it started out for me.  I was on the Brass Goggles forum pretty frequently back then.  A lot of people were posting things like "Help, I'm the only Steampunk in Nebraska!".  I noticed that there actually seemed to be quite a few people posting from the Portland area. I thought it would be nice to meet some of them.  The Portland Steampunk Society was having a meetup at a local pub, so I got dressed in my idea of a Steampunk outfit and dragged my husband along.  Everyone was really friendly and interesting and I had a great time.  I got hooked.

 "Steampunk Magazine" was being published at the time here in Portland.  I was at Powell's and got a copy of Issue #1. Reading it really broadened my view of Steampunk from seeing it as a literary/ fashion aesthetic to seeing it as a movement with values and principles I could get behind.  I love the idea of bringing old-fashioned values into contemporary society.  Things like politeness.  Having and showing good manners and behavior in public.  Respect for knowledge, education, and creativity.  Sustainability, recycling and re-using objects and a rejection of the throwaway consumer culture.  Valuing individual human labor and creativity, the do-it-yourself ethic, respecting the craftsmanship and quality of handmade items.   I'm a pretty creative person; I like crafts, jewelry and scrapbooking, and I knit a little.  I like clothes, and i can put a Steampunk outfit together from thrift store finds.  I can stitch a little, but I'm by no means a seamstress or costumer.  Thankfully, I have a good job and can afford to buy goods from some of the amazing Steampunk makers out there. I try to support the community as much as possible - I like to attend some conventions and socialize with Steampunk friends here in Portland, I go to concerts and buy music from independent Steampunk musicians, I buy and read books by local Steampunk authors.  Kickstarter has been a great boon to the Steampunk community, and I try to donate money when I can to help artists get their projects off the ground.  I guess I'm a "patron" (or "matron", rather) of sorts.

You founded and run the Rose City Steampunks. Could you tell us a bit about your society?

Actually, I am co-founder of the Rose City Steampunks, Local 23 in Portland, Oregon, along with Lorien Stormfeather.  We met on Brass Goggles, and as I mentioned before, there were quite a few people from Portland posting there.  We talked back and forth so much we eventually thought it would be a good idea to have our own forum, so we started a Yahoo! group.  We have a Facebook group as well. Then we started having meetups and small events, like tea parties and "Craftertoriums".  It's a pretty loose organization- there's no membership fees or anything, and anyone with an interest in Steampunk can join.  We have members ranging in age from 7-70 and beyond.  It's family-friendly.  Lorien is a Burner so she came up with the idea that the group is founded as a "do-ocracy", meaning that there is no real hierarchy; any member can come up with and host an event or call a meeting if they want.  I have to admit that I haven't been as active in the group recently as I have been in the past, mostly due to work.

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?

Okay, so here is the part where I get to rant an bit!  One of the best things about Steampunk in general is that it is such an open, friendly, creative community.  I perceive it to be quite tolerant.  So you want to wear a neon-pink tutu and a pair of anime cat ears to a Steampunk convention?  No problem.  it might not be my concept of Steampunk, but hey, live and let live.  There seem to be a lot of self-appointed "experts" lately who are all trying to put rigid definitions around what is and isn't Steampunk.  Ultimately, I think we can only define Steampunk for ourselves, in an "I'll know it when I see it" kind of way. I've been to Steamcon every year since it started, and every year I'm blown away at the amazing variety of creative interpretations of the Steampunk aesthetic shown by folks just walking around in costume.

What I find dismaying is that there seems to be more and more "stereotyping" in Steampunk.  Like your outfit is just not Steampunk enough unless you're wearing a pair of mechanical wings and some type of  weaponry.  Recently a friend of mine from Brass Goggles days who lives in Cardiff, Wales, went to a Steampunk photoshoot.  Now this is a person who has been a long-time Steampunk, and made many contributions to both the online community as well as to her local Steampunk community in Wales.  Apparently, she wore a classic Victorian gown and was rejected from the photoshoot for "not being Steampunk enough."  Really?!  I hate the whole "weapons" thing.  I'm a peaceful person and i don't carry a gun in everyday life- why on earth would I carry a gun when I'm in Steampunk mode?  The whole "persona" thing is another aspect I feel strongly about.  I don't have a "persona", I have a personality and it's me.  I understand that for some people who are into role-playing and such that Steampunk is a big game, a make-believe arena where they can express their fantasies and dreams.  That's cool, but at the same time it trivializes Steampunk.  I'm sure people will say I'm taking it too seriously, but I believe that the best of Steampunk does represent some important values and principles.  I believe that Steampunk could be so much more than it is right now.   There was an article in a recent issue of Steampunk Magazine about bringing Steampunk out of the conventions and into everyday life through less costumey clothing choices. There's an article on the web too - "Why Steampunk (still) Matters" that has some great points and talks about how Steampunk can be a force for change.  People are worried about Steampunk becoming too "mainstream".  I think they should worry more about Steampunk becoming too elitist and fantasy-oriented.

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

The main example I can think of is the one you referenced below, during the SATW Q&A.  For just about every Native-identified person I know, as soon as someone we perceive as "white" starts talking about their supposed Native ancestry, well, you just cringe a little inside.  I'm sorry if that sounds racist (it probably is), but I just can't say it any better than that.

Let me express my appreciation for your input at last year's SteamCon during the SATW Q&A where you talked about people who have Native ancestry, or at least think they do, and who try to incorporate that ancestry into their lives. You said that it's a common problem, but I can't seem to remember what else you said about how tribes handle this sort of encounters. Do you think this might be something we'll see more often in steampunk, as we push for "multicultural steampunk" even further?

As I mentioned above, nearly every Native-identified person I know cringes when someone (who we may perceive as white) starts talking about their "Native ancestry".  I'm going to try to talk about this as plainly as I can; I apologize in advance if I ruffle any sensibilities.  The biggest problem I have with this is what I call the "Natives as dinosaurs" perception; that Native Americans, and their cultures, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and are now extinct.  WE ARE NOT DINOSAURS.  WE ARE STILL HERE.  Many Native tribes still exist as political entities separate from the United States of America.  Some tribes (such as my own, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria) have had to fight the US government for recognition of their sovereign rights. Some tribes remain unrecognized by the Federal government.  But what all these tribes of contemporary Native people have is their identity in their culture.  I got in trouble once online for making the statement "you're either Native or you're not".  Of course this drew controversy from the folks that wanted to "acknowledge" their "Native heritage" as well as their Irish, German, Scottish, Dutch, whatever heritage.  I myself am of mixed blood, being Native (Southern Pomo), Mexican, and Italian, but I identify as Native.  I am an enrolled member of my tribe.  I grew up in the area where my ancestors had lived for the past 10,000 years.  I know my relatives.  I participate in tribal culture and politics. I grew up being taught the cultural values of our tribe.  I am part of the Native community.

This is what I want to get across to people. Being Native is more than just blood, it is being part of a community and being recognized by that community.  Eight years ago I moved from my home in California to Oregon, but I still participate in my tribal community as much as I can while being in another state.  I keep up with tribal happenings and stay in touch with my relatives.  I vote by mail in tribal elections.  I work in and am a member of the Portland urban native community, which is made up of people from many different tribes.  And though they may be from many different areas and tribes, these people know they are Native and identify as such. So I say to people who who have "discovered their roots" that if they truly want to honor their "Native heritage", they need to get involved with the local Native community (and there IS one).  There is plenty of work to do.  Native American populations have some of the lowest rates of education, life expectancy, and income and some of the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism/ drug addiction, and diabetes in the nation.  But that is the part nobody wants.  I sure didn't want diabetes, but I inherited it along with dark hair and brown eyes.

As regards Steampunk and being Native- I kind of look at it in the same way I look at having a persona.  Being Native is just what I am. It's not about buckskin and beads.  If I tried to incorporate  my Native heritage into Steampunk in a historical way, I would be dead or a slave.  This is not fun.  I choose to use Steampunk as a way to look back at history and make it be better than it was.  With Steampunk, I get to be a free, educated, independent, middle-class Native woman in the Victorian Era.  How cool is that?  My ancestors sure didn't have that option!

I was going to go on another bit of rant here about race, but I think I'll leave that for another time.

Your point about your approach towards identity and persona is really interesting, that you don't feel the need to "dress Native" just because you are Native, and the clothes don't make the Native, so to speak. Some of the more aggro counter-arguments I've seen against cultural appropriation is the idea that since POC wear Western clothing, we should have no truck against white people wearing POC artefacts like warbonnets and "Navajo" designs, as we're somehow "stealing" their culture by wearing Western clothing. There seems to be a complete lack of acknowledgement towards the fact that this comes about from colonialism and forced assimilation, and how POC are still targeted if they don't wear Western clothing in everyday life. Just like how people who want to claim Native identity also seem to distance themselves from the actual community, steampunks want to claim all the fun of the Victorian era and distance themselves from the actual history of colonialism. You mentioned that steampunk feels like it's becoming more elitist and fantasy-oriented; I feel that it's very linked to the continued choice to ignore the more ignominous histories of the Victorian era. Given steampunk's principles towards community, knowledge-sharing and respect, do you think this lack of looking at real history lends itself to the stereotyping and rigidity we see happening? Because history apparently has to repeat itself and all is cyclical? (Sorry if this question seems rambly and incoherent... it's something I've been thinking about a lot and your responses brought it out!)

I think the fantasy element in Steampunk gives license to the idea of "It's all made up anyway, so why should I care what anyone else thinks ?"  I'm afraid that there is a very small proportion of people who even think about cultural appropriation at the time they are making an outfit for an event.  I'm as guilty of this as anyone else.  A couple of years ago our group decided to do a "Victoriental" dinner out.  We made reservations at a "Middle Eastern" restaurant (not even a particular Middle Eastern culture, like Lebanese, just generic "Middle Eastern").  It was all very decadent - hookahs, silky pillows on the floor, that type of thing. My outfit was a horrid mish-mash of swishy Indian cotton skirts, poly-silk kimono jacket, silky scarves and a little velvet pillbox hat with  gold tassel. I thought it really captured the "decadent, opulent" feel of what I thought "Victoriental" was all about.  Now it's just embarrassing to think of.  I'm sure I probably offended five different cultures with that outfit alone.

Your approach of "just being Native" is also distinctly different from Monique Poirier's approach towards Native steampunk (she's got a couple of essays on the topic, here and here) Which is really awesome; it shows that there isn't any one way of being Native who's also steampunk. I've seen some, uh, questionable choices that attempt to incorporate "Native-ness" into steampunk that draws on stereotypes. What do you think of this?

I've read Monique's essays and I appreciate that she really questions herself all the time about whether or not incorporating cultural references into Steampunk is helping to feed into stereotypes. She is extremely thoughtful about what goes into her costuming.  In general though, I do think that some of the attempts I have seen at adding "Native" elements to Steampunk draw on and reinforce stereotypes.  Mainly, they seem to reinforce the "Plains Indian" stereotype of beads, buckskin, feathers, and living in tipis.  Not all Native tribal cultures are the same.  Just speaking for myself,  I come from a California Native tribe, and our traditional dress is very different.  I wouldn't feel comfortable showing up at a con topless and barefoot, wearing a tule reed skirt and a couple of strings of shell beads.  I doubt anyone would really get it anyway.  Post contact, most California Natives were destitute, enslaved, and forced to assimilate.  Most people aren't aware of California Native history, but in California slavery of Natives was still legal until four years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (here's a good reference on CA Native history - ).  So Steampunk /Victorian era garb would have been basically home made, cheap Western style clothing - slave clothing. Not really something people want to re-enact or look at. Not something I would want to wear, either.  It's very painful to think about.  (Just a side note- Check out Calif. Indian history sometime.  We went from a population of more than 350,000 people (pre-white contact) to about 70,000 people left in the mid 1850's as a result of huge losses due to disease, genocide and murder.  I am descended from one of only 13 original tribal members.) (Sorry about the "history lesson"- I don't mean to go off like that.)

You've mentioned before that you used to be a goth. What do you think is the strongest link between goth and steampunk? From your observations, do you think people move from goth into steampunk, or stay in both "scenes"? What's the overlap?

There's always been a Romantic/Victorian subset to Goth, even before Steampunk became so popular.  I think for some Goths it was just a natural progression into an area of interest for them.  People  forget that Goth is also largely an aesthetic movement, and encompasses art, literature, and philosophy as well as music and fashion.  It's not all just about going to clubs and wearing black.

I think there is a lot of overlap.  I'm sure you've seen plenty of Gothy folks at Steampunk conventions too.  For me, one of the main areas of overlap is that in both subcultures, I first got into them as online communities.  I used to be on alt.gothic a lot, in fact that's where I met my husband in 1994.  I'm a pretty shy nerd.  I used the web a lot to meet people and make connections, although once those connections were made I would tend to carry on IRL and not frequent the forums quite as much.  I see the internet as a tool for meeting people, not as a substitute for it. BTW, I'm still keeping a toe in the Goth waters.  My husband and I are saving up and planning to go to Wave Gotik Treffen in Germany next year.

What is the major difference between goth and steampunk to you? It seems they fulfill different needs, hence the overlap.

People seem to respond to Steampunk in a more friendly, accessible way.  I guess Goths are seen as comparatively scary. I think both fulfill a sort of romantic nostalgia for an idealized past. The idea of spending a stormy afternoon swooning on a divan sipping tea would not be out of place in either a Steampunk or Goth scenario.  I think a lot of more "romantic/ traditional" Goths have come to Steampunk in response to the more modern cyber/ industrial influence in Goth, which has become quite prominent.

The weapons thing in steampunk is really prominent, and I think one of the major identifiers of steampunk. Monique also talks a bit about having a raygun in her first personal essay, and her eventual discomfort with the idea of always being adversarial. Do you have any theories about the weaponry?

Well, I think the weaponry just goes along with the whole "adventure hero" stereotype in Steampunk.  i think it's a very American thing.  I don't know if Steampunks in other countries are as fixated on weapons as we Americans are. Your comment that weaponry is one of the "major identifiers of Steampunk" is, I think, very true and also a bit scary.  It sort of echoes the whole Wild West, Manifest Destiny, take it by force "might makes right" colonialist mindset that was so prevalent in that era.  Who's gonna argue with someone with a gun ?  I refuse to carry a Steampunk or any other kind of weapon, fantasy or not.  It just goes against my grain.  I find it kind of sad, really.

What would you like to see more of in steampunk, to differentiate it further from other kinds of subcultures, particularly along the lines of community?

I'd like to see more community, period.  When I first started the Rose City Steampunks, Local 23, we had great get-togethers.  We had our monthly meet-up, and we also did things like have craft days and clothing swaps, an annual Xmas gift exchange and dinner, stuff like that.  We don't seem to be doing this as much anymore, which is a real shame. Now it seems that people mostly wait for an "event", like a con or a ball, to get together and go out.  I kind of blame our group's emphasis on costuming.  A lot of folks in the group are really talented costumers, and they are dedicated costumers before they are Steampunks.  The scene here in Portland gets very fragmented; there's some costume-friendly event  happening just about every weekend.  It has been really disheartening to me to try to organize get-togethers and then have people blow it off because they are going to some other costume event - "Oh, I'm going to be a (faerie/pirate/zombie/alien) that weekend."  I know we all have a multitude of interests, but there seems to be little commitment to anything. Or maybe I'm just the world's most boring person.  I'd like to see more dedicated Steampunk out there.  I keep thinking that the Steampunk movement could be so much more than what it is right now.

What would you say to other POC, particularly other Native Americans, who want to participate in steampunk?

I say go for it!  We're modern people, living in a modern culture.  We get to be sci-fi geeks, goths, or Steampunks, or whatever we want to be.  We don't have to be defined by stereotypes of "what is Native". Remember- hundreds of generations of ancestors suffered and died to get you to where you are today, so make the most of it.  Whatever you do, make your ancestors proud.

Mary Lou Sullivan will be attending PDX GearCon this month, August 17 - 19. Say hi if you see her!


  1. " It has been really disheartening to me to try to organize get-togethers and then have people blow it off because they are going to some other costume event - "Oh, I'm going to be a (faerie/pirate/zombie/alien) that weekend." I know we all have a multitude of interests, but there seems to be little commitment to anything."

    "I keep thinking that the Steampunk movement could be so much more than what it is right now." - I couldn't be more proud than to count the outspoken Know-torious Mrs. Sullivan as one of my dearest friends. Thanx for typing it as it IS!
    - Mikel Maquette / Modeleer & Vulcania Volunteer

  2. Love this interview! Thanks for sharing.