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Pen-and-ink witchcraft

December 18, 2008

This post has been brewing in the back of my mind for a few weeks, since I first read Barbara Mann’s “Slow Runners”* and
The Cisgender/Cissexual Privilege Checklist over at Taking Up Too Much Space, in quick succession. Reading both helped me see just how common a Western tactic “pen-and-ink witchcraft” is–and I would not be surprised if it were also common in other wétiko societies which put great store in writing.

As Mann defines it, in traditional Northeastern terminology, pen-and-ink witchcraft consists of “making paper say what reality never said, and thereafter using the paper version as a substitute for the truth”. In this context, it includes “the government’s very political purpose of ‘disappearing’ Eastern Natives through ‘documentary genocide,’ that is, by killing people on paper, when they are not in fact dead.”**

It hit me, reading the Checklist, that no, I don’t expect my (family’s) documents to (a) agree, or (b) have any obvious connection to reality, even these days. (Though this has a lot to do with centuries of occasionally backfiring “reverse pen-and-ink witchcraft”***, besides Plecker and his like more recently.) Rigid gender categories have persisted longer on official documents used for identification purposes in the US than have the equally rigid racial categories–of more concern to my parents’ generation–of course. Ditto for expecting to run into hassles dealing with bigoted pisspots in bureaucratic/educational/healthcare situations, and generally running into negative perceptions of my appearance (fodder, in itself, for another post I’ve been mulling over) and gender presentation****.

I shouldn’t need to say this overtly, but I am not trying to minimize the prejudice faced daily by trans people. It’s appalling and inhuman. I was impressed, however–once again–by the overlap in shoddy treatment tactics levelled at various groups of people whom wétiko societies prefer to disappear through pen-and-ink witchcraft. It’s just minor variations on the same mental illness.

Minority ethnic groups, gay couples/families, trans people, adult autistics, you name it–we’re all fair game for documentary genocide, with many of the people in power preferring to pretend that we simply don’t exist. I’m freshly impressed at just what a popular and sick tactic this is.
* One of the essays in Make a Beautiful Way, also edited by Barbara Alice Mann. This is an excellent piece, giving a capsule history of how the Eastern/Western Native divide got started in the first place, and continues to be encouraged for political reasons.

** Both from “Slow Runners”, pp. 75-76 in the edition I’ve got.


This logic may appear contemptible to those for whom sinking into oblivion with one’s doomed cause carries a glamorous cachet. For any who have ever actually been doomed, however, willful sinking just seems immature. The main coup of Eastern holdouts back then was far less melodramatic than twinkling out of existence. It was, instead, to get their family name registerned on a U.S, Census, for then, the family could claim to be “white.” This was an act of reverse pen-and-ink witchcraft undertaken on theory that any Indian who wanted to lie to the settlers should do so in writing. That way, they would never catch on. . .Of course, tricksters had to be wary, for having discovered what was afoot, a spiteful census taker might record tricksters as “colored” or “mulatto,” putting them in an even worse legal and civil position than they had been as invisibly Indian.

Also from “Slow Runners”, pp. 82-83

**** Apparently, in Essex, I come across as fairly butch, which also seems to disconcert people more than I’m used to seeing. The gender presentation thing is another way I’m reminded of being in elementary school in Radford, with similar cultural values being pushed. To me, “matriarch” is about as feminine as you can get, and she’s going to have one hell of a time getting much done in stilettos. The two systems are not overly compatible, to put it mildly.

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