This resource is a Tour Guide Crib Notes Set focusing on Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi, an artwork by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds on view in the Walker exhibition titled The Living Years.
"Tour Guide Crib Notes" are Art Collector Sets created by tour guides to share knowledge around single artworks or individual artists. Crib Notes Sets are not typically written for plug-and-play classroom use, but rather are intended for peer-to-peer sharing among guides. Crib Notes Sets are learning tools designed to organize and convey the following information:
Though the primary audience for Tour Guide Crib Notes Sets is volunteer tour guides, Crib Notes Sets may also be useful to educators, artists, or a general audience desiring more information about the artwork, artist, or exhibition.
Feel free to customize this Set for you or your audience. As a registered user of ArtsConnectEd, first duplicate this Set to make a copy in your account, and then edit its contents using Art Collector.
THE ARTIST'S NAME: The artist's full name is Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds. Hock E Aye Vi has previously been spelled "Hachivi". This former spelling persists in places, for example in ArtsConnectEd and the titles of Heap of Birds' artworks.
AUDIENCE FOR THIS ARTWORK: Since the work is text-based, basic reading skills are requisite. More sophisticated literacy skills are likely to enhance a viewer's insight into Heap of Birds' work. The artwork's political, social, and emotional content might be challenging for guides to deliver to audiences younger than grade 5.
USING THE TERM "AMERICAN INDIAN": The author acknowledges that terminology is controversial. While notions of identity are personal and terminology is fluid, the author of this Set looked to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu) as a model for word choices. All efforts were made to use terminology respectfully and accurately. The author is open to reader comments and invites you to share your suggestions publicly using ArtsConnectEd's Comment feature.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: See the Art Collector Set titled "Tour Guide Study Set: Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds" for more information.
Located in the first gallery of The Living Years exhibition at the Walker Art Center, one encounters this artwork by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds. Reading the artist's clearly printed words, one is immediately struck by the arresting message:
WE DON'T WANT INDIANS
JUST THEIR NAMES
The phrase "we don't want Indians" causes uncomfortable feelings to surface. Addressing these feelings is key to experiencing the artwork. As conversation takes its course, guides can acknowledge viewers' emotional responses while finding opportunities to share background information about the artist. Guides who incorporate this artwork in a tour should prepare to discuss sensitive issues surrounding colonialism, racism, and cultural intolerance through history to the present day, especially as seen from American Indian perspectives.
The artwork's text unflinchingly states that while "we don't want Indians," we do want their names, mascots, machines, cities, and buildings.
American Indian names are commonly used for sports mascots, car names, product brands, city names, etc.. (See attachment.) The artist is challenging the fact that America's dominant conceptions of Native peoples have very little to do with people and more to do with consumer products. He points to dehumanizing patterns in our language. Patterns in which living people are dismissed and the emblems of their culture are usurped.
In an artist talk, Heap of Birds once explained the backwards "NATURAL" as follows: "...I put 'natural' backwards to indicate that it's unnatural to do these things."
As a tour guide, I offer an additional way to interpret "˩AЯUTAИ." We are an audience viewing this work from a particular vantage point. In spatial terms, we stand "in front" of the work. But we also occupy a specific place in history and represent a distinct cultural bias. Imagine another audience behind the wall, viewing the art with us behind it. What would they see? This metaphor might illuminate the work for audiences.
Left: Photo of Heap of Birds by Ted Sherarts via Flickr
Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho) is an artist, writer, educator, curator, and tribal leader. Recognized for some of the earliest, and most powerful, conceptual Native American art, Heap of Birds pursues a multi-disciplinary practice combining the textual and the visual in installations, paintings, prints, drawings, and monumental sculpture. (Source: Bio courtesy Pomona College Museum of Art, 2013)
In researching Heap of Birds, I started to understand his belief that art is linked to the preservation of people. He examines what it means to restore identities that have been obscured by history or imprisoned by language. Sometimes, this exploration focuses on his own family history and tribal lands. Telling Many Magpies is an example. Heap of Birds' namesake and great great grandfather, Chief Many Magpies, lived at a time when the United States dispossessed the Cheyenne people of their homeland. Along with several other individuals, Many Magpies was relocated and eventually imprisoned in Florida. When Many Magpies' imprisoner mistranslated the name as "Heap o' Birds," he added a symbolic layer of disempowerment to the chief's already disenfranchised status. For Heap of Birds the artist, political messages in his art are very much about preservation, especially in light of past injustices and violence.
Heap of Birds' practice also involves making connections with other heritages outside his own. This has brought him to many distant places including Java, Indonesia, Australia, Cape Town, Mexico, and Italy. "Sharing spirit with other people around the world" is profoundly important to him and his art is evidence of this. When visiting other lands, he approaches that geography, culture, and history "from the back to the front." His real passion is digging down through layers of colonial residue to expose what came before.
EXHIBITIONS: Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds: Claim Your Color (exhibited at the Walker Art Center in 1990), a traveling survey organized by Exit Art, New York, more information available on Exit Art's archives pages (scroll about 2/3 down the page to find Claim Your Color)
ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE: 1990, in conjunction with Claim Your Color, Heap of Birds' three-month residency at the Walker Art Center resulted in the installation of Building Minnesota
COMMISSIONS: Building Minnesota (1990, on view spring through September), a public piece commissioned by the Walker in conjunction with their presentation of Claim Your Color
WALKER HOLDINGS: 3 sculptures (from the Building Minnesota series), 1 edition print (Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi)
The above summary was adapted from the artist's entry (page 263) in Bits & Pieces Put Together To Present a Semblance of a Whole, the catalogue of Walker Collections edited by Joan Rothfuss and Betsy Carpenter. (D.A.P., New York, 2005.)
I encourage tour guides to include Telling Many Magpies... on their tours and share with visitors some of its relevant content.
This artwork is a prime opportunity to encourage critical reading and discuss how art can be used to investigate the nature of language. More than a value-neutral tool, languages are complex signifiers of power, meaning-making, and culture.
Cultural misappropriation affects all of us as consumers of popular culture. Some visitors may be familiar with recent controversial fashion campaigns that insensitively appropriated American Indian designs and dress. With knowledge and practice, we can learn to identify cultural misappropriation and become better at treating all human beings and cultures with respect.
2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War. To acknowledge this profoundly painful history and share scholarship on the subject, the Minnesota History Center organized a major exhibit. (http://www.usdakotawar.org/) Heap of Birds' site-specific installation titled Building Minnesota has direct relevance to the War and this moment in which we acknowledge its tragic aftermath.
American Indians and their cultures are part of Minnesota's communities present, future, and past. Examining history helps us to understand the devastating effects of racism and stereotyping. Unfortunately, racism and stereotyping persist in our society, robbing us of the pride we could have in ourselves and the respect we should have for others. Heap of Birds draws our attention to dehumanizing patterns in the very words we speak. His art is a potent reminder that we are all human, living people.