A sovereign erotic is the use of historical, tribally-specific knowledge to heal colonial sexual violence. The term was coined by scholar, artist, and activist Qwo-Li Driskill (Cherokee) in the essay Stolen From our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic.
An understanding of this term requires a familiarity with the history of how Native sexualities have been colonized. Driskill points toward how sexual assault and sexism were new to most Native communities before European colonizers imported and imposed them. Wilma Mankiller writes of the introduction of sexism to the Cherokee Nation that "Europeans brought with them the view that men were the absolute head of households, and women were to be submissive to them." Andrea Smith investigates how sexual violence was not merely a tragic accidental introduction to Native communities, but a tool used as a key element of colonialism. It is also important to note here that colonial powers violently regulated Native women's sexualities through forced and coerced sterilization.
Sexual and gender identities, like sexualized bodies, have also been subject to colonial logics. Colonialism and Christianity brought the idea that queer sexual practices and non-binary gender identities are sinful. Furthermore, even within White queer communities, the identities of queer people of color been colonized by White conceptions of identity. For example, Gloria Anzaldúa writes:
"Lesbian" comes from a Euro-Anglo American mold and "homosexual" from a deviant, diseased mold shaped by certain psychological theories. We non-Euro-Anglo Americans are supposed to live by and up to those theories. A mestiza colored queer person is bodily shoved by both the heterosexual world and by white gays into the "lesbian" or "homosexual" mold whether s/he fits or not. La persona está situada dentro de la idea en vez del reves. (The person is set inside the idea, instead of the other way around).
According to Driskill:
When I speak of a Sovereign Erotic, I'm speaking of an erotic wholeness healed and/or healing from the historical trauma that First Nations people continue to survive, rooted within the histories, traditions, and resistance struggles of our nations.
This term draws from Audre Lorde's assertion that "Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning in our lives." Driskill also describes a sovereign erotic as "a return to and/or continuance of the complex realities of gender and sexuality that are ever-present in both the human and more-than-human world, but erased and hidden by colonial cultures."
The term was originally used to analyze two-spirit literature by Driskill, Chrystos (Menominee), and Craig Womack (Creek-Cherokee). The title of Mark Rifkin's third monograph -- The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination—is a reference to Driskill's theory.
Lisa Tatonetti has described the sovereign erotic as a "landmark theory." She uses it to analyze the work of Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d'Alene), Carole laFavour, and Jorge Manzano.
June Scudeler (Métis) has used the concept to analyze the work of Kent Monkman (Swampy Cree) and Gregory Scofield.