Leaders of the University of Kansas First Nations Student Association were reeling Friday night, nearly a week after multiple pieces of the KU Common Work of Art were vandalized — not only because of the destruction of the Native exhibit, but because they feel the situation hasn’t garnered enough attention from KU administrators.
The work of art, “Native Host,” by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne, Arapaho), consists of five signs that name Native tribes who historically or currently inhabited the region now called Kansas.
“On each sign, the colonial name is printed backward while the name of the land’s original occupants is printed forward,” according to the Spencer Museum of Art. “The visual tension that Heap of Birds creates between these names aims to remind viewers of the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their homelands as well as their continued and active presence in the Americas.”
But on Saturday, Sept. 4, four of the five signs were bent and knocked loose from their posts outside the museum; one fell to the ground. Museum staff removed the four from display to prevent further damage, but the fifth remains on display, the museum said in a news release Friday. The KU Office of Public Safety released an image of what appears to be two young white men who are considered suspects.
In a strong statement, Myltin Bighorn – Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribe, Tweesna Mills – Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations, and D’Arlyn Bell – Cherokee Nation, said that on behalf of FNSA, they wanted to express “in the strongest terms possible our deep offense and absolute indignation at this destruction of Native representation on KU campus.”
“We cannot help but feel that this malicious attack is not receiving the seriousness it deserves,” their statement continued. “Given the statements released this week, we are disappointed in the silence from KU. We are calling on KU administration and leadership to issue a statement of condemnation in solidarity with us as we reconcile ourselves to the meaning of these most unfortunate events.”
“Native Host” was selected as the Common Work of Art in July, following the KU Common Book selection of “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book was also the first work chosen as the common book for both KU and Haskell Indian Nations University.
“Kimmerer weaves together Indigenous and scientific ways of knowing to prompt a relationship of reciprocity in which people and land serve as good medicine for each other,” according to an article from the Spencer Museum of Art. “One obstacle to this reciprocity, Kimmerer argues, is a need for greater knowledge about the history and culture of the land. She states, ‘Our relationship with land cannot heal until we hear its stories.'”
The text-based artworks by Heap of Birds name Native tribes, which he explained in the museum’s article: “The Kaw selection represents a historic tribe and river from the Lawrence area. The tribe has since been forcibly removed to Oklahoma Indian Territory near Ponca City, Oklahoma. The other four nations listed are the only tribes that have reservation status and land holdings in Kansas. Ne Me Ha Ha Ki is the preferred name of the Sac and Fox Nation of Kansas. With my project it is often fitting to offer an original tribal spelling of the Indigenous nation.”
The FNSA students wrote in their statement about the deeper meaning and purpose of this work of art.
“This exhibit was intended to draw attention to issues of Native sovereignty, colonial dispossession and respect and honor for Indigenous peoples upon whose land KU’s campus occupies. Native exhibits are incredible tools for creating conversations and drawing attention to our history and the value we bring to our areas of study and our interactions with the community at large.”
Bighorn, Mills and Bell also call upon student groups and leaders to ask questions and identify the perpetrators so that they may be held accountable. Joining them in that sentiment, earlier Friday night in a tweet, was Kansas Rep. Christina Haswood, a Lawrence Democrat. She said she was saddened and enraged about the “attack on Indigenous art,” and that “Accountability and justice must be served.”
The student leaders of FNSA also asked “for the entire KU community to not delegate to us the monumental task of educating the uneducated and misinformed on issues we hold dear – tribal sovereignty, culture and community, Native values, connection to the land, ‘land acknowledgments’, just to name a few,” they wrote. “Rather instigate these conversations yourselves in your given domains and in your spheres of influence.”
They, too, quoted Kimmerer, from “Braiding Sweetgrass”: “The People have endured the pain of being bystanders to the degradation of their lands, but they never surrendered their caregiving responsibilities. They have continued the ceremonies that honor the land and their connection to it.”
“We are still here!” the students said to conclude their statement.
The museum, too, expressed sadness for the artwork and urged administrators to “understand this incident with the seriousness it deserves.”
“We particularly want to acknowledge the harm this has caused Native faculty, staff, students, and community members and remain committed to affirming Indigenous and Native sovereignty and experiences through art.”
“… We are committed to reinstalling this work as quickly as possible,” the Spencer Museum said in its Friday news release. “We have been in conversation with Edgar Heap of Birds, as well as many campus partners, and are grateful for their support. We are working closely with the artist and these partners to determine appropriate next steps. We will continue to provide updates as they are available and look forward to celebrating the reinstallation of these panels with you all.”
Anyone with information about the identities of the two men pictured above are asked to please call the KU Public Safety Office at 785-864-5900.
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— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363.