May 25, 2009

Memorial Day and Beyond the Chief

I have spent this rainy Memorial Day thinking more about responses to the vandalism of “Beyond the Chief,” by artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Because this art installation of twelve red and white signs is to honor and remember those tribes and peoples who have come before us, I wondered about parallels between the damage to these memorial signs and destruction of other markers of ancestral spots, like graves. In 1993, the Jewish cemetery in Billings, Montana, was desecrated. A film called “Not in Our Town” was made about the collective response to hateful acts in Billings, and then two more DVDs from The Working Group followed, on other towns that responded to hate crimes.

A useful, brief discussion–“Vandalism to Art at the University of Illinois Native American House”–among WILL-AM staff Celeste Quinn, Director of American Indian Studies Robert Warrior, and Mr. Heap of Birds is archived on the radio’s website. While this interview came up when I search the UIUC website, there has been no official post regarding the vandalism (that I know of.)

There’s a now-six-year-old article on Heap of Birds’ work at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City that Wilhelm Murg wrote in Indian Country Today. At that museum, which is in the former U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green, Heap of Birds displayed his “Diary of Trees” which included “large text drawings and full-scale maquettes (large Y-shaped forms used in his studio) for ‘Wheel,’ his 50-foot outdoor sculpture designed for the Denver Art Museum.” I have always thought that the Smithsonian’s acquisition of the old custom house for Native American art exhibits was at least a beginning step toward reclaiming Manhattan. The Daniel Chester French sculpture from 1907, one of the four “Continents” that still mark the entry to the building in lower Manhattan, is of its time in its depiction of white domination and Indian subordination. I have written and spoken about it elsewhere, but this image pretty much says it all:

D.C. French, "America" 1907

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