Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds is a Cheyenne artist who works to raise awareness of the struggles of Native American people at the hands of the United States government. Like his artist ancestors, Heap of Birds “resist[s] social and cultural captivity and erasure” by “negotiating with and critiquing the dominant society, and retaining or reclaiming tribal/community values and ideals” (Hachivi). He has made a habit of using ordinary materials to appropriate common streetside and highway signs; he displays his pieces along heavily-trafficked roads and interstates so that he can reach a wide audience of ordinary people rather than merely those who seek out art, especially activist art.
One such piece is titled “New York Purchased? Stolen? Reclaimed?” At first glance, it appears just like any other highway sign: it lists a general location (New York), followed by what would normally be city names and the number of miles to go until that destination is reached. Only, in this piece, the three potential destination cities are replaced, respectively, by the words “Purchased”, “Stolen”, and “Reclaimed” followed by question marks where the distance to each line’s destination would normally be listed.
Heap of Birds designed the highway sign piece as a thoughtful disruption of people’s basic assumptions about the place they live. Many of us tend to go about our lives without often thinking about how humans came to live and work in particular spaces. “New York Purchased? Stolen? Reclaimed?” forces viewers to consider not only what existed on the land we use before the subdivisions, office buildings, stores, and highways were built, but also who existed there and by whom they were displaced. Another similar piece features the mirror image of the words “New York” followed by “Today your host is Tuscarora” (the Cheyenne word for their own tribe). “New York”’s mirrored letters disrupt the sign’s legibility and point to the “treacherous use of alphabetic literacy” by governments and individuals against Native American peoples, such as treaties that were never kept, fraudulent land deeds, and boarding school education as a policy of forced assimilation.
History also points to manipulation and miscommunication between Native Americans and European settlers that led Native Americans to give up their land. In surviving meeting minutes from the New Amsterdam council (now New York), land buyers complained that “the savages would not remove from the land that they had bought,” to which the indigenous people responded they had only sold the grass on the land, not the land itself. It’s also likely the Lenape, a tribe that occupied the region now understood as New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, viewed the “sale” of their land as an agreement to share the land. The Dutch buyers, however, considered the sale legitimate and expected the Lenape to leave.
Heap of Birds’s work calls into question these and other tactics that were used by early European settlers and which have been upheld by governments since. He forces passers-by to confront the historic and ongoing human cost of their privilege.
Sources and background:
Caldwell, Ellen C. “The Cheyenne Artist Who Is Challenging the Silenced History of Native Americans.” Jstor Daily, 21 Jan. 2016, daily.jstor.org/cheyenne-artist-challenging-silenced-history-native-americans/.
Connolly, Colleen. “The True Native New Yorkers Can Never Truly Reclaim Their Homeland.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Oct. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-native-new-yorkers-can-never-truly-reclaim-their-homeland-180970472/.
Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, and Hertha D. Sweet Wong. “Native American Visual Autobiography: Figuring Place, Subjectivity, and History.” The Iowa Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 2000, pp. 145–156.