Non-Monogamy Letter #6
The Non-Monogamy Letters (6/6)

Non-Monogamy Letter #6

The formative theorists in Kim TallBear’s life are not just humans; they are also the landscapes and waterscapes of the places she inhabits. She writes how this is especially important for Peoples who are formed co-constitutively with place. Read on to see how she relates this to non-monogamy.

October 22, 2023

Dear Simon(e),

I am shocked that our last letter exchange was in October 2021, nearly two years ago! I am happy you’re finding community and love in Oakland and the East Bay. It sounds like a hospitable place for you to experience profound changes. I don’t think we owe others an intelligible story, necessarily, so I appreciate your opacity in naming (or not) relational details. Although here I am, about to try and explain.

I’ve been waiting to write you or to write anything about the profound relational changes in my own life until I had time to process them. I’ve also been preoccupied with the most immediate demands in life (my daughter and work and a new love). When I feel strongly compelled toward or against certain actions, I trust it. But it often takes me months to know what I feel and think. I am now understanding what’s changed in my relational desires in the last three years. This letter written in the weeks after my 55th birthday should get me closer to articulation.

You asked about my Instagram page, “Interesting Whites,” on wine and race. I deleted it in 2022, and not only because my post-Covid palate never totally recovered. I deleted Facebook too in January 2021. Then I deleted my Twitter/X account in September of this year along with 66,000 connections—trivial as many of them were. I feel free, as they say. I am now on a couple of less bitter, less ad-soaked social media platforms where I have just a few hundred connections, and so far, no toxicity. I am especially comfortable on Mastodon with all of the others recovering from Twitter, who are disproportionately tech-interested, and humorous in their roasting of Elon. Pulling back from the major social media platforms over the past couple years were the first signs that I was pulling back in general from a life with too numerous connections. 

I felt overwhelmed by constant requests at my door. I sit at my desk in the morning: always multiple email invitations to review, write, speak, comment on, advise. I know, I am privileged that so many care to hear my voice. Responding diplomatically with mostly “no’s” takes time. Then there were the tens or hundreds of notifications per day, too often linking to bitter and overly-personal commentary on the hot-take issue of the day, or the twitterperatives, as I came to call them. Social media became like the local busy streetcorner where the evangelist stands on his soapbox yelling through a megaphone at everyone passing by. The strollers/scrollers can stop and yell back (you can’t have a quiet conversation with a streetcorner preacher), or they can scroll quickly by the noisy preaching damnation. I don’t like to yell; it takes too much energy. Responding calmly to the loud and clearly wounded streetcorner Twitter preacher issuing imperatives takes too much energy. It felt sad and pointless to be scrolling past nonstop existential outrage. So I hit “delete.” I also hit menopause these past two years. My energy is precious and dwindling, carefully cultivated with steady attention to sleep, exercise, other medicines, and avoidance of screentime.

I also came to understand by October of 2022 after seven years of trying to build a whole life in Edmonton, that I won’t. I have cherished friends here, but my family, mostly in the US, doesn’t visit. My non-monogamous relational life here was a seven-year experiment in cultural mismatch. In this million-person small town, monogamous, couple-centric, marriage-celebratory nuclear and extended families reign across the many racial, class, and cultural lines. Even the non-monogamous tend heavily toward marriage and bio-family hierarchy. Edmonton is diverse, and it’s not. I haven’t been able to sync with human social rhythms here, though I sync with the prairie’s rhythms—the skies, the river, the dynamic length of days and movements of the sun across the year. Last year, I gave up hoping I’d make a whole home here. I didn’t know what I should do. I waited and continued doing the work that I love. I knew I would come to know. Then I did. Edmonton is my part-time relation. I can stay sometimes, but I need a migratory path. Like a river.

This fall, I am teaching the seminar on Native Theory for our first-year graduate students at the University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies. When they introduced themselves during the first class, I asked them to name their formative theorists. Normally, we think of a theorist as an academic writer, but for me, my formative theorists are also my mother, my grandmother, and great-grandmother. Another formative theorist was an academic, Vine Deloria, Jr. but I knew of him and his analyses in his “Indian Manifesto,” Custer Died for Your Sins, since before I could read. I consider him a theorist in community like my mother and grandmothers were to me. These are the people who laid out the analytical framework through which I see and analyze the world long before I knew words like “theory” and “analysis.” When I came home from school with whitewashed histories, my mother taught me that we as Dakota people should write and tell our own powerful stories from out of our own lives. My grandmother taught me to apprehend the world in silence; to listen. My great-grandmother demonstrated care of self and others in a clean and orderly home, a regular schedule, and a daily back-and-forth between silent reading and active storytelling.

We’ve all had formative theorists even before we read words in books. Whether we now approve of their thought or not, we all have people in our childhood who taught us how to view and move through the world, how to make sense of it, and some who came later who taught us to re-make sense of the world, at least in part. My later formative theorists, I encountered in the academy: Marie Kennedy, Mel King, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, James Clifford, Donna Haraway, Cheryl Harris, David Delgado Shorter—these are the voices that come immediately to mind.

And it is not only humans who form me. The land, water, skies, and nonhuman beings who inhabit those places too are formative theorists, especially but not only for those from tribal collectives, place-constituted Peoples. Individual humans—ourselves or our ancestors—do not alone make us. The collective forges us, and the collective is also nonhuman. Since I teach Native or “Indigenous” Studies, my students are disproportionately forged of place-based collectives. I said to this year’s Native Studies first-year graduate students, “Well, you’re all ‘Indigenous’,” the word they use most frequently up here in Canada, one I am increasingly uncomfortable with; precisely because it doesn’t specify which People-place co-constitutions. I asked them, “What about the landscapes or waterscapes that your Peoples live with? How do they form you intellectually and morally?” Of course, all individuals can answer that question, but not as part of Peoples formed co-constitutively with place.

When I asked the students that question about place as theoretically formative, I had to answer it for myself. As I wrote in our silent writing time about my formative river theorists, I began to articulate their influence in shaping my approach as an individual also to human relations. Perhaps my Dakota collective too is shaped in their human relations by river relations; it’s a good question for a river people. Once I thought about the river’s example, I felt able to analyze recent changes and also constancies in my personal orientation to human and nonhuman connections; I began to know what I might be doing in these human relational changes of the past few years.

The Big Sioux River that snakes through eastern South Dakota, and also the Mississippi River are my earliest river theorists. I now live on the North Saskatchewan in Edmonton, Alberta. These three rivers appear to me as slow moving, muddy rivers of the prairie. There are two more fierce, faster-moving river loves far from my prairie homes—rivers in places I’ve spent shorter, but important time: the Russian River in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, California and the River Corrib in Galway, Ireland. Even when I am not writing about rivers of the prairie, river sensibilities shape how I understand and inhabit the world. 

As I thought of growing up along the Big Sioux, I remembered what the prairie does to you in eastern South Dakota. It is harsh, stark, striking. I have no romance with “nature.” It regularly menaces and threatens to kill you on the northern prairies with summer tornadoes or winter squalls. Life and death are intimates, not enemies, talking in low voices with each other in short or long northern days where clouds build quickly and the wind is mostly present. Walk carefully in the energy between them.

As a child, I tried to stay low and out of sight. I sometimes felt stuck. Books helped, and so did going stealth below the tree canopy down to the muddy river. I would look toward the bend heavy with trees so full their branches nearly touched the water. I imagined what I could not see around that turn, and the next. The river was a road and a promise of something “out there.” The river was a constant-in-place like my grandmother in her little house, a shelter from menacing humans and weather. Unlike my grandmother, the river was also always moving. It comforted me when I was still in place; it demonstrated that one could roll away someday too. You cross the river on a highway, say goodbye, but it surprises you, comes back to meet you later down the road. It’s an acquaintance that is always out there, but not always here. Don’t hold the river back. You can trust it to adventure away and roll around again. The river taught me to be open to openness and migration, to be committed, but sometimes away.

Non-monogamy, in theory, works for me; polyamorists, not so much. Although the root word “monogamy” unnecessarily objectifies relations. With the “non” prefix before it or not, both words privilege human intimacy in their naming. Must I declare my poly-river-amory too? Of course not! River intimacy is not seen as mattering enough to be saved for one. Or the human/nonhuman hierarchy means the river could never demand my sole fidelity. While humans assert control over river’s movement, restrict its flowing into another’s territory, hoard its life, suck it dry. Humans act like the philandering patriarch. The coercion to fidelity goes in one direction, from human to river. I have gotten bored of talking about monogamy or non-monogamy, thus privileging humans, thus privileging romance and/or sex. When I apply polyamory to my multiple non-coercive relations with rivers, it gets interesting again.

I teach another class called “Disrupting Sex and Nature.” I don’t allow students to use in their papers the words “sex,” “nature,” or “spirit” or any forms of those words. They need to find other ways of writing about the multiple relations objectified in those concepts. They need to much more promiscuously engage words. They find it difficult. They are clearly stuck with sex, nature, and spirit. They all email asking for exceptions to the rule.

Not wanting to objectify my relations into such concepts used to slot us in place, not wanting to be clichéd, I find it challenging to write about a new love, my retreat from multiple lovers and many thousands of human connections. This new one is always out there, but not always here. I am always here, but not always there. We cross each other repeatedly, happily. Our paths diverge again. We miss each other. We trust each other to roll around somewhere down the road. When he first asked me on the phone in one of our five-hour conversations in a tentative, nervous, convoluted way—I don’t remember his exact words—I said, “Are you asking me to be monogamous?” I simplified and objectified relationality for ease of English. His voice asked gently, “Yes?”

I replied, “Sure. Why not?” We continued laughing and planning our next visit. No careful negotiation, a welcome respite from the previous ten years of negotiations with long-married polyamorists; this is my age group. I was often the only person without a spouse laying down the laws. As Alexis Shotwell wrote, “dyadic poly practices often use a language of hierarchy and centrality; there are primary partners who act more or less like monogamous partners on steroids.” The dyad is primary. “It comes first, it’s most important, it trumps all other connections.”[1] I liked most of my metamours, the wives of my partners, but it dismayed solo poly me to be the subject of couples’ rulemaking. I unsettled my own settler marriage structure because it (not my coparent) strangled the breath from me. And here I was snuggled up to other people’s settler marriages? It was untenable.

With my new love, it’s the “sex”—no, I mean it’s the squishy, wet, skin-on-skin, body-inside-of-body relations that are between just two. Since agreeing, we don’t talk or worry about it. The body-to-body touch is lovely. We’re patient with each other in middle age, him more than me. Patience is not my strength. The nurse couldn’t find my cervix. My doctor—she told me my vagina is atrophying. What?? That’s a thing? He says he can’t feel it. “Feels great!” I envision saggy, flappy vagina walls. I try to un-envision.  

My bundle of loves, as always, are plural. As they are with all of us. My most cherished daughter, my coparent, my rivers, my grandmothers out riding the wormholes of the spirit world, my many other human loves, my work. I do long hard for a lost love, my mother-in-law who was pulled into a cloud of dementia—away from my daughter who needed her artist’s mentoring, who would have cherished her grandmother she takes after. As a child, my grandmothers were the centre of my life; I cry every day for Carmen’s loss of Helen. And I maintain my daily relationship with solitude. So does my new human love; we know each other’s need to write, to alone think hard on things that happened in the five decades of our lives before we met. We are long co-constituted—not only as individuals, but through our collectives’ many generations and ancient stories of emplacement—with different territories. Me and my literal tribe became a People from out of lush riverways, under prairie skies. He and his literal tribe are co-made with arid hills, oaks, and acorns. We are not jealous of each other’s other relations; we converge in each other’s territories. We roll away from one another; we converge again.

In pondering People-Place relations, I want to close this letter by going back to your last letter from September, and emphasize again how People-Place relational understandings very much shape my person-to-person relational understandings. I’ll quote your letter so I can respond. You wrote to me:

You describe how breaking up or letting go of a romantic relationship should not be viewed as failure. Surviving the test of time doesn’t say much about the quality of a connection. In your last letter from October 2021, you refused to reduce the value of an intimacy to counted time (we are together this long, and thus we matter, or thus we are “real”), but simultaneously fore fronted the value of long-standing relationships to place, land, water, people.

I did write of relationships ending, and I quote myself:

Changes in hearts, minds, and bodies need not mean endings. But if you do happen upon an ending, that does not negate the truth of that love. Sexual connections, loves made and lost are not mis-steps on the way to “the right” one. They are part of the stories of our lives.

I don’t think I wrote, nor do I believe that time together does not matter. I meant that if we found fun, exhilaration, learning, growth, or any other edification or fortification—from a relational encounter—that is a worthwhile experience. It’s not a mistake on the path to the right one. That relationship may have been right, in part, in its moment. It is part of the story of one’s becoming.

And because I believe we are ever-becoming, I very much think time together structures our lives in ways that come to matter. Though time together does not necessarily translate into joy or a good fit. But time together shapes us, in positive or negative ways. We hope our relationships shape us more positively than negatively, but whichever is the case, we are co-made with all of our relations and continue to be co-made over time. You can walk away after decades from a relationship, but it is self-deception to think those decades did not help make you into someone very particular.

In that same essay you quoted, I wrote about a person I was seeing, and his marriage of four decades. As far as I could tell, their marriage was 50% strife, all around their romantic coupledom. But they also 50% worked. They were agreeable co-parents and co-grandparents, good co-financial and household managers. Many of the married polyamorists I dated, opened their marriages to make their coupledom more tolerable. They had intact relations with their children. They often had financial stability after decades of working and living together, even despite their uneven or very different intimacy desires, despite their annoyances with one another. They remained units in raising children and retirement balances. Did opening their marriages to meet their individual needs for different kinds of intimacies mean their marriages were failures? Twenty, thirty, forty years together matters for all the reasons I’ve noted. This is why people hang onto their marriages. Forty years is in practical terms very different than four months.

By saying that, I am not saying a four-month encounter does not matter. It could be a huge, exciting, edifying moment in one’s life. It could be a formative encounter; it could maybe turn into a long friendship. And a forty-year marriage could transition into a lifelong coparent and financial partnership, even when romantic coupling comes to an end, if it must. That’s more what I was saying.

And just like forty years together matters, 14,000 or 40,000 years of Indigenous habitation in a land- or water-scape matters. It is not the same as a settler state’s 240 years. Imagine what it is to be constituted as a People over many millennia in relation to a set of surrounding mountains, or in relation to a set of islands and their interplay with moon-directed waters—and all of these land and water elements in relation with the stars above? That is not the same as the making of a small prairie farm town settled in 1870, just 8 generations ago.

The settler state knows time matters. It’s why they regulate and socialize settler marriage into relentless being with compulsory monogamy and couple-centricity. It’s why they try every tactic—human and nonhuman killing, relocation, and “management”—to disrupt Indigenous knowledges and practice of millennia-long, everyday intimate relations in territories. The settler state must disrupt Indigenous peoples’ knowledges of and relations with both our human relatives and our nonhuman relatives who are also co-constituted with our territories, and with us. Settlers must sever our deep ties, or they cannot rule. 

In a human co-constitution, in a 10-, 20- or 40-year relationship of any kind, I advocate for the idea of transitions in kinship practice instead of endings, when possible. I tell a story that I hope can counter settler sex and family and its rigid categories and hierarchies. In my story, multiple relational intimacies constitute the formative truths of our lives. In my story, the romantic couple—polyamorous or monogamous—is not the crown jewel of a meaningful life. I am working hard to displace settler fairy tales. I know you are too.

Simon(e), I apologize, I didn’t get to all you talked and asked about in your last letter. There is much more to write, but I am on page 6 now. It will wait for next time.

Until soon,



[1] Alexis Shotwell, “Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness.” In Gary Foster, ed. Desire, Love, and Identity: Philosophy of Sex and Love. Oxford University Press Canada: Toronto, 2016, 280-81.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) (she/her) is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. She is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.

Illustration by

Whess Harman is Carrier Wit’at, a nation amalgamated by the federal government under the Lake Babine Nation. They graduated from the emily carr university’s BFA program in 2014 and are currently living and working on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh as the curator at grunt gallery.

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