The Cost of an Exhibit: Beyond the Chief

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IN MID-FEBRUARY, HOCK E AYE VI, Edgar Heap of Birds, a
Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, visited the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign campus. Just days after his
“Beyond the Chief” exhibit debuted on Nevada Street,
Heap of Birds gave a talk about the social justice elements
of his work. Heap of Birds explained that his
exhibits are intended to make viewers confront America’s
controversial past and reflect on the treatment of Native
peoples, as well as to understand Native peoples’ resistance
to colonial imposition.
The “Beyond the Chief” exhibit is specifically intended
for viewers to reflect on the history of Illinois. The top
words on the signs, “Fighting Illini,” are printed backwards
to enhance this effect. Additionally, each of the
twelve signs represents an Indigenous group who once
belonged to the lands now known as “Illinois.” These
include Kaskaskia, Peoria, and Wea. The signs are
reminders of those whose lands we now walk upon, work
upon, and live upon. By reflecting back, we can try to
understand the complex histories of forced removal and
attempt to respect those who came before us.
Heap of Birds’ work is often politically-charged in
nature, and the “Beyond the Chief” exhibit is no exception.
The damage done to the exhibit, then, provokes much
wonder due to the political significance of the signs. One
of the signs in the exhibit showed considerable damage
when Robert Warrior, the Director of the Native American
House, John McKinn, the Assistant Director of the Native
American House, and I passed by the sign on the afternoon
of Monday, March 16. The sign that was damaged
was the “Peoria” sign, one of three signs installed directly
outside of the Native American House. It appeared as if
someone had used a shoulder or foot to crush the sign, as
it was bent in at the center, the ends pulled in toward each
other. Each sign is appraised at $10,000 each due to artist
fees, cost of materials, and cost of installation.
The monetary damage done to the sign is significant,
but is it more significant than it seems? Was the perpetrator
merely a drunk college student on their way home
from the bar, picking out random things to destroy? Or
was the damage to the sign a malicious attack on the
Native American House and
the “Beyond the Chief” exhibit?
As a Native student and an
employee of the Native
American House, who has
dealt with the overwhelming
racist attitude of many folks
on and off campus and who
has witnessed many verbal
attacks on the Native American
House, on Native students,
and on Native peoples and communities in general,
it is difficult to dismiss this incident as a harmless prank.
Because the “Peoria” sign was singled out, the intent of the
perpetrator further comes into question. A picture of the
“Peoria” sign is what was used by the Native American
House to widely publicize the “Beyond the Chief” exhibit
and the Heap of Birds visit and presentations at the University.
Not only was the “Peoria” sign the most recognizable
sign of the exhibit, but the Chiefs of the Peoria
Nation, Chief John Froman and Second Chief Jason Dollarhide,
had visited campus as part of the “Meet the Chief”
event less than one week prior to the damage done to the
exhibit. All of this makes one wonder if the damage done
to the exhibit is just as symbolic as the exhibit itself. Did
the perpetrator intend to attack the Native American
House? Is this a reaction against the activities created by
the Native American House, especially those surrounding
“chief illiniwek”?
I suppose we may never know the answers to those
questions. But, what still remains evident by this occurrence
and the commentary after this story was reported by
the Daily Illini is this community’s
dire need for education
about Native peoples,
communities, and nations by
Native peoples. This is what
the Native American House
and American Indian Studies
program try to achieve with
programs like “Meet the
Chief” and the Heap of Birds
exhibit “Beyond the Chief.”
It is just unfortunate that our efforts always seem to come
at an additional cost.

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