Postmodernism Is Not Permission
Kite (Oglála Lakȟóta)
Oct 18, 2023
Creating artworks and showing them publicly means entering into critical discourse with the world around us. Colonialism is insidiously perpetuated by artists through their work—or any form that the movement of knowledge takes—when nonhuman beings are disrespected. In Dakota (and Lakȟóta and many Indigenous communities) nonhuman could refer to the immense range of beings outside us physically as humans, and even outside our knowability as humans.
In the most basic sense, Lakȟóta philosophies provide frameworks for the inclusion of nonhuman beings, established through Lakȟóta forms of scientific observation and knowledge-making. These philosophies are formed with and through our lands and everything within them, seeable and unseeable, knowable and unknowable. The land and its nonhuman inhabitants speak clearly to humans, and not in a metaphorical sense, but in the clear communication of values and extreme depth of knowledge made clear by place itself and our intimacies with it.
The 2022 exhibition In The Realm of Miracles contained three pieces I created that have sexually violent themes, abstracting violence just to the point of focus on settlers’ desire for Indigeneity through disturbed relationships to hunting nonhumans. For that show, I wanted to extend the arguments I made in my essay “What’s on the earth is in the stars, and what’s in the stars is on the earth,
Two sculptures and a video work comprised this exhibition. The found sculpture, Iyátakunipi kte šni (they will come to nothing)—a poorly made taxidermy—reveals the mundane horror of human relationships to deer, its title a play on words for “decay.” Ȟuŋwíŋ áyapi is a hide sculpture with beaded forms representing rot. Deerfucker is a video created with various machine-learning techniques examining text and images where settler desire for deer bodies veers into horror.
I found and presented the taxidermied deer as-is, because the intention of the work was to highlight the horror of the death of the animal made more palpable by its shoddy preservation and cheaply constructed environment. I bought it off eBay for $1,000, thought briefly about adding a piece of beadwork to it, but chose to leave it. Nothing I could add with beadwork or say with words could rectify the horror of this baby animal’s curved tongue as it gestures nauseatingly around disintegrating cheap foam glue.
Nothing I can hypothesize or contextualize about the absence of life in this formerly living being can make ethical the presence of 700 years of genocide of our nonhuman and human kin on this continent. I assume it was found starved in the wild and then amateurly and poorly preserved. Death is palpable in its plastic bead eyes. It came with dead bugs sitting on it. My studio assistant and I struggled to be in the same room with it. I could not say anything more, only offer tobacco.
Relationships and covenants with nonhuman beings to create Indigenous artists’ traditional works show us how respect is enacted through artmaking. In September 2021, a non-Indigenous artist posted a photo of this sculpture on social media, which was on display at the show In the Realm of Miracles at 108 Contemporary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Following the photo of my work was a poll: “ETHICAL TAXIDERMY IN ART,” with choices (a) “Only if it’s ethical” and (b) “No.” I understood this poll as not a poll about my work, but about asking a public if this person should buy “ethical taxidermy.”
In the following weeks, this person used my work to justify an art installation in Tulsa, which prompted me to deeply question the difference between my found deer taxidermy piece and this installation. This person’s installation included three taxidermied birds. Colored lights shadowed them. The three birds were two Long Eared Owls and one other bird, species unknown.
This experience reminded me that settler, non-Indigenous, white American desire for ownership over land is a desire for Indigeneity. This desire requires the constant rebuilding of new mythologies that reshape the apocalyptic events by which they and their families’ accumulated wealth, safety, and prosperity. To me, taxidermy is the physical representation of the genocide of millions of humans and nonhumans. It is no different than soaking our sacred items in formaldehyde so we can never let them return to the earth from museums. It is freezing in time animals and humans in a dark and wild natural world that must be paved over to quell settler fear of what they deem savage and wild.
Where does this desire for intimacy come from? Western constructions of intimacy are a tool of establishing “indigeneity” and Indigenous intimacy as an epistemological tool for creating new relations with nonhumans. I first heard the term “cosmologyscape” in a presentation by Tuscarora scholar Jolene Rickard at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in January of 2016. It was a revolutionary term, uniting the sky world and earth world into one sphere of perception. I am defining how I use the term “cosmologyscape” as a theoretical lens to communicate Indigenous intimacy with the cosmos and land.
Lakȟóta cosmologies are the center of this theoretical framework, communicated through stories, histories, teachings, and practices. These cosmologies provide the context to generate an ethics relating humans to the world, the land, and beings. These ways of knowing are essential tools for humanity to create relations with the non-human and they are deeply contextual. As such, communication through and between objects acknowledges the ontological status of all beings. I understand this framework through the teachings passed down in my family; through my maternal grandfather, Maȟpíya Nážiƞ; my maternal great aunt Mary; my cousin and spiritual brother Corey Stover; and my maternal aunt, Melita Stover Janis.
The concept of “contextualist ethics,” proposed by theorist Jim Cheney, helps unite the Lakȟóta theoretical framework with broader Indigenous frameworks. In his essay, “Ethics as Bioregional Narrative,” Cheney writes, “Relations to people are elaborated ‘through spatial relations and historical knowledges,’ the importance of which ‘lies in the contextualization of [those relations].... Self and geography are bound together in a narrative which locates us in the moral space of defining relations.
Intimacy and the State
We cannot talk about the intimate without addressing gendered violence and its connection with the genocide of human and nonhuman beings. Assimilation practices of the church, state, and society at large require the destruction of Indigenous core values, beginning with family structure. In her book As We Have Always Done, Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Simpson explains how “Indigenous conceptualizations and forms of intimacy and relationship” are seen as “transgressive, immoral, uncivilized, and criminal.” In the simplest terms, to quote Simpson, "Indigenous body sovereignty and sexuality sovereignty threaten colonial power.
The destruction of Indigenous values through the rearrangement of the family meant that Indigenous intimacies of family and love were replaced by colonial patriarchy and Christianity. We can see the effect of this gendered and religiously imposed hierarchy on the family scale today within communities, we can see that this macrocosm of these hierarchical values leads to the genocide of nonhumans as well as humans.
Indigenous practices were acutely attacked by settler governments to specifically erode our ontological values. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim Tallbear explains how “monogamy and marriage are also part of sustaining an animacy hierarchy in which some bodies are viewed as more animate, alive, and vibrant than others.
Intimacy is political and centuries of colonial policies in North America have sought to destroy Indigenous political power. Citing Kahnawà:ke Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson writes, "the murdering, disappearing, and erasing of Indigenous women is necessary for Canada to secure and legitimize its sovereignty because they house and reproduce Indigenous political orders. This isn't true just for Indigenous women, but it is also true for queer bodies and children because these Indigenous bodies have always housed and acted out Indigenous power, political and otherwise."
For Indigenous people intimacy and closeness of relationships with family and the spirit world are the core of political power. Simpson continues, "All of our political structures are plugged into the essence and real power of life that exists across time and space as worlds of nonhuman beings, some of which are spiritual beings and some of which are our Ancestors.
Intimacy with the Nonhuman
Lakȟóta ontologies generate ethical protocols for creating relationships with nonhuman entities and it is from these ethical protocols, from time and intimate research immemorial, where we could theoretically develop relationships with previously unknown entities. Lakȟóta relationships with some stones, seemingly inanimate objects, are understood as being capable of communication and holding memories of deep geologic time.
In an interview with Lakȟóta elder (and my grandfather) Mahpiya Nazin, he describes stones as teachers. “Every stone I have taught me something or is in the process of teaching me something and now it comes down from the elders from the North, the old people. They're teaching me about that spirit inside of people and how people can.
When Indigenous people express that political sovereignty and kinship come from the land, it is meant in the most intimate and literal sense. Tallbear draws a connection between different aspects of Dakota relation-making as different expressions of reciprocity: We "eat our relatives [bison and other nonhuman kin], and that's the difference between western and Indigenous ontologies, we know that we are eating our relatives and you don't get to live without killing.
Locating this intimacy in acts of reciprocity, I think about the Leeyq'sun scholar, Rachel Flowers’ article, “Refusal to forgive: Indigenous women’s love and rage,” in which she writes, "Indigenous women's love is not a given; it is the result of tremendous desire to survive…If our gift is received and respected, then the gift binds people together in an ongoing relationship of reciprocity and responsibility.
I understand Lakȟóta artwork as embodied knowledge-making through my performance practice, which utilizes the body to navigate digital (visual and sonic) landscapes using wearable electronics. In many of my other artworks, such as Listener (2018), the creation of wearables is wrapped up in Lakȟóta embodiment and helps me understand the bridge between ceremonial and non-ceremonial worlds; they also illustrate the blurred lines between communication with the nonhuman and through the nonhuman.
George Sword communicates with and through wearable outfits: an outfit made from the materials and relationships with nonhuman beings—Animal beings—hunted and reformed into the outfit
Artmaking and creation with Lakȟóta epistemologies is one way I approach the reorientation of my relationship with materials. Lakȟóta intimacies with the nonhuman allow for the potential manipulation of time and space into active cosmic vortexes, beyond the settler map. These Kapemni or twisting vortexes are created through ceremony that takes place with and through the nonhuman, in the deepest intertwinement and intra-actions, intimacies where we as mere humans cannot fabricate or ignore or manipulate the nonhuman agency necessary to make immense transformations of bodies and spirits and objects. “The distinction between natural and supernatural, so basic to European thought, was meaningless in Lakȟóta culture,” writes David C. Posthumus. “Humans are not superior” in Lakȟóta ontology, they are “pitiful and helpless” younger siblings of the animal world
The Lakȟóta sense of being and personhood is so immensely different from the settler ontology, that when combined with the Lakȟóta ceremonial cosmologyscape of movement and ceremony, we can find an epistemological exit and the way to connect intimately with the cosmos in a Good Way. Concepts of an enfolding past and present, the knowledge of the complex spiritual personhood of beings other than humans, potential interiorities stones on Earth or aliens Indigenous to other worlds, and the connection to place inherent to Lakȟóta epistemologies, mark the enactment of Indigenous intimacies apart from American desire for new mythologies, even as our dimensions and timelines collide.
It is not enough to say matter has agency or might have agency. Intimate closeness with land, waters, and all beings first requires an ontology which includes all beings. I imagine intimacy as the place where my psycho-spiritual body crosses paths with other beings, human and nonhuman, and Lakȟóta and Indigenous philosophies provide the tools to cross paths in a Good and ethical way.
After my sculptures were used as an excuse to buy endangered birds, I felt responsible for the gross misinterpretation of my work. I believe that an ethic is generated through responsibility. Generally, the borrowing or reinterpretation of my work intrigues me and makes me feel like I am in conversation with a wide community of artists, thinkers, musicians, scholars, and community members, who honor me with their response and good intentions. This work was different, as it made me feel as if my use of taxidermy had given someone permission to use the bodies of nonhuman beings without deeper thought.
Especially in a city like Tulsa, in a state like Oklahoma, Indigenous cultural presence allows access to a broad community into cultural protocols. Owls are considered taboo, even harbingers of death, in many Indigenous cultures. I am personally taking responsibility for this person’s choice to import, buy, display, and turn into capital (cultural or monetary) the dead bodies of two Long Eared Owls. Thinking through this responsibility, I am considering how the future of Indigenous intellectual property rights can extend to the nonhuman, how the hides I use in my work should be transitioned into hides I acquire from Indigenous hunters.
I hope other non-Indigenous artists who see my work know this: Meaning in artwork is created through decision-making. The refusal or disinterest to examine the meaning of one’s materials is unethical at best and harmful to communities at worst. Like criminal possession of federally protected birds, ignorance is not a defense.
Kite, Suzanne, “‘What’s on the earth is in the stars; and what’s in the stars is on the earth’: Lakota Relationships with the Stars and American Relationships with the Apocalypse,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 45:1 (2021): 137-156.⏎
Cheney, Jim, “Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics of Bioregional Narrative,” Environmental Ethics 11, no. 2 (1989): 117-34.⏎
Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017), 107–110.⏎
Simpson, As We Have Always Done, 118–120⏎
Kite, Suzanne and Mahpíya Nážin, “It’s Not Done Through Our Mind, It’s Done Through Our Spirit,” South as a State of Mind 11 (Fall/Winter 2019), 54.⏎
Flowers, Rachel, “Refusal to forgive: Indigenous women’s love and rage,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 4, No. 2, 2015, 40.⏎
Posthummus, David C., All My Relatives: Exploring Lakota Ontology, Belief, and Ritual, New
Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: The
American Philosophical Society, 2018).