New Red Order is not just an artist group, it is a 'public secret society' that through its audio-visual installations, websites, and publications recruits people to become informants on their own colonial cultures, and to reflect on the way in which Indigenous artists are always asked to inform a predominantly white art world. NRO is formed by Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, and it emerged through parodic takes on the Improved Order of the Redmen and the Degree of Pocahontas, actual secret fraternal societies dating back to the 18th century, based on misappropriating Native American culture and traditions.
This interview, conducted by Timur Si-Qin, brings the artists together in a conversation that showcases the implications of being an informant, to highlight the ontology, identity, and culture of Indigenous peoples, whilst simultaneously shedding light on the historical and ongoing annihilative and extractive habits of Western culture.
Zack and Adam Khalil are both Ojibway, from northern Michigan, and Jackson Polys, who is Tlingit, is from Alaska. NRO’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Audain Gallery at Simon Fraser University, BC, Canada (2021) and MOCAD Detroit, MI (2020), Obsidian Coast, Bradford-on-Avon, UK (2020), and the Toronto Biennial of Art, Toronto, Canada (2019). Group exhibitions include Speculations on the Infrared, EFA Project Space Program, NY (2021) and Unholding, Artists Space, NY (2017). Screenings and Performances include Indigenous Lens: Our Reality, Walker Art Center, MN (2020), Informants Get Paid!, Artists Space, NY (2020) Culture Capture: Terminal Addition, Light Work, NY (2019), Culture Capture: Terminal Addition, 57th New York Film Festival, NY (2019) The Savage Philosophy of Endless Acknowledgement, Whitney Museum, NY (2018), and THE INFORMANTS, Artists Space, NY (2017).
Timur Si-Qin: Let’s start with the first question: how did you guys meet? And how was NRO formed?
Adam Khalil: NRO comes out of the Improved Order of the Redmen and the Degree of Pocahontas (its Sorority version), both actual secret societies. The Improved Order of the Redmen starts with the Boston Tea Party. Settlers, protesting British taxation on tea, by dressing up as Mohawks. The group of people who did that went to form the Sons of Liberty, and then the Improved Order of the Redmen, which is still a secret society that exists today. They're headquartered in Waco, Texas, just to keep things extra weird. Richard Nixon was a part of it, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, leaders of business and politics throughout the history of the US have been a part of this group. It's like Freemasons, except they dressed up as Indians.
Timur Si-Qin: It's fascinating how you focus on this American desire for indigeneity. It takes different forms and, specifically, racist forms, like the story of the Kennewick man, and how white supremacists latched on to the idea that whites are Indigenous to the Americas, or the Improved Order of the Redmen’s staging of their ideas of indigenous culture, while at the same time claiming racial superiority. You also describe an Indigenous desire for identity and authenticity in the aftermath of protracted genocide. In your exhibition, all of this plays together in a reverse tokenism, from which you are able to harness this creative dynamic.
Jackson Polys: These are dynamics that were part of the desire to feel at home here, and to differentiate one's self from a prior lineage. This was combined with the desire to eliminate the savage, but also to become the savage. Thus, in these kinds of scenarios like, in the Boston Tea Party, one would 'play Indian', to embody one's own fantasy, and also to, in some ways, make that fantasy become reality. These were part of the activities that contributed to the attempted elimination, removal, and displacement of people, which, in mutated form, continue today. These secret societies, such as the Improved Order of the Red Men, whose current priorities are the love for the American flag and of liberty, show how this idea of freedom is also bound up in that desire to become savage.
Timur: What do you think is the most difficult thing for the Western consciousness or even the Western art world to learn or comprehend about indigeneity?
Jackson: Where to draw the line in terms of what constitutes indigeneity... There is a desire in the recent utilization of this term to attempt to strategically counter forms of colonialism.
But “indigeneity” begins to seem like a reactive term, where we start to wonder: How fruitful is its utility? Or how long-lasting can we imagine this utility to be? Or is it an interim term that could then be replaced by other, more specific articulations?
‘Indigenous’ is defined in etymology as ‘prior to something else.’ Usually, the assumption is that whatever that something else is, is something that came to replace whatever was Indigenous, or that will come to replace that kind of rootedness - a rootedness seen by many as problematic, passé, or aligned with conservativism or tribalism.
The employment of 'indigeneity’, in some ways, seems to hope to overcome a prior term like 'native', which is troubled by the problematicity of having to be associated with domestication or being contained by the borders of the nation-state. But we see that indigeneity could also have a different relationship to inclusion: to refuse that containment, and move toward a form of sovereignty. Which then gets into the question of OK, are we going back to this fundamental of land as territory? Many people assume that Natives have no notion of property or at least that they have a different relationship to property, which may be true, but this ‘assumption’ aided mechanisms to take property away. So how strategic can we be with this term and how can we get beyond the reactive? Then there's also the bleeding into something generic, when people are claiming Indigeneity, as opposed to claiming the specificity of a certain tribe or nation.
Timur: A sort of broad characteristic of the indigenous that I’m interested in, is the spirituality of nature, which is also the thing that's the most difficult for the Western consciousness to understand. It really resonated with me what you guys wrote in the Artforum essay: "however romanticized, the representations and reconstructions of past Indigeneity from both native and non-native perspectives, become necessary, if unruly, portal for the continuance and amplification of our concerns."
My stepdad is Apache, he and my mom are no longer together, but I grew up in the 90s, in this Native context. He was in prison for a long time when we arrived in the US, and after he got out, we were on the ceremonial circuit. We went to the powwows and to different reservations. It was such a rich culture but it was a culture that was invisible to the dominant culture, and the dominant culture really had this total lack of curiosity about it. I feel like maybe now that's starting to change a little bit. Do you think it’s changing and how do you see it changing?
Adam: Specifically, the US context it's interesting because Native culture is entirely invisible, but it's ever-present and constant, at the same time. Especially with the environmental or spiritual angle - that's our biggest export, for better or worse. That's the one thing people know, more so than anything else. Because of that too, we have a slight resistance to engage with it; there's the cliche of being the stewards of the land, which has a janitorial ring to it. I'm not sure if it's a desirable or fun position to be put into. And - going back to the etymology of Indigeneity - we’re trying to get out of this forced proximity to nature. The proximity to nature is not always something that's spiritual, it's like a science-based practice for how the world works: closing those gaps of understanding.
Timur: Which the West is just kind of arriving at, right?
Adam: Totally, and maybe back to your point about it being better now. But then there's that slippage of what that cooptation is like now. It's starting to be heard, but how does it get disseminated, and how does it get incorporated? I’m just thinking about how quickly things can get consumed, understood, and moved on from after that. Maybe I'm a little pessimistic.
Jackson: This is something we've always attempted to contend with and I think sharing those degrees of pessimism and optimism combined, and moving back and forth and between, has been important in our conversations. The visibility definitely shifted with Standing Rock, where there's a lot of activity toward attempting to align oneself with the protection of nature, and that's been indeed the major export. That, in itself, is another interesting phenomenon. If examined closely, one could identify a symptom of wanting to become Indian, right? This desire to attempt to mediate the guilt of having done harm. The dynamic of people going to ‘assist’ at Standing Rock also brought on tensions between those people and Native people. Part of that was to protect against the risk of desires to extract a native epistemology with this conflation of ‘Native as nature’: to participate in and be able to utilize a certain epistemology, but then not be bothered with the trouble of having to deal with actual Indigenous people. So this dynamic is still persistent in various sciences, to desire to utilize different kinds of relational activities or to notice new connections that people have said that Natives have always noticed or identified. It can lapse into something extractive when looking at Native epistemologies as having the seeds for the remediation of hyper-modern ill behaviors.
Adam: Standing Rock was also a political movement for Indigenous nations’ sovereignty and self-determination, but that is too complicated and too unsettling for a general audience, so it had to be reduced to "Water Is Life". The universal idea of how when water is polluted, negatively affects everyone, as opposed to advocating from a sense of self-determination and governance. There is that kind of slippage that can undermine what's actually happening, but also, the flip side of that is it can also allow things to happen after all, right? Because it becomes universal, more generalized, and by becoming a slogan, people can get behind it more easily. So maybe I'm getting more optimistic now.
Timur: I feel like this ties to the question of secularity. What do you guys think about spirituality in this context?
Adam: There's a pretty awesome book by Simon Critchley called The Faith of the Faithless, talking about the Left in the US, how they've lost faith (faith as in religion or belief system), and replaced it with science. But he's also arguing that that's why things like BLM and Standing Rock work so well - because, on a different level, they have this X-Factor. Also, in terms of the essay, you wrote: it's the cooptation of religious fervor, belief, and faith. On the other hand, Christian churches were some of the furthest left groups and still are: housing refugees, creating asylums, etc. and maybe that's why the government is kind of out of whack: this idea of faith over spirituality or belief is really crude from a sort of rational and empirical "crimes as religion" based philosophy and epistemology.
Jackson: From my perspective, growing up Tlingit, in southeast Alaska, on the northwest coast of the currently called US, there is a certain imposition of this idea of spirituality and faith, which many cultures have varying degrees of resistance to because it doesn't necessarily align with their own understanding of themselves, or how they've been taught to approach their own belief systems. If there might be some kind of underlying belief — that has a benefit, if that is admitted — then it could be aligned with other forms of belief, understood analogically, and flattened. When maybe... maybe ... there's an absence of belief in certain cultures that one would have to allow for. We’ve seen that people have taken up this idea of spirituality and this idea of the creator, even if it may have been imposed by missionaries and then internalized. But, if one were to minimize that flag, one could align oneself with a certain spirituality, in the same way that one tries to identify or align oneself strategically with other Indigenous groups, in order to work together to try to create something different than a so-called dominant culture.
Adam: Also thinking about this from an epistemological vantage: a lot of the dogma doesn't exist, it's always in the process of emerging. Part of that has to do with this temporal understanding of the Seventh Generation Principle: Seven generations into the past and Seventh Generation into the future, thinking about things along the cultural and political spectrum. These things that are set in stone, are never actually set in stone because of what the next generation makes up their own. And there's a kind of faith or spirituality even within that, that emerges for each generation.
Timur: And it's not canonized in scripture.
Adam: ... and it's never been. Even in my own tribe, sometimes people forget that, and culture-beliefs start clamping down on things in this really dumb way from my perspective. But I think that that's what makes the faith in the place that I'm from powerful, because it is always emerging, right? It's never still.
Timur: Yeah, I always find that it's such a misinterpretation of the idea of spirituality and faith to be looked at through this Western angle. For example, in a sweat lodge, you're praying to the rocks and to the wind as it hits your face, and it's not like you're praying to a rock deity or a wind deity. It's physical: you're praying to those actual rocks themselves, and I always thought that that was such a hard thing for the Western consciousness to understand about Indigenous spirituality; that it isn't necessarily metaphysical, it's reality-based. Jackson, I see you mulling it over. What do you think?
Jackson: Yes, it's an interesting question in terms of saying ‘reality-based.’ I don’t know if I’d thought of ‘reality-based’ in that way, as a term to think through animism. From an exterior point of view – not that that’s possible – this idea that a rock is imbued with a certain kind of energy — which perhaps cannot be denied – has to do, in my mind and experience, with looking at people who describe the vibrancy of matter with a desire to align with recognition of the animacy in each object, with a degree of appreciation for Indigenous epistemology. But that ‘recognition’ can then be an attempt to arrest, incorporate the ‘contributions’ and affinities and infuse them into new recognizant philosophical understandings, which is a convenient way to sidestep ongoing and more obvious concerns voiced by Indigenous people. It’s an interesting question in terms of how one aligns this desire with ways that we currently think about reality. And what does reality become, in that sense?
Timur: I think maybe that that leads to this question, which is more concrete, about the use of photogrammetry in the ‘Culture Capture’ pieces. Is there something about photogrammetry itself that you find significant?
Adam: The absurdity of that mirrors the kind of philosophical logic of Western capture and collection. To capture everything from every angle so we can keep it and recreate it forever. Photogrammetry to me is hilarious because you take 600 photos of one tiny thing to keep it forever in whatever way you want going forward. Another illicit and ridiculous aspect of photogrammetry is that you have to physically be in these spaces, circling around these objects three times. It almost has this faux-ceremonial aspect to it. It feels like the robbery scene of the Museum of Great Britain, from Black Panther.
Jackson: Yes there is something hilarious about it in terms of the impulse to capture everything, which is aligned with the archival impulse that has led to the removal of so many Indigenous objects. From where I'm from, tens of thousands of objects were dislocated thousands of miles to be put in basements, and now cannot be seen by their people: those who would use them, retain understandings about them, and want to interact with them.
Institutions want to capture every different part of these objects, to make sure that every form of information possible is extracted or exhausted before it's given back. The Smithsonian, for example, wanted to collaborate with Indigenous groups and to recreate objects, scan them, make a copy, have Natives authorize them by painting them, have Natives perform the copy, and thus ‘certify’ them. It’s another fraught dynamic. It’s also bound with the idea that one could get information to help people recover techniques that may have been lost. But to subscribe to that idea is to move into a salvage ethnography or salvage anthropology paradigm, which was part of how those objects were removed in the first place, and part of how their removal was justified.
Timur: Do you see any possibility of reconciling science and the indigenous? Subverting the false binary that the scientific and the technological stand in opposition to the indigenous?
Adam: We just did a residency in Honolulu, and it was pretty fucking brain expanding. It sounds really simple and dumb, but a pretty prominent activist started the slogan Pro-Science, Pro-Sacred, which made perfect sense. There's this fake binary that can pop up, that’s really scary and slippery, that reads as Indigenous people being anti-science. So just the simplicity of that phrase, saying: 'No, we're for both of these things’, is really powerful. I think that this might actually be looping around something we were talking about earlier: a lot of the Indigenous politics is framed to be against something, as opposed to standing for something. So much in decolonization or repatriation is "de-", "re-", is an undoing of this thing, and it's censoring all these activities on this undoing, as opposed to imagining and putting forth possibilities for new futures. This was, again, what was so profound to me: you can be pro-science and pro-sacred. And it's as simple as that!
Jackson: To continue a bit on false binaries between the indigenous and science or indigenous and technology: the conundrum of trying to counter by erasing the distinction, is potentially dangerous. So you have the idea that there's a separation between indigenous and technology, that presumes that indigenous is one thing and technology is something owned by some other force, entity, or lineage. Which then, of course, leads back into the conflation of native and nature. But then the idea that Indigenous people also have their own technologies, that are less recognized, less visible, or less understood, leads to a dynamic of them now -- or in the future -- being understood or ‘recognized’ and then extracted by those who think themselves creators and purveyors of technology. It’s analogous to how so-called primitive art inspired other modern artists who could then replace that kind of work or ingest that influence, be inspired by it and produce their own work.
The notion that those technologies which, once understood, can be extracted, then shifts into the domain of Western ‘commons’. One way to kind of move against that might be to think about the situation of Pro-science, Pro-sacred. The sacred is maybe a bracket that can allow for a marker of protection against something that wishes to extract and then remove it in the name of science. But the sacred is also connected to a different kind of power, to the state, that wants to utilize that bracketing in ways that maybe Indigenous people holding claims to those territories might not want it to be used. So it becomes a question, again, of sovereignty, troubling and unsettling if one has to take it seriously.
Timur: Another thing I wanted to ask you regarding using commercial aesthetics in your work: how are you engaging these strategies to present your work, in terms of design objects, promotional materials, and displays? Why and what are you trying to achieve engaging this aesthetic?
Adam: Something we're really invested in is actually thinking about the audience. And that part of this idea is this kind of embrace of savage philosophy by trying to make everything as real as possible. It’s also just realizing that people are bombarded with this kind of graphic design shit all the time, and it’s interesting to understand how to slip into that and not have it just be parody, but actually, see the potential for it to start to become real somehow.
Jackson: We cribbed this idea of savage philosophy from philosopher-writer Christopher Bracken, who in his book Magical Criticism, notes that there is a continued racialization of ideas that posits that only the savages are the ones who believe. So that continues in the work, this idea which has been understood in contradictory ways, that Natives conflate magic with reality, misunderstanding the difference between the unreal and the real. By utilizing these so-called commercial forms, we're accepting that being bombarded by them has a very real effect on us. By trying to shift them, we could be seen as misunderstanding ourselves as sorcerers or effectuators. Of course, we're poking fun and employing these long-term associations between the shaman and the artist: a mode of coopting so-called Indigenous epistemologies and practices into a Western paradigm, aligned with the continuing practices of primitivism. By using recognizable forms, we might be able to flip to a few things at once: confronting the binary between native and artificial while “creating our own reality” which can occur through acts of its description.
Timur: So, what does it really mean to be an NRO informant?
Adam: Well, I think that's what was also interesting to read in your essay, Timur: the kind of informant work that was happening there, in relation to your personal experience of the sacred ceremony: I guess part of the reason we started identifying as informants is that we realized we were always going to be put in that position anyway. This was a way to "be consumed” and instrumentalized, but we were actually aware going into it.
Embracing this reality, as opposed to trying to resist it, could be the way to move forward. Another big inspiration for the idea of ‘informants’ were historical figures like the anthropologist Franz Boas and his informant, George Hunt, who was half Tlingit, and grew up amongst the Kwakwaka’wakw. And what was interesting was that the work that he was doing with Boas was more like a creative collaboration rather than an anthropological informant: they would stage all these photos where Hunt would dress up like other tribes, sometimes tribes that he knew never existed.
Jackson: Not to overcomplicate things, but by participating in those activities and presenting them, Hunt was complicit in some ways with the potential romanticization or the promotion of that kind of problematic image of indigeneity. There was also Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit person who ended up working at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was involved in recording and writing different stories so that they could be preserved. There was the fear of them dying out, but he was also, along with the other anthropologists, a participant in the removal of indigenous objects. Also so that they could be preserved. Looking back, it’s tricky to try to untangle to what extent these people had agency in the process and to what extent they could be called out as just being complicit.
By noticing that we're informants ourselves, we call others to inform with us. One can inform by intentionally presenting, but also one can inform even with internal resistance to volunteering info. In that resistance, there is also information being produced as to one's own understanding of indigeneity. Recognizing that and asking for voluntary intentional focused reflection on what it means to grow in relationship, we can hopefully come to more reciprocal relations. There’s also the danger of excessive reflexivity becoming itself a factor, which then could lead to the informant getting in the way of the information. But even with an acknowledgment of that danger, it may still be better to move ahead, try to overcome that, rather than letting it submerge, and then have it reappear in other more dangerous ways.