KU marks reinstallation of Indigenous artwork vandalized, stolen at campus museum
Work by KU graduate Heap of Birds highlights historical tribes of region
University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University recognized the reinstallation of vandalized public art panels by KU graduate Edgar Heap of Birds, who offered viewers a sense of place by displaying the name of Kansas spelled backward next to the name of five tribes that previously inhabited the area. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — Musician Ron Brave paid respects with drum and flute to ancestors who lived on the land that became Kansas for a ceremony Thursday marking the return to public display of artist Edgar Heap of Birds’ five panels recognizing tribes that resided in the region.
The five aluminum panels on the lawn of Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas depict the colonial name of the area called Kansas but spelled backward. Each panel in the “Native Hosts” series by Heap of Birds, who graduated from KU in the 1970s, also features the name of tribes that historically inhabited the state. The list includes the Kaw, Kickapoo, Potawatomie, Ne Me Ha Ha Ki and Ioway tribes.
In September, two individuals were caught on security cameras vandalizing four of the panels. The fifth panel was stolen, but recovered. The City of Lawrence condemned the acts as racist. KU officials denounced the criminal behavior, while working to replace the artwork and return it to display on campus.
Robert Warrior, a distinguished professor of American literature and culture at KU and a friend of Heap of Birds, told about 100 people gathered outside the museum the panels were designed to compel a double-take by people walking past. The installations that could at first glance appear to be routine instructions about parking or other signage, he said, were an invitation for all people to think deeply about history often ignored.
“These panels are an invitation,” Warrior said. “To say, answer the question honestly, ‘Where are we?'”
He said vandalism and theft were upsetting reminders of attitudes held by some individuals content to make invisible the Indigenous people in Lawrence who study or teach at KU or nearby Haskell Indian Nations University.
“Imagine if someone is willing to do this to an object that’s out in public, how vulnerable are our students in dormitories or who are out having a bite to eat someplace?” Warrior said.
Heap of Birds wasn’t at the campus event but offered this message: “As in any proper decorum, it is fitting before one proceeds in life to properly recognize one’s host.”
Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of Spencer Museum of Art, said replacing the panels and keeping them on public display was important. The decision represented a land acknowledgement of who was on the small plateau at the center of campus long before KU, and who made the area home for thousands of years, she said.
“I was deeply troubled by the recent acts of vandalism and theft. The actions of these individuals have caused harm, particularly to Native communities,” Hardy said. “I am so grateful for all of you here, in this place, to acknowledge the reinstallation of this very important work of art.”
She said the museum brought Heap of Birds’ panels to campus in 2019 but decided to make them a permanent part of the museum’s collection and keep them on public view.
“This was in part because the power we saw they had to engage visitors and to remind all of us of the Native and Indigenous populations connected to the place on which we stand and where the Spencer Museum of Art resides,” Hardy said.
KU chancellor Doug Girod said the presence of work by an internationally renowned artist, a graduate of KU and a man who grew up in Wichita was an honor for the university.
“Obviously, this work is more than public art, or we probably wouldn’t be here today, quite honestly,” Girod said. “It’s really a piece of work that amplifies the voices of Indigenous and Native peoples. It provides some visibility of our Native community and really serves as an important acknowledgment of the Native peoples that currently or historically reside here on this land.”
He said the artwork provided a visual reminder of the spiritual and cultural significance of land to Indigenous people and the long history of Native people that predates formation of the United States.
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