LGBTQ2+ Community-Based Approaches to Archaeology in Labrador
Guest post by: Meghan Walley, MA, Memorial University
As most folks in Labrador know, academics are often drawn to do their research in the Big Land. As one such scholar—a white archaeologist who just completed a master's degree at MUN—I have always felt that community-based research is important, and that the work archaeologists do to understand the past must contribute to community needs in the present. Archaeologists working in Labrador in recent years have largely taken community-based approaches, but I decided to zero in specifically on the LGBTQ2+ community.
In 2009, Safe Alliance, an LGBTQ2+ organization based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, was founded to provide support and to address the ongoing struggle against homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism. Community organizations such as these are often crucial to the well-being of LGBTQ2+ individuals, particularly in small towns, where people can experience a greater sense of isolation. Although Safe Alliance is a space for all Labradorians, my thesis focused on the Inuit of Nunatsiavut. In particular, I questioned whether archaeologists could explore diversity in gender and sexuality in the Inuit past, and what impact this type of research could have on LGBTQ2+ Inuit living in the present.
Archaeologists working at precontact Inuit (sometimes referred to as Thule) sites have focused on gender in a narrow way. We tend to use a proxy approach, wherein different tools are seen as a stand-in for the people who might have used them. For example, when an archaeologist finds an ulu and other implements used to work skins, they might conclude that a woman occupied that space at some point in the past since ulus are commonly associated with women. However, the proxy approach is inherently flawed due to the fluidity of gender roles in everyday life, the common occurrence of sharing of tools, and the ability of most community members to take on these roles when needed. For example, Them Days recently re-printed part of the transcript of a 1981 speech by the magazine’s founder, Doris Saunders. The issue focused on gender, and in her speech Saunders points to the fluidity of gender in Inuit culture continuing on into the present.
There were five girls and one boy in our family, so my role was that of the oldest son. I grew up cutting and splitting wood, hauling water, tending nets, and whatever else a boy had to do to help his father…We are all capable of surviving alone if we have too [sic], thanks to the fact that in our family there were no “girls” and “boys” jobs. From what I remember, and from what I’ve been told by hundreds of old timers in Labrador, it was much the same with most families in Labrador (Saunders 2017: 31).
Further, many Inuit stories, myths, folklore, and poems contain themes of gender and sexual complexity. Folklore is often not intended to be taken literally, and these stories have often been passed down through many generations, which means that they have changed over time. However, when queer themes show up in folklore, it might be cautiously interpreted as testament that concepts of queerness at least existed in the distant past. Stories where people transform, change genders, have same-sex partners, and so forth, attest to their presence in Inuit thought. It is therefore useful to look to these stories to begin to form understandings of what shapes queerness took in Inuit imaginaries.
In order to explore these themes, and to understand what shining a light on gender and sexual diversity in the past could do for Inuit living in the present, I conducted a series of interviews with the aim of speaking primarily to LGBTQ2S+ identifying Inuit. These interviews took place in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nain, and Montreal.
Most of the participants drew connections between colonialism and the suppression of gender and sexual diversity in the past. Several used other aspects of Inuit culture that had been ‘lost’ or forbidden and are now undergoing revitalization—such as drum dancing, throat singing, and tattooing—as analogies for the potential they see in revitalizing precontact concepts of gender and sexuality. Through this interview process, it has become clear that LGBTQ2+ research in Labrador is needed. One interview participant stated:
[Today] folks can feel more comfortable with Inuit pride and culture and all of this from a younger age, and also at the same time, there’s a movement in Canadian culture to being more comfortable with LGBTQ folks and I think the two of these trends happening at the same time can only help more young Inuit. (Charlie (name has been changed), personal interview, November 13th, 2016).
Another stressed the importance of investigating these questions further, stating:
The work needs to happen here. That’s such a big part of what’s going to help us not just reclaim, but to start answering some of the questions that people seem to be afraid to ask. (Denise personal interview, November 13th, 2016).
By taking static binary gender categories as a given, archaeologists have eliminated this nuance from the past, which might negatively impact on LGBTQ2+ Inuit living today. However, by creating spaces for this research, and presenting more democratic narratives of past, we might be able to find ways forward to reduce feelings of isolation in the present.
Saunders, Doris. 2017. I’m a woman of Labrador. Them Days 41(1): 27-31.