The word “colonialism” refers to the violent process whereby one people subordinate another through violence and occupation. The inheritance of these processes is very much alive in our skin and flesh today, and we must constantly remember that the United States of America was built by stealing the land of Native communities, a theft followed by genocide and violence, as well as the exploitation of Black labor. But the legitimization of the colonial project must also come with a Weltanschaang that justifies an oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. This permeates all bodies in a colonized system, as well as the institutions and laws that sustain it, and it is absorbed by its victims in the form of internalized oppression. We must be wary that the language of the oppressor tends to turn into the norm when speaking about marginalized communities, and we must allow space for self-determination going forward.
The 1491s are Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota-Diné), Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee), Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca-Ojibwe), Ryan RedCorn (Osage Nation), and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota). Together they offer a subversive deconstruction of the Pessimismus der Unterdrückten. To do so, they dislocate the relationship between the signifier and the signified proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, appropriating Derridean procedures to American popular culture in order to dismantle its effects by acknowledging, à la Michel Foucault, that power has multiple sources and plural effects. Their work relies, as Slavoj Zizek would recognize, in the official ideology of society, and, in his tradition, they read between the lines of discourse to dissect its flaws. The Ideological State Apparatus, invoking the Althusserian nomenclature, is attacked by people who have not controlled their own representation in the last centuries. They are therefore forced, as Muñoz argues that marginalized communities often are, to disidentify in order to create a sense of self, or even worse, to internalize the gaze of the oppressor when thinking about the self. James Baldwin claims that we only exist in the eye of the beholder, and when that gaze can only see a community in abject terms, the impression on the soul can have long-lasting effects.
The 1491s are actively countering the Weltschmerz that characterizes the victims of colonial violence by reclaiming the control of the representation. Their early work, in the form of YouTube videos and live shows, created a liminal space that denied the observer any sort of anagnorisis, because the peripeteia is not offered in this fictional reality. The spectator must decodify their symbols to achieve their own personal and communitarian transformation, through a remarkable use of Verfremdungseffekt that Brecht would openly celebrate. We could even suggest, although with reservations, that their devices push forward the work of the German master, earning a fundamental space in the North American and Western canon. Between Two Knees, indeed, deals with a very specific history, but by relocating the gaze, it achieves a universality that demands our praise.
See Between Two Knees
Between Two Knees plays at Seattle Rep from March 3 - 26, 2023 in the Bagley Wright Theater.
If you only watch one of The 1491s' videos, we recommend this: I'm An Indian Too - The 1491s