May 21, 2009

And What Else Beyond?

This morning I tied plastic-covered strips of paper to each of the signs in “Beyond the Chief,” an installation by Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois, in Urbana. The strips read:
On May 17, 2009, the artist Edgar Heap of Birds was quoted in The News-Gazette:
“[This is] really a memorial to the tribes that are gone….When natives make memorials to themselves or their losses that’s more important than a college mascot or other issue. Everything doesn’t have to be about the dominant white culture.”

Indeed, everything is not about the dominant white culture, but it is always a challenge to confront that dominance without simultaneously centering it. The most recent vandalism to “Beyond the Chief” (the sixth by my count, on May 20, apparently during the day) of course saddened and angered me, but I was also torn about an effective response. Would expressing outrage satisfy the vandal(s)? Could I respond creatively and respectfully to such acts of intolerance? (The vandalisms are acts of intolerance.) Are we inching forward, away from the toxic past of that mascot, toward a culture of respect? Or are we backsliding? Will it always be a push-and-pull between people’s hateful actions and words, and calls for conversation and dialogue? How to get past the irony that Mr. Heap of Birds’ art is property, with an assessed value, that comments on land that is stolen property, which wasn’t initially viewed as property, but rather as a gift to be held in sacred trust? Where do we begin to heal the many breaches of trust?

For a start, we must apologize to the artist and to the students, staff, faculty, and alumni who have worked so long and hard to make a (theoretically) safe space for indigeneities at UIUC because we have not been able to provide a safe space. Who is “we”? Ideally, “we” is the institution and its official subgroups, but I’ll say this now:
I am sorry. Out of that regret and sorrow, I will act with love, to the best of my ability.
Not a cursory sorry, not an unhelpful guilty sorry, but an apology that acknowledges from my heart that I share in and have benefited from a legacy of genocide, theft, greed, and hate in which John Iryshe, bastard son of an English mother, and all of his descendants from 1629 on, including me, participated, directly or indirectly.

I hold that sorrow together with joy, for my life, and for the variety of lives around me. I reach out from that joy as best I can. While I have long admired the work of Edgar Heap of Birds, I felt joy walking down Nevada Street to work everyday, before the vandals struck, and struck again, and again. For me, the public artwork of Heap of Birds goes to the center of vital issues, ideas that prompt questions and honor others. It is about respect.
And what else?

We must buy this work of art, to continue the implicit conversations among us, to continue to honor those who came before, whom we long dishonored.
And what else?

Retire the name “Fighting Illini.” Find a new mascot and new music for sporting events.
And what else?
Make this mission statement on the official “Illini” website real:
“To have the highest quality athletic program in all sports that allows the University of Illinois teams to compete for championships in the Big Ten Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association…with integrity and a caring community.”
See another post other for possible actions.

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