My people used to roam all over the place.
-Homer, The Exiles
As soon as he walked into the bar, I knew he was Native. He knew or knew that I knew and in no time, he was standing next to me asking where I was from. We were in the far west of the village at the dyke bar with a ceiling full of light-up baubles. I was there alone charging my phone before a midnight movie screening a few avenues over. On account of all those lights, there are power strips strewn in all the corners of the bar, making this place a perfect pit stop to sit and see how many beers equals a full battery. I was in the middle of chatting up another solo Sapphic (she was dog sitting a friend’s apartment in the area and I was intrigued) when he walked in with some work friend types. I had him clocked for Native and was even leaning toward Navajo (at least a Southwest tribe I guessed) but I was still not sure if he was gay—seemed 50/50. We made our mutual discovery (you’re Navajo too!), cheered and chatted while my other new acquaintance joined in, a little confused by the specifics of our exchange but cognizant of being present for a spark in the space-time continuum. Our time together was not long. My movie was starting soon, and I wanted to get some snacks before. When I left, there was no exchange of any numbers. We had found each other. It meant something in the moment we recognized it. But what did we have, really? If it was fate, an Indian connection, then we would find each other again.
Before that night that I’ll never forget when nothing happened, I hadn’t yet met an ndn I didn’t already know at a dyke bar. But it was bound to happen. Ndns in the city are magnetized to each other. This is true of most of the big cities in the States I imagine (Canada is a whole different scene and Mexico another), but I’m speaking particularly to New York. I moved from the desert of Arizona to New York City in 2007 for college and have met maybe around fifty other “Native Americans” here since then. Many have been gay and many of us are in the city because of this as well. In this brief narration of my arrival to the city are some of the key contradictions and cliches (gay urbanity/unsophisticated origins; colony/metropole; assimilation through schooling) of what in more anthropological terms we might call the Urban Indigenous Experience. At this point in writing, I’ve already flipped through most of the still-circulating terms for Indigenous people in America, the clumsy identifiers “urban Indians” affix to themselves and are fixed by. If you haven’t come across it yet or figured it out in the last few sentences, “ndn” comes from Indian. There are several ways to interpret the re-spelling but in short it allows us to both acknowledge and estrange the inaccuracy, ambiguity, and racism of the term Indian. I use “ndn” to demarcate peoples from tribal nations in North America, those who are called officially Native Americans and American Indians. This is not intended as an exclusionary reframing of Indigeneity but rather a specification of what kind of Indigeneity I’m primarily talking about, precisely because there are many other kinds of Indigenous (some of which are based in India). Returning to the city, among the ndns I’ve met here (New York being one place where a word besides “Native” is helpful to have around), maybe a dozen or so were Navajos, the people I come from. I was born in Arizona to a family already fractured, scattered, and undone by the typical plagues of a colonized peoples: death, disease, displacement, dispossession. Me leaving to the city was a dislocation from a dislocation. The plagues persist because colonialism continues. But there have been mutations. Colonialism is also a productive force. It creates conditions for different forms of Indigenous life just as it has destroyed the conditions for Indigenous life prior. The city affects the Native, in fact the city creates a whole new category of Indian, to understand, pathologize, exploit. The city is also changed by the Indian, by those steelworkers and artists and students and sidewalk prophets and grifters and idealists from various tribes, nations, tribal nations, bands, who all have a history on this land before America.
I was confronted recently with what feels like a historical doppelganger, not of my person but of my life. I saw The Exiles, a 1961 film, for the first time and it appeared like an ancestral dream (uncannily alike in the particulars while also completely unfamiliar). The action follows, over a period of twelve hours (from afternoon to early morning), and in the style of a dramatized documentary, a group of Natives living in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bunker Hill. The film opens with shots of old daguerreotype portraits of tribal leaders, like Sitting Bull and others in war paint. Then we are on the commercial streets with Yvonne, a small woman with done up hair and arched eyebrows. She arrives home and begins cooking for her shifty-eyed and tight-lipped boyfriend Homer, also the soon-to-be-father of their child. As she tends the stove, men fill their small living room and cajole Homer out to a night of drinking, driving, dancing. The night calls, with all its promise, including the pull of violence. Homer’s friends include Tommy, who is shown brazenly forcing himself on women and speaking of his life as an undifferentiated pursuit of getting his “kicks.” There are flare-ups of physical aggression. The men hurt each other. Then the night ends on Hill X up a canyon road. There are more fights, there is a drum, there is singing.
Shot on 35mm in black & white, The Exiles is the second film from British-born director Kent McKenzie and a most unlikely and singular object, in part because the neighborhood it is set in would be razed shortly after the shooting. The amateur actors in the film are all Natives actually then living in LA, who contributed extensively to the script and were essentially dramatizing recollected scenes from past nights. While I’ve always been told New York City has the highest population of Natives in the states, I didn’t know until researching this film’s origins that LA is second only to the Navajo reservation in terms of the highest concentration of Native Americans. LA in short is Indian Country. New York City too. The whole damn country of course is Indian Country. And yet a film like The Exiles is a startling artifact, speaking to me of my own obscured lineage of Indigenous peoples far from the tribal nation, far from the ancestral territory, remade in a land stolen from other Indigenous people who mostly can’t live there anymore. There are very different forces that brought me to the bar and the men and women in The Exiles to the bar, the movie theatre, the chasm. We have multiple trajectories, decades apart and on separate coasts, not to mention all the crisscrossing and coalescing in the center of the continent. But there are the common threads too. In the chaos. Among all the encounters.
The film itself is contained, not only to this neighborhood and this time period of twelve hours, but also to a kind of ethnographic approach. Though Yvonne, Homer, Tommy, and their friends are shown as contemporaries, as moderns, as indeed vanguards, they are still studied as if more natural than cultural. The documentary style affirms this and the assurance in the opening narration that this is an authentic “account” further confirms. While I understand my time in the city as one of effusive and always evolving relationality across difference—as in, the city has brought me into relation with so many different peoples—the exiles are shown only with each other, with the exception of an awkward episode with a white gas attendant. Yvonne is shown among crowds but always as if floating slightly apart. We also don’t get much explanation of why these young men and women have come to the city, where they have come from, or what they do during the day. There is no image of the Native laborer, a consistently undertheorized figure in American history. It was vocational programs under the federal relocation programs (another elaborate apparatus of dispossession disguised in false promises of uplift) that brought many Native people to the city, as well as economic forces that were driving people of all demographics more and more to urban centers in the post-war period. As Nicolas Rosenthal’s book “Reimagining Indian Country” describes, Native people were working in the fields and factories, in industrial and domestic service jobs. The Sherman Institute was a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs just outside LA that sent dozens of graduating students every year to join the city’s workforce. In 1955, the BIA reported an estimate that 6,500 Native Americans were employed across 500 LA-based companies. Also, despite the neatness of the phrase “post war,” just as the cutting up of the world in the wake of World War II was a recurrence of American genocide and settlement, the imperial wars of the twentieth century continued. And the GI bill facilitated Native men who served in the Korean and Vietnam war going to cities for college educations or vocational programs. These wars were destructive abroad and wreaked havoc on the Native psyche, as explored in the narratives of traumatized Native veterans in N. Scott Momaday’s House of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. While it’s the moments of joy and tenderness that captivated me, I also watched the movie understanding the deep current of melancholic alienation underneath the long takes and worn down voiceovers.
All the while, I strained my neck and eyes to find the gay life in this movie. Exile has always seemed a pre-emptive self-enforced condition for me: only far from Arizona could I become a decadent homosexual seeking small rooms and cavernous dance halls to court oblivion and pleasure. There are of course many gay Navajos living in the southwest and on the rez or in numerous other non-urban locations all over this surface of the earth. There is however for me no other way to conceptualize being gay than being in relation to the city. The first time I made out with a woman at a bar it was at that bar with the glowing ceiling where I met a random Navajo dude five years later. My sexuality is making out in gay bars and fucking in bathrooms—sure these things are possible outside the city but they are so, so much easier here. And there are more bars, more strangers. You can live like this for quite a while. As the boys in The Exiles know. I’m hesitant to familiarize ourselves so casually, me, Homer, and Tommy, because, as the film shows, the men are total assholes to women and Tommy in particular is a massive creep. Native women coming to the city exist in a bind, having escaped situations of immiseration or coercion—whether in boarding schools or vocational schools or because of abuse or ostracization from their home communities—and now arrive to unsupportive urban chaos. Though in one sense they approach “independence” (the feminist version of the American Dream), these women remain stuck with few options. Yvonne’s character is defined solely around her desire for a child, something of “her own” for once. Her aspirations for love and fulfillment become aspirations for her child’s imagined future, that they might attend college and have the things she couldn’t have in life. (A moment when the movie appears like a projection of my own life: my mother’s tumultuous romantic life, multiple moves across California, Arizona, New Mexico, all the while sending me to math camp and taking me to the library and telling me I could go to Stanford). While Homer is out carousing, Yvonne goes to the movies alone and then afterwards visits with a friend whose boyfriend works nights. The most touching moment of the movie comes in the early morning with Yvonne waking up next to her friend in bed, their dark hair like twin pools almost meeting across the pillows. I’d like to think that Yvonne finds love with this woman, not necessarily sexual and romantic relations but a love that fulfills her, that gives her something of her own for once.
The trace of erotic deviance in the men’s lives comes in the sonic forces of rock and roll, but the subjects of the film, slick pompadours and all, express only antipathy toward homosexuality. There are two obvious fags in The Exiles and they are not the heroes. Well, there are no heroes in the movie altogether, but they are also not anybody’s friends either. Homer glowers at them, the camera doing enough back and forth to ratchet the tension to a threatening level and make the message clear. Not for nothing, this made me wonder if Homer himself was queer. He doesn’t express interest in any women in the film, not his wife Yvonne nor the women in the bars. But I also lingered over the men’s outfits, the erotic uniform of boyish butchness in a cotton tee and denims. I wonder if white men are pissed off by how much better Native dudes look in all their clothes. Suits and uniforms were forced on us but never looked so good. This is true for cowboys and fifties greasers. The latter are on full lush display in the lingering camera work in Exiles. Every cuffed pant leg and rolled white sleeve sings. The men’s hair, thick and black and combed down with what I imagine are heaping glops of pomade gel. Meanwhile, Yvonne sits alone, her composure a study in subdued melodrama. Loneliness washes over and pours from her but still, she moves through the world as if her hair and eyebrows simultaneously created a forcefield and pierced the surface of the world before her. There is a dreamy aura to her stature moving steadily through the streets outlined by the glow of her white sweater.
Every particle in this film, if rearranged, becomes the substance from which the materials of my life emerge: a faggy dyke born outside Phoenix, Arizona where my Navajo mom, who had earlier spent time as a kid working fruit fields in southern California, and who at the time of my birth had almost the exact same hair as Exile’s Yvonne, worked as a secretary for Gore Industries (the 90s version of a tech start-up) and met my desert rat Irish-Anglo father. It might not sound so familiar on the surface but it’s all there. At the same time, it is a crystalized record of urban Indian life, before the “ndn.” The changes to the figure of the urban Indigenous person in part track with the de-industrialization of the United States as well as the shifting terrain of Native American and US relations, as well as US relations with Mexico and Central America. From the Indian greaser to the college-educated queer, now the urban Indigenous person in the United States is just as likely to be working delivery gigs to send money back to the Guatemalan highlands.
All us exiles should get together more often and then see what the city could really become.