Thursday, February 12, 2009

Edgar Heap of Birds' Exhibit: BEYOND THE CHIEF

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.

Artist's Statement

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."

As media coverage occurs or other developments unfold, I'll provide updates here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cynthia Leitich Smith's ETERNAL

Cynthia Leitich Smith's new book, Eternal, was launched yesterday. I read a copy a few weeks ago. It is a page-turner about vampires and angels and... It's quite a ride, from Austin to Chicago. I'll leave it there for you to read. If you're a fan of gothic fiction, take a look at Eternal.

As you may know, my blog is about children's books about American Indians. That's what most of the content is about.

However! I think it important that children and teens know that Native people write stories, and that not all of their stories are about Native people. Cynthia's range of books is a good case in point. If you read her YA novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, read her vampire novels, too. Her first one is Tantalize, Eternal is the second, and a third one is in the works.

In Tribal Secrets, Robert Warrior writes about American Indian literature and criticism. He says "producers of American Indian literature continue to push the boundaries of creativity by bringing European vampires to Navajo country..." Warrior notes that such a book "does not fit into standard definitions of Indian writing..." but he goes on to say that the increase in such books "seems more than enough justification for some fundamental reworking of scholarly understandings of American Indian literature, culture, and experience."

In essence, it is important that we be open to what is being written by Native writers. Don't pigeon hole them or their writing. Expand your expectations of what Native writers write about.

Read Native writers, whether their stories are about Native life, or vampires.

So! Eternal. Click on over to Cynsations where you'll learn a lot about the book. There's more at Smith's website including a very cool book trailer that perfectly captures the mood of the book.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"What Students Need to Know about America's Wars"

I'm on a listserv for the National Council of Teachers of Social Studies. Yesterday a subscriber posted information about an upcoming "History Institute for Teachers" called "What Students Need to Know about America's Wars." Curious, I checked out the webpages, looking specifically at the video of a session that was on war with Native peoples.

It was an unpleasant experience. Perhaps I should not have taken the time...

The material is developed by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The lecturer, a man named Skarstedt, notes that there are ideological disagreements over the ways that history of American Indian/United States conflict is presented, but it is clear in his remarks where he stands in the debate.

He begins by saying students wonder why they need to study the frontier wars. He tells the teachers gathered in the session why it is important, using Apaches as an example.

He shows a photograph of four Apache men. He carefully describes the weapons they hold and talks at length about how skilled they were. How they were able to blend into their surroundings, very resourceful, could survive for days with little food or water. They knew the terrain and were "tough as nails."

Then Skarstedt asks "What did the US do to get them?"

He shows the next photograph: men on horses. It is the cavalry! On horseback, he tells us, the US was able to wear down, defeat, and capture the Apaches. And here is why studying the Frontier Wars matters:  He says the US learned valuable lessons by fighting the Apaches, lessons that it uses today, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of wars with Indians, he says, the US developed its "special ops" teams.

Next slide?

It is a photograph of two men, with weapons, wearing masks. They're in Afghanistan or Iraq (Skarstedt doesn't specify). They, he says, are like those Indians. Tough, well-armed, fast moving, blend into the environment, lots of firepower, willing to endure great sacrifice.

His next photograph is one of soldiers, again, on horseback. They are, he tells us, the special ops unit that is pursuing fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Seeing those images used that way was deeply troubling to me. Apaches and Iraq/Afghan's. Obviously he feels they were/are enemies of the US who must be taken down. Who do you think they are? What do you think they were/are doing?

He argued at the opening of his lecture, for people to recognize the complexity of conflict and how it is presented, and then he goes on to do otherwise. In making his points about war tactics, he introduces and affirms simplistic notions.

Later in the lecture he speaks about the people of Cahokia and Taos Pueblo. Both, he says, are gone. They were very advanced and peaceful, he tells us, but they are no longer around. Probably, he says, due to the warring tribes, of which he names the Apache, Comanche, and Sioux. Of course, the people of Taos are not gone. They're a thriving Native Nation!

I wonder if he's ever tried to give this lecture to an audience that includes American Indians?

Update, May 3rd, 2011: You can view the entire lecture, or see Skarstedt's slides by going here. Scroll down to the section called "The Frontier Years."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Indigenizing Children's Literature

In 2008, the Journal of Language and Literacy (JoLLE) published an article I wrote. Titled "Indigenizing Children's Literature," it is a critical look at Little House on the Prairie and Thanksgiving Day. The article is one of several published in Volume 4(2), 2008, a special issue devoted to children's literature and literacy. JoLLE is a peer-reviewed online journal. I submitted this paper there, specifically because it is an online journal, thereby making it like my blog (accessible to anyone who has an internet connection).

In the conclusion, I make some connections between images and ideology in those two books and America's wartime activity. I welcome your thoughts and comments on the article.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Nora Naranjo-Morse

Last weekend I watched Nora Naranjo-Morse's lecture, given at the National Museum of the American Indian, in 2007. She was there that summer working on the pieces for the "Always Becoming" installation.

Her lecture was part of the Vine Deloria, Jr. Native Writers Series. It is archived on the NMAI website and is about an hour long. She read several poems, including one that especially struck me--for its imagery, for its emotion, for its power. It is called "A Telegram." Prior to reading it, she talked about writing that poem when she was a teenager, and finishing it last year.

"A Telegram" is about learning that her brother had been wounded in Vietnam. The poem she read at NMAI has not yet been published, but an earlier version of it is in Hirschfelder and Singer's Rising Voices: Writing of Young Native Americans, published in 1992.

Nora is working on a documentary about Always Becoming. She is blogging about it, too. You can follow the project at her blog, also called Always Becoming. She's a poet, a sculptor, a filmmaker. Studying her work, in an art, lit, or film class, would be an incredibly rich experience.

Her book, Mud Woman, is available from Oyate.