Overcoming the Noble Savage & the Sexy Squaw: Native Steampunk

By Guest Contributor Monique Poirier, cross-posted from Beyond Victoriana

I’m not one for preambles, so let’s get down to brass tacks here. I’m Monique Poirier. I’m a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe. I’m a Steampunk.

When I got into Steampunk several years ago, it didn’t really occur to me to even try to incorporate my cultural identity into my Steampunk presentation; my first Steampunk outfit (worn to Templecon 2009) was cobbled together from my existent goth attire, stuff from the renfaire costume trunk, and a duct-tape corset.

Then I read Jha’s articles at Tor.com. Then I started reading Beyond Victoriana. It was powwow season… and everything just -clicked-. When I attended The Steampunk World’s Fair in May 2010, I made an active effort to incorporate my ethnic identity more visibly in my Steampunk attire.

That’s where things get complicated.

Overcoming The Noble Savage and the Sexy Squaw

Making a deliberate choice to construct my Steampunk attire around Native attire often involves deciding between which pieces are appropriate and which will be recognized by a wide audience as being Native. It means working with and against existent images of What Indians Look Like–and it becomes extra difficult when I have to work against the fact that Native Americans are already assumed in the popular consciousness to be anachronistic. Am I subverting Victoriana-centric Steampunk with my Native attire, or am I just reinforcing the stereotype that Native folks all dress like it’s 1899 all the time because that’s when they stopped existing? Is being a Steampunk Native American just rehashing Indians In Aspic? When I put on a pair of buckskin leggings, or wear bead work that I have spent hours making by hand with skills taught to me by my mother–clothing and jewelry that I’ve also worn to powwows–am I marking myself as Other-Than-European or am I just reinforcing Braids, Beads, and Buckskins?

It comes down to mythology, to narrative, and to what stories we’re telling with the personas we portray and how we present them. Some of the attire I own will never be worn outside of a powwow or tribal gathering. For example, I don’t wear prominent feathers–or any feather at all that look like This as part of my Steampunk attire; I treasure the feathers I’ve actually gained through ceremony and ritual too much to wear them to anything less solemn than a powwow or tribe meeting, and I am not comfortable in making mockup feathers that my character /persona would have similarly earned.

It’s pretty grating, then, to be at a convention and having someone comment, “If you’re trying to look like a Native American, you should incorporate more feathers,”‘ because I do understand where that comment comes from. How do you know that an Indian is and Indian if they’re not in the Hollywood Dress Code attire for Indians? A hard and fast rule I’m going by: “If I ran into another member of my tribe while wearing this here, would I feel the need to explain or apologize for it?” If so, I am not wearing that. Even if it means that I’m losing recognition.

There is a vast and predominantly grossly incorrect mythology surrounding Native Americans. Children in American Public Schools, unless they happen to be from an area that has a very prominent and active Native community (and sometimes even then) are generally spoon-fed the tidy and feel-good Story Of Thanksgiving as their first lesson in Native American Culture–depending on whether or not they’ve already seen Pocahontas and Peter Pan. They generally graduate to Westerns* and various other Hollywood mythologies so that by the time they’re attending cons all on their own they’ve built a distinct expectation of what ‘Native American’ should look like–and if an outfit doesn’t do that, it will not parse as Native American.

Which makes my costuming choices complicated.

Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.

Recognizing Native Technologies

Among the issues in creating a Native Steampunk Persona is overcoming the assumption that technological advancement is not something endemic to Native cultures. That any and all advanced technologies utilized by Native Americans must necessarily be adopted and adapted from European ones. Beyond Victoriana #9 does a good job talking about this and has an excellent link list already, so I won’t go into much detail here.

But the gist is this: Native Tech is a real thing, and was a real thing in the 19th century. Contact Effect is a real thing, and any population that’s exposed to a piece of technology is just as likely as any other to reproduce it, to make innovations and modifications on it, and to take it and make it work in the most efficient and useful way for them. If one knows how to make/use rays, and someone introduces the concept of guns, well suddenly one gets the bright idea to develop ray guns, and then does so! If one is already utilizing solar energy in a number of ways, and the concept of electricity and steam power are introduced, one is very likely to pioneer development of photovoltaic cells and solar steam engines–if one doesn’t happen to be kept distracted by being at war or having genocide conducted upon one’s people. Indigenous cultures are just as ripe for internally-controlled industrialization and technological innovation, by themselves and for themselves, as any other population in the 19th-century landscape.

There is no reason other than our own limited and stifled imaginations to assume that Native Americans would not have technologically advanced under their own innovative impetus had the historical cultural interplay been altered. Just look at the technological innovations they’d already given to Europe via contact effect, particularly in the area of biological engineering and materials: Latex rubber and the Vulcanization thereof, for example, is Native technology adapted by Europeans that’s pretty essential to a lot of Steampunk applications. To me that’s the most exciting part of Native Steampunk–thinking about what might have been radically different, and then doing it. Extrapolating and sussing out the historical paths of Native technology and culture as it might have developed through its own industrial and technological revolutions in the 19th century.

Toward a more inclusive Steampunk landscape

So Native Steampunk isn’t easy. It requires forethought and creativity and overcoming a lot of sociocultural baggage.

But isn’t that part of the fun of Steampunk?

I would ADORE seeing other people do it too! It would be incredibly awesome to see someone else rocking some Steampunk wampum jewelry, or steaming up a trade shirt. But the caveat here is that anyone who wants to undertake this really needs to take the time to not do it in an insulting, hurtful way. That means becoming apprised of what stereotypes exist and are hurtful and not using them. Things like NOT wearing warbonnets or face paint, and recognizing cultural appropriation. It means doing your research. If you’re still interested: Go for it! I know only a small handful of Steampunks who also identify as Native. I’d LOVE to hear more voices and see more Native Steampunk costuming. For those seeking research sources, I highly recommend NativeTech and NativeLanguages.org, as well as any of the books listed in Beyond Victoriana #9, most especially Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World.

There’s a lot of directions to move in in Steampunk. It’s still a relatively new genre and one that’s still being defined. We can definite it in inclusive ways if we want to. If we try to. We can do it right if we work hard. Let’s do this.

*So about Westerns. It is a personal thorn in my side that everyone who does recognize that my attire is Native automatically files me under ‘Weird West’ – as if there are/were no Native Americans present east of the Mississippi. Native Americans =/= West. Really. Some tribal nations are from there, yes. The Native Removals of the 1830′s moved a lot of tribal nations from the east into the west, yes. But alternate histories might not even include Native Removals, and tribal nations from the east were in the 19th century and still are today living cultures. I just wanted to get that out there for everyone. Native Steampunks need not be from the Weird West.