The Pose as Interventionist Gesture: Erica Lord and Decolonizing the Proper Subject of Memory

Abstract: This article investigates the decolonial politics of the pose in the photographic and installation work of mixed-race Native Alaskan artist Erica Lord. Refiguring the pose as decolonial gesture, I argue that Lord’s poses can be understood as decolonial labor because of the ways in which they employ messy genealogies of colonial space and time in order to disrupt the linear unfolding of white settler colonial history. In the act of posing, Lord intervenes in a visual and historical archive that positions both Native and mixed race subjects—especially women—as particularly vulnerable subjects to the ongoing Western imperial project of assimilationist inclusion. Lord’s photographic poses enact a literal seizure of time that resists both the presumed past-ness of the Native American and the presumed futurity of the racially-ambiguous, mixed race woman. In so doing, she revises the temporal politics of both, critically calling into question “the proper” subject of memory.

And it is always exciting, then and now, to realize that you are not a person or a voice that stands alone [...] There’s this quote that I repeat to myself all the time, I put it on the starter slide for just about every presentation I give, and I think about it often...

Erica Lord, in interview with Dasha Shleyeva

and when we speak we are afraidour words will not be heardnor welcomedbut when we are silent we are still afraidso it is better to speakrememberingwe were never meant to survive

Audre Lorde from Litany for Survival

A woman, hair bleached blond and eyes rimmed with kohl, gazes directly into the camera. She is naked, save for a banana-lined skirt and piles of necklaces cascading down her bare breasts. Back arched, her hands wrapped around her exposed stomach, the woman’s feet are planted firmly on the ground, yet her long legged stance suggests the latent possibility of movement, of dance. We have seen this image, differently, before. Behind her, a double shadow, as if in flight, splays against the obvious studio backdrop. Moving between darkness and light, stillness and movement, presence and absence, the photograph conjures the ghost of Josephine Baker only to refract it, multiplying different trajectories of space and time both into the past and into the future.

Fig. 1. Erica Lord, Danse Sauvage, 2005. Pizeograph print, 44”x55”. Property of the artist.

The image is multimedia artist Erica Lord’s 2005 self-portrait, Danse Sauvage, and it features the artist in costume and in character as Baker.Lord is a self-identified mixed-race Native Alaskan of Athabascan (interior Alaska), Inupiat (North and Northwest Alaska), Finnish, Swedish, English, and Japanese descent. She has described the work as being “a direct response to the feeling of being seen as exotic,” explaining that she: “tried looking back in history, at other mixed women, or other Native women who sort of owned that power [of exoticism] [...] The photograph sort of grew from this desire to emulate or embody that sort of force or power that she [Josephine Baker] had” (Shleyeva 2010). Although some might object to Lord’s proximate staging of North American Indigenous and Black diasporic histories, this essay seizes upon Lord’s identificatory “look back in history” in order to examine the ways in which such a gesture critically addresses the overlapping but sometimes fraught relationship between decolonizing and antiracist epistemological stances. Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua have characterized this antagonism as an issue of historical memory: critical race and postcolonial theory systematically erases Aboriginal peoples and decolonization from the construction of knowledge about 'race,' racism, racial subjectivities, and antiracism…the exclusion of Aboriginal peoples from the project of antiracism erases them from history. (Lawrence and Dua 2005, 132)

If Lord’s “look back in history” can be understood as a corrective intervention involving a self-insertion into the historical and visual archive of race and modernity, then her pose as Baker, an emblem of both primitivism and 20th century modernism, requires a more complex reading as decolonial labor. Simply put, Lord’s pose as Baker moves beyond simple appropriation of the image. Instead, it intervenes to trouble a visual record that has failed to document the relationship between Black hypervisibility and Indigenous disappearance.[1] Lord’s pose is less an instance of what Ann Stoler has called “reading along the archival grain” than it is a critical occupation of the colonial archive’s selective memory (Stoler 2009). Lord’s tribute to Baker stages a rapprochement between Black diasporic and Indigenous racializations that unsettles the settler colonial logic that would naturalize them both.

Lord’s photographic interventions rely more on the formal apparatus of the pose than on the gesture, yet this article investigates, and seeks to promote, the underlying animacy of Lord’s photographic practice, asking how, and to what extent, we can understand the pose in Lord’s work as decolonial gesture. If, as Walter Mignolo has stated, decolonial options bring new ways of being, seeing, thinking, and doing (Mignolo 2012, xxviii–xxxi), then I argue Lord’s photographic poses can be understood as decolonial labor because of the ways in which they employ the messy genealogies of overlapping colonial space and time in order to disrupt the linear unfolding of white settler colonial history. In the act of posing, Lord intervenes in a visual and historical archive that positions both Native and mixed race subjects—especially women—as particularly vulnerable to the ongoing Western imperial project of assimilationist inclusion. Lord’s photographic poses enact a seizure of time that resists both the presumed past-ness of the Native American and the presumed futurity of the racially-ambiguous, mixed race woman. In so doing, she revises the temporal politics of both subjects and critically calls into question “the proper” subject of memory.

My distinction between the operations of pose and gesture in Lord’s work borrows both from a way of understanding photography as performance and from Diana Taylor’s discussion of the relationship between archive and repertoire. Within a performative analytic of photographic self-portraiture, I draw attention to the pose in the photo-document not as static artifact, but as dynamic gesture, offering a momentary display of a repertoire of embodied behaviors. The photograph thus produces evidence of what is in the frame, as well as partial evidence of what came before—those movements occurring just prior to, as well as long before, the snap of the camera shutter. From the photographer’s choreographing of bodies inside the frame to the inherited behaviors that photographic subjects assume in front of the camera, the temporality of the photograph is extended when thought of as performance. The recursive temporality of photography and the political vibrancy of the stilled pose are issues taken up at great length in performance theorist Harvey Young’s analysis of Joseph T. Zealy’s mid-nineteenth century daguerreotypes of black captives (Young 2010, 26–75). Young argues that Zealy’s subjects "actively perform stillness" in a way that offers insight into the lived experience of the Middle Passage and revises contemporary discourses around the Black Diaspora as "pure movement" (Young 2010, 29). Similar to Young’s notion of the photograph as a “repository of experience,” I suggest that thinking about the extended life of the photograph as one which records the gestures of repertoire as well as the poses of archive is incredibly important when it comes to countering photography’s longstanding involvement in colonial projects of visualizing primordial racial Otherness (Fusco 2003). Lord, in taking on the role of both photographer and photographic subject, recalls and revises the considerable colonial history of nineteenth-century ethnographic photography. This tradition is perhaps best exemplified in a Native American context in the work of Edward S. Curtis and his magnum opus, the twenty-volume The North American Indian (1903). Whereas the subjects of Curtis’s camera were posed in order to tell the story of their inevitable disappearance (Lyman 1982), Lord’s contemporary poses accomplish something quite different: they testify to the persistence of Indigenous survival and sovereignty in the twenty-first century colonial present. Conceived of together, the pose and gesture in Lord’s photographic self-portraits are analytics that open up new ways of addressing the ongoing residues of racialized and colonial violence. Reframing the static temporality of the pose as decolonial gesture, Lord imagines into being different decolonial options for Indigenous and multiracialized subjects who are differently positioned but similarly “stuck” in relation to the dominant perception of their access to memory and the past.

Memory Studies and The “Proper Subject” of Remembrance

In recent years, the field of memory studies has become an increasingly contested site of political, ethical, and epistemological discussion, despite its important discourses about society’s claims on the past-present. From Cathy Caruth’s seminal work on individual trauma through psychoanalytically informed literary criticism, to Paul Connerton and Diana Taylor’s work on social and collective memory, the key questions that have emerged from contemporary critiques and applications of memory studies ask (to slightly paraphrase theatre and performance scholar Sandra Richards): “[whose] knowledge and memory and for what purpose?” (Richards 2006, 492). In particular, postcolonial critiques of memory studies have identified and challenged the preponderance of generalizing a Western discourse of trauma that may actually “maintain or widen the gap between the West and the rest of the word” (Craps and Beulens 2008, 2). At issue is the way in which trauma theory’s focus on the singular subject occludes both collectively-felt and temporally-extended traumas, while also overlooking the possibility of healing for the collective subjects of trauma (Saunders and Aghaie 2005; Radstone 2008; Cheah 2008). While much of the ensuing critical discussion around the subject of remembrance has typically engaged with the production of a “proper” subject of history through the hegemonic positioning of some groups as having history and other groups as having memory (Nora 1994; Trouillot 1995), considerably less attention has been paid to the ways in which the “turn” to memory discourses within postcolonial studies has naturalized its own “proper” subjects of memory, and indeed, its own proper subjects of postcoloniality. If, as Andrea Smith has argued, "Native studies could benefit from a queer studies-derived subjectless critique which focuses on a ‘wide field of normalization’ as the site of social violence" (Smith 2010, 44), the same might be said of a postcolonial memory studies which seems to take for granted the "ongoingness" of settler colonialism in the Americas, a governing logic that is neither "post" nor merely a memory for Indigenous people. While the competitive bids for memory between Black Atlantic and Jewish Holocaust commemoration projects has been a topic recently explored by Michael Rothberg (whose work I will take up at greater length later in this essay), Native sovereignty issues have yet to be adequately addressed in the cross-talk between memory studies and postcolonial studies.

Who has memory? Who doesn’t? The epistemological and ethical stakes of such a question reveal themselves when one reads the growing body of literature linking the neoliberal politics of postracialism to the U.S. multiracial movement. In Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, Sexton contends that multiracialism “premises its contribution to knowledge, culture, and politics upon an evacuation of the historical richness, intellectual intensity, cultural expansiveness, and political complexity of black experience” (Sexton 2008, 15). He goes on: “I argue that multiracialism is part of an attempt to symbolize and manage (without explaining, much less redressing) a crisis of social meaning lived through the knotted modalities of race, class, gender, and sexuality and their collective bearing on reconfigurations of the nation-state—a crisis experienced profoundly in and on the body” (Sexton 17, italics mine). While I do not have the space here to take up the entirety of Sexton’s argument, suffice it to say that his characterization of multiracialism as the evacuation of black political history and as racial management without redress relies on a particular rhetoric of the proper subject of memory that divorces Indigenous and African diaspora struggles from one another. It also fails to consider the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous and mixed race-identified people who consciously and critically occupy their identities in response to the racial and colonial violence of the past. Indeed, some of the most vociferous critiques of “multiracialism” have been directed towards its presumed post-racial ideological stance. After all, the post-racial future is a future that is ostensibly devoid of memories of colonial violence and ongoing legacies of racial trauma.

In contrast to such claims, Lord’s art mobilizes a decolonial practice of multiracialized and Indigenous identification predicated on, and generative of, remembering rather than obliterating the racial and colonial wounds of both the past and the present. In doing so, she problematizes both static, archaic conceptions of Native Americans as "proper" subjects of remembrance, and mixed race, racially-ambiguous people as paragons of the post-racial future. Lord’s work visually negotiates the ongoing assimilationist racial projects that are targeting Native people in order to theorize mixed race Indigeneity as a temporally-complex, political and politicized identification. This approach shares many qualities with Black diasporic critiques of colonialism and constructions of affiliation. Crucially, for Lord, Indigeneity does not preclude mixed race identification, nor does it entrap her in the amnesiac post-racial politics of Sexton’s multiracialism. Rather, visualizing mixed race Indigeneity serves as a departure point for an ethical practice of remembering otherwise. Throughout this essay, I follow Bonita Lawrence in understanding Indigeneity in relation to Lord’s work less as a reference "to precolonial states of existence and identity" than to “a future, postcolonial refashioning of Indigenous identities that are truer to Indigenous histories and cultures than those identities shaped by the colonial reality [...] at present" (Lawrence 2004, 22). This is not to say that Indigeneity is a free-floating signifier that anyone can occup; rather, as a felt sense of belonging and responsibility to land, to other Native people, and to anticolonial resistance, Indigeneity is a political project as much as it is a category of identity.

Posing Mixed Race Indigeneity as a Politics of Remembrance

It is easier to describe me as a Native artist [and] terms like that are both useful and limiting. On one hand, it helps people to understand what I do [...] On the other hand, people bring a lot of assumptions and expectations with that sort of title or description. [...] And yet [by] being defined as a mixed-race Native artist, or a Native artist, it can help to expand ideas of what Native art is or could be.

Erica Lord, Shleyeva Interview

Lord has been actively exhibiting since 2004: her work has appeared at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (New York), the Museum of Contemporary Native American Art (formerly the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum) (Santa Fe), the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem), and the Alaska Native Arts Foundation Gallery (Anchorage), among many others. Lord recently completed artist residencies at Princeton University and Northern Michigan University, and currently resides in Upper Michigan where she recently established her own independent studio. Holding an undergraduate degree from Carleton College in Studio Arts and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with foci on Sculpture, Photography, and Film/Video, Lord originally specialized in photography and mask carving before moving on to experimentations across photography, video installation, and performance genres as she more vigorously embraced a conceptual art practice. In her 2010 artist lecture at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, Lord recounts these transitions as related to her formative experience as “the only native student” at Carleton University, a small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. Wanting to continue work on a photography project documenting the lives of Native families that she had begun in her home state of Alaska, Lord found herself faced with the task of becoming the subject of her own photography. However, feeling reluctant to photograph herself because “not only am I shy, but I don’t look Native,” Lord began to think more and more about what it meant to feel but not “look” Native and began seriously using her work as a platform for exploring mixed race identification and the racial ambiguity from which it stemmed. From there, Lord’s formerly documentary work took on an increasingly autobiographical bent, frequently featuring her own body as the litmus test for hegemonic notions of what Nativeness can or cannot be (Lord 2010).

Erica Lord, Un/Defined Self-Portrait Series, 2005-2007. Series of twenty individual C-prints, size unknown. Property of the artist.
Erica Lord, Un/Defined Self-Portrait Series, 2005-2007. Series of twenty individual C-prints, size unknown. Property of the artist.
Erica Lord, The Tanning Project, 2005-2007. Digital photograph, each 4”x5”. Property of the artist.
Erica Lord, The Tanning Project, 2005-2007. Digital photograph, each 4”x5”. Property of the artist

Racial ambiguity, or “looking/not looking Native,” is precisely the theme and the critical intervention of Un/Defined Self-Portrait Series (2005–2007) and The Tanning Project (2005–2007). In Un/Defined Self-Portrait Series, Lord’s face becomes the malleable site of multiple identities—through the use of wigs, costuming, makeup, and an array of facial expressions ranging from the expressionless to the grotesque, Lord highlights the racial indeterminacy of her features, transforming herself into twenty different “selves,” that span age, gender, class, race, and ethnicity. Perhaps the most obviously derivative of Lord’s works, the artist’s extended act of theatricalized role-play and feminine and racial masquerade for the camera bring to mind the work of such art-world poseurs as Cindy Sherman. Unlike Sherman’s early Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), however, Lord’s portraits feature a subject who self-consciously poses for the camera, without elaborate sets or staging. Lord's identification of the series as “self-portraits” further distinguishes the work from Sherman’s oeuvre as a whole; it is clear from her title that she purposefully frames the series as not mere impersonations, but as stagings of herself. Lord has described the work as having been inspired by the repeated experience of having the (blue) color of her eyes questioned as real: “It made me wonder: what is it about my everyday appearance that is so unbelievable? If this (gesturing) is unbelievable, what is more believable?” (Lord 2010).

The Tanning Project (2005–2007) is a four-image collection of digital shots featuring a tanned and nude Lord in various “pin-up”-style erotic poses. Cleverly punning off of the traditional practice of transforming animal rawhide into leather through a process of skinning, liming, drying, and stretching, Lord invokes the term to refer to what has now become a fairly standard ritual of white beautification: the tanning—browning—of the skin. Tracing words like “Indian Looking,” “Halfbreed,” “Colonize Me” and “I Tan to Look More Native” in sunscreen on her skin to produce a contrasting effect after tanning, Lord’s pin-up poses are haunted by the gesture of her inscription of “nativeness” onto her body. This inscription is, in fact, two-fold: both text and tan mark Lord’s latent, otherwise unrecognizable Native identity.

In both series, Lord invokes the duplicitous meaning of the pose (i.e. to pose as someone else) in order to critically disrupt unrealistic expectations of what “an Indian” is supposed to look like. However, even as the Un/Defined Self-Portrait Series thematizes racial ambiguity to "challenge ideas of cultural purity or authenticity" (Lord n.d.), The Tanning Project insists upon making the continuities of history visible and present on and through that same body. In her 2010 plenary paper titled "Performing Indigeneity in Colonial Settler Nations: From James Luna to Erica Lord," Tuscarora artist, curator, and scholar Jolene Rickard noted that the "reclamation of Indigenous sexuality" in recent contemporary art by Indigenous women is “at once an expression of sovereignty and agency” (Rickard 2010). Making special mention of The Tanning Project, Rickard asked, rhetorically: "when all you have to write on is your body, what have you been stripped away of?" (Rickard). Indeed, unlike identity positions predicated on embodied discourses of race or gender alone, Indigenous identity is by definition intimately connected to a particular historical and embodied relationship to land. At first glance, The Tanning Project has little to do with land: the four-image series overwhelmingly focuses on Lord’s bared posing body, while the generic studio backdrop fades into the background. One image in particular, however, elucidates Rickard’s mapping of Indigenous land grievances onto Lord’s work. The third photo in The Tanning Project series shows a fragment of Lord’s kneeling figure with the words “Colonize Me” written down the length of her thigh. Here, Lord explicitly maps the gendered language of land appropriation onto her own body. In what could be called a radical inversion of the site-specific environmental performances of Ana Mendieta, Lord transforms her own body into the very site of inscription.Whereas Mendieta’s earthwork sculptures inscribed her body into the land, Lord inscribes her body as land.In so doing, Lord’s bodily marking can be understood as an embodied gesture of remembering towards loss. To the extent that it could be argued that loss is constitutive of contemporary Indigenous people’s relationship to land and sovereignty, Lord’s inscription both transcribes an invisible history of colonial encounter on her body and transforms a practice of white Western ritual vanity (I tan to look more beautiful) into a practice of Indigenous identification and pride (I tan to look more native).

Read against each other, then, Un/Defined Self-Portrait Series and The Tanning Project deploy racial ambiguity (and its accompanying mixed race consciousness) neither as the unmitigated free-for-all of self-determined racial identification nor as the gateway towards an ahistorical post-racial future. Rather, Lord’s visualization of racial ambiguity functions as a critical consciousness that operates alongside of Lord’s Native identity to become the departure point for a critical practice of remembrance that might most accurately be described by Raphael Perez-Torres’s notion of a “critical historical racial consciousness.” In Mestizaje: Critical Uses of Race in Chicano Culture, Perez-Torres argues that for Chicanos, mestizaje—the ideology of blood mixture, usually between colonizing Spanish Europeans and Indigenous people of the Americas—“signals the embodiedness of history” and, as such, becomes a tactic deployed in Chicano political art as a mode of resisting an assimilationist and imperialist U.S. project of multiculturalism that seeks to divest longstanding histories of colonial violence by simply "recognizing" difference (Perez-Torres 2006, 3). Distinguishing between mestizaje’s original formulation as a project of assimilation meant to "disappear" native populations and its later reappropriation as a reclamation of Indigeneity by Chicana feminists Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga, Perez-Torres offers mestizaje as a double-valenced identification: “both embedded in a legacy of colonial struggle and moving through new configurations of resistant identities” (Perez-Torres, 49). While Andrea Smith has since offered incisive critique of Anzaldúa’s temporal juxtaposition of the “rigid, unambiguous Indian” and “the more modern, sophisticated mestizo identity” (Smith 2010, 52), I agree with Perez-Torres that the subsequent re-appropriations of mestizaje and other discourses of hybridity need not necessarily require the substitutional displacement of one figure over the other. Rather than disappearing the “old” native subject in order to enable the emergence of the new hybrid subject, Lord’s poses seem to work in reverse to produce the effect of simultaneity. Her foregrounding of Indigenous subjectivity as forged through the conquest of Native land and bodies does not offer hybridity as an alternative to Indigeneity so much as it frames hybridity as the implicated result of indigenous colonization

Writing in the context of Asian American cultural production, Jeffrey Santa Ana offers a similar theorization of oppositional mixed race practices of memory, arguing that, while it is “not an exaggeration to suggest that the multiracial face has become an icon for America’s global economy and its corporate social order,” it is important to distinguish between contemporary commercial culture’s euphoric, stylized images of racial ambiguity and mixture and what he calls “feeling ancestral” in mixed race Asian American cultural productions (Santa Ana 2008, 459). “Feeling ancestral,” he elaborates, “describes the dialectic between the celebratory color blindness of racial mixture in global commerce, on the one hand, and cultural memory in the empathic and often painful identification with heritage and genealogy on the other” (Santa Ana, 459).Whereas consumer culture celebrates the image of the mixed race, racially-ambiguous subject asa specious unbounded global citizen, Asian American cultural productions that register the experiential affect of feeling ancestral “mediate the emotions of multiracial consciousness to affirm and identify with disparaged ancestral origins” (Santa Ana, 458).

Perez-Torres’s formulation of mestizaje as critical historical racial consciousness and Santa Ana’s feeling ancestral begin to name not only the politicized practices of remembrance that can proceed from mixed race identifications but also their potentiality as possible sites for collective, even collaborative, decolonial memory. Whereas the self-focused content of Lord’s Tanning Project andUn/Defined Self-Portrait Series might seem to stress the unique or even exceptional experience of racialization that proceeds from racial misrecognition, in both Danse Sauvage and Untitled (Tattooed Arms) (2007), Lord uses racial ambiguity and the non-sensical logic of identity as measurable blood inheritance to provide the occasion for multiple remembrances.

Erica Lorde.Untitled (tattooed arms), 2007. Digital photograph, 14" x 40". Property of the artist.

In stark contrast to the full-bodied exhibitionism of Danse Sauvage, in Untitled (Tattooed Arms), two 14x40" landscape photographs feature Lord’s disembodied arms, each extended to display the imprint of tattooed numbers calling to mind the serial numbers tattooed on those imprisoned in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. One arm bears Lord’s Certificate of Degree of Alaska Native Blood (CDIB) registration number, a system of registration administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the other number shows the breakdown of Lord’s Native Alaskan blood quantum: 1/4 Athabaskan + 1/16th Inupiaq= 5/16ths Native.

Both pieces suggestively link Lord’s exploration of racial ambiguity and mixed-race Native identity to what Holocaust studies scholar Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory.” In his book of the same name, Rothberg defines multidirectional memory as “dynamic transfers that take place between diverse places and times during the act of remembrance” (Rothberg 2009, 11). Rather than resting upon competitive identitarian claims of “unique” memory, these transfers acknowledge the productive, anachronistic, and multi-sited moves that memory can and does make. Memory, in other words, cannot be contained. Similarly, for Lord, finding a representational language for her particular Native Alaskan experience, one crucially negotiated through her visually-suspect, diasporic perspective, requires some multidirectional imagining. Her present positioning entails a search backwards through multiple archives, to other histories and other memories of racial governance adjacent to but not her own. In contradistinction to either “authentic” claims of Indigenous cultural purity or exceptional claims of mixed race post-raciality, Lord’s associations across differential racializations and diasporas demonstrate an awareness of the intersection of multiple oppressions that is necessary for an ethics of non-competitive memory that prioritizes connections and visions of decolonial justice across different sites to take place.

The Politics of Blood: Genocidal Logics and Lord’s Blood Quantum Installations

I guess I always sort of thought or identified myself as a mixed-race Native or Indigenous artist— that mixed-race identity is central to my identity and it is from that perspective that I make my work. I think often, when I am written about, it is easier to describe me as a Native artist [but] people bring a lot of assumptions and expectations with that sort of title or description. [...] [P]eople still expect to see historic, or historically referencing images [...]. And yet, [by] being defined as a mixed-race Native artist, or a Native artist, it can help to expand ideas of what Native art is or could be. [...] And I consider myself both.

Shleyeva Interview, with excerpt from Lord’s entry on Native photographs in America’s Wretched

Beyond illustrating the potentially politically-galvanizing convergences of different histories and memories in Lord’s work, Untitled (Tattooed Arms) also thematizes the recurrent issues of blood quantum that arise in discussions about Native identity, a subject that is taken up in three of Lord’s installation pieces: Quartered, Quantified, and Classified: My Blood Quantum Cabinet (2005); My First Baby Belt (2007); and Diabetes Burden Strap: Microarray DNA Analysis (2008). If Lord’s photography explores the external, visual construction of race and racialized identities (phenotype), her installations move inward, interrogating the non-visible and disembodied (genotype): “what is hidden, what passes, [...] the ignored” (Lord n.d.). Far from reifying existing systems of blood quantum used to regulate Indigenous identity, I follow J. KeKēhaulani Kauanui in Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity—which I take up at greater length below—to argue that Lord’s recourse to blood through installation poses blood quantum definitions of Indigenous identity against genealogical definitions of Indigenous identity in order to critique the former as an inherited system of colonial racial governance.[2]

In Quartered, Quantified, and Classified: MyBlood Quantum Cabinet (2005), Lord built a “preserve” cabinet replete with 16 glass preserve jars filled with equal amounts of symbolic blood in the approximate total amount of Lord’s body’s blood—4.5 quarts. The 16 jars mirror Lord’s own Native Alaskan blood quantum breakdown of 5/16ths. Referencing the state-mandated policy of only recognizing those Natives with 1/4 blood from the same tribe, Lord’s unnervingly racialist installation actually critiques existing blood quantum measurements of Indigeneity. She demonstrates the arbitrariness of designating identity through blood when in fact Indigenous knowledge, practices, and relationship to people and the land rest in living actions and exchanges, not cabinets. The installation’s metaphors of preservation and division highlight blood quantification’s “freezing” effect, turning its living Native subject (Lord) into yet another disappeared Indian—a curious artifact kept in a cabinet.

Similarly, My First Baby Belt (2007) and Diabetes Burden Strap (2008) delve into the problematics of regulating Indigeneity through blood quantum, this time in the idiom of “traditional” Native Alaskan women’s arts. Both pieces replicate the form of the baby belt or burden strap, an Athabaskan (Alaskan interior tribe) object meant to assist mothers carrying their babies against their backs. My First Baby Belt is a 72"x12"x1" mooseskin banner with red contrasting stitching, streamers, and embroidery. Instead of just the usual decorative beading, the strap is decorated with measuring spoons and cups, and the question “Has the Native Been Bred Out of My Child?” appears in red stitching across the length of the strap. Lord has framed the piece as being a direct challenge to the fact that by the existing standards of alotting Native status in Alaska, her own child would not be recognized as Native if she were to marry a non-Native or Native of another tribe (of which the odds are high) (Lord 2010). Diabetes Burden Strap (2008), made entirely of red, orange, green, and black glass beads, and measuring 6"x 58" across, is part of an ongoing series that puns on the language of “burden” and uses Lord’s own microarray DNA analysis—A DNA test that assesses one’s genetic predisposition towards certain diseases—to call attention to diseases typically overrepresented in Native populations, like tuberculosis, diabetes, and kidney complications related to alcohol dependence.

What is perhaps most significant about all three installations is the way in which they critique blood quantum practices of defining Indigeneity that rely on biological and genetic discourses of race while still foregrounding the political value of keeping a mixed-race inclusive definition of Nativeness intact. In effect, Lord distinguishes between government-mandated blood qualifications of Indigeneity and her own mixed race Native identification—for Lord, the rhetoric of blood quantification works against, not in tandem, with her own conception of mixed-race Indigeneity. In short, the logics of blood quantum and mixed race Indigeneity are decidedly not the same. Such a delicate distinction is taken up at length and historically-situated in Native Hawaiian legal and cultural theorist J. Kēhaulani Kauanui’s Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity. Although Kauanui’s book specifically addresses the forced inclusionary effects of colonialism and neo-colonial blood quantum practices in a Hawaiian context, she acknowledges that her argument can be used in analyses of Indigenous racialization more generally (Kauanui 2008, 11). Linking the "50-percent rule" instantiated by the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to a colonial project of land alienation and dispossession, Kauanui argues that the blood quantum categorization of Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) constitutes a "genocidal logic of disappearance" for those Natives who fall below the designated 50 percent, thereby disposessing them of their land claims in a reeanactment of neo-colonial forced assimilation (Kauanui 2008, 25). Unlike the paradigmatic model of exclusionary racialization exemplified by U.S. laws concerning black/white segregation and Asian immigration, then, Kauanui contends that the racial logic of blood quantum in Hawaii functions through forced inclusion, thus "reducing Hawaiians to a racial minority, reinforcing a system of white racial privilege bound to property ownership" (Kauanui 2008, 10). By theorizing Native Hawaiians’ differential racialization—not through racial exclusion but through the colonial model of selective/forced inclusion—Kauanui and Lord draw our attention to the coercive operations of assimilation and disappearance at work in discursive constructions of mixed race Indigenous formations, thus problematizing and enriching simplistic assertions from both sides that mixed race identification is a "willed" choice. For Native Americans, forced inclusion into whiteness constitutes not privilege but genocidal erasure. Under these terms, a genealogical rather than a biological discourse of mixed race becomes necessary for the continued survivance and cultural continuity of Native Americans. Stressing cultural continuity and expansion, not extinction, a genealogical approach and understanding of mixed race Indigeneity is intimately tied to a theory of memory as collectively and ethically-informed by the past. For Lord, then, identifying as mixed race is not about neutralizing or supplementing her Indigeneity; it is about negotiating the inherited continuities of Native lifeways and struggles as she is now responsible for them, as well as the historical transformations that have rendered her own experiences of Native life completely different from those who came before her.

In this way, Lord’s paradoxical blood quantum installations can be understood to draw from the two heuristic systems Diana Taylor refers to in her articulation of "the DNA of performance":

The DNA of performance [...] draws from [...] not only the biological and the performative, but the archive and the repertoire. The linkage refutes colonial notions that the archival and biological are more lasting or accurate than embodied performance practice. Both binary systems prove fragile on an individual basis, both susceptible to corruption and decay.” (Taylor 2003, 173)

Taylor contends that through the DNA performance "nothing disappears: every link is there, visible, resistant to surrogation"(Taylor 2003, 175).This resonates with the ways in which Lord’s blood quantum installations both critique and record; they absent the racialized Native body and make present its virtuosic techniques of remembrance, captured in the fine beading of the burden strap. Demonstrating how a Native mixed-race consciousness might operate as both archive and repertoire, as decolonial pose and gesture, Lord’s blood quantum installations strategically use the biological discourse of race mixture vis-à-vis genealogy to articulate non-biologically-deterministic modes of being and claiming Native identity, an identity-in-practice yet firmly rooted in the politics of the past.

Epilogue: Remembering Towards Resistance, Reclamation

What I call postcolonial memory takes the form of a critical excavation and inventory of the marginalized, discounted, unrealized objects of decolonization and the political consequences of their social legacies. [...] In the postcolonial memory it is the memory of present predicaments that recalls the dislocations of the past.

Hesse, “Forgotten like a Bad Dream” (165)

Erica Lord, Native American Land Reclamation Project, 2000, 2010. Installation, mixed media variable. Red stripes from US flag; earth from various villages, reservations, and tribal lands; sinew; mirrors. Property of the artist.
Erica Lord, Native American Land Reclamation Project 2000, 2010. Installation, Mixed Media Variable. Property of the artist.

An ongoing project that Lord commenced as a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 2000, Native American Land Reclamation Project (2000, 2010) is a large-scale installation that explores the "repetition" of broken treaty agreements in US-American history. Now on exhibition at the IAIA in a 16"x16" room, the piece memorializes the 371 broken treaties the U.S. government made with Native Americans between 1778–1868. Using strips of the red stripes from the U.S. flag, Lord created one prayer tie for each of these broken treaties and suspended them from the ceiling of the room with sinew. The bundles were filled with dirt from reservations and tribal lands from across the country, and Lord installed mirrors on the ceiling, walls, and floor of the square room to further refract and multiply the 371 blood red prayer ties. In an interview, Lord explains: “I wanted to create a piece that both acknowledged our history—and stressing both oppressor and survivor, Native and non-Native, it’s a shared history. So I began to gather this dirt from everywhere—New Mexico, Alaska, Michigan, and in between and made these prayer ties” (Shleyeva 2010). Lord has elaborated on the symbolism of the project, noting her use of the red stripes of the flag to represent not only the traditional narrative of the blood of those who died fighting for land, but also those who died “trying to hang on to the land” (Lord 2010). Further, she shares that the project was inspired by the 1998 Supreme Court ruling against a petition by the Native village of Venetie, Alaska to collect tax from non-tribal members doing business on tribal lands. The Court decided that no tribal tax could be enforced because, although owned by the tribe, the land was not part of a Native American reservation (Lord 2010).

Lord’s installation is perhaps her most fully-realized effort to date that works towards a politics and pedagogy of remembrance through her art practice. Situated in a court ruling “close to home” for Lord yet also taking up and on longer and larger histories of broken treaties into its account, Native American Land Reclamation Project isprecisely the sort of memorial project that makes the leap from acknowledging and reimagining the past to social action in the present. That such a project stands alongside of Lord’s other work questioning both the assumed “proper subject” of Indigeneity and the “proper subject” of remembrance is no accident, I think. As one contemplates the endless repetition of 371 red prayer ties alongside the reflection of one’s own image, concerns over propriety quickly turn into questions of responsible action. In that movement from propriety to responsibility, remembrance to present action, Lord models an embodied practice of remembering otherwise, rooted in a politics of the pose as decolonial gesture, that engenders more memory, more responsibility...whether deemed proper or not.

Colleen Kim Daniheris a 4th year Ph.D. candidate and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her dissertation research theorizes and examines the critical cultural work that performances of racial ambiguity accomplish in moments of national crisis in Canada and the U.S. through the long 20th;century. In addition to her scholarly work,Colleen is a musician, actress, and dramaturg. Most recently, she has been workshopping her solo multimedia performance, “Durian Series, Pts. 1–3.”


[1] I refer here to an understanding of white settler colonialism’s intimate dependence on a black labor economy imagined as operating on “empty” land. Further, as Fatimah Toby Rony notes, "Baker was not only the symbol of the 'black woman,' but of all colonized women, and she performed in acts which represented her as Inuit, Indochinese, African, Arab, and Caribbean" (Rony 1996, 199).

[2] In the U.S., blood quantum definitions of Indigenous identity were imposed by the federal government as a way to legally define and assess Native American tribal membership. Federal recognition of tribal membership was crucial in determining and delimiting who would benefit from land and sovereignty rights negotiated through treaty. The significance of blood quantum requirements within Native communities came to the fore during The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, when significant legal authority and land management rights were restored to federally-recognized tribal governments. Today, in order to become a federally recognized citizen of any particular Native American tribe, or to qualify for a federal benefits program, one must register for a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood or Certificate of Degree of Native Alaskan Blood (both CDIB), which is issued by the the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The certificate can state one's Native blood quantum by tribe or by total Indian blood for those with intertribal ancestry; different tribes have different minimum quotas for establishing membership. Although the CDIB does not guarantee tribal membership alone, and specific tribes continue to have their own criteria for establishing membership, as Lord herself has stated, "to be nationally recognized, one must comply with tribal, state, and national standards, despite [...] tribal criterion." For more on the history of blood quantum requirements and American Indian identity, see Garrouette (2003).See also Lord (2009).

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