Edgar Heap of Birds

Edgar Heap of Birds

by Bill Anthes

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For over three decades, contemporary Native American artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds has pursued a disciplined practice in multiple media, having shown his paintings, drawings, prints, and text-based conceptual art throughout numerous national and international galleries and public spaces. In the first book-length study of this important artist, Bill Anthes analyzes Heap of Birds's art and politics in relation to the international contemporary art scene, Native American history, and settler colonialism. Foregrounding how Heap of Birds roots his practice in Cheyenne spirituality and an indigenous way of seeing and being in the world, Anthes describes how Heap of Birds likens his art to "sharp rocks"—weapons delivering trenchant critiques of the loss of land, life, and autonomy endured by Native Americans. Whether appearing as interventions in public spaces or in a gallery, Heap of Birds's carefully honed artworks pose questions about time, modernity, identity, power, and the meaning and value of contemporary art in a global culture.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374992
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 21 MB
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About the Author

Bill Anthes is a Professor in the Art Field Group at Pitzer College and the author of Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940–1960, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

Edgar Heap of Birds

By Bill Anthes

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7499-2



Home Place

Since the early 1980s, Edgar Heap of Birds has produced an ongoing and open-ended series of abstract paintings that he has given the name Neuf— the Cheyenne word for the number four, a key concept in Cheyenne culture. Heap of Birds made the first Neuf painting around the same time that he became an Earth Renewal participant, as he moved to the reservation to live in his grandmother's cabin on the family property near Geary, in western Oklahoma, which he has called "the old home-place." The first Neuf painting was small and completed outdoors — quickly and spontaneously — in acrylic paints on canvas board. Interlocking impasto forms in white, black, and gray play against shapes in shades of green, salmon, and earth tones — a field of related but discrete bodies in which no individual predominates, and which suggests extension beyond the edge of the canvas. While it is, to be sure, an abstract painting, Heap of Birds has described the painting as his response to the rugged canyon that he was coming to know as he lived on the land, taking daily hikes and hunting with his dogs to make a living and find his way as an artist.

For Heap of Birds, the Neuf series had a beginning that was insistently local. "I was out in the canyon where my grandmother had built a house," he explains, "about 500 acres of land, and I went hiking and walking a lot.... There was one lone cedar that came up out of an outcropping of rocks where you'd think nothing could survive. I went back out there and took a small 5- by 8-inch canvas and went down into the canyon and made the first Neuf painting.... It took me six years to realize I was painting this tree." The recurring shapes draw from the landscape, but also Heap of Birds's sense of the land's vital energy: "Events such as water rushing after a storm, cutting the red rock, giving new form to the red earth add a natural energy to my painting, while connecting my work with a visible reality." While the first painting was composed of soft, cloud-like shapes, in later paintings the forms take on jagged edges, similar to the trees that grow on the land, a comparison that Heap of Birds emphasizes in lectures, when he shows a slide of a juniper turned on its side, its serrated outline looking very much like the forms in the paintings. Indeed, for anyone who has experienced firsthand the formidable landscape of the reservation, the Neuf paintings will recall its rugged beauty.

Salish-Kootenai artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith described the depth of attachment to specific landscapes felt by contemporary Native artists in an essay she authored for the 1990 exhibition Our Land / Ourselves. She wrote, "Euro-Americans often wonder why the American Indian is so attached to the land. Even after Indians have lived in an urban environment for two generations, they still refer to tribal land as home. This continuum is made tenable by several factors.... Each tribe's total culture is immersed in its specific area. Traditional foods, ceremonies and art come from the indigenous plants and animals as well as the land itself. The anthropomorphism of the land spawns the stories and myths. These things are the stuff of culture which keep identity intact." Similarly, Seneca-Tuscarora artist George Longfish has written of "landbase," which he defines in distinction from the European notion of landscape — as in "scenery," or sign of ownership and dominion — as "the interwoven aspects of place, history, culture, physiology, a people and their sense of themselves and their spirituality and how the characteristics of the place are all part of the fabric. When rituals are integrated into the setting through the use of materials and specific places and when religion includes the earth upon which one walks — that is landbase."

Heap of Birds expressed his sense of ancestral and spiritual attachment to the family allotment and the Cheyenne-Arapaho lands in a 2004 interview with geographer Nick Blomley, his words echoing Quick-to-See Smith and Longfish:

The land is the beginning and the end. It is to humble yourself and know that the land and earth comes first before the people: somewhat like caring for the children first because they are precious, although we are not parents of the land.... As someone grows to know certain sites on this earth then it can cradle you, reaffirm you, and offer you a relationship. Also the earth remains after you are gone and was here before one's distant relatives. The earth also is an instrument giving the necessary tools and plants in order to create ceremony.

Land makes ceremony possible, he explained. For Heap of Birds and for the Cheyenne, ceremony is the foundation of identity. But he also emphasized that land "comes first before the people," and "remains after you are gone." Land exceeds human history.


This close connection between artist and a specific environment is not surprising to find in the work of Heap of Birds, or any artist for whom indigenous values serve as a grounding. The words "native" and "indigenous" speak to the quality of being rooted in place or country, of being an original inhabitant as opposed to being a settler or immigrant. But it is important to keep in mind that Heap of Birds's artwork is not a passive reflection of a place, but a creative act of what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai terms "the production of locality." The term "production" is key here. Heap of Birds's paintings do not merely express a preexisting sense of place. Rather, the Neuf paintings actively produce it — they embody a reciprocal relationship, a process by which a sense of place is created — thus creating local subjects, who in turn contribute to the ongoing process of placemaking. Indigenous cultural practices — like those of many traditional, small-scale societies such as the Cheyenne — are aimed at the production of locality and local subjects. Placemaking is an active process of boundary marking and investment in the local even in an increasingly interconnected world, as Appadurai writes, "under conditions of anxiety and entropy, social wear and flux, ecological uncertainty and cosmic volatility."

Heap of Birds began his practice of art as placemaking in the wake of the Cheyenne experience of colonialism and U.S. Manifest Destiny, and amid unextinguished claims to tribal autonomy and sovereignty. While the work of many global contemporary artists engages with issues of homeland, displacement, migration, and exile, the discourse of sovereignty as employed by Native North Americans is unique. Perhaps the most misunderstood (by non-Natives) notion in Native politics and culture generally, sovereignty in the context of Native people speaks to the claims to political autonomy of indigenous nations five centuries after the European conquest and colonization of the Americas. This abiding autonomy is grounded in a specific, bounded place in which a people reside (or once resided), and which is the basis of a shared cultural inheritance. Native sovereignty is often explained as the product of — or a reciprocal relation to — a territory or homeland, usually arrived at in primordial or legendary times after a protracted period of migration. Homeland is important, even for those peoples whose historical experience has been one of involuntary displacement and relocation; many nations experience emplacement in new lands even as they maintain profound attachments to other, ancestral places.

The Cheyenne (and other Native North American peoples) live each day in the aftermath of a traumatic displacement — but unlike the displacement felt by people living in a diaspora, for whom home might be an ocean away or more distant (and unlike decolonized nations in Africa or elsewhere), indigenous North Americans were displaced by a settler regime, which supplanted and expropriated the native nations. Today, the Southern Cheyenne homeland is thirty-five miles west of Oklahoma City along the north fork of the Canadian River, in what was established by the federal government as Indian Territory. The technical name of these lands, where many of Heap of Birds's family still live and where the Earth Renewal occurs each summer, is the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribal Statistical Area, as it is not a reservation created by a treaty with the U.S. government in the conventional sense. This place has been home to the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho (as they are called in Oklahoma, to distinguish them from their northern kin in Montana and Wyoming, respectively) since 1869, when they were assigned this stretch of rolling hills and rangeland by executive order of President Grant after it became clear that the tribes could not occupy the lands in the Kansas Territory assigned to them by the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.

The Cheyenne are Algonquian-speaking peoples who trace their origins to the Great Lakes region and what is now southeastern Minnesota, where they lived alongside their traditional allies the Arapaho. In historic times, they migrated across the Mississippi and into present-day North and South Dakota. Early adopters of what would become the classic Plains equestrian culture, they ranged widely across the Great Plains and developed a migratory lifestyle based around the seasonal bison hunt. They excelled as middlemen in the trade in fur and hides, building alliances with white traders and Plains nations alike. Later, they fought white incursions into their traditional territory between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in what was called Kansas Territory and which later became the state of Colorado, near present-day Denver and environs.

In 1851, the Cheyenne signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, which negotiated a peace between the United States and the Cheyenne and their allies the Arapaho, and other Plains nations including the Sioux, the Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arikara, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, and Crow. The treaty forbade Indian attackson U.S. citizens and promised to protect the tribes from depredations by whites, setting boundaries for the Cheyenne territory — encompassing the lands between the North Platte and Arkansas Rivers, bordered on the west by the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and stretching into present-day western Kansas — and that of the other sovereign signatories. The treaty demanded no cessions of land in what was still considered the "Great American Desert" and included annuity payments to the Cheyenne and other tribes to offset the loss of bison owing to increased white presence in Indian Country, which curtailed the ability of Cheyenne and other Plains nations to pursue their traditional seasonal migrations.

While the authors of the Fort Laramie Treaty hoped to quell the warfare between Plains nations, which had been exacerbated by the increasing numbers of white immigrants and settlers, the treaty did not curtail intertribal violence — particularly between the Cheyenne and their traditional rivals the Pawnee — nor did it curtail skirmishes between the Cheyenne and non-Native overland travelers, which became particularly acute in the wake of the discovery, in 1858, of gold at Pike's Peak. As the pace of white incursions increased, the Cheyenne and Arapaho sought a new treaty to protect their territory and their safety. Land- and gold-hungry whites also agitated for a new treaty to extinguish Indian title in the region.

The Treaty of Fort Wise, signed in 1861 by a delegation of Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs, ceded most of the land recognized in the Fort Laramie Treaty, maintaining only a parcel along the Arkansas River between the northern boundary of the New Mexico territory and Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory, where government officials hoped the Cheyenne and Arapaho would transition from the nomadic culture of the bison hunt to a life as sedentary agriculturalists. The 1861 reservation was a fraction of the size of the territory recognized in the Fort Laramie Treaty — not open range land, but a tract subdivided into forty-acre agricultural plots; the new agreement was opposed by a majority of the tribes, including the militant Dog Soldiers, who argued that the signatories represented only a minority faction. The militants disavowed the new treaty and continued to live on traditional Cheyenne lands — adjacent to bison migration routes — as defined by the 1851 agreement and attacked travelers making their way to the gold fields of the Rocky Mountains. Also around this time, the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations became separated from their northern kin — following the fate of the great bison herds that had been separated into distinct northern and southern populations by the new overland routes.

Tensions continued to escalate in Colorado Territory between 1861 and 1864. In the aftermath of the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota (a topic that Heap of Birds addressed in 1990 with his public artwork Building Minnesota in downtown Minneapolis), tensions mounted on the plains. Sioux and Arapaho raids were erroneously blamed on Cheyenne; in Colorado, volunteer cavalry clashed with Cheyenne hunting parties, leading to further retaliation on both sides. But by the fall of 1864, most bands had agreed to settle in designated camps near Fort Lyon under the American flag and the protection of Major General Edward W. Wynkoop. Colorado territorial governor John Evans pursued a policy of separating "friendly" from "hostile" Indians, offering protection to friendlies and waging war on hostiles. Evans succeeded in receiving authorization from the U.S. War Department to activate the Third Colorado Cavalry (originally formed to guard against a feared Confederate invasion) under the warmongering Colonel John Milton Chivington, a veteran of the New Mexico campaign of the U.S. Civil War, a prominent abolitionist, and a former Methodist preacher with political ambitions, then a candidate for Congress. Under Chivington, a military force comprising mostly members of citizens' militias attempted to force the tribes onto the reservation and maintain security along the Overland Route. Hard-liners whipped popular sentiment against the Indians into a frenzy, leading to an all-out war against the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The most notorious episode of the brief Colorado War occurred in 1864, as Chivington led a force of 650 Colorado volunteers to the encampment at Sand Creek of 700 friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho under the leadership of Black Kettle, where they massacred between 70 and 163 Indians, two-thirds of whom were women and children.

Following the deadly rout at Sand Creek, subsequent diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the Great Plains fell short of their mark — the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas and the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty failed, as did the humanitarian plans of the post–Civil War Indian Peace Commission, which sought to settle Indians on reservations and provide a means for education in English, Christianity, and the fundamentals of individual landownership and agriculture, in hopes of bringing about the assimilation of Plains peoples into the mainstream. It was hoped, again, that the Cheyenne and Arapaho, relocated from their traditional territories in present-day Colorado and Kansas, where their presence presented an obstacle to overland routes to the west traveled by pioneering whites, would abandon their traditional nomadic culture and take up farming. The peace brokered by the treaties was fragile, however; raiding parties of Southern Cheyenne and other Plains tribes continued to menace white travelers and settlements across a region encompassing present-day western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northwest Texas. A decade of bloodshed followed.


Excerpted from Edgar Heap of Birds by Bill Anthes. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  ix

Acknowledgments  xiii

Introduction  1

1. Land  29

2. Words  67

3. Histories  117

4. Generations  163

Notes  181

Bibliography  195

Index  201

What People are Saying About This

The World of Indigenous North America - Robert Warrior

"The art of Edgar Heap of Birds as it comes to life in these pages guides us into the dense interplay between seemingly familiar contemporary forms that in fact derive from a lifetime of contemplation on the Cheyenne and Arapaho world the artist belongs to and the art making that grows therefrom. Bill Anthes impressively appreciates the technical virtuosity Heap of Birds revels in even as he finds a path toward understanding growing spiritual and intellectual wisdom—and perhaps more than anything the great joy, humor, and hope—that have long fueled the art Edgar Heap of Birds makes."

Where is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity, and Exile - Jane Blocker

"So often we fail to look carefully at or describe the works of Native American artists in depth, but tend instead to look through them to some plane of political meaning to which they presumably grant passage.  Bill Anthes, by contrast, lingers on and deeply engages with Edgar Heap of Birds's work, filling a gaping hole in contemporary art scholarship. Compelling, thought-provoking, and urgently needed."

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