img SJ Norman

Liminal Tension / Liminal Gifts: SJ Norman in Conversation with Joseph M. Pierce

Over two days in January, SJ Norman (Koori, Wiradjuri descent) and Joseph M. Pierce (Cherokee Nation) lead Knowledge of Wounds at Performance Space NY, a two day gathering which illuminated the knowledges held within bodies and communities that have been shaped by displacement trauma. In this conversation Norman and Pierce continue their dialogue around the ways Native and diasporic people embody the tension and gift of liminality. 

SJ Norman: Let’s proceed without any destination in mind. I am going to send up some smoke from this beautiful medicine that you brought over the other day. [Sound of a match striking]. I am going to call in the wise and loving ancestors from all our lineages; mine and yours and those whose land we stand on. I am going to ask for them to hold us in their wisdom and their guidance so that we may speak truthfully and from the heart. Shall we?

Joseph M. Pierce: When I pray I ask the ancestors to help me be of good mind, to help me kind, and I ask them to help me be of service to other people. I think that guidance follows me, and I think that is what we were trying to do with Knowledge of Wounds at PS NY. We made a space for us to be in good relations with the land and with the ancestors. For so many of us who don't get a chance to be our full selves all the time, from diaspora or from colonial violence or from intergenerational trauma or from circumstance. Circumstance has put us on the path that we are on. So I wondered if you could tell the story of how we met.

SJN: That is a long story that goes back longer than you or I. It is a story that doesn't just belong to us or our bodies, but to our ancestral bodies, too. In carnate terms, we met around this time last year, after I had presentent a work at Performance Space NY as part of Emily Johnson’s programming there. I presented a work called Cicatrix 1 (that which is taken/that which remains), I will foreground that work a little bit because it is relevant to how you and I came to meet...

JMP: It’s crucial.

SJN:...and how our kinship and collaboration unfolded. This work was a mourning ritual which I performed firstly on behalf of a close relative- who was also a senior activist, specifically active around Blak deaths in custody- who I lost whilst I was in the process of making the work, and secondly as a way of giving containment or expression to a larger grief that we hold, as Aboriginal people, around mass incarceration and the death of our people at the hands of the colonial carceral state.[1]

JMP: Tell us about the link between the process of scarification in your community and what you were doing at Performance Space in Cicatrix.

SJN: In this ritual I had 147 surgical incisions made in the skin of my back, and every one of those notches or every one of those incisions made in my skin represented a Blak body that has perished in prison or in police custody in the last decade. I made that offering of my blood and of my wounds as a gesture towards a greater healing. I also engaged the audience in a process of literal wounding where they gave over some of their blood and some of their skin as an offering too, as a reciprocal offering to the working (pause) need to gather myself. I find it difficult to do things twice. [this was the second time the conversation was held].

JMP: Maybe we should start there. We are speaking about this for the second time because the first time we did this, which was two nights ago, I tried to save the recording and it was too large to save on my phone so it got lost somewhere in the cloud. So we have had this conversation and opened ourselves to one another before, as we have for a really long time, but it was a really difficult emotional space for us in talking about our need for kinship. We are also talking about the wounds that we have, which are collective and psychic and physical and emotional. I am trying to spin it now and be like, there is an echo of this conversation somewhere, or there is an echo that only the Ancestors can hear.

SJN: It is interesting and important to acknowledge that because it is difficult to have this conversation more than once. It is difficult for me to talk about Cicatrix at all. That's why I made the piece, so I wouldn't have to talk about it... I haven't really disseminated any documentation of that work or talked about it at length in public in the way that I do with other things because of these reasons, because it is difficult...We had a two-hour conversation that was fire, and then we realized that we had lost it. It is hard to access that space again. I said quite flippantly in a text message to you as we were both trying to recover this file, something like “if our ancestors can lose 80 thousand years of our own knowledge then we can deal with losing one audio recording.” In the context of our greater losses, it is not exactly a huge deal.

JMP: So how about we start again with how we met. I got a text message from a mutual friend of ours, Tavia Nyong’o, who said I had to meet this person Onyx, who was in town (New York) performing. I went over to Tavia’s house. I got there before you. I remember you walking in.

SJN: I was on ‘Blakfella time’, otherwise known as 45 minutes to an hour late.

JMP: You walked in and eventually you sat down next to me. I just knew we could be at ease with each other, that we shared something. Maybe that is the shared kinship of Indigeneity or of Ancestral time bringing us together. I knew then that we were going to have a chance to grow our friendship and our collaboration. I knew you were a person that I wanted in my life and sometimes that is all that it takes. I didn't know that we were going to end up, a year later, putting together Knowledge of Wounds but I knew that I needed you to be part of my life.

So we had this conversation at our mutual friend’s house and then I went home and you went to Melbourne. We kept tabs on each other through social media. Fast forward and you had been invited to curate a weekend gathering at Performance Space NY and you got in touch with me to let me know that it was going to happen and then eventually we got around to discussing whether this was something that we wanted to curate together. It made sense because I am based in New York and I am a North American Indigenous person, but also because I have relationships with people from other parts of the Western Hemisphere. In Latin America in particular. There was a trust that we had developed or sensed at that time, a sense of truth and realness in the shared vision we had for this, even if we hadn't really fleshed it out at that point. You asked me if I wanted to participate and or help co-curate. I wanted to be involved, but I hadn't curated something like this before. I knew it was the type of embodied presence-ing that I wanted in my life, that is direly needed for people like us. So I said “Yes.”

You had already written the curatorial statement, which I completely agreed with and we started working from there. For me it was a really beautiful opportunity to be in one space even if we were apart, to be of one mind. I talk about being of good mind as an ethical commitment I have to my Ancestors. And I knew that you would understand that and that you were also on that path. Sometimes people think of ancestral kinship as speculative and maybe they are but when you sense that you have a shared commitment to justice and love, it doesn't take a lot to say yes to something like that. I was really glad that we got the opportunity to do that, and to help grow the networks and communities that we are involved in across the world.

SJ: Thank you for that. I am trying to feel where this story is in my body and where I am feeling clenched or not settled so that I can fully ground back in this conversation and take it where I think we both want it to go. I am trying to listen to what comes next. I want to return to this point about this growing of networks as it might be a good point to re-anchor back into talking about the lineage of Knowledge of Wounds. I can talk about that through my own narrative of how I first started coming to New York City or to Lenapehoking, and how that progressed into Knowledge of Wounds.

I first came to Lenapehoking 2 years ago, as part of an Australia Council Delegation that included myself, Merindah Donnelly who is my Wiradjuri sibling, and a small cohort of 6 other Aboriginal artists. Emily Johnson, an artist based here, was working with Merindah and a bunch of others to grow the GFNPN, the Global First Nations Performing Arts Network. They were holding the first First Nations dialogue with a group of collaborators, coconspirators, advocates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, who gathered with a vested interest in growing this network. It was a closed series of meetings predominantly between artists, Elders, and presenters, from throughout Turtle Island, talking about strategies for platforming and growing the Indigenous performing arts. That was the first time I was here and it was then that I connected with Emily, with Auntie Muriel Miguel, who then became instrumental in the work I presented the following year.

In 2019, the following year, Emily commissioned Cicatrix, which was presented by Performance Space NY in partnership with American Realness. I came over with support from BlakDance (Australia’s peak body for Indigenous contemporary dance).

The performance itself was pretty arduous. The performance went for nearly four hours and it involved a heavy blood letting, 147 cuts being made into my back and also 60 tattoos on audience members and 60 blood offerings made by audience members to a vessel of salt water that I had transported from Gadigal Country, the site of the first penal colony in Australia. At the conclusion of that part of the ritual, Auntie Muriel washed the blood from my back, and offered a song as she did so. The blood water that was rinsed from my back was added to the vessel of salt water, which we all walked down to the East River and made as an offering of blood and smoke and salt water to that Ancestor. About 40 of the 60 members of the audience came to the river with us and stayed right to the end. People also offered their medicines and offered them to the smoke, we carried a collective smoke bowl down to the river with us.

Many of the people who were there that night ended up being instrumental in how Knowledge of Wounds grew. This included devynn emory, Joshua Pether, María Firmino-Castillo, Tohil Fidel Brito Bernal, Holly Nordlum, and Javier Stell-Frésquez, who all became key artists in the program. We were weaving a web of collaborative relationships. I am wanting to speak their names out loud as I am interested in undermining this idea of curatorial authority and authorship. Those relationships foregrounded and germinated others- it was through María that I met Lukas Avendaño, for instance. This event has come to be because of all of these relationships and, very specifically, because of our relationship.

Two days after my performance Tavia match-made us and invited us both to dinner at his house. I was in excruciating pain because I had just had my back sliced open and we are talking about wounds and wounding and I was literally sitting in this space with a profoundly wounded body. The cuts on my back were very deep and were still open and bleeding. I arrived into your presence as a wound. It is interesting that you say that you knew that I was someone that you needed to have in your life. I hear you on that. When I met you that night I felt like you were already someone in my life. and that had been in my life, past my capability of remembering. It was a feeling of recognition. That is kinship. This is a very particular feeling that is known to our bodies. At Knowledge of Wounds --we had a room full of Black/k, Brown and Indigenous queers saying that they had never felt so held and seen in a space before. I would define a feeling of deep kinship as a feeling of recognition and a feeling of being deeply held and seen. We grew this event out of having an experience with each other and wanting to know what it would look like to grow that as a space for co-occupation and co-corporeality with a larger group of people.

JMP: Can I read you something?

SJN: Please do!

JMP: One of the people that I have had on my mind is Leanne Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer. She theorizes collective spaces and resurgence. What we are doing is profoundly enmeshed in what she calls resurgence. I wanted to read one thing she writes about constellations. She says:

Constellations then become networks within the larger whole. Individual stars shine in their own right and exist, grounded in their everyday renewal of Indigenous practices and in constellated relationships, meaning relationships that operate within the grounded normativity of particular Indigenous nations, not only with other stars but also with the physical world and the spiritual world. Constellations in relationship with other constellations form flight paths out of settler colonial realities into Indigeneity. They become doorways out of the enclosure of settler colonialism and into Indigenous worlds. They can be small collectives of like-minded people working and living together, amplifying the renewal of Indigenous place-based practices. They can be larger Indigenous nations working within their own grounded normativity yet in a linked and international way. When these constellations work in international relationships to other constellations the fabric of the night sky changes: movements are built, particularly of constellations of co-resistance create mechanisms for communication, strategic movement, accountability to each other, and shared decision making practices. [2]

SJN: This comes to the question of Lehapanoking, why me, why you, why. I feel like I know why. And I also don't need to know why. There are reasons my Old People have put me here to do the work I'm doing and there are reasons why your Old People have put you here to do the work you are doing. When we gather and sit with each other we know that in our bones. That is not a feeling that needs to be qualified or explained to anyone as far as I am concerned. It is also necessary to situate that as a political praxis. Or attempt to give some form to it in discourse. I am trying to access the language that I need to underscore the importance of what we might call inter-indigenous collaborations and solidarity and the building of our solidarity networks. This is a political imperative. [3]

JMP: Is that ancestral futurity?

SJN: It is part of it. In Knowledge of Wounds we started from a place of talking about wounds and offering our wounds, and inhabiting our wounds, we talked a lot about the space of wounding and the space of healing as not being antithetical in our cultures but actually being interdependent. We talked about the potential for the space of the wound to be reconfigured or rethought., Not as strictly negative or destructive inheritance but something that can be transformed into accessing knowledge. Through our ceremonial technologies such as scarification, where the wound is an access point into knowledge, a way of recording knowledge and mapping of knowledge held in the body. We talked a lot about borders as wounds, the interdependent wounding of the land, and the wounding of our physical and spiritual bodies. All of this relates to the bigger questions that we had in our mind, specifically the borders that divide Turtle Island to the north and the south, and the way that those borders are being enforced through the current administration on this continent. And under the current administration on my continent as well. This question of our global network of solidarities and the ways in which we as Indigenous people are responsible to our hyper-local communities, to our own lands, to our own diasporic communities, and urban communities.

One of the greatest and most pervasive lies of settler colonialism is the siloing of indigenous peoples into hyper-locality, colonial isolationist fantasies of remote tribes in lost places. The reality of our peoples is that we have always been travelers. We have always shared our knowledge. Our knowledge systems are vast, supple, and interdependent, in the same way that all life on this planet is vast, supple, and interdependent. We come from land-based cultures and carry land-based Ancestral knowledge. We are in the process right now of uncovering these knowledges and re-accessing and reactivating them for each other. We talked a lot about how we come from cultures that have already survived the apocalypse, violent paradigmatic shifts, and survived profound loss. We talked about how we personally and culturally inhabit a place of rupture that we have inherited. We were born into the wound. We know what it is to transform into and hold that knowledge.

JMP: What you are saying reminds me of my own wounds. I don’t have the same experience of the physical wounding on my body like you have. I am Cherokee and we come from an experience of genocide and forced removal. We call it the “trail where they cried,” or the Trail of Tears. For us, those lines on a map are scars or wounds. So many people died along that march at gunpoint. We carry the memory and the pain of that in our bodies. I initially conceived of wounding as more of a historical process, a sort of epistemological wounding. The loss of knowledge is a wound, the loss of spiritual and medicinal knowledge is a wound, and that affects me culturally because I am the product of a forced diaspora. But also, my father was adopted by a white family which is another type of wounding and loss of culture. Adoption is a colonial technology that has been used across Turtle Island and Australia where children have been forcibly taken from their families as a way of civilizing or acculturating. Mission schools, boarding schools, forced adoption, forced assimilation. These are all sites of ongoing colonial violence. As a product of those technologies, I am constantly negotiating what feels like a gap or a lack in my soul. Knowledge of Wounds was a way of accessing kinship and medicine through building relationships in the present that also harkened back to a time before I was here. That is a radical politic of refusing to acquiesce to colonial normativity and refusing to accept the gaps in our knowledge and relations. The fact of our presence together demonstrates what Leanne Simpson calls resurgence, it demonstrates what Glen Sean Coulthard calls grounded normativity, it demonstrates what Audra Simpson calls the refusal of colonial paradigms. All of that knowledge that we bring to bear collectively is shared precisely because we are able to witness each other and trust each other and hold each other in our woundedness. [4]

What I realized as we were working together is that my understanding of the wound as conceptual and your understanding or your primary description as corporeal are by no means antithetical. In fact, they are inseparable. That is our indigeneity. The refusal to divide our bodies from the spirit or the land or each other is the way that we heal. This can be described as being interstitial or being in between. But those liminal spaces are not indicators of dualisms or binaries but rather the spaces between complimentary understandings of life and of love and of knowledge and spaces of medicine.

SJN: A space of potentiality and a space of lack.

JMP: That reminds me of how the title, Knowledge of Wounds, came to be.

SJN: The title came out of a conversation that I had with an acquaintance about executioners in medieval Europe.Those who were responsible for execution and dealing out capital punishment in the form of death, were often healers in their communities, because of their knowledge of wounds. That phrase stuck in my mind as a potent summary of the artistic research that I had been engaged in for many many years around practices of wounding, and giving corporeal form or concreteness to spiritual or psychological wounds in order to heal. A process of making the wound visible.

I started making Cicatrix not long after the passing of my uncle Donald Clark, who was a very senior activist, an Aboriginal elder, and a queer elder. He passed under very distressing circumstances a few months before I started making the work. I chose to inflict these wounds on my body because I was in a state of grief. I don't want to speak on behalf of ceremonial practices that I don't have proper access to or proper knowledge of which in the case of cicatrization. I come from a diasporic community, I am Wiradjuri by descendancy but I was born and raised in Sydney. I wasn't raised with access to ceremonial practices. Cicatrization is still practiced, in other parts of Australia, but colonization has divested my family, and from my knowledge, most south-eastern Aboriginal people, of this knowledge because this very important cultural practice was outlawed in our part of the country. So I just need to put a caveat on that: I was not engaging in a ceremonial practice when I was doing this, I was referencing a ceremonial practice that I have lost, and the grief of that loss is expressed in it’s reenactment in an art context.

I was most interested in how it has been performed as a mourning rite. During Sorry Business--which is what we call a funeral--mourners and relatives of the deceased might have wounds inflicted on their bodies and the depth and length and severity of the cut would denote the closeness of that person to the deceased. The process of healing would frame a section of official mourning period. This is a profoundly beautiful practice.

I have my range of personal affect that I experience and then I have a whole other realm beneath that that belongs to my blood. I have ancestral rage that lives in me. It is rage that belongs to grandmothers, to the survivors of every massacre, to every child that was stolen, to every woman that was raped, and I feel it in my body.

When we talk about Ancestors and Ancestral grief, we aren't talking metaphorically, we are talking about something which is literal and corporeal. These are forces that enact themselves on our lives and bodies in very concrete ways.

My artistic practice has been very invested in utilizing the physical body or embodied practices as a way of accessing or giving form to all those things that bear down on us or press up against the inner surface of our skin, all the things that we carry but can’t name. As a means of giving voice or giving spaces to the loss of song and ceremony and dance.

We know there are certain things we can’t reclaim. We come from predominantly oral knowledge systems, where the lines of oral transference have been broken. We can’t reconnect those tissues or un-break those bones. But we can find other ways to recuperate the knowledge buried in us. What does it mean to place our bodies in co-presence with each other and provide an exploratory space of ancestral futurity and utilize that as a means of healing those connections?

JMP: It is a decolonization of time. Time is not linear for us. We access celestial time and ancestral time and future time. When we share space, we create possibilities that seem impossible when we are alone.

SJN: We make things possible for each other, we enliven each other. There is a sense of something very deep and very old being rekindled in our co-presence.

JMP: One idea that we shared came from Joshua Whitehead. In his novel Johnny Appleseed, there is a line that says “it’s funny how an Indian ‘I love you’ feels more like ‘I’m in pain with you.’” [5]

SJN: Devastating. It’s such a truthful statement. It evokes something more than just solidarity. It evokes something of a shared knowing and a shared experience. When we first started working together in September, we had not been together in the same place physically since we had met at that dinner party in January. We immediately came into very full and accessible physical and emotional intimacy with each other.

JMP: We were flirting.

SJN: We were straight-up flirting! Which we continue to do on a daily basis. It is an integral part of our collaboration.

JMP: One person’s vivification is another’s flirting!

SJN: That intimacy was the basis of our kinship and collaboration. I think one of the first things we talked about was all the different ways you and I were fucked up. We went straight into talking about our traumas because we understood inherently that our traumas don't just belong to us, our traumas belong to colonialism, through our bloodlines. We all go back to that statement that pain hangs around families until someone has the chance to feel it. We are that generation. Our Ancestors were too busy surviving to sit around discussing traumas.

JMP: I’ve thought about that Joshua Whitehead quote a lot because that pain is a beautiful pain. In co-presence we turn pain back into love, or maybe pain and love are always together. When we open the space of wounding and healing, we also open a space for trust and being seen and being held and contained. That's why Knowledge of Wounds worked. We provided a space for grounding, rest, stories, dialogue, and for coming together around fire and food. And all of that equals care. Knowledge of Wounds implies an effort towards healing and care. The wound is not just a negative depressive state. It is always already a path towards healing.

SJN: The body heals itself. I was thinking about the ways that we structured the Knowledge of Wounds as an Indigiqueer centered space inside of a white lead institution in Manhattan. Yet, we decided the terms, we had sovereignty over the space. I move through the world as an indigenous artist and as a trans artist. Audiences have a hunger for indigenous and trans wounding, for our pain. Even though I may be wounding my body in front of an audience I am doing so with a very conscious resistance to making a spectacle of Indigenous wounding. Because that is disgusting! We agreed that we were not going to gather a bunch of Indigenous artists to perform their pain for a white audience. This was a space where we were going to gather a bunch of Indigenous people to share knowledge and share space, and allow the visibility of holding our wounds in a way that would move towards healing. We dramaturgically crafted the flow of the program to actively facilitate that.

Fire was important and deeply central to all of our cultures. During Cicatrix, we lit the fire in the beginning of the performance and it stayed lit for the entirety of the show. It was made available for Maori and Aboriginal people and anybody else who was engaging and witnessing and needed grounding or respite. It also functioned as a gathering space and a ceremonial space, and that was continued into Knowledge of Wounds. There the fire was burning all weekend. We had the honor of having Joan Henry, a Tsalagi fire keeper, lighting the fire at the beginning. After the fire was out, we took the ashes to the East River as an offering, creating continuity. It was also important to us to feed people, and it was important for to us to have devynn and Josh -- who are healthcare workers, dancers, and queer First Nations people -- facilitating space for people to come into their bodies, so they could access all of the content that was being brought up throughout the other sessions. This was against capitalist colonialist imperatives of constant content and output.

JMP: We didn’t want to put our pain on display for consumption by white audiences. During Knowledge of Wounds there was no way to be a passive observer or consumer of Indigenous pain. We were asking everyone to be in kinship, to be in co-presence which means that we recognize you and you recognize us. Then you have responsibilities towards us like we have towards you. For example, Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kevin Holden’s Shatter/// was so powerful. I identified with that as an expression of ancestral rage. It was uncomfortable and painful but allowed me to access a part of myself I don’t often access.

SJN: Because you aren’t allowed to access it. Because indigenous rage is stigmatized. Our rage is powerful and is full of transformative potential. Culturally I come from a place where rage is honored where rage is something to be held in respect and tenderness. Rage is not something to be denied or run from.It is not going away. We are always being pressured into positions of politeness and we have been culturally conditioned to play nice for fear of scaring white people, to put it really bluntly. The denial of our rage is a deep and pervasive mechanism of white supremacy that effects all people of color. We are angry and have a right to that anger. That anger has a quality to it that is very specific. I know the difference between quotidian anger and ancestral rage.

JMP: I was thinking about limiting the spectrum of our emotions and how that contributes to limiting our full human-ness. A person who does not have access to the range of their emotions is a limited human being. We could think back to Sylvia Wynter’s work on colonialism and race where she writes about the incompleteness of Indigenous peoples within western epistemologies and frameworks. We are not accounted for in Western systems of knowing and feeling. So the expression of ancestral rage is essential to the fullness of our humanity. White people are not the only people that get to be mad about shit! The fear of Indigenous rage was why civilization programs were so expansive within any colonial context. [6]

SJN: Even that civilizing is the word for it! In their minds, rage is an expression, just as they view our eroticism or our queerness as an expression, of our savageness in the white imaginary.

JMP: Why do you think there was a foregrounding of expansive eroticism in Knowledge of Wounds? There was an underlying connection around sovereign erotics.. Lukás Avendaño spoke of this in terms of the Butterfly’s Utopia which is also an expansively erotic proposition. Holly Nordlum, in her tattoo practice, is engaging in erotics. Emily Johnson, by bringing people together, is enacting a corporeal correspondence in the realm of the erotic.

SJN: Indigenous erotism is threatening to white supremacy because white supremacy seeks to corral Indigenous bodies into positions of incompleteness and of polarity. As Indigenous queers, we have an experience of being either fetishized or desexualized. Both of those are positions of erotic disempowerment. I am thinking about how settler colonial capitalism seeks to define Indigenous eroticism in terms of capital and ownership. Indigenous eroticism is hugely threatening to those structures. Because it is polymorphous and mercurial in nature. It is deeply queer. And was queer way before queer was a thing. We couldn't help but express that sovereign eroticism because we enact that in each other.

JMP: Many people said they had never been in the same space with so many Indigenous queer people. SJ: Very rarely do I get to inhabit a space where I feel fully embodied and fully sovereign and fully placed and fully at home as an Indigenous and queer. Those two parts are not separate, the separation of Queer and Indigenous is a product of settler colonialism but yet I can never find a space where those two parts of me can co-exist in their full expression. We need that profoundly. Neither of us wanted to explicitly name this as a queer program. In fact, we decided not to. As much as it is a useful word, it is still a placeholder that comes out of Western discourse and runs the risk of being colonizing. I am often asked questions by white queers about naming. Particularly because I am trans-masculine and queer and Indigenous and I am often put in positions where well-meaning white queers will be like is there a name in your culture for what you are? There is a lack of awareness of the violence that is embedded in the space of loss that they are hitting upon when they ask that question. People have these cravings towards taxonomy and systems of naming …

JMP: (fingers snapping).

SJN: …which is interesting to me because that is what queer theory has been gesturing against for decades!!

JMP: (fingers snapping).

SJN: There are a thousand Buzzfeed lists about how such and such tribe has x amount of words for this amount genders, et cetera. In recent public discourse around trans visibility, here has been a proliferation of a pretty hackneyed pop anthropology that summons Indigenous systems into broader trans discourse- as a means of leveraging or legitimizing the existence of trans people- which is deeply problematic for a range of reasons. There is insufficient reflection on behalf of many white queers and trans folks on this colonizing behavior. Our knowledge systems are being used to prove a point, and are being decontextualized and bastardized in the process, which does not serve anyone. Just a proposition: Maybe there was a name for me in Wiradjuri that was lost because of colonial violence. But then- maybe there wasn’t. Not because trans people and queer people did not exist in our culture, but because maybe we were just so normalized they didn’t need a name for us.

JMP: That reminds me of Sebastián Calfuqueo’s performance. He was highlighting colonial taxonomies while making room for the evolution of terms that we use to describe ourselves. Some terms we no longer have access to. Yet we are still here and still alive and we can adapt and use those terms. We can harness them and we can make new ones. Sebastian’s work is doing an archival tracing of loss that doesn't dwell on loss as an inherent deficit but rather responds to it through his own body. This is why his work was so eloquent. It underscored the liminal spaces that we inhabit as a potential rather than as deficit. Which is something I really identify with.

We have a term in Cherokee, asegi, which could mean queer, but I am hesitant to use that term for myself. I am not sure it attaches itself to me in a way I am comfortable with. I am resisting the urge to simplify myself into a term that makes me more legible for a white audience. When we are together as queer and/or two-spirit Indigenous people, these questions don’t come up. We don't need that because we understand each other. It doesn't require the same type of taxonomical ordering that Western modernity takes as foundational.

SJN: It is a refusal to acquiesce to those demands of legibility. Or a choice to acquiesce to them strategically but not expecting them to ground or hold us fully.

JMP: Rather than saying the term, I will tell the story of the term, or I will say that we have many terms for many genders and roles in the community.

SJN: We make ourselves through our stories, not through our namings.

JMP: For us, it is not so much I have a gender as it is I am gendering or I am ongoing. We are in procession. We are unfolding over time.

SJN: We are future-oriented people. That is how we survived what we survived. One of the great misapprehensions of our cultures on behalf of most white people is a notion that we are holding onto the past or holding on to this thing that happened to us. First of all, it is still happening to us! This is a profound misunderstanding of our relationships to time. It undermines the reality of our profound agility and adaptability. White folks are so far behind and they think they are in front! (Laughter)

We have survived all that you did to us. Do you think we succeeded in that by holding on to the past? No. The past holds on to us.

I am still in the process of decolonizing my relationship to time. We are all born into colonial structures and understandings of time. This is one of the reasons I work in durational performance. There is an important word in Wiradjuri that we have talked about a lot. This word- Yindjamarra- means slowly, gently. It is also a synonym for respect. It means: things take the time they take. Which is core to Wiradjuri lifeways.

JMP: This reminds me of the final fire ceremony, when devynn and Josh had set up three concentric containers and devynn called out to the seven directions that they have in Lenape cosmology; the four cardinal directions and above and below and the center. The center is where you are now, the juncture of the temporal and the geographical, where you can be ongoing, where you can be in motion or in procession, where you can be right where you are right now. We were grounded and centered in our collective space. We connected to each other and our ancestors from this centered and grounded space, from where we are now. SJ: According to Lenape and Cherokee protocol, a fire is never artificially extinguished. So at the end of Knowledge of Wounds a group of us sat with the fire until it died down naturally. The ashes were gathered and carried in a vessel to the East River where we each made an offering of ash. I think there were eight of us, all coming from different lineages. Echoing back to the gesture that was made the previous year during Cicatrix, and the contract that was made with the land and with that water, we created a continuum between us as kin in a joyful enlivened sovereignty. A fully embodied, erotic relationship with each other and with the land. Sealing that with a ceremonial gesture to Ancestral time

[1] Blak, Blakfulla- is a term of self-identification used by Aboriginal people in Australia, specifically diasporic and urban Indigenous people. It refers to all Aboriginal people, including those with fair skin. The term was coined by a queer Aboriginal Artist, Destiny Deacon in the 1980’s and is now in common parlance throughout Australia.

[2] From Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 217-218.

[3] Old People refers, among Aboriginal Australian populations, to the Ancestors.

[4] See Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014; and Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

[5] Joshua Whitehead, Jonny Appleseed, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018, p. 88.

[6] See Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003): 257-337.

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SJ Norman

S.J (Sarah-Jane) Norman (b. 1984) is a cross-disciplinary artist and writer. Their career has so far spanned 15 years and has embraced a diversity of disciplines and formal outcomes, including solo an...
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