U.S. Deaths Near An Incalculable Loss

Issue Seven: Between Two Knees
Kohar Avakian
June 7, 2022
Kohar Avakian

Kohar Avakian is a Nipmuc, Black, and Armenian artist, visual storyteller, and scholar from Worcester, Massachusetts, the ancestral land of her tribe, the Nipmuc Nation, and home to one of the oldest Armenian communities in the U.S. She holds a B.A. in History, modified with Native American Studies, from Dartmouth College and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. As a descendant of genocide survivors still awaiting reparations, she has experienced the unparalleled power of learning about other peoples' histories through their own eyes firsthand. Adding vibrancy and color to her life as a graduate student, photography, oral history interviews, and multi-media art (digital collage, drawing, ceramics) have provided her an outlet to explore the intersection of race, reparations, memory, kinship, and virtual presence in the digital 21st century.

“U.S. Deaths Near An Incalculable Loss" is a time-collapsing collage and a political commentary on genocide, photography, representation, and time created in response to Between Two Knees by the 1491s. The Native comedy troupe’s new play is about the generation-altering legacy wrought by the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and committed at Indian boarding schools across what is now North America. On May 11, 2022, the United States government finally answered to the genocidal crimes it sponsored against Indigenous youth at the 400+ federally-funded Indian  boarding schools  concentration camps founded between 1819 and 1969. The U.S. Department of the Interior released an investigative report formally detailing the incalculable losses that generations of Indigenous people already knew and felt. There were over 500 “confirmed student deaths” across nineteen institutions, and still many more unaccounted for and unnamed. In 2021, the stolen remains of over 1,300 Indigenous children were unearthed at former “Indian residential schools” in Canada. A federally-funded genocide was committed in plain sight. 

This piece was inspired by the play's poignant, yet beautiful analogy that compared the survivors of boarding schools to shadows. I combine the solemn and sobering New York Times headline "U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS," published on May 24, 2020, with twelve archival images forcibly captured at these sites of genocide, perhaps most notable being the "Before and After" portraits taken at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. What happened in the space between that before and after? This palimpsestic visual represents the accumulation of death committed at the hands of the U.S. government, the piercing palpability of intergenerational trauma, and the amnesiac simultaneity of time experienced by survivors and their descendants in the aftermath of such unspeakable loss. Like the one million souls taken too soon by COVID-19, the pronounced yet invisible presence of their collective absence will remain imprinted upon generations. Like shadows of light, the survival of their memory radiates and reverberates eternally, transcending space and time. I commemorate the losses––the countless children, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and relatives––whose lives extend beyond a number. 

It was no coincidence that I ended up in a room full of other Natives to see Between Two Knees on the day that the U.S. released that monumental report on boarding schools. When dealing with histories as genocidal as ours, laughter has been a constant salve for our pain. We had the opportunity to watch the play as a dress rehearsal right before its final release. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The experience of being with a Native audience was joyous, hysteria-inducing, and at times, somberly silent. The vaudeville-inspired set was ornately orchestrated and the room was thick with ripe laughter, thanks to Truman, a member of the Indigenous community at Yale whose laugh echoed throughout the room seconds into the play. After the show, I told Truman that he’s got a laugh so good that people should pay him to be an audience member. Throughout the course of the play, I lost complete track of time. Hysteria took over the room, and I felt the magic of live performance for the first time in a long time. 

Between Two Knees was a reminder that like the circularity of pain, intergenerational trauma, and life itself, joy always returns (often in the form of lewd jokes, silly dance sequences, and spontaneous song breakouts). Following multiple generations of a family between their experiences at Wounded Knee during the massacre of 1890 and the American Indian Movement occupation in 1973, the play brings to life this universal truth: everything circles back. The Wounded Knee massacre––an event of many names-–did not end in 1890. Rather, an ending is simply a beginning. Life always comes after death. We are all caught in an intricately entangled web of time. We all represent the seventh generation to another, just as we are all ancestors in the making. In the aftermath of such unspeakable tragedy, our ancestors had no choice but to collect their things and keep walking. Their survival allowed us to experience the joy of being together in that room. As we walked out of the theatre, I looked up at the moon. There was a radiant rainbow ring of light encircling it, hugging all of its deep shadow-filled crevices. I thought back to the image of our ancestors as loyal shadows and felt their presence walking with us. May their light continue to reach the darkest shadows and may their shadows find the light.

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