Give us our Knives

 ANNE SPICE

Detail of “Weapons” display, Northwest Coast Hall, American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo © AMNH/E. Labenski.

Seen on a display case label in the Northwest Coast Hall in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City:

The surprise raid and the ambush were the basic techniques for war on the Northwest Coast. The Indians waged war for a variety of purposes. Plunder and the acquisition of slaves were the most important motives for war. The northern tribes, like the Tlingit, also fought to conquer territory. Feuds to avenge a murder or insult were common throughout the area. Captives were enslaved.

The principal Tlingit weapons were clubs, knives, and the bow and arrow, all of which were used by the other Northwest Coast Indians. The northern tribes used double-bladed knives with a long and a short blade on either side of a central grip.

Every day, hundreds of schoolchildren visit the museum.
They see:
Taxidermied animals in dioramas
Dinosaurs
Northwest Coast Indians

An abstract mud figure wears our regalia
A series of severed mud ears wear our “adornments”
Outside every section in the hall
a tiny diorama of our funerary practices

Coast Salish
Gitxsan
Haida
Heiltsuk
Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw
Nisg̱a’a
Nuu-Chah-Nulth
Nuxalk
Tlingit
Tsimshian

We can play a game:
Based on the evidence presented here, what (who) is extinct?
What (who) is past/ passed?

Every semester in my Anthropology 101 class, I encounter students who don’t know Indigenous peoples still exist. When given thirty seconds to name as many Indigenous people as possible, the class compiles a list:

Pocahontas
Tonto
Sacagawea
Geronimo
Sitting Bull

No one student can name more than three. As a class of seventy, they collectively name only two living Indigenous people. A basketball player, a tribal historian.[1] They Google their names on their phones to make sure they are still alive. So many dead and fictional Indians, and so few living. They even seem to forget, momentarily, that a living Indigenous person teaches their class.
What (who) is past/ passed?

We keep looking for the missing link, between what we thought was the truth and what really is the truth. Anthropologists, museum curators, scientists place themselves (ourselves) in the between.

What we thought was the truth: Indians are gone

What really is the truth?: they tried to kill us but we are not gone[2]

More importantly:
What is in between? What is the missing link? What is missing? Who is missing?

In between, our ancestors are incarcerated in glass boxes, and mud mannequins wear our regalia.

In between, a settler fantasy spins tales of pioneer spirit and manifest destiny to reverse-engineer national belonging. How to make ethical and legal sense of white possession in what is (for now) the United States? [3] When the storytelling breaks down in light of Indigenous genocide, attempts are made to spin it from stronger stuff. What is the missing link between white America and its origin story? Nobody wants to start with “Once upon a conquest.” Surely such violence isn’t what made the New World.

Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets (still), 2017. Image courtesy of the artists.

In the short film The Violence of a Civilization without Secrets (2017), Ojibway filmmakers Adam and Zack Khalil and Tlingit artist Jackson Polys explore the white desire for belonging as it operationalized anthropological science to claim Kennewick man (the Ancient One) as a European ancestor native to North America.[4] The film is a meditation on museum collections and the violent shift between subject and object that twists the remains of Indigenous ancestors into tools for white supremacist origin stories.

As I watched this film, I compiled a series of true, factual statements. I am interested in working with and through scientific language, which traffics in the categorical and apparently “objective”:

Fact: there is no science outside of power.
Fact: there is no neutral knowledge.
Fact: there is no common good.

Fact: objective scientific inquiry has used the bones of Indigenous ancestors to say we don’t belong here.

Fact: objective scientific inquiry has been co-opted easily in a white supremacist project of replacement.

Fact: objective scientific inquiry facilitates wild and violent time travel that allows white, euro-descendant people to skip the historical violence of settlement, to ignore their own ancestors’ conquest, to erase current power relations stemming from colonization, and to proclaim themselves the original people, the rightful inheritors of the continent.

Fact: objective scientific inquiry produces a narrative that legitimizes settler colonial elimination of native peoples.

This is not a fight between scientific “fact” and Indigenous “belief”. That binary is false, as scientific discovery itself becomes a pathway through which colonial discovery can travel.

Fact: they have tried to erase us with our own bones.

What really is the truth? The violence of a civilization without secrets lies in its impulse to display. To expose. To exhume. They unearth our bones to shed light on their own origins. Unearth our bones. They bleach in the sun, turn white white white. The truth is not for us.

In The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets, the filmmakers follow two interlocutors as they wander through the Northwest Coast Hall of the American Museum of Natural History. Wearing melted silicone masks, the two individuals approach the display cases, mime and recreate the poses of the clay mannequins, and photograph the objects on display. In a follow-up video work, the photographs pull the objects out of the case to a virtual space, where they are digitally manipulated and distorted. [5] The bust of a clay mannequin wearing Tlingit regalia is captured and superimposed on the museum floor. It spins and floats out of a display case. It appears again alone and melts, bulges, freaks out.

This work has made me think about what it means to mirror, mime, and distort the work of capture, of taking captive that which has already been incarcerated in the halls of the museum. The museum’s own text insists that Tlingits take captives, while the museum holds our own ceremonial objects, regalia, and ancestors behind glass.[6]

Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets (still), 2017. Image courtesy of the artists.

What (who) is captive/ captured/ captivating?[7]

The science around Kennewick man allowed white supremacists to time travel back to find their roots on this continent, skipping the violence of conquest which has shaped the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples. I want to distort and mirror this time travel into the future.

Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets (still), 2017. Image courtesy of the artists.

I want to propose a speculative future Indigenous retrospective.[8]

Museums love retrospectives. They may not love this one. They may not be around to love this one.

Let’s speculate. Move into the future. From that future think-space, I want to look back at our work.

I want to do this because I want to skip the debate about how we decolonize the museum. I want to skip the debate about who’s going to preserve the cultural artefacts and how. I want to skip the debate that is centered on the palliative project of repairing the ethical compass of institutions built on theft and Indigenous dispossession. I don’t want questions that start with “should we really,” “can we,” “is it realistic to.” Instead I want to move to the future tense:

We have abolished the museum
We have abolished anthropology
We have liberated our ancestors from the glass cases
We have stopped collecting other people’s lives for display

What, now, is possible? Now, we can talk to our ancestors. Now, we can wear our regalia. Now, our cultural materials cannot circulate without us.

I run my hands through the fringe in the Chilkat blanket
I hold the double-bladed knife
The cedar chips crunch under my feet

What is in between? What is the missing link? What is missing? Who is missing?

I collect my missing relatives
I trace connections between our nations
We build a living web. No more missing links

What else is possible? Pushing radically into the future tense allows our imaginations to break through institutional walls, through the realities of funding and regulation. What else is possible? What happens now?

And how did we get here? Here we are, looking back at what we’ve done.

The surprise raid and the ambush were the basic techniques for war on the Northwest Coast. The Indians waged war for a variety of purposes. Plunder and the acquisition of slaves were the most important motives for war. The northern tribes, like the Tlingit, also fought to conquer territory. Feuds to avenge a murder or insult were common throughout the area. Captives were enslaved.

The principal Tlingit weapons were clubs, knives, and the bow and arrow, all of which were used by the other Northwest Coast Indians. The northern tribes used double-bladed knives with a long and a short blade on either side of a central grip.

Installation view, Northwest Coast Hall, American Museum of Natural History, New York, October 20, 2018. Photo by Christopher Green.

 

Anne Spice is a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dun First Nation, a queer Indigenous feminist, and anti-colonial organizer. She works with Indigenous peoples resisting resource extraction, and her political and academic interests intersect on the frontlines of Indigenous land defense movements. She is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in Lenapehoking (NYC)
.

 
NOTES

[1] Ron Baker, citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, plays for the New York Knicks; La Donna Brave Bull Allard is a Lakota historian who started the Sacred Stone camp at Standing Rock (students had just read an article she wrote about the Whitestone massacre).

[2] In Patrick Wolfe’s foundational article “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (2006), he explores the “logic of elimination” driving settler colonial expansion in North America, suggesting that this logic is not always genocidal (but it can be). Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006), 387-409. The edited collection Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America  explores state strategies to eliminate Indigenous peoples, from the explicitly genocidal bounty-hunting campaigns of the American west, to the theft of Indigenous children to abusive residential schools or foster families. Andrew John Woolford,, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, eds., Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). What is clear from all of the examples is that settler colonial governance has aimed to erase and eliminate Indigenous life, either by killing Indigenous people or destroying our sense of ourselves as Indigenous peoples, or by breaking down cultural connections and kinship. Whether these eliminatory movements map cleanly onto the historical discourse and definition of genocide continues to be debated.

[3] In Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s The White Possessive, she details how patriarchal white sovereignty manipulates law, racial imaginaries, and historical narratives to maintain settler states (Australia and the United States) as a priori white possessions. Archaeology and science, too, can be mobilized as tools to insist on white possession before and beyond invasion—either by claiming prior occupancy by European ancestors, or by appealing to a universal quest for knowledge that removes Indigenous ancestors from communities to make them serve the science of human origins. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).  Kim TallBear has also described how ancestral remains have been used to support theories about human migration that undermine Indigenous claims to their own homelands. Kim TallBear, “Who Owns the Ancient One?” Buzzfeed News Reader, July 23, 2015, https://www.buzzfeed.com/kimtallbear/how-the-man-stole-ancient-man-from-his-native-descendents.

[4] The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets, directed by Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys (2017; Mechelen, Belgium: inhabitants for Contour 8 Biennial, 2017) digital video. The 9000 year-old skeleton was unearthed in 1996 in Kennewick, Washington. Early scientific analysis of the remains suggested that it lacked Native American features. This prompted questions into whether Indigenous peoples were really “first peoples,” and white supremacist groups also claimed the Ancient One as a “Caucasian” ancestor in hopes of proving early white settlement in North America.  The request from the local Nez Perce, Colville, Umatilla, Wanapum, and Yakama nations to reclaim the remains as an ancestor and bury them was denied in 2004, and the nations only gained the right to repatriate the remains after a new round of DNA testing was done in 2015, linking the Ancient One to local Indigenous peoples.

[5] Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, Culture Capture, video installation, 2017, in Unholding (exhibition presented by Artists Space, New York, November 19, 2017- January 21, 2018).

[6] And the histories of enslavement, colonialism, and imperialism that supported the collection of “artifacts” are actively disavowed. In 2016, in collaboration with the Decolonize this Place, the NYC Stands with Standing Rock collective planned an anti-Columbus Day decolonization tour of the American Museum of Natural History, highlighting the colonialist legacies of the various halls of the museum. The tour was repeated and expanded in 2017.  Decolonize This Place, “2nd Annual Anti-Columbus Day Tour: Decolonize this Museum,” http://www.decolonizethisplace.org/content/6-zines-and-posters/dtp_tour_map_brochure_ 2017-3.pdf. See also MTL+ in Leah Dickerman, Hal Foster, David Joselit, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “A Questionnaire on Monuments,” October 165 (Summer 2018), 119-133. Here, the museum is also carceral space, part of the “carceral geographies” that expand beyond the prison industrial complex to produce the structure of racial capitalism. For more on carceral geographies, infrastructures of feeling, and challenging racial capitalism through the Black Radical Tradition, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” in Futures of Black Radicalism, eds. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (London and New York: Verso, 2017), 224-240. The museum, too, is built on land cleared of Indigenous peoples, on the edges of Central Park, where a Black community was destroyed and displaced to create green space for the city’s white inhabitants. The museum and its halls of knowledge are not separate from the gentrification of New York neighborhoods, or the education of children, or the militarization of police, or the other carceral geographies that connect these institutions. Indigenous dissidents must link our work to other revolutionary knowledges and projects, and commit to supporting the abolition geographies that connect us to other anti-racist, anti-capitalist anti-colonial movements.

[7] We can ask also, what (who) is apprehended? How does the knowledge/power communicated through display also capture Indigenous peoples in representational boxes that we don’t get to choose? Audra Simpson describes the politics of representation in terms of “apprehension”— apprehension describes the kinds of representational capture that are woven into Iroquoianist anthropology, as well as the kinds of anxiety and fear produced in this encounter. Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[8] Here I’m thinking about Avery Gordon’s most recent work, in which she employs a future conditional temporality, compiling an archive of what must have existed in order for us to survive the apocalypse. From the future conditional tense, she looks back at the material remains, she treats the “what if”, “as if”. Gordon describes her effort as a way of exploring what she calls “the other utopianism”—the array of alternative world-building projects that have escaped the canon of utopian scholarship. The Zapatistas. The Seminoles. Maroon communities. The “temporary autonomy” of rebellion and the existence of alternatives alongside the status quo. I want to combine this approach with what Jodi Byrd has called a pessimistic Indigenous futurism, that in her words “refuses to relinquish the future tense, while predicting the continuation of settler industrial capitalistic dispossession.” Pessimistic Indigenous futurism assumes that we (Indigenous peoples) make it to the future, but so does capitalism. Here, Byrd proposes putting the “speculative” back into speculative fiction. Byrd’s pessimism reminds us that we can’t hitch our liberation to the complete absence of oppression. Gordon’s project shows that the creation of other utopias has continued without wholesale approval from or overthrow of the dominant capitalist and imperialist system. Together, Gordon and Byrd offer a kind of temporal play that allows us to see the alternative futures embedded in the present, and the close proximity of dystopia and utopia in settler colonial worlds. I am less interested in choosing sides between optimism and pessimism, and more concerned with the institutional limits to our collective imaginations. The way that certain lines of questioning police the borders of the possible. The strategies we can use to play with time in order to stretch our minds back/ forward/ between the truth of science and fiction and everyday life, to create more liveable futures. Avery Gordon, The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017). Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).