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Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, Native Hosts

Edgar Heap of Birds' "Native Hosts" series at Crystal Bridges Museum uses reversed Arkansas signs to honor native tribes. The present tense emphasizes their ongoing presence, challenging narratives of eradication. The signs, hosting visitors, foreground marginalized Native American history and sovereignty. The changing landscape frames the signs, shifting perspectives on who the real hosts are. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(mellow music) - [Narrator] We're here on the grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at work by Edgar Heap of Birds. This is part of a series that he's done in multiple locations called the "Native Hosts" series. These are signs, Arkansas written backward is our first clue that we're supposed to stop and pay attention here. These are site-specific works that were commissioned directly for the grounds of Crystal Bridges. There are seven signs total in the series. We have six different tribes listed that are associated with what is now known as Arkansas, and the seventh is a Cheyenne word that talks about all native people. All the letters are capitalized. It is very arresting. We know we're supposed to stop and look, but our ability to read it is immediately thwarted. Edgar Heap of Birds uses words and language as one of his primary mediums. So what we have on these signs, in shades of vivid blue on the very top, is the word Arkansas written backwards, and underneath that, today your host is, and at the bottom of this particular sign, it says Caddo. Edgar Heap of Birds is a Native American artist whose work is about calling our attention to a past that is no longer really visible to us. It's very important that this is present. So today your host is, it's not your host was. Those kinds of references that position Native Americans in the past helps to feed into an old narrative in American history that Native Americans were eradicated, that they were a culture that disappeared. And so by using the present tense, he's insisting on the continued presence of Native Americans in what is now the United States. What Edgar Heap of Birds is doing is also helping us think about the sovereignty of different native nations. So the Caddo people have their own governance and sovereignty. The Quapaw people the same thing, Osage people. And as a visitor being hosted by these tribes, it's giving them a sense of agency that's not always present. We could even go so far as to say that Native American presence has been marginalized in most museums, so here, when you come to Crystal Bridges and you walk the grounds, that presence is foregrounded. Today happens to be a hot summer day with birds calling, green everywhere, and it presents a very specific background from which to experience the work, one that will enliven and change the work at different seasons and times of year. In many ways, what Edgar Heap of Birds is doing is helping us frame our landscape in just a very different way than maybe oil paint on canvas where the frame around a landscape painting in some ways limits it, puts in a tidy box. The sign is, in this case, almost framed by the landscape around it. So at its very center is the Native host that is hosting all of us on this land. So shifting our perspective is also something that Edgar Heap of Birds is interested in doing and almost resetting the story of who is here, who is the visitor, and all of that is wrapped up in these signs. The word host is so interesting, too, because it does conjure up something that is generous, and we know that the long history of the United States with Native Americans is anything but generous. Although these are static signs, they do unfold as we ourselves move through the landscape. And with a series of six of them, you might walk by the first one and say, oh, that's sort of interesting, today, our host is Caddo. And you might walk by the next one and say, oh, today our host is Quapaw. Hopefully by the third one that you've passed, you think, okay, and maybe it can dawn on you as this experience unfolds around you. Our colonial past is still very much with us, but it's often very hidden. And so institutions, Crystal Bridges, for example, have really worked hard to not only become more knowledgeable about the history of the land before we came here, but to recognize that we ourselves and our museum are guests on this land. And so it is now our responsibility to turn and give a recognition and an acknowledgement that we are grateful for the land, the water, and the ancestral lands that host us. We are in an area that was part of the Trail of Tears, where many tribes from the Southeast were moved through on their way to what was Indian territory, present-day Oklahoma. So he specifically came to Northwest Arkansas to visit a site of the Trail of Tears and pay respect there. He says even as a native person, he has to be really careful in stepping aside and letting the native people from a particular place speak. So this isn't much about Edgar Heap of Birds as it is about the Caddo, Quapaw, Chickasaw, and Osage peoples who were here before. And I think it's also sometimes easy to say, ah, well, this was made by a Native American artist, so it has a different kind of weight, but we do have to be careful because there are over 500 federally recognized tribes. And as individual nations, one person from one nation shouldn't be and isn't expected to speak for a whole group of people, and that's an important element of these works, as well. (mellow music)