Edgar Heap of Birds Speaks at Closing of “Beyond the Chief” Exhibit

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On December 4, 2009, Cheyenne-Arapaho
artist Edgar Heap of Birds gave a
talk at the YMCA on the University of
Illinois campus for the closing of his
“Beyond the Chief” art exhibit. He
spoke publicly for the first time about
the State’s Attorney’s failure to fully
prosecute a former student who was caught stealing two
of his art works.
The “Beyond the Chief” exhibit opened in early 2009
and consisted of twelve panels that were installed along
Nevada Street on campus. Several of the metal sign panels
were bent in separate incidents. In April, two of them were
stolen. Of the dozen panels, a total of seven were vandalized.
These incidents were clearly part of a reaction to the
University’s retirement of its racist mascot in February 2007.
Heap of Birds showed a video about a recent exhibit of
his at the Denver Art Museum, an outdoor sculpture of ten
50-foot red tree forms placed in a circle that was inspired
by the Big Horn medicine wheel. He also shared photographs
and spoke about his visits to the Palenque tombs
in Chiapas, Mexico.
Finally, Heap of Birds talked about his “Beyond the
Chief” exhibit. He said he had spelled the words “The
Fighting Illini” backwards, “to turn the University around,
to turn the students around, to turn Illinois around.” The
panels read “Today Your Host is…” and list the names of
the tribes from Illinois such as the Ho Chunk, Odawa,
Peoria, and Kickapoo. Heap of Birds’ panels are a reminder
that this land was never truly ‘granted’ to this land grant
university, but was taken from the native peoples.
Speaking of the controversy surrounding the exhibit,
Heap of Birds said this was the first time his art has been
vandalized. He mentioned his surprise at seeing his art on
Crime Stoppers. A previous student in Fine and Applied
Arts, Mark Nepermann, was found to be the thief who
stole the art works. Appraisals of $10,000 per panel were
sent to State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, but she valued them at
less than $300 and Nepermann was only charged with a
misdemeanor. This was a ‘ridiculous price,’ said Heap of
Birds, “as if you could take a Rembrandt and value it by
the cost of the brushes.” The State’s Attorney, he said, “did
not honor the appraisal.’
As punishment, Nepermann was made to do 100
hours of public service. Additionally, he wrote a letter of
apology that was published in the News-Gazette. Asked if
he had ever received a personal apology, Heap of Birds
said he had never been contacted by Nepermann, “but
should have been.”
Heap of Birds saw the attacks on his art works as a
reaction to the University’s retirement of its racist mascot.
The panels along Nevada Street had become a “focal
point of anger,” he said. Yet he also viewed his art as a
challenge to the foundations of this country, “Something
is ‘threatening’ in America when Native American people
define themselves.”
It was also announced that the University of Illinois is
currently in negotiations with Heap of Birds to purchase
the “Beyond the Chief” exhibit.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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