New Red Order Wants You — In Conversation with NRO: Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil and Jackson Polys
by Paul Chaat Smith
It was the fakest of holidays, St. Patrick’s, during that frenzied week in which the global pandemic quickly and decisively announced that nothing else was going to matter for quite some time. On this Tuesday afternoon, Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil and Jackson Polys were in downtown Manhattan, and I was in my Smithsonian office 320 km to the south. We talked for 90 minutes.
In their own words, written before this crisis: “In our current period of existential and environmental catastrophe, desires for Indigenous epistemologies increase and enterprising settlers labour to extract this understanding as if it were a natural resource. The New Red Order—emerging out of contradistinction from the Improved Order of Red Men, a secret society that ‘plays Indian’—calls attraction toward Indigeneity into question, yet promotes this desire, and enjoins potential non-Indigenous accomplices to participate in the co-examination and expansion of Indigenous agency.”
New Red Order (NRO) is equal parts theory-driven art collective and post-punk rock band aiming for the stars. I started hearing about them a few years ago — buzz, you might call it, if Native art is enough of a thing to have buzz. Performance artists who rarely appear in their performance art. A power trio that seemed different in a way I couldn’t name; they have, as we used to say in the ’80s, that ineffable something that marks a band about to explode. I was intrigued, which is the planned outcome when mystique is generated.
At its core, their practice is optimistic, even generous, forward-looking while ever attentive to the endless traps of identity politics, guilt and grievance. Are they visionary architects of a new order, codebreakers who will unlock the essentialized boxes that define us? Maybe! I can say this for sure: they present as very nice people.
PAUL CHAAT SMITH (PCS): How did you guys meet? Were you standing in line for the dole during the Thatcher years or how exactly did the whole thing come together?
ADAM KHALIL: Me and my brother Zack made a feature documentary, INAATE/SE/ (2016), about the history of our tribe and it was just this weird situation where we were authoring a film about and with our community, fully aware of the kind of extractive knowledge politics around ethnography and documentary, but still found that every time we were invited to screen the film, we were also operating as informants.
Then, meeting with Jackson, [we] started talking more and more about how we could not be contained by the fact that we were being informants but actually use that as a position of power brokering. You see desire for Indigeneity everywhere and a lot of the time people get chastised because it’s deemed inappropriate; [we were] speaking about how frustrating it is that impulses or energy toward Indigenous futures can’t continue to grow because we’re being like, “Well you can’t have that, that’s ours, stay away,” and just kind of [trying to get] away from this approach and thinking around the politics of conservatism around a lot of progressive Native activism… As an informant you [can] divert attention from certain things and highlight other things to kind of throw people off from the course of the trail. Increasingly being asked by institutions to help with land acknowledgements and stuff like that, [we were] trying to figure out ways to get out of this symbolic gesture to something more material and practical.
JACKSON POLYS: Yeah, it came out of the co-recognition of the asymmetries of inspiration, so that if a non-Native person is inspired by Nativeness then there is immediate obstruction from both Native people and others against ways to express that inspiration. These are of course tied to conditions of settler colonialism, and different ways in which historically, multiple groups have been treated by the government in order to claim land and other assets. The aim was to find some way through those obstructions, aporias, contradictory restrictions.
One possibility, [we thought], might be for Native people to “acknowledge” their ongoing complicity as informants, enlist people who may or may not be Indigenous to inform others about their own desires for Indigeneity, and find new ways of both enacting allyship or accompliceship. There’s a strange push and pull, where there are desires to become more educated about Indigenous issues, yet discomfort at continually being reminded of unsettling historical and current realities. It’s strange to, despite that, feel a need to espouse that information. So how can we perform a kind of endless acknowledgement ourselves – to acknowledge the conditions under which people have to operate, in terms of being blocked from working with Indigenous people in less destructive ways?
I spent a fair amount of time in Canada, mainly years ago, but I noticed in my trips there how [land acknowledgements were] really becoming a thing and then in the last couple of years, [they’re] now becoming a thing in the United States. I was instantly suspicious and sort of pleased at the same time because it’s about recognition, acknowledgement, and yet when it happens, I’m sort of annoyed because it feels superficial. I think maybe it’s a passing fad. Maybe it makes people feel better without any cost to them, but then I think, “Well, okay, maybe that’s all true but it’s an advance, you know, it’s still progress.” And so I grudgingly think, “Maybe it is but I don’t have to like it.” This is something you’ve interrogated really deeply: about it being on one hand something that’s just undeniably a very good impulse and saying a basic truth that we want non-Indian people in the Americas to acknowledge, and yet it’s tremendously limited.
AK: In 2017, the New York City art-institution arms race to adopt acknowledgement began laughter. The running joke was that once they realized that we are on Lenape land, the search was on to find a Lenape in New York to give the land acknowledgement laughs. Every institution was reaching out to every Native artist in town to be like, “What should we do about this? Can you help us write it?” All of this unpaid intellectual labour and energy going into that, it kind of became the foot in the door with a lot of institutions—like, our relationship with the Whitney kind of started through that. And then [came] the same frustrations you’re expressing about how it’s a necessary and good thing, but also to mandate it feels really icky. I think one of the strange things we’re all struggling with is: we didn’t get into art to tell people what to do and what not to do and it seems very strange these days that there’s always an emphasis on, “Can I do this?” And it’s like, there’s no one who’s an arbiter who’s like, “Yes, you’re woke enough to do this,” or “You’re non-Indigenous, you’re making something about an Indigenous community, I can give you my blessing.” What does that mean? Even to think that there’s a right and wrong way to do it is complicated. When consulting with institutions we urged them to escalate the language, make it more verbose, and to include some kind of commitment—because one can acknowledge something but not do anything about it, always being afraid of, you know, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”
I guess for us, we found it really meaningful to ride the land acknowledgement wave because in most cities you go to in Canada, there’s an Indigenous presence seen and felt and it’s part of the everyday fabric. In the US, it still feels like people aren’t that sure if we’re around. That’s obviously always changing to different degrees, but just the idea of American audiences never having been confronted with the fact that they’re on Indigenous land is really meaningful and important, and seeing it happen in New York, people were like “woah”—like, really questioning what that meant for their own existence here. But I feel like it’s gonna slide into this thing where people [feel] set up, because people don’t like being told what to do. One of the reasons I hated public school was because I had to do the pledge of allegiance every morning and it kind of replicates that. The form feels frustrating.
In Canada, it seemed to me they were able to talk about the history of the land in a few sentences and not be wildly off but, when you try to do that in Washington, DC, you can’t get agreement on the names of the tribes. It’s very complicated and at some point, people just want you or me to tell them what to write so it’s done. I guess what your work and my work is about is seeing all these things as traps and if there’s any way to subvert or avoid them.
JP: Right. In Canada, there’ve been efforts, money poured into domesticating First Nations, Natives being essential to the identity of the country. And then down here, people are trying to, maybe subliminally, continue the erasure so that they don’t have to think about it, but once they do have to think about it, it becomes a bit ludicrous because they don’t see Native people around them. They’re being told to instantiate this kind of language that might not, for them, have any meaning, and they question whether it has any meaning for those Native people as well. And this would extend into part of what NRO is concerned with, contributing to situations where if a non-Native person is performing a territorial or land acknowledgement, they’d start to get this feeling that they are participating in some kind of Indigeneity that is being offered to them—kind of like Thanksgiving. By calling for commitment, we are trying to push past the easy forgetting that the performance of acknowledgement allows. On the other hand, once we start calling for things, we risk falling into a trap of political demanding that sometimes might seem to backfire in terms of people’s responsiveness to the situation.
AK: And if you start demanding or asking for things, then they just don’t invite you. So, it becomes this weird juggling act to figure out how much to push for material changes. It was also weird in a place like the Whitney, where the board contains real estate developers, to talk about land acknowledgement. We’ve tried to open up [the acknowledgement] so it acknowledges the contemporary situation and however that plays out within each institution.
But it makes you guys into affirmative action or anti-racist trainers on some level.
AK: Yeah, and I guess that’s what I mean by taking that on knowingly, as opposed to [it] being some side effect—“Oh, they got us again”—you know what I mean?
It’s what you were talking about earlier, which is seeing it as a problem that any time Indian things come up, everybody’s obsessed with who can say and do what, which shuts down any sort of interesting engagement. That’s been pretty extreme in parts of the contemporary art world where Native artists—not all of them of course, but some of them—seem really fragile to criticism, not understanding they’re in a field where, like, you could be from a rich white family and have connections, and even get a show in Chelsea, and still the odds are against you. It’s not an easy career. And I think that this sense of not being open to critique, understanding [that] a lot of critique will be unfair or off really gets back to that part of identity politics which says only apparently an Ojibway could critique Adam’s work, right?
JP: The idea of having other people— non-Indigenous people—speak for us is a form of proxy: in one sense we are telling them what to say… but within this commitment and process they also have a place, a safe space to expand on those [kinds of] thoughts and questions.
In the circuitous nature of our own art-making there might be moments where, if one pursues it fully, the prohibition against people speaking for us or on our behalf can be a trap that can circle backwards toward restricting talking about us at all, or even not allowing us to speak in the first place. But if one allows that kind of extension of our speech, then one is confronted with a kind of uncertainty or guilt, or apprehension that this is inappropriate. It is easily internalized.
ZACK KHALIL: To pick up on your original question, and thinking about the hesitancy toward being able to critique Indigenous work, non-Indigenous people not being able to critique Indigenous artists or even an Ojibway person not being able to critique a Comanche artist’s work, [it’s] definitely a trend that we have felt and experienced. NRO’s intentional framing and not leading with Indigenous people in the work is definitely a way of trying to get around that, and trying to encourage that criticism, even of NRO itself and those projects. I don’t think we’ve gotten the type of criticism we’re really hoping for in terms of something that’s more genuinely critical in negative ways, especially since NRO’s work is, I think, particularly inflammatory—intentionally, in a lot of ways.
So, the last exhibition project I did, this big show called Americans (2018), originally had a pretty significant component which was very much about focusing on the Improved Order of Red Men and I had not heard of them until five years ago. The deeper we looked into it, the more interesting it became, because it was the Boston Tea Party, and it was people dressing up as Indians, and it was the fact that they still exist, they have their headquarters in Waco, TX. They’re declining, but you still see old bars in Baltimore that say Improved Order of Red Men because in the mid-20th century it’s basically like the Elks or the Masons. We were fascinated with it because you could draw a line from Improved Order of Red Men, the original patriots, all the way up through “Boss” Tweed—the most famous mayor in American history, who met in sachems and wig-wams—and Tammany Hall. There were like two presidents who were members. At the beginning, it was the very profound idea of, “Even though we’re white people who are sometimes actively dispossessing Indians, we just think Indians are great and we see them as a model.” There was a very political element to it… but it became too toxic when you got to [showing] it into the 20th century, when they were still dressing up as Indians, which overwhelmed any chance of getting at the things that we thought were much more interesting. And in a sense, that’s the risk with the informants [in your work], is that upon initial read, it can look like you’re mocking people or dismissing them or ridiculing them, rather than getting at the deeper engagement that you want.
JP: Just a quick side note that the Improved Order of Red Men did exist kind of in the background where I grew up in Ketchikan, AK.
JP: From a very young age, not entirely knowing what it was, I gradually became aware—partly from seeing a depiction of a Tlingit person in a “Sioux War Bonnet” in their signage—that these were people who dressed up as Natives.
ZK: We are using Phil Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998) as a place to interrogate from and to call in, not just call out, and to use that moment of shock [about the Improved Order of Red Men] as a starting point to preface a larger conversation as opposed to just revolt people or push them toward quick and uncritical condemnation, because I think that’s all too easy, you know? Like Adam was saying, we all know Indigenous people
desire Indigeneity as well. That’s a starting point for a larger conversation.
AK: There are also weird tensions around freedom—like, freedom to express oneself artistically or freedom to play Indian, and then the freedom that “Playing Indian” represents in terms of being wild, savage and free. I think we’re also trying to play with [all the current] attention around what’s permissible and what’s allowed and why things are that way.
JP: And also noticing double standards in “tribalism”: how the word “tribe” is seen as attractive in a kind of “neutral” progressivism, versus “tribal,” which is continually condemned in the news as backward, conservative and dangerous. But with Native people, in order to assert some kind of recognition of the historical dispossession of their land, and the conditions under which they are living now, and to actually claim that land, does one have to hold on to certain forms of tribalism? Despite it being an apparent collapse into conservatism? What still remain the productive possibilities of holding on?
ZK: Going back to the Improved Order of Red Men… it’s interesting how it seemed to come from a genuine place and how that has evolved over time and as it exists today is as a right-wing fraternal society that still sees Native people as a political model in some ways. In a more contemporary sense, with an increased awareness about continued Native American existence in the United States, post-Standing Rock—how [have] the far left and the New Age movement started to look closer [at] Indigenous communities [as models] to sort of save American culture and political culture?
AK: But also in the case of the Anthropocene, save the world, you know?
ZK: Yeah, Indians as New Age forest bunnies you know? Or some sort of “Teach white people how to live in this new world,” where Indigenous people, who have sort of survived an apocalypse in one way, teach non-Indigenous people how to survive their own, [which] comes with this really extractive impulse, generally, that is not a reciprocal relationship. I think it’s what drives a lot of contemporary interest in Indigenous communities and Indigenous art: a way for western society to recalibrate to survive these times.
So, you guys have referenced earlier that in our line of work, we’re expected to speak for and represent all other Indians; be a walking encyclopedia, able to answer any question. One way to disabuse non-Indians of this is to speak more frankly about what we all know to be true: that the US Indian world is quite disputatious, quite possibly more fractured than the so-called settler world. That a significant portion of Turtle Island’s US division wears MAGA hats and that most Indian people don’t like contemporary Indian art any more than most white people like Jeff Koons. Does our reluctance to draw out these contradictions within the Indian world encourage people to see Zack, PCS, Jackson and Adam as representing most Indians? That maybe it would be more effective to shock people and say, “All of my relatives support Trump.” Which is not what most white people I know expect to hear.
AK: I think part of the thing we’re really trying to work through now is how reactionary a lot of Indigenous activism can be on a left-right spectrum. A lot of it is like this separatist politics, or Nativist, no pun intended. There’s this idea of decolonization, of reverting back to a time before and the frustration about [the impossibility of] that. How do you “decolonize” an institution? Well, practically speaking, you’d get rid of it—you know what I mean? I don’t know how many additive approaches can actually tip the scale and be like “Oh, now it’s decolonized.” Like, what does that even mean in the context of the 21st century, where the world’s at, in the shape that it is in now?
JP: Yes, and I guess one of the frustrations that I faced growing up is the es-sentialism that marks out Native people as the antidote to capitalism. I come from an area on the Northwest Coast where there are certain reproductions of territorial impingement, Natives who were perhaps more capitalist than capitalism, or Native people having slaves among themselves and contributing to these inequities. How can those complexities be articulated in a way that doesn’t simply fall into reassertions that Natives were tribal, and that we, non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, should all be progressive and contribute to this equalized commons? The risk being that progressivism and that commons might end up contributing to a renewed erasure of Indigenous people, Native concerns, land claims, etc.
ZK: I think that it’s really important to complicate that and to open it up, but I also think it’s a really difficult starting point for a lot of people, especially in the US, who don’t necessarily immediately know or agree that Indian people are contemporary in the first place, or exist in the first place. We’re not claiming to represent all Native people in any way whatsoever, we’re riffing off this idea of Improved Order of Red Men, riffing off this idea of the Noble Savage and this archetype—this image that is, to a lot of Americans, more real than [we] actually are. And we’re using that image as a starting point to get people to engage, to call people in, and then to complicate and break down that image. And to show our people in a more complex way, and by showing our people, I mean showing them, too, non-Indigenous people, in a more complex way.
AK: Also, in the last year or two everyone’s been talking about Indigenous futurism and we’ve been really trying to figure out what that is, other than some kind of appropriation of Afrofuturism.
JP: I have often found in my own experience that it’s more non-Native people who are desiring this kind of futurity from non-Native artists. Expectations that Natives do something new seem to manifest in [art as] transpositions of historical objects modified in order to indicate renewed presence today. The desire for newness from Natives, imposed from without, is then commingled with the decimation of cultures, so that if we are, in purely formal ways, creating something that is not recognized immediately as coming from some Indigenous place, are we then participating in our own dilution, or succumbing to a stipulation that has been historically concomitant with the “disappearance” of our cultures?
My penultimate question is about guilt. It feels like [guilt is] central to any of the work that you’re doing, that I do. How [have] you navigated that and also do you think Indians, generally and specifically, should feel guilty about our actions in the past, historically?
JP: Can you elaborate on the Indians feeling guilty about our actions? With what?
You know, the idealized history is that we were all great friends, but often we were not. So in the case of being a Choctaw for example: it would mean being very proud of Choctaws, but the ruling class of the Choctaws in the mid-19th century owned human beings, and if you’re a white person who works at the Met, and you had an ancestor who was a slave owner, you wouldn’t be proud of that. But there’s an idea of, “We have to be so proud of being Indigenous,” that we don’t want to acknowledge it or talk about it. For Comanches, it would be entirely built on kidnapping [and] enslavement of other people for 100 years or so.
JP: Some Indigenous people have already had to negotiate a certain amount of guilt, of having been seen as regressive just for being Native, and this is a generational and positional physical-distance thing too. Separation, alienation from their own Indigeneity, those are all ways that guilt can creep in. So, to take the next step of acknowledging one’s own group can increase the risk of exacerbating that guilt. For example, Tlingit people were very hierarchical, kept and killed slaves, in many ways were very brutal. Some people today are, even on a tribal leadership front, aiming toward recognizing and admitting that, trying to talk about it in a way so as to not keep Native people immune to those kinds of critiques. But then, still, in terms of bandwidth, we might find that asymmetries between Indigenous and non-Indigenous reckonings persist.
I think that the desire for formalizing informants was a way to announce recon—and our own complicity—and that’s provided a reflection point for others to consider their own complicity so then we’re all in some ways on the same page, despite historical differences.
AK: Also, practically, we’re very consciously using guilt as a kind of Trojan Horse, and the scary truth is we’re trying to figure out how to transcend guilt, or not transcend but rechannel—again, seeing it as this obstruction to actual Indigenous growth, that the guilt makes people feel immobilized in terms of what they can and can’t do. [We’re] trying to allow that guilt to come up and talk about it and formulate ways to work through it to understand where that’s coming from, and have larger conversations around what historical justice means.
I’m not 100 percent Native, and what does that mean in terms of historical justice and guilt? I’m also European and Egyptian—how does that change the way we talk about these things? It’s not this Red or white situation; [we are] trying to unpack that more in the hopes that it allows for an extension of this dialogue as opposed to just reverting back to the same cycle of the tribe either adopting people or telling people to fuck off because they like Indian stuff.
I’m thinking contemporary Indigenous culture’s greatest export is guilt and shame—that’s what people also desire from Indigenous art, so that’s part of the reason we’re starting off there. It’s kind of giving the people what they want, but then as opposed to staying there, trying to sit with it to move past it, so it doesn’t become this masochistic [thing]: “I feel so bad about what my ancestors did!”
JP: Part of it is to notice the humour in the performance of that shame, alongside a respective awareness of how cultures shift. For example, my non-Native mother faced being called out for an inappropriate desire [for my Native father] by her own relatives, this being tied to fears of miscegenation, and now exists in a realm where she could fear being called out by Native people for what was perhaps an inappropriate desire back then. Maybe guilt and shame can be productive if we hold them up and allow them to hover, and don’t think of them as things that have to be immediately moved through and forgotten.
My last question is: when The Clash made London Calling and conquered America, some in the UK felt they’d sold out, and were no longer true to their roots. What would selling out look like for NRO?
AK: We prefer the term “selling in.”
JP: We prefer the term “buying in,” of course…
That’s very similar to what [Joe] Strummer said. He said, “Selling out means all the tickets to the venue have been sold.”
ZK: The NRO, by existing, has sort of frankly already sold out… We’re working with institutions, and acknowledging that that extractive relationship is gonna exist and continue, but at least by taking on the role of informants we can have a more active role in shaping it and trying to do something that counters that extraction and works toward something more reciprocal.
We’re actively in the midst of a public recruitment campaign for non-Indigenous and Indigenous informants, which is maybe also the definition of selling out too. Calling ourselves an art collective [feels] very contained, very safe, and limits a lot of possibilities and potentials [whereas] the public secret society can be something like a religious organization, or political party—it has that kind of mutability. All of that is to say that it’s contingent on the fact that it actually engages with people and the public. And hopefully, in whatever way, gets out of just the museum, gallery or exhibition context and can live on in the real world.