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Across North America, museums are working with Native American and First Nations communities to expand the stories they tell about Native American art. To help engage a chorus of voices at the Saint Louis Art Museum, we work closely with artists of Indigenous heritage.

In the fourth collaborative project in a series featuring a contemporary Native artist, Edgar Heap of Birds installed 16 pairs of moccasins from the Museum’s collection in Gallery 322. Arranged in a ring, the work evokes the widespread round dance, where participants join hands and move in a circle. The artist previously employed circles in his work to suggest how subjects experience time in ways other than a unidirectional line.[1] Here again, the circle links present and past.

Native Artist Collaboration: Edgar Heap of Birds (installation view)

Heap of Birds is an internationally acclaimed artist, leader of the Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) Elk Warrior Society, and a ceremonial instructor of the Earth Renewal Worship. The Museum collection features Heap of Birds’ 2017 monotype series Sovereign and his 1995 painting Neuf Series, the latter now in Gallery 248.

The artist’s current collections-based project began in early May of 2018 when he reviewed Tsistsistas art at the Museum. In one memorable moment during the visit, Heap of Birds recalled dancing the round dance at his then-recent retirement celebration (he is professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma) and said that those who wore the historic moccasins danced in the same style. The round dance stands as one practice, then, that binds historical and contemporary Tsistsistas communities.

In addition to choreographing the moccasins, Heap of Birds designed a collage of newspaper pages that forms the backboard of the installation. In the gallery, historic moccasins appear to float above recent newspaper pages from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune. While the circle establishes the general theme of continuity, the collage conveys specific experiences of resilience and trauma associated with the artist’s reservation community.

This installation contributes to a series that previously featured Native artists Arthur Amiotte (2012), Wendy Red Star (2014), and Dyani White Hawk (2017). This series establishes various methods, each based on the vision of the artist, for restoring senses of humanity to works of art seen too often as anonymous cultural products. Working with living artists, we connect the historic collection to contemporary Indigenous ways of seeing.

Edgar Heap of Birds, Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation, b. 1954; Neuf Series, 1995; acrylic on canvas; 80 x 107 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Minority Artists Purchase Fund 13:1996

  • [1] In 2005 the artist installed Wheel, consisting of 10 towering tree forms in a circular arrangement, outside the Denver Art Museum. The installation evokes sacred Native American spaces such as Earth Renewal lodges on the Plains or Southwestern kivas. The enamel surfaces of the tree forms represent past events via images, text, and other marks, and the work draws history into a circular cycle of return and renewal. See Bill Anthes, Edgar Heap of Birds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 137–149.

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