As a boy in Ketchikan, Alaska, Jackson Polys would help his father, the prominent Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson, carve totem poles behind rope stanchions while boatloads of tourists watched. They would travel together to World’s Fairs where he would watch his father display his skill. In 1964, before Polys was born, Jackson worked the World’s Fair in Queens advertising husky puppies and Indigenous crafts at the Alaskan pavilion.
“World’s Fairs have historically presented a theory of progress, technological advancement, imperial advancement,” Polys said in a recent interview. In these celebrations of civilization, Indigenous people often played the role of the “uncivilized.” Polys hopes to turn that model around “for all of us to have a future that isn’t rooted in domination.”
Welcome to “The World’s UnFair” — the most ambitious, most public art project yet steered by New Red Order: Polys, 47, and the brothers Adam Khalil, 35, and Zack Khalil, 32, both of the Ojibwe tribe from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The project runs through Oct. 15 in a vacant lot in Long Island City, Queens.
For some, progress looks like Long Island City’s growing skyline. For NRO, progress is an Indigenous-themed carnival — an anti-World’s Fair. A talking animatronic beaver and tree entertain visitors, a stage ringed with vinyl fringe promises spectacle, and an entrance canopy shaped like an eagle entices foot traffic. Tribal flags dip overhead. But instead of food and games and rides, there is information: brightly colored and sharply produced videos, signs and posters describing the occupation of Indigenous lands — and how you can help: “Give it back.”
The eagle-shaped entryway to the “World’s UnFair” experience, which drew 600 people on its opening night, Sept. 14. It runs through Oct. 15.Credit…Dina Litovsky for The New York Times
The ambivalent experience of performing one’s own culture is at the heart of New Red Order’s work. On its face, the collective can come across as a cynical parody of earnest activists of the Land Back movement as well as white allies of Indigenous causes. Their gambit is that a provocative overdose of Indigeneity might rouse a jaded audience inundated with political bromides and consciousness-raising art.
Part of their provocation is their jargon. “Informants” are those who describe their culture to outsiders, the way Indigenous guides introduced Edward Curtis and others to Native traditions — revealing, interpreting, and sometimes misleading. An “accomplice” supports a cause, and, Zack said, accepts “a certain level of commitment and sacrifice.” And if you or your ancestors were not forcibly displaced from your homeland, you’re a “settler.”
Flat-screen monitors in the ghoulish tree’s branches here show pictures of an island near Eureka, Calif., the location of a notorious 1860 massacre and a Superfund site, returned to the Wiyot people. Past the row of portable toilets, on a monitor nestled in a tiara-shaped enclosure that’s part white picket fence, part log palisade, the greenish talking head of an actor, Jim Fletcher, whispers: “Give it back.” Tongue-in-cheek recruitment videos and banners that speak the language of corporate self-optimization (“Never Settle!”) invite “settlers” to join the New Red Order as non-Indigenous advocates of Indigenous rights.
“Nobody else is taking on issues of appropriation in the way that they do,” said Paul Chaat Smith, a member of the Comanche Nation, who is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “They’re both acknowledging this freakish thing in the United States of a lot of people being very into Indians, and the fact that it is messier than people think.”
The New Red Order named themselves after the Improved Order of Red Men, a largely white fraternal organization fond of Native regalia. It was founded in 1834 and is presently based in Waco, Texas, although greatly diminished since the days when presidents Warren Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt were members. (Another Roosevelt, Theodore, was honorary.)
It’s easy to mock grown men playing Indigenous dress-up, but the New Red Order see something deeper: the way American national identity has defined itself in terms of an idealized Native authenticity and freedom. When the Sons of Liberty threw the Boston Tea Party, they dressed as Mohawks.
“We all play Indian sometimes,” Zack Khalil said. “Even Indians play Indian. Indian people want to appear to be more traditionally Native American.”
Over the past five years, Indigenous artists have gained global prominence. The Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson will represent the United States at the next Venice Biennale.Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, just had a blockbuster survey at the Whitney Museum. Land acknowledgments, which name specific tribes forced to leave an area, may seem to be a kind of progress — but the New Red Order say visibility is not the end, and could even hurt Indigenous artists, if people decide organizations have done enough. (NRO compare the practice of acknowledgments to casting spells.)
Still, they see potential in the trend. “We’re at a point where we might be able to leverage the material resources of contemporary art, its publicity and its visibility, in order to shift beyond art,” Polys said. Institutions from the Whitney Museum to the Toronto Biennial to Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg have hosted the collective’s over-the-top style of critique.
Not everyone agrees with the group’s sweeping approach. “The Land Back movement needs to be defined by the tribes, not by the arts,” said Joe Baker, of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, who is executive director of the Lenape Center, a New York-based group that supports the region’s Indigenous culture. “It’s the business of sovereign nations.”
I met the New Red Order members in the Lower East Side offices of Creative Time, the nonprofit organizing the UnFair. The Khalils favor oversize graphic T-shirts, Polys a collared button-down, graying hair pulled back. The three artists convey a wry delight in the world, even the bleak parts, down to the cigarettes they smoke: “Native” American Spirits. At one point, Adam grabbed a bottle of cold brew coffee on the table and read the label: “Only natural ingredients. Settling may occur.” Everyone laughed.
Adam and Zack studied film at Bard College. Their joint documentary “INAATE/SE/” (2016), which layers an ancient Ojibwe prophecy with depictions of their home community, gained critical acclaim. But they were uneasy in the “informant” role, teaching the settlers.
The brothers met Polys in New York in 2016, a year after he finished his M.F.A. in Visual Arts at Columbia. But if the New Red Order has an origin myth, it involves their prominent proxy, the veteran avant-garde actor Jim Fletcher. In 2015, Fletcher dressed as an “Indian” in “Cry, Trojans!,” the Wooster Group’s glitchy production of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” that cast the Iliad as a colonial allegory.
“It truly caused pain,” Fletcher told me. “It was total blindness.”
Rather than denounce him for wearing redface, the New Red Order invited him to dinner and recruited him. Fletcher’s first NRO performance, in 2017, bracketing a screening of Indigenous video curated by the group at Artists Space in Manhattan, was a mutual breakthrough.
“They got me an Indian costume from Kmart,” Fletcher recalled. Strapping and pale, he introduced the evening by reading from Philip J. Deloria’s book “Playing Indian” — which explores the interplay of Native and white American identity — while stripping off every stitch of his street clothes, then donning the faux deerskin, beads and war paint. After the screening, Fletcher delivered an unscripted apology — as he shed the “Native garb” and returned to T-shirt and jeans. Then he closed a bundle of sage in a microwave and walked off as it blazed.
“Two of the biggest Indigenous exports are art and spirituality,” Adam said. And so, the trio make art — which institutions like Creative Time sponsor almost the way tourists buy Native crafts from roadside stands. And they couch the demand to “give it back” in the woozy, new-age spiritual language of self-help — their video “Never Settle: Calling In,” displayed at the UnFair in a recruitment tent, features people beaming about the sense of purpose joining the NRO brings.
The UnFair’s main event happens Oct. 7, when the fringed stage will host the first “Give It Back Gathering,” featuring people who have actually relinquished property to Indigenous groups.
“It’s not that shocking to hear Native people call for giving land back,” Adam said. “But it is kind of shocking to hear settlers say, Oh, I gave it back.”New Red Order collect examples of repatriated land, which they display on placards that parody the listings in Realtors’ windows. (At the UnFair, 18 hang inside a rusty shipping container.)
Disturbing dreams convinced Rich Snyder to surrender his $3,000 Colorado homestead to the Ute. Christine Sleeter, an education activist and professor emerita at California State University, Monterey Bay, learned that a quarter-million dollars she’d inherited derived from the sale of stolen Ute land. “If you have something that’s been stolen and you know who stole it from whom,” she told me, “what do you do with that?” She gave the money to the Ute.
Then, there’s contemporary art’s own case study: Yale Union, a nonprofit art exhibition space in Portland, Ore., that owned its building, a historic laundry plant over a buried stream, in the heart of a gentrifying arts district. In 2018, concerned about the neighborhood’s future, the gallery’s interim director, Yoko Ott, reached out to the head of an organization she admired: Lulani Arquette, president and chief executive of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and a Native Hawaiian. “We sat down in her office,” said Arquette, “and she said, we would like to give the N.A.C.F. this building. It was as simple and profound as that.”
Both organizations’ boards had to be convinced. Yale Union dissolved. Portland’s D.I.Y. arts community felt some ownership of the space, too, and balked. “I lost a lot of friends, and so much was gained,” said Flint Jamison, one of the gallery’s co-founders. “People are threatened by the loss of white leadership.”
In spring 2021, Jamison started getting texts from people who’d spotted his face in the window of Artists Space, in an unauthorized, satirical real estate listing about Yale Union’s transfer. He called NRO on it. They recruited him.
“The World’s UnFair” aims to take New Red Order’s message — “Give It Back” — beyond art’s bubble. NRO could have held the UnFair in a park or other sanctioned fairground, but they wanted a vacant lot, for its sense of potential. Realistically, the land will be developed into a 55-story mixed use tower. The group says it doesn’t have to be.
Diya Vij, Creative Time’s curator, said, “If colonization happened over 500 years, parcel by parcel, decolonization will happen the same way in reverse: parcel by parcel.”
Like the country shedding its offensive costuming, piece by piece.
The temporary use of this parcel was donated by its owners, Tavros Capital and Charney Companies. Sam Charney told me he supports Indigenous land rights, and public art. (Creative Time held a 2022 project by Jill Magid at another of his properties, a former bank, before it became an apartment building called The Dime.) But, “no, we’re not going to give the land back,” said Charney. “I think our investors would have a real problem with that.”
The World’s UnFair
Through Oct. 15, 24-17 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens; creativetime.org.