DEMIAN DINÉYAZHI’ & R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment
A NATION IS A MASSACRE
PIONEER WORKS | MAY 17 – JULY 8, 2018
Overlooking the busy port of Red Hook’s Atlantic Basin, blood-red text is pasted on the window of the third floor gallery at Pioneer Works. On one pane is the phrase: “A NATION IS A MASSACRE,” followed by: “THE DETAILS ARE GRUESOME & AMERICAN & AS PATRIOTIC AS GUN VIOLENCE & RAPE & MASS MURDER.” Here we are confronted by the language of anti-colonial agitprop by the activist initiative R.I.S.E. (Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment) and its founder, Demian DinéYazhi’ which pulls no punches as it states with blunt economy the violent foundations of the American project.
As critique, this work is not limited to its message, for R.I.S.E. and DinéYazhi’ appropriate the iconic text-image graphic design of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. While Kruger and Holzer’s agitational feminist slogans are icons of progressive resistance in mainstream art, their language excluded Indigenous women and queer communities of color. This potent critique of the scions of postmodern feminism is taken a step further in an appropriation of Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem “I want a president…” which appears as a third window text and as a paper take-away with the words modified while also keeping its recognizable structure and typewritten form. DinéYazhi’s version begins “We don’t want a president. We don’t want tribal presidents … We don’t want a nation state or a man-made border that severs ancestral traditions of trade and migration, or impose on the continued existence of flora and fauna.” Where Leonard proposes a president that would be of and for a diverse feminist and LGBTQ constituency, DinéYazhi’ rejects the legitimacy of any president or nation state whatsoever, citing instead a desire for a revolution that involves Indigenous sovereignty and “centers Indigenous, Brown, & Black livelihood.” Leonard’s poem hit peak social media saturation when it was installed in October 2016 on the High Line a month before the election. It was shared widely in the following months, as the so-called liberal resistance developed in response to the new president. Yet as the R.I.S.E. name signifies, for Indigenous peoples the resistance to the nation state has been for many years a matter of “survivance”—a word which combines survival, resistance, and resurgence.
In the gallery space of Pioneer Works, a series of wall-based montage risographic posters, produced on-site for the exhibition and mounted on a bright red wall, draw upon centuries of Indigenous resistance and violent subjection to pull the uncomfortable histories of America into present conversation. The ubiquitous sans-serif font of shared social media stories is overlaid on blue historic images in bright yellow lettering, producing text and image combinations that use contemporary language to confront past atrocities. “Spotted Elk was a victim of gun violence,” reads one, printed over a young portrait of the Miniconjou, Lakota chief who was among the over three hundred Lakota killed by U.S. Cavalry at the Wounded Knee Massacre. By using the language of “gun violence,” rather than the language of a “battle” or “conflict,” as American historians tend to portray the massacre, DinéYazhi’ positions the nineteenth-century death of Spotted Elk within contemporary anti-gun violence activism. Past victims of American military violence are named alongside Indigenous victims of the more recent past, such as Anna Mae Aquash and Loreal Tsingine, similarly identified in two other posters.
The use of straightforward and confrontational language serves to reduce the historical distance separating us from the injustices of five hundred years of colonial violence. “Pavonia Massacre of 1643 was a mass killing that resulted in 150 indigenous Lenape deaths by Dutch Colonizers” informs one poster over a cropped nineteenth-century engraving depicting the massacre. The words “mass killing” are enlarged, the same language regularly used by the American press to describe school shootings. The Algonquians likewise referred to the massacre as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” The array of these posters across the wall makes clear the manifold connections between historic colonial violence and present injustice¾Wounded Knee and Indigenous genocide begat violence against missing and murdered indigenous women, often victims of “man camps” of extractive industry workers on pipelines and oil fields. “Since Standing Rock, 56 bills have been introduced in 30 states to restrict protests” is printed over a still from drone footage of the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests. One of the few large format four-sheet posters depicts the pilgrims coming to shore, fleeing religious persecution. “HOMOPHOBIC/TRANSPHOBIC,” R.I.S.E. labels them, North America’s first importers of religion-based sexual intolerance. Homophobia, environmental injustice, and racism cannot be approached outside the context of colonialism’s continued oppression. R.I.S.E. shows that colonial violence leads to oppression against all, and that the only way to combat it is at its source.
Today, the Department of Justice is ripping children from their parents at the Mexican border, and DinéYazhi’ knows that it has all happened before. For much of the last one hundred and fifty years the Bureau of Indian Affairs ripped Indigenous children from their homes, forcing them into assimilationist Federal Indian Boarding Schools that expunged them of their language and culture. In another one of R.I.S.E.’s posters, a Diné (Navajo) youth is pictured with a slight smile, wearing a heavy necklace. The superimposed yellow text reads “The suicide rate among Indigenous youth aged 15-24 is the highest in the country and 3 times the national average.” Intergenerational trauma from the abuse suffered at these institutions sits heavy on communities today. Thus, when Jeff Sessions used Biblical verse to justify the inhumane border actions of his department, he was merely following in the footsteps of schoolteachers whom the Bible told to beat Indigenous children for their “heathen” beliefs, following the same logic as America’s Manifest Destiny-guided genocidal campaign across the continent. America as a nation continues to massacre. “We are expected to die without news headlines or revolution, and in this way we expect nothing; we accept death,” writes DinéYazhi’. Instead, with bright day-glo lettering, R.I.S.E. writes its own headlines for the injustices of a colonized continent.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.