Article updated at 2:40 and 5:53 p.m. Thursday:
The University of Kansas Office of Public Safety has identified two suspects believed to have vandalized Native American artwork on KU’s campus, Deputy Chief James Druen said via email Thursday.
The work of art, by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne, Arapaho), consists of five panels that name Native tribes who historically or currently inhabited the region now called Kansas.
On Sept. 4, four of the five panels 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 had remained on display until it was stolen sometime around Sept. 29, but it was later returned. All the panels have since been reinstalled.
The case has been submitted to the Douglas County district attorney’s office for charging consideration, Druen said. The vandalism suspects were identified through an anonymous tip. Druen said the theft case was submitted to the DA’s office for charging consideration on Oct. 4.
Jill Jess, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, said Thursday afternoon that the office had no updates yet on the theft case, and new matters likely won’t be reviewed until next week because staff is virtually attending the Kansas County & District Attorneys Association Fall Conference Thursday and Friday.
If one or more suspects is booked into jail or charged with a crime in connection with the theft or vandalism, their identities will become public information. Law enforcement is not required to release suspects’ names, and the pages of police reports that include suspects’ names are considered criminal investigation records that are not subject to Kansas’ open record laws.
Druen could not immediately be reached late Thursday afternoon to clarify why KUPD did not release the suspects’ identities in this case; however, in his initial email, he said he would have no further comment on the case because it had been submitted to the DA.
The vandalism and theft of the panels have been deeply upsetting for many Native students, faculty and staff in the KU and Haskell communities and beyond. Student leaders with KU’s First Nations Student Association organized a protest on Sept. 30 to call for action after the theft of the fifth panel.
“I want them to prosecute whoever did this to the fullest extent,” Tweesna Mills, Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations, co-chair of the FSNA, said during the protest. “We’re going to keep standing out in the rain and we’ll keep standing out here until we get the respect we deserve.”
Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and a University Distinguished Professor, said on Sept. 30 that 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.”
The type of charges that any suspect might face in connection with the theft or vandalism would depend in part on how prosecutors value the work, how badly the panels were damaged, and whether the lawn is considered sacred space.
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 panels from a “Native Hosts” installation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Prosecutors there 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 panels by Heap of Birds at $10,000 each, according to the article.
In Kansas, theft of a value of more than $1,500 is a low-level felony; theft of a value smaller than that would be a misdemeanor. Criminal damage to property — or aggravated criminal damage to the works of art — could also be a felony.
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Protesters from the University of Kansas First Nations Student Association and the KU community stuck out the thunderstorm Thursday afternoon to share thoughts, songs and support during a gathering outside of the Spencer Museum of Art, where four panels of Indigenous art installation “Native Hosts” had been vandalized and one was stolen.
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.