Set in rural Montana in the early 1990s, emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a powerful and widely acclaimed YA coming-of-age novel in the tradition of the classic Annie on My Mind. Cameron Post feels a mix of guilt and relief when her parents die in a car accident. Their deaths mean they will never learn the truth she eventually comes to—that she's gay. Orphaned, Cameron comes to live with her old-fashioned grandmother and ultraconservative aunt Ruth. There she falls in love with her best friend, a beautiful cowgirl. When she’s eventually outed, her aunt sends her to God’s Promise, a religious conversion camp that is supposed to “cure” her homosexuality. At the camp, Cameron comes face to face with the cost of denying her true identity.I know about Adam Red Eagle, one of the characters in it, because someone wrote to tell me about him. I've read a lot of reviews of the book--professional and not--and am not finding reference to Adam. At all. Does he not matter? Or did he not stand out? If you read The Miseducation of Cameron Post, do you remember Adam?
As the synopsis says, Cameron is sent to a religious conversion camp to "cure" her homosexuality. That's where she meets Adam. This all takes pace in Part III: Gods Promise: 1992-1993. When Cameron gets to Promise, she is greeted by Jane, one of the students who she'll become friends with. Soon, a group of students return from an outing to the nearby lake. As they get out of the van, they say something to Cameron, to welcome her (p. 271):
Adam said he’d heard that I was a runner, and that he ran in the mornings and had seen tons of elk and deer and even a moose once or twice.There's brief hugs, some pleasantries, and then (p. 272):
One final embrace from Adam shrouded me briefly in a sweet, sticky smell that I struggled for a moment to identify, but only because of my surroundings. In the embrace’s release I caught the scent again. Unmistakable. Marijuana.Later, Cameron asks Jane if all the kids were high, and learns that Jane is the source of the pot. Jane, Adam, and Cameron will soon start hanging out together during their free time.
Part of their counseling (which they are supposed to call support sessions) includes filling out a worksheet, called an iceberg. Each student has one. This is what Adam wrote on his (p. 294):
Dad’s extreme modesty and lack of physical affection caused me to look for physical affection from other men in sinful ways. Too close with mom— wrong gender modeling. Yanktonais’ beliefs (winkte) conflict with Bible. Broken home.If I understand the iceberg activity, this is the student's personal writing, for himself, not others. If I was Adam, I'd be more likely to say "Our ..." rather than "Yanktonais..." If Adam is writing it for the counselor's eyes, it might be ok as-is, but use of "Yanktonais" struck me as odd. I asked a Native colleague who works at the Oglala Lakota College and learned that the Yanktonais are Dakota and that, in conversation, they'll generally say where they're from rather than say "Yanktonai." That is in conversation, however, and perhaps Adam wrote Yanktonais because he was writing for an outsider (the counselor, who is not Native). My hunch? The decision to use Yanktonais, and the information shared next about the Canoe Peddler band, was based on information from the Fort Peck website.
Right after that, we learn more about Adam (p. 294-295):
His father, who had only recently converted to Christianity “for political reasons,” Adam said, was the one who’d sent him to Promise. His mother opposed the whole thing, but they were divorced, and she lived in North Dakota, and his dad had custody and that was that. His father was from the Canoe Peddler band of the Assiniboine, a voting member in the consolidated Fort Peck Tribal Council, and also a much-respected Wolf Point real estate developer with mayoral ambitions, ambitions that he felt were threatened by having a fairy for a son.From that, we learn that his dad is Assiniboine. Based on Adam's use of Yanktonais (on his iceberg), we can infer that his mom is Yanktonais. I like that we learn his dad is political. Too many depictions of Native people put us on a pedestal that idealizes who we are, making us seem like we can do no wrong. We're human beings, which means we can have the same kinds of opportunistic people amongst us as anyone does.
And, we are dealing with centuries of persecution from colonizers whose sought to kill us, and kill off our Indigenous ways of being. That persecution includes those who did not, and do not, fit within the male/female gender binary. In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Adam is winkte. He tells us more about that later, when he and Jane and Cameron are talking about being at Promise and what being there does to their sense of self. Adam says (p. 310):
“I’m the ghost of my former gay self."A stickler for how they use words, Jane replies (p. 310):
“I thought you were never a ‘gay self.’”Adam replies (p. 310):
“You and word choice,” he said. “I wasn’t, technically. I’m still not. I was just using the most handy term available to make a point.”Cameron replies, in the voice of Lydia (one of the counselors), and the conversation continues (p. 310-311):
I did my best Lydia. “You were promoting the gay image through the use of sarcastic comments and humor,” I said. “I’m probably going to have to report you.”Then, (p. 311):
“Not the gay image,” Adam said, with more seriousness. “No gay image here. I’m winkte.” I’d seen that on his iceberg and had wanted to ask him about it. “What is that?” “Two-souls person,” he said, not looking at me, concentrating, instead, on the long pine needles he was braiding. “It’s a Lakota word— well, the shorter version of one. Winyanktehca. But it doesn’t mean gay. It’s something different.”That passage is where things really start to get messy. The last two lines are fine. The "two souls" part? I do not recall that phrase in any of the reading I've done. Generally, the phrase "two spirit" is used. I started digging in. I searched the web, and books, and research studies. Invariably, "two souls" took me to a paper by Marjorie Anne Napewastewin Schutzer, delivered in 1994 at the European Network of Professionals in Transsexualism.
Several things in that paper, and about that paper, made me pause. None of the routes to that paper are from Native people. People within the Native LGBTQ community, and those who do research in this area, do not cite Schutzer.
Though Schutzer identifies as Lakota, the writing sounds very much like someone who speaks of their identity, not through a life lived within a Native community, but through a search done later in life, driven by a romantic disposition of what it means to be Native. The overall tone is one that fits non-Native mainstream expectations of how a Native person would speak, but it doesn't ring true.
The degree to which Schutzer's talk is circulating is worrisome. Adam says winkte is a shorter version of a longer Lakota word, "winyanktehca." Schutzer wrote that winkte is "an old Lakota word" that has been "contracted" to winkte. I found that phrasing in several non-Native sources. It is in the Study Guide for Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, in Cynthia L. Winfield's Gender Identity: The Ultimate Teen Guide, and it is listed as the source for the definition at Wikipedia.
Schutzer also wrote that winkte's are shamans and sacred. That, too, is in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, voiced through Jane, and rebutted by Adam (p. 311):
“It’s a big deal,” Jane said. “Adam’s too modest. He doesn’t want to tell you that he’s sacred and mysterious.”
“Don’t fucking do that,” Adam said, throwing some of the nonbraided needles from his pile at her. “I don’t want to be your sacred and mysterious Injun.”His last line is great (don't want to be your sacred and mysterious Injun), but, I'm not sure if it works, given the next exchange (p. 311):
“Well, you already are,” Jane said. “Put it in your peace pipe and smoke it.”
“That’s outrageously offensive,” he said, but then he smiled. “It’s the Sacred Calf Pipe, anyway.”He tells her it is not a "peace pipe" but "the Sacred Calf Pipe" which is actually quite sacred, and I'm not sure that a Dakota kid, raised with the knowledge he seems to have, would speak of it in a conversation like this one. Here's more (p. 311-312):
“So you were like named this or something?” I asked. “How do you say it again?”
“Wink-tee,” Adam said. “It was seen in a vision on the day of my birth.” He paused. “If you believe my mother, that is. If you believe my father, then my mother concocted this nonsense as an excuse for my faggy nature, and I need to just man up already.”
“Yeah, I’ll just go with your dad’s version,” I said. “Much simpler.”
“I told you we’d like her,” Jane said.
Adam hadn’t laughed, though. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “My dad’s version is easier to explain to every single person in the world who doesn’t know Lakota beliefs. I’m not gay. I’m not even a tranny. I’m like pre-gender, or almost like a third gender that’s male and female combined.”What exactly does Cameron's question (you were named this) mean? Given Adam's answer (it was seen in a vision), I think she is asking how he came to be a winkte, as if it is something one is appointed to, by someone. In this case, someone had a vision and saw that the newborn baby was a winkte. What Adam says reminds me again of Schutzer, who wrote (on that webpage) "I was called through a vision [...] from out of the womb."
Adam and Cameron continue (p. 312):
“That sounds really complicated,” I said.
Adam snorted. “You think? Winktes are supposed to somehow bridge the divide between genders and be healers and spirit people. We’re not supposed to try to pick the sex our private parts most align with according to some Bible story about Adam and Eve.”Again, this brings Schutzer's writing to mind. She wrote "I represent a profound healing, a reconciliation of the most fundamental rift that divides us, human from human--gender." Given the contexts in which Schutzer's writing is cited, I think it is not reliable. There may be other sources out there that danforth used to develop the winkte parts of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but I can't find them. Indeed, writings I do know of are more pragmatic and realistic in how winkte's are discussed. Schutzer cites the popular John Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, but its co-author is a non-Native man, Richard Erdoes. He's co-author on several books like this, and as Ed Valandra points out in his article about as-told-to biographies, they open with a mystical story about how the Native person had a vision in which Erdoes would appear to him and offer to help him tell his story (I highly recommend Valandra's article: "The As-Told-To Native [Auto]biography: Whose Voice is Speaking" in a well-regarded journal in Native Studies, Wicazo Sa Review. See volume 20, #2, Fall 2005).
Towards the end of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Jane, Adam, and Cameron have left Promise. They're headed to Quake Lake, where Cameron's mother died. Cameron sees dead trees, standing upright in the lake. She thinks they look like walking sticks left behind by a race of giants. She says (p. 458-459):
“Who was that Lakota giant— the one who was supposed to be like visible to man forever ago, but isn’t now, and lives on a mountain surrounded by water?”
“Yata,” Adam said. “Why, did you see him?” He pretended to scan the forest around us, feigning anxiousness.He asks her why she's asking him about this giant, and she gestures to the trees in the lake and how they look like walking sticks for giants. He says (p. 459):
“That actually sort of works,” Adam said. “This could be Yata territory. Yata is way into ceremonies. That’s kind of what you’re doing here, right?”The three gaze at the lake. Jane says that it is "pretty, but it's" and Cameron says that the trees make it creepy. Adam replies (p. 460):
“It’s more than the trees,” Adam said. “There’s all kinds of powerful energy here. It’s unsettled or something.”With his reply, I think it is fair to say that Adam he is imbued with a special ability to sense things, which again brings me to Schutzer.
I really wanted to join the chorus of voices that love and recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post. For teens that identify with Cameron or Jane, danforth's book is important. But Native teens matter, too. Those who identify as winkte (or that identity and its word in their own nation) do not, to my knowledge, have a single character that looks like them in the thousands and thousands of young adult books out there right now. I think we'll get there, but getting there will require writers who create Adams to be very careful in their sources. There are several reliable sources that are a good starting point. They include:
- Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories by Beatrice Medicine, published in Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 3(1), in 2002.
- "Gender" by Joanne Barker, in The World of Indigenous North America, (Routledge, 2014), edited by Robert Warrior.
- Two-Spirit People, (University of Illinois Press, 1997), edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang.
- Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, (University of Arizona Press, 2011), edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti.
If you're a writer, please read those items. If you're an editor, ask your writer to read them. And if you're an editor, read them yourself. Right now we don't have a lot of un-doing to do in terms of problematic representations of winktes. This time out? Please. Get it right.