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BY JULIE R. ENSZER and TIM RETZLOFF
When writer Beth Brant died on Aug. 6, 2015, she left behind a loving family and a vibrant literary legacy documenting her life as a Native American lesbian. A mother, grandmother and longtime Melvindale resident, Brant is remembered as a pathbreaking lesbian author, poet, essayist, editor, lecturer and literary activist.
Due to the lack of availability of her books, however, Brant’s legacy has risked being forgotten. Many of her works have fallen out of print. A new copy of one title is currently offered on Amazon for nearly $1,500. For someone whose public life centered on words, finding new generations of readers is key to being remembered.
Thanks to the Sapphic Classics series published by the journal Sinister Wisdom, Brant will soon find new readers and become available to familiar readers as well. Three years after Brant’s passing, Sinister Wisdom plans to issue a collection of Brant’s work, edited by Janice Gould and with a preface by Deborah Miranda, to be published in 2019.
Born May 6, 1941, Brant was a Bay of Quinte Mohawk from Deseronto, Ontario and Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Her father moved from the reservation to Detroit just prior to World War II to find work in an auto factory. He was perhaps the earliest Native American member of the UAW.
Brant found herself attracted to female friends as a teenager in the 1950s.
“I didn’t know what it was, really,” she explained in a 1992 oral history interview with Roey Thorpe. “I just had nothing to call it, except queer.”
At the time she associated the term queer mostly with men.
At the age of 17, Brant got heterosexually married because she was pregnant and dropped out of high school. After having three daughters, she divorced her husband and supported the family with a variety of jobs including salesclerk, waitress, sweeper, cleaning woman, Title IV coordinator and working a soda fountain.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brant discovered the emerging women’s movement in Metro Detroit. She experienced NOW, the National Organization for Women, to be predominantly white, middle-class and “lesbian-hating.”
Then she began attending the Women’s Liberation Coalition, authors of the Fourth World Manifesto, and felt welcome. The group was diverse and strongly feminist and she embraced her sexuality as a crucial part of her being.
“I’ve never been closeted,” she told Roey Thorpe. “I feel that it would be a betrayal of who I am, of women that came before me.”
She also recognized the transformative impact of the Red Power Movement, which politicized Native Americans in the early 1970s, though she found it was dominated by men and reflected a considerable amount of homophobia.
In 1977, Brant met Denise Dorsz, co-founder of a short-lived feminist performance venue called Poor Women’s Paradise. Dorsz moved in with her and the two were partners for over 20 years.
Brant began writing at the age of 40 following a deeply profound encounter with a bald eagle while on a motor trip through the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. She recounted the moment in a 1996 interview she did with Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor for Between The Lines.
“A bald eagle passed in front of our car and landed in the white pine in front of us. I got out of the car and looked at the eagle and he looked at me,” she said.
For an unknown amount of time as she looked at the bird, Brant was transfixed and transported to another place.
“I thought about that a lot and keep wondering about that eagle because I had never seen a bald eagle before and especially that circumstance of being so close together. I felt the eagle brought me the gift of writing,” Brant said. “When I got home I just started writing and have kept writing ever since.”
Not long after, Brant’s friends Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff, then editors of Sinister Wisdom, invited Brant to editing a special issue. The result was Sinister Wisdom no. 22/23. It was published in 1983 and entitled “A Gathering of Spirit.” Recognized as a groundbreaking collection of writing and art by Native women, the issue soon sold out. Firebrand Books and Women’s Press of Canada later published A Gathering of Spirit as a stand-alone anthology.
A decade after its initial publication Brant described the issue in her 1994 collection Writing as Witness as an “earthquake.” She noted, “When Natives have the opportunities to do our own editing and writing, a remarkable thing can happen. This thing is called telling the truth for ourselves — a novel idea to be sure.”
In the mid-1980s, Brant began to see her writings published in books of her own. In 1985, Firebrand Books published Brant’s collection of poetry and prose Mohawk Trail. It was one of the earliest books from the iconic feminist publisher. In 1991, Firebrand published Food & Spirits, a collection of short fiction simultaneously released with Press Gang publishers in Canada.
In May 1993, Brant spent six months as the Writer-In-Residence at Ka:nhiote Library at Tyendinaga in southern Ontario, where she interviewed Tyendinaga tribal elders. These oral histories were gathered in I’ll Sing `til the Day I Die published by McGilligan Books in 1995.
Brant’s writings also appeared in numerous Native and feminist journals and anthologies in Canada and the U.S. She wrote about family, class, the struggle to love another and the struggle to survive. Her other recurring themes included recovering from racism, recovering from colonialism and recovering from addiction.
“Beth Brant’s legacy continues to make an impression on younger writers today and will surely be held tightly by writers in the generations to come,” poet and literary activist Christopher Soto said of Brant. “For the native, queer, feminist, literary world: Beth is a home, reminding us that we are not alone in our movements towards liberation. We are thankful for her writing and mentorship and activism, the nuance that she brings to our lives.”
In addition to writing, Brant performed her poetry at the Detroit Women’s Coffeehouse and traveled around the U.S. and Canada speaking and reading from her work and talking about lesbian, feminist and indigenous writing. She critiqued attempts of the women’s movement to appropriate symbols and histories from other cultures, noting “one can only come from one’s own culture and class.”
Racism, sexism, classism and homophobia were regular subjects.
Brant was two-time recipient of the Michigan Council for the Arts Creative Artist award. She received an Ontario Arts Council award, a Canada Council grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. She also taught at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto.
Brant was survived by three daughters, including Jennifer Kierszkowski (Leonard) and Jill Walden, five grandchildren including Nathanael German (Kelly), Benjamin Walden, Alexander Walden, and Olivia Walden, and two great grandchildren, Hazel German and Luke Walden.
Check out the Queer Remembering blog online at queer-remembering.blog for more queer history/herstory through obits. This is a companion blog to Michigan LGBTQ Remember, a website at michiganlgbtqremember.com dedicated to documenting the diverse lives of LGBTQ Michiganders and their allies who are no longer with us.