The Spaces of Appearance | Nicholas Mirzoeff | Thursday, 01.12.2016

Visual Sovereignty and Standing Rock: Decolonizing Native Spaces of Appearance

When I visited Aotearoa New Zealand in 2005, the conference I attended was opened by a Maori rangatira (leader; chief, if you must). As the visiting rangatira, I had to respond. It was a moving way to begin the event and it reminded everyone of the realities of settler colonialism.
Until recently, this acknowledgement was often lacking in the United States. On May Day 2016, the Free University of New York hosted “Liberation Lab” in what is now known as Washington Square Park. The day began with artist Beatrice Glow and representatives from the American Indian House in Manahatta (now Manhattan) and the Native American and Indigenous Students Group at NYU performing a Lenape Calibration. That is to say, the space was realigned with Native co-ordinates and symbols, like the sassafras leaf. Speakers evoked the presence of the Minetta spring under the present park and the proximity of the Lenape Trail on what is now Broadway. All this autumn, events at Decolonize This Place – a residency at Artists Space – have recalled that the space is occupied and remembered Native histories.
This reconfiguration of public and private space to acknowledge the Native presence allows us to see differently. It opens the possibility of breaking down the exclusionary borders of the space of representation and creating anew the space of appearance by remembering whose land it really is.
Colonial Spaces of Representation
Brazilian scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva argues that the goal of the colonial project was and is to create a ‘scene of representation,’ in which only the colonizer has the interior judgment capable of recognizing and interpreting representation. As Marx famously ventriloquized this view, ‘they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.’ Such representation engages both meanings of the term: political representation, and visual or cultural depiction are interfaced aspects of the same violent relationship.
Visualized operations create a colonial space of representation. First, Roman law is applied out of context, whether of time and space. Colonizers declare land terra nullius, meaning ‘nothing land.’ They then ‘claim’ it by virtue of working it in some way to make it productive, enacting the rule of St. Benedict, laborare est orare (to work is to pray.) Settlement becomes religious duty.
Roman law was later integrated into national law in the United States by means of treaties with the various peoples. Indeed, Article 6 of the Constitution declares: ‘all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.’ But the claim of cultivation or other commercial exploitation in fact always supersedes such treaties in the case of Native rights, while colonial rights are always upheld and extended at will.
Native people in the Amazon cultivated fruit trees and nuts, for example, but not in the disciplined rows colonizers expected. So the land was ‘nothing’ or ‘waste’ and could be taken. United States law has never recognized a right of possession for Natives, whether because they were supposedly too few to hold so much land or held it in common rather than individually, or simply because, as the Supreme Court put it in 1823, ‘conquest gives a title.’ The conquered had no title. The Native people are then to be excluded from the land, whether by walls, as in Wall Street, New York City, or the force of law.
Native Spaces of Appearance
This colonial representation further overwrote, as it were, the existing forms of the space of appearance in Brazil and across the Americas. Among these forms was that named as ‘Amerindian perspectivism’ by the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. It is not at all the one-point perspective of colonial culture that Donna Haraway wittily calls the ‘god trick,’ the ability to see as if a god. Rather, Amerinidian perspective holds that, in de Castro’s words, ‘the world is inhabited by different forms of subjects or persons, human and non-human, which apprehend reality from different points of view’. Humans, spirits and animals all share the same form of subjectivity or personhood – the capacity to act.
This subjectivity is ‘humanity’ but not specifically the human form. A human sees a human as a human. A spirit or jaguar sees the human as beer, that is to say, something to eat, but themselves as human. It is this category that de Castro calls the ‘soul,’ which is indexical but cannot be seen. What is seen is not a representation because the specific ‘point of view is located in the body,’ 1Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, 3 (1998), 469–488, here 478. whether spirit, human or animal, as opposed to the common condition of humanity.
That does not mean that all humans are equal in Amerindian society. What it does mean is that, whereas Western understanding attributes a point of view to a subject, here ‘the point of view creates the subject.’ 2De Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” 476. Colonial culture knows this point of view and calls it an ‘out of body experience.’ The point here is not that the view is out of the body but that there are many views from different bodies. The body of a howler monkey sees differently to that of a spirit or a human, producing one culture but many natures.
Visual Sovereignty and Not Seeing
In 1995, artist and art historian Jolene Rickard, Tuscarora Nation (Haudenosaunee) claimed Native ‘visual sovereignty.’ In her book Mohawk Interruptus, anthropologist-activist Audra Simpson makes it clear that such sovereignty goes beyond mere recognition, which is in fact a ‘technique of settler governance.’ Such recognition confers the ability to move freely and to receive protection from harm, epitomized in documents such as passports. These rights are about to be withheld in the United States from many so-called undocumented people.
Simpson then takes the argument a step further. ‘Settler colonialism,’ she writes, ‘structures justice and injustice in particular ways, not through the conferral of recognition of the enslaved [in Hegel’s master-bondsman allegory] but by the conferral of disappearance in subject. This is not seeing so profound that mutuality cannot be achieved.’ If that position is unattainable, the path of resistance becomes avoiding the look of the dominant altogether.
As Simpson puts it, the problem then becomes ‘how to imagine [oneself] operating outside the interstices of Empire, while operating within it.’ In the Mohawk Ten Commandments written by Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall, the guiding rule is simply that ‘No one has the right of lordship over others.’ 3Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 20–28. There is, then, no ‘space of appearance’ for colonizers and Native people. To be seen while Native is to risk being disappeared, whether in fact or in narrative, as in the repeated stories of the ‘extinction’ of Native peoples, famously visualized by Edward Curtis in 1904.
Edward Curtis, The Vanishing Race, c. 1904
Standing Rock
These lines of thought have been playing out at Standing Rock. Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota peoples, known to the US as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, have sought to block a huge multinational corporation called Energy Transfer (which owns Sunoco oil among many others) from building a crude oil pipeline across their land. Known as the Dakota Access Pipeline, this construction raises numerous concerns. Its path has damaged burial grounds and sacred sites, while any possible leak would render the land and water toxic. Those seeking to block the pipeline are called Water Protectors. With good reason: the pipeline crosses no fewer than 22 waterways, including both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Above all, this pipeline violates even the limited sovereignty granted by settler colonialism in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 with the Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation). The repeated violations of this and subsequent treaties indicate that they are meant as nothing more than a means to pacify indigenous people. When gold was discovered in the nineteenth century, or when the government wanted to flood the best arable land by damming the Missouri River in the twentieth century, Native land was simply taken.
Patty Ahn, Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock. Courtesy the artist
The protests against the pipeline have resonated with climate and earth system activists, leading to a wave of support. Most notably, hundreds of other Native people have gathered in support at the Oceti Sakowin camp, making this the most significant Native alliance since the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Direct action rules posted on site read: ‘This is a ceremony. Act accordingly.’ Non-Native allies have brought food and other supplies, while also volunteering to be arrested in place of Natives.
This assemblage has constituted a space of appearance in which it has been newly possible to engage ‘outside’ the settler state while being encircled by it. One of the most evocative moments of the encampment to date came with the appearance of a herd of wild buffalo.
In the Lakota language tatanka, or buffalo, is better translated as ‘one who owns us.’ The appearance of the buffalo opened an Amerindian perspective (if you will allow the transposition) on Standing Rock. No person owns the land. The buffalo, though, owns the human population. That is why the US Army went to such lengths to exterminate the buffalo: kill the buffalo, pacify the Native people.
And once again the state has responded with spectacular force. Lines of uniformed police and state troopers in riot gear, first carrying crude long sticks in a blunt display of force and now deploying tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and LRAD sound weapons, have visualized colonial sovereignty. All this under the Obama administration.
Indeed, the day after Thanksgiving, the US Army, via its Corps of Engineers, once again issued a declaration of eviction to Native peoples. Invoking the Code of Federal Regulations, it will become illegal on and after December 5, 2016 to be on federal land north of the Cannonball River – which is where the camps are located. In 2016, the United States is once again in an Indian War for the space of representation.
Hrag Vartanian, Cannonball River, Oceti Sakowin Camp. Courtesy the artist
Recognition from the settler colonial state has allowed only for the possibility of re-routing the pipeline. Any earth-system-friendly policy would leave the tar sands oil in the ground where it belongs. At root, conquest still gives title. Trump has invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline. ‘Making America’ always already involved violence and dispossession of land and labor in which to have whiteness was to have title and possession. However Native peoples respond to what will certainly be renewed violence from Trump, white people have to forego their first possession. Just as Native people were denied title for communal possession, so will whiteness have to be ceded to communism, or continue as conquest.
Please consider donating to Standing Rock:
Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe