Indigenous Digital Poetics: Joshua Whitehead’s Full-Metal Indigiqueer

Joshua Whitehead’s inaugural book of poetry, Full-Metal Indigiqueer is a series of poems told through Zoa, a trickster figure rendered through the lens of technology.

Whitehead combines the figures of the singularity, virus, and hacker into a narrator that inhabits and deconstructs the Western literary cannon and popular media culture by infiltrating and re-writing the tropes that define major works in either field.

In doing so, Zoa re-centers queer Indigenous peoples within North American culture and makes space for voices that are typically relegated to the silent spaces of the subaltern.


“H3R314M” (“here I am”), the text that opens the book, is the phrase through which Zoa locates themselves within the labyrinth of literary and pop culture references that make up Full-Metal, which takes on issues as diverse as the oil sands, Derridean archives, cultural appropriation, and residential schools, just to name a few.

H3R314M is the call that the reader is compelled to hear, even through the static of colonial literature and pop culture. H3R314M is a call for acknowledgement and a claiming of space for Indigenous peoples in a technological past, present, and future.

The TRC is one of the spaces that Zoa locates themselves within. The narrator unabashedly takes on reconciliation and apology, often pointing to the failure of both to contribute anything to the recognition of queer Indigenous peoples. In the poem “you tell me you love me between two & three a.m.,” for instance, Zoa informs the reader that “the road to reconciliation is paved with g—dintentions.”[1]

Here, Whitehead takes the phrase that is so readily associated with the TRC (“the road to reconciliation”) and, through the omission of letters in the additional clause (“paved in good intentions”) he draws attention to the ways in which certain subjectivities are “paved over” when reconciliation depoliticizes intersectionality ad re-inscribes colonial articulations of inclusion on Indigenous-settler relations. In this one line, Whitehead is tapping into a long history of Indigenous and queer erasure.

Joshua Whitehead,
Full-Metal Indigiqueer

Settler colonialism is predicated on the elimination of Indigenous peoples iterated through the heteropatriarchal norms. National policy and legislation, such as The Indian Act and residential schools, worked specifically to reduce the Indigenous population by assimilation and violent identity management. Erasure of queer Indigenous bodies was central to this project.

Beyond Binary Systems

Cindy Holmes and Sarah Hunt argue that “inherent in [the colonial] project of erasure was the imposition of a binary system of gender which simultaneously imposed Indigenous rights and status along heterosexual lines and suppressed Indigenous systems of gender that went far beyond the gender binary.”[2]

In removing the “o”s from “good” in the above cited passage, Whitehead draws attention to the ways in which reconciliation risks reinstating this erasure and relegating queer Indigenous peoples to yet another “dint,” or depression, of colonial legislation—hence “g—dintentions.”[3].

The deleted “o”s in this particularly passage can also be read as zeros, which draws specific attention to the colonial binary that Holmes and Hunt reference, here represented through the allegory of binary code, which is represented as patterned series of 1s and 0s. The relationship between computer binary and gender binary is not coincidental. Anna Lauren Hoffmann writes that,

While issues of identity, data, and information systems seem to be—on one level, at least—an interesting conceptual or philosophical problem to ponder, they also expose the urgency of recognizing the very real and lived challenges these tensions and the rapid rise and adoption of data-intensive technologies and platforms generate for already vulnerable trans and queer populations.[4]

The Poetics of Programming Languages

Technical issues in the fields of programming languages, contribute to identity policing and normative discourse in the real world. In order for data to be stored in a digital archive, data is assigned a binary value, also known as a Boolean, and used to represent true of false statements: 1 is true, 0 is false. The more concise your code is, the more efficiently your program will run. Since personal data has been collected digitally, gender has been rendered down into 1s and 0s, which do not provide the space to store, or represent, data beyond true and false.

This is to say there is no “third space” in a Boolean function, which might capture subsequently represent (in a query made to that system) gender beyond the binary. Hoffmann identifies this failure as “data violence” in order to capture “the harm inflicted on trans and non-gender conforming people not only in government-run systems, but also the information systems that permeate our everyday social lives.”[5]

Zoe illustrates that “data violence” is also a form of deletion which echoes the erasure perpetuated by settler colonialism. Outside of colonial and data binaries, and therefore outside of colonial representation, Zoa is effectively disembodied, a ghost in the machine.

Yet, rather than taking this as an impairment, or an inscription of damage, Zoa mobilizes their position outside of representation as a weapon of decolonization, which renders them impervious to embodied attacks in colonial reality. Zoa tells us that,

the best part
about having
no body
is that i cannot be shamed
you cannot riddle
your guilt on my skin
i have no fragility
like your body does (76)

Holmes and Hunt help to articulate Zoa’s ingenuity as the continuation of queer Indigenous resistance and resilience. In spite of settler colonialism’s best attempts to erase them, Holmes and Hunt write, “Indigenous queers persisted” (159).

Zoa’s persistence in Full-Metal Indigiqueer, their resourcefulness in the ongoing face of erasure, is proof of the ongoing vitality of queer Indigenous people within the delimiting systems of an oppressive settler state. Indeed, not only have Indigenous queers persisted, they have played significant roles in the decolonial project.

Holmes and Hunt define “decolonization” as  “actively challenging or disrupting systems of knowledge that do not fully account for the lives of Indigenous people, queer and trans people.”[6] In disrupting and deconstructing settler colonial culture and code via their presence as a disembodied singularity, Zoa works to make space for those whose lives have been erased or paved over by epistemic and material violence.

The Virtual Reservation

While this space may be, in some sense, virtual, it nonetheless articulates a sovereign territory of resistance and resurgence. Zoa informs us that, “this is the hypercyberrezsphere / where decolonialism has a chance / where survivance rests its head.”[7] In the sense that it fosters decolonization and recuperates survivance, Zoa’s “hypercyberrezsphere” echoes Michelle Raheja’s virtual reservation. According to Raheja,

Unlike Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the virtual as simulacra, fake, and substitute for the “real,” the virtual reservation is a supplemental arena of the possible that initiates and maintains a dialectical relationship between the multiple layers of Indigenous knowledge systems—from the dream world to the topography of real and imagined landscapes.

Zoa’s liminal existence as a resident of the virtual reservation affords the reader the opportunity to glimpse the ideological contours of the colonial “real” and thus render legible the grammars and syntaxes that work to erase and displace Indigenous bodies in the semiotic field of settler colonialism.

Whitehead illustrates this, for instance, by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost alongside the death of their aunt: “you cant make a heaven of hell / if the promise of heavens has always been hellish to you.”[8]

In the poem “what I learned in pre-cal math,” Zoa demonstrate their alienation from a literary cannon defined by Shakespeare: “here im just a fractal of the indigenous curve / & this still isn’t a social phenomenon / this is simple geometry, really.”[9] In “to my mister going to bed,” the narrator further illustrates their incommensurability with colonial technology, highlighting ways in which that technology is used to consume Indigenous identity:

though i am machine
you cannot download me
when you enter me
do not decode my dna
as an html story.[10]

To reiterate, the lack of presence that Whitehead’s narrator’s experience, the inability of settler machinery to recognize them, is not a reiteration of deficit. Rather, Whitehead takes up his narrator’s lack as a vehicle of agency and resistance. This agency functions within the realm of the TRC as well.

In the poem “Slay Bells Reign in Suburbia,” Zoa downloads “Charles Dickens software” as a means to critique “settler guilt,” as evoked by survivor testimony, by balancing that guilt against the “precarity… of day-to-day” existence for Indigenous peoples.[11]

Directly at stake here is the fraught ideological space generated by the TRC, which Zoa is able to inhabit and hack through the very fact of their non-existence—mobilizing the colonial tools levied against them (erasure and displacement) as a vehicle for deconstruction:

i am the ghost of natives past;
the ghost of colonialism present;
the ghost of settlers to come
i live past|present|future
the spirits of all three strive within me
learn the lessons they have to teach
& run afeard in the wake of the trc (48)

Here, Zoa once again takes up the figure of present absence, this time via a hacked representation of a Dickensian ghost. Unlike A Christmas Carol, however, which depicts three separate spirts, past, present, and future, Whitehead’s ghost is an amalgamation of all three—illustrating the continuity of Indigenous resistance while resisting the shallow colonial representation of the dead or dying Indian.[12]

As a figure empowered by the strength of both past and future relations, Zoa here becomes the forbearer of a decolonial present, which rejects the futurity of the settler colonial narrative and teaches the TRC, not as a gentle reconvening of Indigenous-settler relations, but as something that those who cling to power and privilege should fear.

The “wake of the trc” in this articulation is therefore formulated as a harbinger of change, but one that is predicated, by Zoa, on the multitemporal permanence of Indigenous peoples on occupied territories.

Still, Zoa is not finished with the theatre of regret. They continue, closing the poem by taking aim at settler apologies: “i regard your apology as the deadest piece of ironmongery in this new trade / the wisdom of my ancestors in this extended simile / touch it, I dare you—this country’s done for” (48).

Here, Zoa identifies the apologies attached to the TRC as an iteration of currency in a new moral economy. The “dead ironmongery” of apology, referring to the emptiness of economic signifier (i.e. a coin that does not carry the value its markings indicate), are trafficked by settler politicians such as former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also identified by Zoa as “settler scrooge.”

For Zoa, this “new trade” is a systematic, and unidirectional, exchange of moral platitudes that recuperates and maintains the status quo, while leaving “settler scrooge” in the position of wealth and power—even as he displays beneficence and goodwill after his encounter with the ghosts.

Yet, in referencing the three spirits of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the “extended simile” that Zoa notes in the line subsequent to the piece on ironmongery, Whitehead illustrates the power and potential of Indigenous peoples to resist and explode a colonially structured system of relationality, be it reconciliation or otherwise: “this country’s done for,” Zoa concludes.

The false exchange that founds the authority of the settler state is exposed for what it is. The foundation is crumbling. Indigenous futures are reclaiming the past and present and making space for decolonial narratives.

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[1] Joshua Whitehead, “you tell me you love me between two & three a.m.” Full-Metal Indigiqueer, 79

[2] Cindy Holmes and Sarah Hunt. “Everyday Decolonization: Living a Decolonizing Queer Politics.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 19:2 (2015): 159.

[3] Joshua Whitehead, “you tell me you love me between two & three a.m.” Full-Metal Indigiqueer, 79

[4] Anna Lauren Hoffmann, “Data, Technology, and Gender: Thinking About (and from) Trans Lives.” Spaces for the Future: A Companion to Philosophy of Technology. New York: Routledge, 2018. 11

[5] Ibid.

[6] Holmes and Hunt 159.

[7] Whitehead 110.

[8] Whitehead 50.

[9] Whitehead 41

[10] Whitehead 76.

[11] Whitehead 47.

[12] For more on the “dead Indian” see Thomas King, “Dead Indians: Too Heavy to Lift.”

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