Article updated at 2:30 p.m., 5:18 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30:
A part of the “Native Hosts” art installation reported stolen on the University of Kansas campus has been recovered, relatively undamaged, according to the KU Public Safety Office.
The work of art, 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 Sept. 4, four of the five signs were bent and knocked loose from their posts outside the Spencer Museum of Art in an act of vandalism, so staff removed them from display to prevent further damage. The fifth sign had remained on display until sometime prior to Wednesday, when administrators learned that it had been stolen.
KU PSO Deputy Chief James Druen said that “A tip got called in to the museum of where it possibly was and that was forwarded to us. Some officers and a detective went to the location and recovered the sign.” The sign has been returned to the museum, he said.
Many in the KU community and beyond have been upset by both the vandalism and the theft of the last sign. Leaders of KU’s First Nations Student Association said on Twitter Wednesday night that “This is a hate crime. Racism is loud and clear!”
Druen said Thursday that after a preliminary interview, there’s “no indication that the person took the panel because of its content.” The suspects said they were intoxicated, and if they’d known the meaning of the sign, they never would have taken it. “They just thought it looked cool because it had ‘Kansas’ mirrored on it, and that it would be cool to have,” Druen said.
An article about the artwork from the museum explains that “On each sign, the colonial name is printed backward while the name of the land’s original occupants is printed forward. 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.”
Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and a University Distinguished Professor, said she doesn’t think the reaction would be the same if the suspects had desecrated Danforth Chapel or defaced the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on campus.
“From an Indigenous perspective … it’s sacred space, just like the chapel is,” she said. “So the psychic harm of having a synagogue or a chapel damaged or vandalized — it’s very parallel, but people don’t often see that.”
She said people don’t make the connection that outdoor space is sacred space, but it is — “People put medicine down there. It’s not just any old lawn on campus. It’s a pretty important one. It was desecrated, and it should be treated as desecration of a sacred space.”
She hopes the university doesn’t lose Native students over this, but there has been psychological and spiritual harm done.
“Because of the invisibility of Native people — people think we’re dead, they don’t even realize there’s Native students on campus — it has that impact. Drunk or not, the people need to know the harm they’ve done,” she said.
Deer said similar things have happened to artist Heap of Birds’ work before. According to a 2009 article from The News-Gazette in Urbana, Illinois, a man there was charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing two signs in a “Native Hosts” installation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Prosecutors only valued the work at the cost of the metal and materials to create it, rather than valuing it as fine art. The difference meant that man was charged with theft of about $300, but art appraisers valued similar signs by Heap of Birds at $10,000 each, according to the article. Deer likened that to charging someone with the cost of the paint rather than the value of the Mona Lisa.
“I think the next step that a lot of the students are waiting to hear is, is there going to be some form of accountability for the people who did this?” she said.
Druen said police are sending their report on the sign theft to the Douglas County district attorney’s office for charging consideration.
Druen said there were no updates thus far on the vandalism of the four damaged signs. Anyone with information about the crime(s) is asked to contact 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 at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.