Review of Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration by Robert Alexander Innes
Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration
by Robert Alexander Innes
“But what about the men?” It’s a common refrain heard from people who have misinterpreted, or been misinformed about, the aims of feminism and its related movements. So-called “meninist” and “men’s rights activists” encourage the question, because they want to push the view that feminists want to attain women’s liberation and equality at the expense of men. As one men’s rights activist discovered, when one engages with the actual critical theory underlying feminism, this is not the case: gender being a social construct necessarily means that feminism is working to liberate everyone from systemic oppression.
And feminism has lately been getting a lot of traction in media, mostly because a diverse selection of celebrities are now identifying under that term. This can be the cause of controversy and even consternation. Feminism as a movement is fairly fractured, and there is no one perfect way to be feminist. One must accept one will screw up, make mistakes, and do things that “are not feminist,” because we are not perfect. The point is we’re a work in progress. I like that, within the broader feminist community, especially on the Internet, we are having these discussions about the various roles that people of different backgrounds and privilege can play in dismantling patriarchy.
But what about the men? Feminist theory has plenty on it about toxic masculinity, but I feel like this area of feminism still has yet to surface in the mainstream. I can’t recommend Unspeakable Things enough; not only is it a great feminist primer in general, but Laurie Penny devotes plenty of time to discussing the harmful effects of patriarchy on men and boys. (I certainly don’t mean to imply there is a dearth of masculinity theory within feminism—rather that this theory isn’t as broadly known and discussed as other aspects of feminism.)
Forgive me for the lengthy introduction, but I wanted to provide some context for this book. At the intersection of colonialism, racism, and feminism, then, Indigenous Men and Masculinities is a very academic look at exactly this issue of men, patriarchy, and performing gender. Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson have curated an intense series of articles, essays, and conversations on the topic of Indigenous identity and what it means to be male, man, or masculine, both historically and presently. The book reminds me heavily of my university days, but it proved a fascinating and thoroughly worthy read.
I’m a white man who currently teaches predominantly Indigenous (Aboriginal) Canadian adults. So this issue is very important to me, because I’m teaching people who were unsuccessful at high school, or did not have the opportunity to complete high school earlier in life, partly because they are Indigenous. As a feminist in general I’d find this topic interesting, but as a white guy teaching Indigenous peoples, this is pretty much required reading. Although I face, as a man, a little bit of pressure to act in “masculine” ways, my pressures are markedly different from the experiences of Indigenous men. As such, I appreciated learning more about their experiences.
It’s important to note that this book does not limit itself to North American perspectives either: some of the authors discuss Maori (New Zealand) issues, as well as Hawaiian (which I am aware is politically North American, but geographically and culturally the Hawaiian peoples are fairly distinct from North American Indigenous peoples). If we are to educate ourselves about Indigenous issues, we must of course acknowledge that Indigenous peoples exist practically all over the world. I would love to see follow-up volumes talk about Indigenous peoples of South America, Scandinavia, Japan, Polynesia, Southeast Asia, etc.
This book is a fair sight more technical and academic than I am used to reading since I graduated from university. Every chapter has endnotes/citations. Most of the chapters, particularly the first two sections, use very formal language that you tend to find in journal articles and university textbooks. Everyone loves Foucault. Basically what I’m saying is that you don’t want to pick this up thinking you’re going to read a pop feminism book, which is mostly what I’ve been reading lately in this genre (and all the more power to them). You need to be prepared to engage in that direct, academic mindset that efferent reading requires. I admit it was more of a struggle than I was expecting, and I’m not sure how much of that is my academic muscles atrophying and how much of it is me being tired of bullshit academic language constructs….
For this reason, I’m not recommending Indigenous Men and Masculinities for wide reading. It is more something I envision as being useful within a course, either in whole or part—or for those autodidacts like me who set their own course reading! But it engages with so many essential issues, especially for societies like Canada’s, where we continue to grapple with a very real, ongoing colonialism that is a blight on our country’s claim to courtesy, decency, and inclusion for all.
Highlights from this book include the entire first part—the first four chapters—for their intense theoretical discourses on Indigenous masculinities. I loved it all. I love the way the authors challenge me to think about how European settlers brought gender constructs to North America and used them as part of their toolbox of oppression. Moreover, there were some great points about how our attempts to dismantle colonialism and patriarchy can often be co-opted—an idea I’ve come across in other areas of feminism as well!
The second part of the book didn’t hold my interest as much, although Lisa Tatonetti’s “‘Tales of Burning Love’: Female Masculinity in Contemporary Native Literature” is an exception, and has given me a new novel (The Beet Queen) to seek out. Much of Part Three is very interesting, with looks at how sports, street gangs, and incarceration influence Indigenous men and masculinities. While Part Four didn’t keep me as interested, I really like that the editors included conversation and interview pieces in addition to academic essays. This really fits with the oral tradition of many Indigenous cultures and challenges the idea that all worthy academic theory and thought must fit a certain mould.
As the editors note in the final chapter, this book offers up hope, and in particular, hope that the solutions to many of the crises facing Indigenous people will be found through Indigenous people and cultures. Although it is important for white people to educate ourselves about the history, colonialism, and problems that affect Indigenous peoples, we shouldn't overreach and make the mistake of thinking that Indigenous peoples need "saving." Reading about how so many Indigenous individuals and scholars are participating in this discussion and actively working against oppression is inspirational. I only hope I can do my part to use my own privilege to help stand up.
So, if like me you feel that you have a serious stake in learning more about the intersections of Indigenous issues and feminism, I highly recommend you find this book. I don’t think it’s necessary to read all of it, or at least not all in one go, but you can at least read parts that jump out at you. For everyone else, I encourage you to seek out more education and information about Indigenous issues, although this book is not necessarily the place to start; I think to find it useful, you need to be a little further along that journey, lest the tone and assumptions in these articles become overwhelming.
I’m very happy I noticed this at my library, and I really hope to find more books that combine my interests like this in the future.