Earlier this week I watched as Edgar Heap of Birds, "Beyond the Chief" was being set up on our campus. All along Nevada Street are signs like the one shown here.
Click on the photo so you can read the words. The first line is "FIGHTING ILLINI" --- but it's printed backwards. The second and third lines say "TODAY YOUR HOST IS" and the bottom line has the name of a tribe.
I stood outside and watched students for awhile. Some pass right past the signs, absorbed in their thoughts or conversations, but once someone notices one, the entire group slows down, trying to make sense of the sign. One student said to her companion "Are they back?"
Another student stopped, stepped back, and lifted his sunglasses, peering at the sign. He altered his route, walking down Nevada to read some of the other signs, then resumed his route.
Here's the press release of the exhibit.
URBANA, IL -- February 10, 2009
The influential work of HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds, a Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, challenges viewers to re-imagine public spaces as American Indian.
In his exhibit "Beyond the Chief" on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, signs and language remind the campus community whose land they occupy: this includes the Peoria-Piankesaw-Kaskaskia-Wea Homelands. The signs are now installed along West Nevada Street.
By using media that resembles official city and state signage, Heap of Birds creates a conceptual space in a given environment that reinforces the historic and political presence of American Indian communities that live within these lands.
In this exhibit, the words "Fighting Illini" are printed backwards on each sign to provoke the viewer to reflect upon the past and to recognize a more complex history to this land. Read more about the "Beyond the Chief" exhibit, including the Artist’s Statement, on the "Features" page.
Heap of Birds’ other public interventions have included "Building Minnesota," "Day and Night" in Seattle, "Reclaim" in New York, and "Wheel" in Denver, Colorado. More of his work is available online.
Heap of Birds’ art includes multi-disciplinary forms of public art messages, large scale drawings, acrylic paintings, prints and monumental porcelain enamel on steel outdoor sculpture. He currently lives in Oklahoma City and is Professor of painting and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
An artist’s talk and opening reception is planned for Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at the Asian American Cultural Center, 1210 West Nevada Street, Urbana, at 5:30pm; a campus lecture is scheduled on Thursday, February 19 at School of Art and Design, Room 229 408 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign, at 12 noon. These events are free and open to the public. We especially encourage media to attend the opening reception Wednesday where the artist will be made available to speak about the exhibit.
The exhibit is Paid for by the Student Cultural Programming Fee and sponsored by the Native American House, American Indian Studies, African American Studies, La Casa Cultural Latina, Asian American Studies, and Asian American Cultural Center.
The exhibit will run to December 2009.
And here's our statement about the exhibit, followed by the Artist Statement and Biography.
"Beyond the Chief" provides an opportunity for those of us at the University of Illinois to consider the indigenous history of our campus and the state in which we live. The signs in this public art exhibit include the names of a dozen Indigenous peoples whose homelands are within the boundaries of the state of Illinois. Many of these peoples continue today with viable governments, cultures, and languages. All of them remain, even if some are only remnants of what they once were. Members of these groups live, learn, and work on campus. We at Native American House and American Indian Studies hope "Beyond the Chief" helps all of us who share our campus learn more about those whose homelands we occupy.
Of course these words ["Beyond the Chief"] speak to extending discussion beyond the campus "chief" and its insensitive history (while still hinting at the problem); yet, the title also is derived from my own Cheyenne tribe where there is a council of 44 chiefs - and from which came four principal chiefs. The first man named Heap of Birds was one of these principal chiefs.
Most non-native people think about the chief position as if he were president or executive. In fact, chiefs often sat as a council representing bands and many families; they also differed from war chiefs or headsmen of warrior societies (one of which I belong to).
In Cheyenne tradition a chief had no personal property. All that he and his family owned was offered to tribal members on request (this is sometimes a demand even today) once the chief took the position. Chiefs were selected because of their generosity. Many men did not wish to become chief because of this point. Chiefs were chosen by chiefs, but could decline.
A chief is far beyond one person and should reflect an honor and allegiance -- as well as truth, tradition, listening, openness, and good way -- to a whole people.
As we install these 12 sign panels, we walk forward on the University of Illinois campus to honor these ideals and intertribal brothers and sisters from a circular position of respect.
The art of Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds includes public art messages, drawings, paintings, prints, works in glass, and sculpture. His work was deployed as a collateral public art project by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian for the 2007 Venice Biennale. He received his M.F.A. from Tyler School of Art, his B.F.A. from the University of Kansas, and has undertaken graduate studies at the Royal College of Art in London and awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Heap of Birds teaches Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, and the Andy Warhol Foundation.
Last, here's a link to the Facebook group, Friends of "Beyond the Chief."