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An 'anti-World's Fair' makes its case: give land back to Native Americans


In the U.S. it is now common to hear or see acknowledgments that Indigenous peoples are the original stewards of the land. A new art installation argues that Americans should go further. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco brings us this report from Queens, N.Y.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: On an empty lot next to an elevated train line is a tall, very philosophical tree, talking about the first European settlers in America.


AUTOMATED VOICE #1: (As tree) Inspired, fascinated and terrified by the freedoms they saw in Indigenous communities.

VANASCO: The tree is talking to a very large beaver. They're both animatronic - think Disney World. They have strangely lifelike eyes and mouths that move.


AUTOMATED VOICE #2: (As beaver) It was almost adorable seeing those pilgrims try to wrap their brains around what liberty really meant.

VANASCO: The beaver and tree are surrounded by colorful posters and four areas with screens playing documentary and mockumentary films. It's all part of a tongue-in-cheek art installation called "The World's UnFair," from three Indigenous artists with one goal - to convince folks to give land back to the peoples who once occupied it. I was skeptical at first, but giving it back wholesale is not what these artists have in mind.

ZACK KHALIL: One block at a time.

VANASCO: That's Zach Khalil, a filmmaker and artist. He's Chippewa.

Z KHALIL: From Bowating, or so-called Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., based currently in Lenapehoking, or so-called New York.

VANASCO: He says giving land back is not something that could happen. It's something that's happening. The artists are just drawing attention to it.

Z KHALIL: It just requires people to believe in it.

VANASCO: In North America, it turns out a lot of people do.


KIM BERGEL: I'm Kim Bergel, and I am the mayor of Eureka.

VANASCO: That's Eureka, Ore. This is from one of the films in the installation.


BERGEL: We had a horrific history with our tribes. And I'm so proud of our city that we were able to make a small amends by returning an island where a massacre, horrible massacre, happened.

VANASCO: Eureka gave back an island to Indigenous groups. Oakland, Calif., gave them five acres. Watching testimonial after testimonial normalizes the idea. This is not that new. People give property to the Nature Conservancy or will it to their alma maters. This is along those lines. Zack's brother, artist Adam Khalil.

ADAM KHALIL: We'd started this project three or four years ago and started noticing there's an exponential rise in people who'd voluntarily given land back.

VANASCO: The Khalils and their compatriot Jackson Polys - he's Tlingit from Alaska originally - they hope that the carnival nature of the installation will draw non-Native people in. Adam says this is one of the important functions of art, to help people imagine a different future.

A KHALIL: I would just encourage people, if they have the means and ability, to give it back and if they don't, maybe help Indigenous people take it back.

VANASCO: He means it. They're trying to recruit you to be an accomplice...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We help you find, buy and give back real estate.

VANASCO: ...Using the language of marketing and get-rich-quick schemes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get in on the ground floor of a growing and vibrant movement. Undermine the very concept of property.

VANASCO: It sounds easy when it's put like that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So hurry up. Give it back. Let it go.

VANASCO: The three artists are part of what I would call an artist collective, but what they say is public secret society, New Red Order. Adam Khalil.

A KHALIL: I actually don't know who started New Red Order. I was recruited into it.

VANASCO: Really? 'Cause I was really under the impression that it, like, started off with the three of you, and then it...

A KHALIL: It started with the Boston Tea Party.

VANASCO: That's when the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawks to disguise their identities. His point is that Americans have been fascinated with Native American culture for over 250 years. The artists say, OK, you want to join together with us? We'll welcome you with one caveat.

A KHALIL: Hey, got land? Like got milk.

VANASCO: Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.