Hock E Aye Vi (formerly spelled Hachivi) Edgar Heap of Birds has built a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary career that supports his commitment to full artistic engagement in both public and private spheres. His output is seamlessly linked to his life experiences: an ongoing series of abstract acrylic paintings, for example, is based on the natural canyon forms in his native Oklahoma, and his diaristic drawings use language to record memories, emotions, and encounters. His declarative public sculptures explore the history and culture of Native Americans, including that of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations on whose tribal lands he has lived. Finally, the artist’s extensive travels and many residencies have resulted in collaborative, community-based curatorial and educational projects that look at the human condition through the lens of regional politics, history, and geography.
In 1990, the Walker Art Center commissioned Heap of Birds to make a public piece in conjunction with its presentation of Claim Your Color, a traveling survey of his work. The artist’s research led him to a signal event in state history: the U.S.–Dakota Conflict, fought over a six-week period along the banks of the Minnesota River in the late summer of 1862. The chronicle of the conflict is an all-too-familiar one in American history: beginning with white settlements that encroached on native lands, it also features forced relocation, broken treaties, treachery, brutality, racism, and greed. It concluded with the largest mass execution in U.S. history: thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in late 1862, and two others in 1865.1 The cultural and intertribal wounds from these events remain raw.
Heap of Birds’ Building Minnesota (1990), installed along a grassy stretch of parkland on the banks of the Mississippi River, was essentially a memorial to those executed after the conflict. It consisted of a sweeping arc of forty signs bearing the names of the executed men—given in both the original Dakota and an English translation—along with his date and place of death and a command to the viewer to “HONOR.”2 The signs themselves are screenprinted aluminum panels bolted on green metal posts, a format that purposely mimics that of generic road signage and suggests that their messages are informational, cautionary, or both.
Building Minnesota was placed near the site of one of the earliest white settlements in the state, where the rush of St. Anthony Falls was long ago redirected by a lock and dam and the riverbank bristles with power lines, grain elevators, and high-rises. The river itself is still a busy thoroughfare for barge traffic and an important source of power and water for the surrounding area. Heap of Birds’ work thus links the events of 1862 with the commercial interests and economics that likely fueled them, as well as with a reverence for the land and its resources that is traditional in native cultures. As he has written, “The forty signs are offered along the water called the Mississippi, which remains a highway for American business … we seek to honor the life-giving force of the waters that have truly preserved all of us from the beginning, and to offer respect to the tortured spirits of 1862 and 1865 that may have sought refuge and renewal through the original purity that is water.”3
The fighting, which claimed the lives of more than five hundred people on both sides, only ended when the Dakota were overpowered by an army of one thousand men led by Colonel Henry H. Sibley. A military tribunal condemned 3,030 Dakota men to death by hanging. All but forty had their sentences commuted by President Abraham Lincoln; of those, thirty-eight were executed on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, and two others (who were captured later) were hanged at Fort Snelling in November 1865. ↩
Building Minnesota was installed on West River Parkway in Minneapolis from March 10, 1990, through late summer 1991. ↩
Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, Building Minnesota, exh. pub. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1990), unpaginated. ↩