Most serene republics: One of a set of signs from the Viale Garibaldi installation, Venice 2007

Remembering the Future: Tradition and Modernity in the work of Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds

Remembering the Future: Traditional and Modernity in the work of Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds

HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds’ artistic practices have born witness to four decades of social, economic and political turbulence, in which indigenous America has undergone a cultural resurgence despite a continuing hostile environment and in defiance of the pressures of acculturation. In an exemplary way, Heap of Birds’ work traces the aesthetic and political trajectory of this journey, which may be bracketed by two installations. In 1982, people passing through Times Square in New York were confronted with the startling sight of the computerized Spectacolor light billboard transmitting among the first of Heap of Birds’ ‘insurgent messages for America’, In Our Language (1982), recalling in laconic terms the spider-like entrapment of the Tsistsistas (“Cheyenne”) by Vehoe (the white man). Twenty-five years later, the citizens of Venice, Italy, and the Biennale’s international audience were to be similarly ambushed by the artist’s most recent ‘insurgent message’, Most Serene Republics (2007), which spoke to the continuing entanglement of Native American and European histories. In the period between these two installations, the artist has built an impressive multi-disciplinary body of work as a painter and public artist, curator and writer, educator and tribal leader, moving provocatively between the non-Indian art world and indigenous communities in North America and overseas. Throughout, the artist’s work testifies, on the one hand, to the possibilities by which the Native artist may open up a space for individual and collective agency in dominant sites of power; and on the other, as Shanna Ketchum points out, to a form of critical ‘cosmopolitan modernism’ inflected through Native epistemology, whose challenge to the Western ‘canon’ has yet to be fully appreciated, particularly regarding conflicting interpretations and expressions of ‘tradition’, ‘history’ and modernity.1

Among the debates on modernity with resonance in the indigenous context are Walter Benjamin’s reflections on its traumatic character. The trauma of modernity concerned the atrophy of transmissible experience – the ‘know-how’ passed down through generations that unified an individual’s history with the collective past. In this narrative, a rupture had taken place between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ as a result of the alienating effects of technological change and information overload, to which consciousness responded by blocking the assimilation of the ‘data of the world’ into experience.2 Benjamin’s analysis drew on Freud’s studies on trauma, where the unassimilability of the catastrophic ‘accident’ into conscious experience produced its untimely return in involuntary memory and in symptoms now characterized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, Benjamin identified the traumatic effect of modernity with trauma’s dissociation of memory from consciousness, where the ‘thinking subject can no longer be said to be completely in control or conscious of the actual events that necessarily comprise “his” past.’3

For indigenous America, however, this fall into modernist discontinuity begins with an earlier, more radical rupture than that contemplated by Benjamin, in the psychic, economic and socio-political consequences of cultural dispossession wrought by colonialism, which produced not only a traumatic departure from ancestral belonging, but a departure into a violent history that is now irrevocably entangled with an alien other. The legacy for surviving generations is that the present remains resonant with the belated effects of a horrifying past. That is, however seemingly distant the traumatic event may be, it does not cease consciously and unconsciously to frame the cultural identity and memory of its survivors.

For Freud, psychic integration of loss and separation was to be found in memory itself as an archive, as the generator of the effects and traces of the past in the present, through which the self may begin the work of excavation, remembrance and reflection to liberate itself from trauma’s effects.4 Inasmuch as it demands an interlocutor capable of recognizing and acknowledging the witness’s testimony, the work of remembrance, as Paul Ricoeur insists, has a social dimension: indeed, the traumatic event lies in individual and collective memory before entering the discourse of the historian. Hence, for Ricoeur, memory is the ‘womb’, or ‘matrix’ of history.5 This social dimension is particularly pertinent when considering the role of the collective in Native cultural life.

To reclaim agency and control of one’s history and destiny means to gather up the fragments of the past and weave them into a new narrative of the present. It is here that Heap of Birds’ work enters the contested terrain of tradition and modernity. As Ketchum argues, the Western institution has historically ensnared Native art within an apolitical, anthropological idea of culture, based in the premise that ‘authentic’ culture is ‘premodern’ and unchanging.6 Leaving aside the unproductive concept of ‘authenticity’, the question remains, if a culture expresses a critical skepticism toward modernity and draws on surviving traditions, does this necessarily mean that it is premodern, or even postmodern? Or, should we put the question differently and ask, if the European West has pursued what may be described as a ‘progressive’ modernity, have Native cultures practiced a ‘transgressive’ modernity, meaning, one in which the past is not another country but part of the constantly transforming landscape of the present? This is among the questions opened up by Heap of Birds’ work, for while it shares postmodernism’s critique of Western ‘master narratives’, it does so not by acceding to the ‘end’ of history, but by exposing history’s narratives to more complex readings in which, rather than a ‘rupture’ from tradition, modernity – or postmodernity – is disclosed as a present in which the past does not cease to exert its effects. Drawing on Benjamin’s proposed correlation between consciousness and traumatic memory, tradition and modernity, this essay explores the dynamics of Native modernity in the artistic practices of Heap of Birds as presented through their articulation of language, the historical archive and personal testimony.

Fighting Words

If in 1982 we were astonished by the combative tone of Heap of Birds’ In Our Language, it was in part due to our misjudgments of recent history. The rise of the American Indian Movement alongside Black Civil Rights signaled the emergence of Indian peoples from decades of traumatic inertia; but, on the face of it, the violent suppression of Indian militancy, represented by Wounded Knee Two and its aftermath, seemed a replay of the traumatic pattern of history. And yet, a subtler revolution was emerging, whose battleground was to be culture itself.

Framed as demands for social and political justice, civil and human rights rhetoric tended to conform to the language of class struggle, which, whilst it addressed lived material conditions and won some social concessions, was inadequate to answer the specific demands of indigenous peoples as individuated Nations with cultures, social and religious organizations and languages distinct from the settler society. Will Kymlicka points out that the tendency of ‘liberal democracies’ (which privilege the individual over the collective) to classify indigenous peoples as one ‘ethnic minority’ amongst many accounts for the failure of civil and human rights legislation to guarantee their rights to political and cultural sovereignty.7 As AIM had understood, a new language was required to broaden the language of political struggle while transforming traumatic cultural memory into critical reflection. It had to divest itself of older expressions of ‘lament and recrimination’, which, as Frantz Fanon had pointed out, may be temporarily cathartic, but are reactive responses to loss primarily addressed to hegemonic power and too easily dismissed with a few concessions. A proactive agency became possible when the people addressed themselves, where it was the task of the intellectual, the ‘storyteller’, to reconstitute cultural memory through the dynamics of repression to produce a new national consciousness.8 The artist and writer had to forge a new language from – to borrow from Deleuze – the impossibility of speaking, the impossibility of not speaking and the impossibility of speaking in the language of dominance.

In trauma studies, the ‘impossibility of speaking’ refers to the silence into which the witness is plunged by the catastrophic event, or ‘limit experience’. The impossibility of transmitting the event may stem from the unconscious suppression of memory itself; but it is also in part to do with the inadequacy of representational languages. As Paul Ricoeur suggests, the limit experience is untransmissible by the witness because it eludes the listener’s comprehension: ‘The experience to be transmitted is that of an inhumanity with no common measure with the experience of the average person.’9 But, as Ricoeur continues, to say ‘untransmissible’ is not to say ‘inexpressible’. The witness must seek new, interventionary modes of expression that convey both the untransmissibility of the traumatic experience and a critical consciousness of the limits of representation.

Heap of Birds’ resolution to the problematic of representation was to eschew illustrative forms of art, drawing his new poetic language from another, traditional source: the arrowheads/’sharp rocks’ still found in the Oklahoma earth, symbolic of tribal defense and welfare, that become reconfigured as finely-honed words – the weapon of a new militant generation of ‘word warriors’.10 Hence, one of his first language-based installations, Death from the Top (1983), dispenses with the image and refines ‘narrative’ to a few economical, color-coded words and phrases that are allusive rather than descriptive. Moreover, Death from the Top by-passes ‘official’ history by drawing on the testimony of a young woman survivor of the Washita River Cheyenne massacre in 1868.11

The aesthetic vocabulary developed by the artist through public ‘insurgent messages’, ‘neuf’ paintings, and ‘wall lyrics’ possesses a doubled address, directed inward to the Indian interlocutor as messages of remembrance and reflection, and outwards as political challenges to a world that had dehumanized indigenous peoples through the distorting mirror of settler fictions. It is precisely such fictions that Heap of Birds proceeded to dismantle with language-based works from the early 1980s, such as In Our Language, Don’t Want Indians (1982) and the more recent roadside billboard project in Cleveland Ohio, American Leagues (1996), whose juxtaposition of the crass logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team with SMILE FOR RACISM is his tersest message to date. The first rendering of Don’t Want Indians consisted of painted die-cut letters mounted directly on the wall, plainly stating: ‘NATURAL (reversed) – WE DON’T WANT – INDIANS – JUST THEIR NAMES – MASCOTS – MACHINES – CITIES – PRODUCTS – BUILDINGS – LIVING PEOPLE’? Don’t Want Indians was later to mutate into the more personalized screen print, Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi (1989), in which black Magpie bird shapes flutter around the words. While attesting to the devaluation of Indian cultures through commoditization, the work also suggests homage to the generational transmission and survival of Indian values.

The reverse spelling of certain words was to become a ‘signature’ of several of the artist’s early public works serving, as in ‘NATURAL’, to de-naturalize the word and its meaning, thereby undoing its authority. This artistic device was used to subtle poetic effect in Native Hosts, first realized for downtown Manhattan’s City Hall Park in 1988, and a masterful synergy of context and content. At that time, the park, surrounded by the neo-classical façades of the city’s justice buildings, ‘hosted’ office workers on their lunch breaks by day and the homeless by night. It remains the ‘home’ of a monument to Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune who, during the mid-1850s, perversely supported Abolition whilst vociferously advocating Indian destruction, an enduring sign of the double standards by which Indian peoples were treated. Heap of Birds sited six enameled signs around the perimeter of the park that masqueraded as ‘official’ public signage; each sign was inscribed in red lettering on a while ground with the legend: NEW YORK (in reverse) – TODAY YOUR HOST IS … followed by the name of one of the Nations of the greater New York area, symbolically returning the people home. The alienating reversal of ‘NEW YORK’ juxtaposed with tribal names produced a powerful irruption of the past into the present – a reminder of the contrast between settler hostility and Indian hospitality with its associated obligation of the guest to honor the host; and, in a particularly provocation gesture given the City Hall site, drew attention to the violence of colonial language: the legislation that enforced the dispossession of cultural identity through the deprivation of names, languages and land, and that condoned genocide and ethnic cleansing. The legality of settler laws was again called into question in another version of Native Hosts commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1991, and in the billboard project for Banff, IMPERIAL CANADA – DOESN’T MAKE INDIANS – NATIVE – PEOPLE – RECOGNIZE – THEMSELVES (1988).

In common with most of the artist’s public works, these are sited at interfaces of difference: places of real or symbolic exchange or conflict between alternative usages and meanings of public space, and between Indian and non-Indian historical interpretations. The artist supports this attentiveness to spatial and temporal context by meticulous archival research, recognizing that the interpretation of a particular locality can be made only through understanding those experiences and stories that constitute it. It is a methodology that has since entered general artistic practice, but it is fully consistent with Indian philosophy, where meaning is drawn from the phenomenology of experience not from some prior idealized proposition.12

The nature of the challenge to historical interpretation posed by Heap of Birds’ excavations of the archive is encapsulated in the Pittsburgh installation of twenty-five red, white and blue signs bearing a blue border of white stars connoting the union flag: Who Owns History? (1992). The work’s inscription, FORT PITT – VICTORY – DESTINY – ANGLO SAXON – SUPREMACY – WHO OWNS – HISTORY?, partially derives from the wording on a local plaque erected by the Daughters of the Revolution in 1930 to commemorate the contribution made by Fort Pitt to the conquest of the ‘Great West’, drawing our attention to the biases of historical statements.

The question of who and what defines historical truth has long been a major source of conflict in settler-Indian relations based in the refusal of dominant authorities to acknowledge the legitimacy of indigenous traditions of oral transmission, revealing the interpretative gap between official history and personal testimony announced by Death from the Top, and through which the historical archive becomes another site of contention. According to Derrida, the word ‘archive’ derives from both arkhe, ‘at the origin’, and archaeion, meaning the house of the magistrate who makes the law, holds the official documents, and who therefore holds the power of interpretation,13 a power inherited in modem times by the institution and its authorized history. The archive is not, however, a coherent body of available knowledge, but a place of opacity and absence, of fragments, gaps and disjunctions that are subject to translation, concealment or disclosure. All historical narratives derived from it, therefore, are representations, or surrogates of an absent referent that cannot be called into full presence. They are consequently never impartial, but mediated and manipulated by ideological bias and, as such, they remain a potent weapon by which power obliterates the voice of the powerless. As Heap of Birds says, ‘until very recently our published residue of Native historical and critical discourse has been authored by the dominant culture. This most biased research and reporting has amounted to a soft self-evaluation that seeks to maintain Anglo historical decorum while sacrificing objective communication of events particularly involving Native human tragedy.’14

The subversive charge of Heap of Birds’ interventions in official history lies both in its usurpation of the power to name and construct meaning, and in its treatment of the archive as a living, not dead space. Each installation sets in motion a dialogue between the specificity of context and of words chosen from archival sources that remembers the dismembered body of the past. Nonetheless, these somber soliloquies of remembrance are not so much ‘counter-narratives’ to official history as tactics of interruption, austere references from which the reader is invited to stop and contemplate their ethical implications. The very condensation of the language – word assemblages that mostly avoid the closure of a full sentence in favor of open associations – discloses the discontinuities and silences of language and meaning that become our task to imaginatively fill in. Testimony gathers strength where the artist shifts his focus from the historical event to its named victims, as in Building Minnesota (1990), the forty signs commissioned by the Walker Art Center commemorating the individuals who were unjustly hanged in 1862 and 1865 by order of Presidents Lincoln and Johnson; and in Most Serene Republics, which honors and remembers the indigenous men, women and three children who died and were buried in Europe during their coerced participation in traveling Wild West shows.

Meaning, however, is not always instantly recoverable by an ‘Anglo’ audience, undermining its assumptions that the world is transparent to its gaze, that there is some seamless translation between one cultural space and another that gives it mastery over meaning. At the same time, Heap of Birds’ use of archival sources opens up a new space of critical dialogue and reflection to the Native voice, substantiating Derrida’s observation that ‘the question of the archive is not (…) the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal or not (…), it is a question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.’15

Breathing the Silent Source16

Breath, as Anne Waters says, is the medium of exchange from words and song to air and cosmos; breathing in and out is a reciprocal giving and taking.17 If the historical archive is a battleground for truth, the truth breathed by the land is indisputable, provided one can partake of its song.

Dissatisfied with prevailing mainstream art discourses, Heap of Birds is eventually drawn back to the Oklahoma homeland in order to reconnect the threads of life to his cultural roots in Cheyenne Arapaho social and ceremonial structures. His subsequent trajectory supports V.F. Cordova’s claim that the Native American artist comes into being not by learning technique, but by learning a way of being in the world.18

The artist cites a small painting made in the red rock arroyo near his home in Geary in 1981 as indicative both of the difficulty of the transition and of the way forward. The little painting, composed of colored shapes derived from the land, was to lead to the ‘neuf’ paintings and to inform the composite, colored ‘word’ drawings known as ‘wall lyrics’. The ‘neuf’ paintings consist of flat, ragged-edged, interlocking and overlapping patches of color, now in a brighter palette of primary and secondary hues, which sit in both harmonious and dissonant relation to one another, between chaos and order, alluding to the necessity of balancing contradictory aspects of human relations and Native life. They convey a sense of movement, of continuous change and transformation, evoking the dappling of light through trees, or clouds passing over hills, the rustle of wind in leaves, or, as in the case of those produced from the artist’s experiences in Australia, 16 Songs/Issues of Personal Assessment and Indigenous Renewal (1995), shoals of jewel-colored fish darting among fronds of coral and seaweed.

The ‘neuf’ paintings breathe the land as a living, dynamic whole; they are intimate psychic landscapes drawn from memory, dream and experience, where place is integrated with the human self through the images and stories that produce and animate it. As such the paintings possess an entirely different resonance than the European landscape tradition and reflect a profoundly divergent attitude toward how land is conceived and inhabited. The European concept of land as property had its most devastating effects during the 18th and 19th centuries with the industrialization of agriculture into large, economically efficient estates and the consequent displacement of rural communities to urban manufacturing centers. It is in part this surrender of land as physical and psychic attachment to a functionalist model that had such a catastrophic impact on America’s Native communities. European concepts of ‘landscape’ emerged with this detachment through the Romantic aesthetic of the sublime, an aesthetic of the urban leisure classes based in the ‘picturesque’: the objectivized scenic view, displayed for the consuming gaze, that presents the land not as a body to be inhabited and nurtured, but as a picture to be possessed and contemplated. Its very alienation from the viewing subject is announced in the framing of a limited angle of vision, in the receding horizon that, while seeming to produce mastery over the object, marks the zone of the uninhabitable, and in the permanently fixed position of the scene that presents spatiotemporal stasis rather than the mobile state of becoming that is life.

The dynamism or the ‘neuf’ paintings is echoed in the vivacity of the ‘wall lyrics’: assemblages of words and phrases in colored pastels on multiple sheets of paper that can potentially be organized and read in different combinations, and that carry the poetic economy and alliterative rhythm of native song and dance, where words are too precious to be wasted. The ‘neuf’ paintings and ‘wall lyrics’ are not conceptually distinct from the public works, but are rendered in a different key; if the latter confront white misconceptions of the Indian and the distortions of history, the former bear witness to the world view and humanity of Native people, their joys and sorrows. The joyousness or life conveyed in the ‘neuf’ paintings is recaptured in the Venetian glass vases the artist made in one of Murano’s workshops. In each vase, the jeweled light and fluidity of the glass holds several abstracted figures alluding to the Indian individuals who died during the European Wild West tours, ‘swimming’ as if their bodies were now released from the gravity of an inharmonious world.19

The installations based on the paintings foreground the artist’s concern that ‘native peoples must be allowed to exist as individuals’,20 where testimony to individual experience is given increased value. In the accompanying statement to one of the first installations combining ‘neuf’ paintings and ‘wall lyrics’, Heh No Wah Maun Stun He Dun (What Makes a Man, 1987), the artist asserts, ‘At this time I feel compelled to articulate ideas concerning the subject of Native man in America. I wish to deal with the personal politics of manhood. In doing so I seek to deepen and broaden the definition of contemporary Native American man.’21 As in all of these installations, the underlying structure is based on the number four – the meaning of ‘neuf in the Cheyenne language – which is central to the nation’s ceremonial and social life through actions designed to maintain balance and sustainability in a holistically conceived world. It is for this reason that Indian spatiotemporality is cyclical return-in-transformation, not linearity and closure. Where language, cultural identity and place are mutually produced in a space or remembrance, land can neither be an objective, exploitable commodity, nor a ‘picture’. As Robert Houle comments, ‘“Landscape” is not a word in any of the languages of the ancient ones still spoken.’22

Of the artist’s recent installations, Wheel (2005) presents a gathering together of his historical reflections and celebrations of Native life. Wheel is a permanent installation located on a grassy site in the forecourt of the Denver Art Museum, consisting of ten twelve-foot, red porcelain-enameled steel columns organized in a circle. Its abstracted free shapes in part reference the center supports of traditional plains lodges, while their apices – shaped like forked branches, or arms outstretched in supplication toward the sky – are structurally aligned with the summer solstice, the occasion for one of the most important Cheyenne earth renewing ceremonies. The work is a homage to the medicine wheel of the plains peoples, whose concept, as Paula Gunn Allen says, is ‘one of singular unity that is dynamic and encompassing, including all that is contained in its most essential aspect, that of life.’23 That is, Wheel is not simply an object of aesthetic pleasure, but figures the continuity of the functional and spiritual values of pre-contact cosmological structures to be found throughout North- and Meso-America. As Ketchum argues, Wheel – alongside the related Diary of Trees (2004) – introduces into the vocabulary of Native arts the Native ‘metaphysics of time and space’.24 The inscriptions on the columns combine public and personal references, drawing on local ancient symbols, petroglyphs and statements that testify to the turbulent experience of the people, past and present; like urban graffiti they announce to the reader, ‘we are here’.

According to Ricoeur, historiography draws on documents from the archive, which are ‘orphaned’ from an original author and without any designated interlocutor.25 By contrast, testimony derives from the immediacy of personal, familial and cultural memory-images that are resistant to ‘scientific’ methods of authentication and ideological manipulation. As Stuart Hall insists, testimony is not erratic because the story it tells speaks from a ‘position’, an experience inscribed politically, geographically and historically.26 In North America, Indian testimony was stricken from the historical record. And yet, as already noted, history itself is a representation, while testimony is its ‘matrix’. Above all, testimony demands an attentive interlocutor who recognizes and responds to the witness’s narrative.

Heap of Birds’ works function as intercessors to the silenced witnesses of a past that never ceases to return to us from the future. Their spatiotemporal inclusiveness reaches outward through curatorial collaboration, dialogue, mentoring and educational programs to connect with indigenous peoples beyond the artist’s own cultural boundaries. Exemplary is his curatorial project, 16 Songs, in collaboration with Australian Aboriginal artists from the cooperatives of Boomali, Sydney, and Tandanya, Adelaide. Heap of Birds offered sixteen words/songs derived from his experience of the earth renewal ceremony as the starting point for a dialogue about shared values to which the Aboriginal artists made personal responses. In his contribution to the exhibition, the artist offered not only ‘neuf’ paintings, but a new body of ‘wall lyrics’: large scale black marker drawings on rag paper, in which bold, single words executed in scribbled strokes compete with smaller, sinuous lines of script that snake in different rhythms across the surface.

A kind of calligraphic pictorialism emerges, most clearly in Vacant, in which the smaller lines of script spiral around the word ‘vacant’ to form the shape of a broken heart. These ‘lyrics’ set up a new relation with the viewer: spatially, in so far as different readings emerge depending on whether the viewer moves close to the surface or stands back; and conceptually, in so far as the words and phrases construct an open system of associations drawn from shared, everyday experiences. ‘Diaristic jottings drawn from personal experience’, they are, as Lee-Ann Martin observes, ‘a secret language which can only be understood if one is part of the story.’27 At the same time, this ‘story’ not only circulates around ‘local’ indigenous experiences, but ripples out into those of a newly apprehensive, shared world. These new ‘wall lyrics’ are consistent with the artist’s insistence on individual testimony as the transmissible ground for truth, and for engendering global connections and solidarity to end Indian isolation: ‘We cannot wait any longer to awaken and dance the circles of participation over the four corners of this earth.’28 What, however, is the unique message that the Native American artist transmits?

Among the paper panels of Heh No Wah Maun Stun He Dun is one that reads ‘KNOWING DOING’, a concept central to Indian epistemology as a synthetic process based in responsive and responsible action. As reiterated by Brian Yazzie Burkhart, American Indian knowledge is ‘knowledge in experience’, a ‘know-how’ not to be discovered through prior hypotheses: ‘Knowledge is shaped and guided by human actions, endeavors, desires, and goals… In American Indian philosophy we must maintain our connectedness, we must retain our relations, and never abandon them in search of understanding, but rather find understanding through them.’ By contrast to the Western Cartesian subject, for whom knowledge ‘can only be acquired and manifested individually’, for the Indian subject, ‘(Native philosophy] must include all experience, not simply my own. If I am to gain a right understanding I must account for all that I see, but also all that you see and all that has been seen by others – all that has been passed down in stories.’ As he pithily puts it, not Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, but ‘We are, therefore I am.’29 From this perspective, Heap of Birds maintains in circulation precisely that ‘know how’ that Benjamin feared had been lost to the traumatic effects of modernity using those very technologies that were to be the demise of transmissible experience, forcing a revaluation of the notion of modernist ‘rupture’ in the indigenous context.

Heap of Birds’ actions are those of a contemporary ‘storyteller’, manipulating postmodernity’s technologies of transmission to open a space for indigenous agency, both individual and collective. In an early statement the artist asserted that, ‘the survival of our people is based upon our use of expressive forms of modem communication (…) as our present day combative tactics,’30 recognizing, as Jimmie Durham put it, that the ‘question of technology is really a question of who controls technology.’31 That is, it is a question of politics and economics not of culture as defined by anthropology. Heap of Birds’ artistic tactic of engagement with dominant society has been what Antonio Gramsci characterized as an agonistic ‘war of position’ (perhaps not alien to Native traditions): one party may be incommensurable with and even antagonistic towards another, but it agrees to cooperate on the basis of mutual expediency without relinquishing its own values. While conceding that the battle against enforced assimilation has been unevenly won among Indian Nations or individuals, Heap of Birds’ skillful negotiation of diverse social contexts, technologies and aesthetic languages may be less attributable to ‘cultural hybridity’, as formulated by diasporic postcolonial debates, than to a way of being and acting uniquely embedded in the sustainable values (‘traditions’) of Native philosophies. In any case, the artist’s work has added a new dimension to our understanding of tradition and modernity as mutually productive, while simultaneously strengthening the heritage of indigenous cultural identities toward a self-determining destiny that necessarily looks both inwards and outwards. For these reasons, Heap of Birds’ multifaceted artistic practices are uncompromisingly ethical, posing, as Derrida says of the historical archive, a question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.


1. Shanna Ketchum, ‘Native American Cosmopolitan Moderism(s): A Re-articulation of Presence through Time and Space’, Third Text, vol 19, issue 4, July 2005, pp 357-364.

2. Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp 158-59.

3. Kevin Newmark, ‘Traumatic Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and the Shock of Laughter’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, (ed) Cathy Caruth, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, pp 237-38.

4. Sigmund Freud, ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-through’ (1914), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, vol 12, London: Hogarth Press, 1958, pp 14S-56.

5. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp 87, 93-121.

6. Ketchum, op cit.

7. Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp 61-74.

8. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985, pp 190-194.

9. Ricoeur, op cit, p l75.

10. Edgar Heap of Birds: artist’s statement accompanying the exhibition Born from Sharp Rocks, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986.

11. Heap of Birds, ‘Heads Above Grass’, in Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture, and Interpretation, (ed) Anthony Kiendl, Banff Centre Press, 2004, pp 207-217. Of additional significance is that the individuals subsequently incarcerated in Fort Marion in 1874, including the artist’s great-great-grandfather Many Magpies, were authors of the ‘ledger book’ drawings and amongst the first Indian artists to use modern tools of communication to white audiences, a history subsequently encrypted in Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi, (1989). See Heap of Birds, statement to the exhibition Sharp Rocks, Artculture Resource Center, Toronto, 1987.

12. See Brian Yazzie Burkhart, ‘What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology’, In American Indian Thought, (ed) Anne Waters, Malden, Mass.: and Oxford Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp 15-26.

13. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p 36.

14. Heap of Birds, ‘Heads Above Grass’, in Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture, and Interpretation, op cit.

15. Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, op cit.

16. ‘Breathing the Silent Source’ is taken from a ‘wall lyric’ reproduced on the invitation card to the exhibition Heh No Wah Maun Stun He Dun (What Makes A Man), Matts Gallery, London, 1988.

17. Anne Waters, ‘Language Matters: Nondiscrete Nonbinary Dualism’, in American Indian Thought ‘ op cit, p 103.

18. V. F. Cordova, ‘Ethics from an Artist’s Point of View’, in American Indian Thought, op cit, pp 251-255.

19. Here we encounter another forgotten cultural connection: as Lee-Ann Martin points out, Murano manufactured the glass beads for trade with indigenous Americans. Lee-Ann Martin, ‘Performance and Artistic Mobility’, in Vision, Space, Desire: Global Perspectives and Cultural Hybridity, Washington DC, NMAI Editions, 2006, p 100.

20. Heap of Birds, Sharp Rocks, op cit.

21. Heap of Birds, statement to the exhibition Heh No Wah Maun Stun He Dun, Matts Gallery, London, 1988.

22. Robert Houle, ‘The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones’, in Land, Spirit, Power, ibid. p 61.

23. Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, p 56.

24. Ketchum, op cit.

25. Ricoeur, op cit, p 169.

26. Stuart Hall, ‘OId and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, in Culture, Globalization and the World-System, (ed) Anthony D King, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p 58.

27. Lee-Ann Martin, ‘Indigenous Renewal = Reclamation + Redefinition = Reality = Identity’ in catalogue to the exhibition 16 Songs, 16 Issues, The University of North Texas Art Gallery, 1995, pp 6-8.

28. Heap of Birds, ‘Awaken’, in Vision, Space, Desire: Global Perspectives and Cultural Hybridity, op cit, pp 158-159.

29. Burkhart, op cit.

30. Heap of Birds, Born from Sharp Rocks, op cit.

31. Jimmie Durham, ‘American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle’, (1974), in Durham, A Certain Lack of Coherence, London: Kala Press, 1993, p 10.

Essay in catalogue Most Serene Republics: Edgar Heap of Birds, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, 2007, pp 35-55.