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Radical Tradition: A conversation with Hock E Aye Vi (Edgar Heap of Birds)

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NEW YORK - Hock E Aye Vi (Edgar Heap of Birds)' "Diary of Trees" will be on display until Feb. 15 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan. The exhibit will feature large text drawings and full-scale maquettes (large "Y"-shaped forms used in his studio) for "Wheel," his 50-foot outdoor sculpture designed for the Denver Art Museum. The show is part of "Continuum" an exhibition series featuring 12 contemporary Native American artists following in the tradition of Allan Houser and George Morrison, two of the masters of contemporary Native art.

As a teacher at the University of Oklahoma, Heap of Birds has become one of the most influential avant-garde artists living in the state. His work has been exhibited around the world. Uncompromising both in subject and form, Heap of Birds often pushes the question "what is art" (such as his use of graffiti-like text in the current exhibition) while pointing out the harsh and inarguable truths about how Native Americans have been mistreated and slaughtered by the United States government. One of his early masterpieces where his materials and views came into perfect harmony was "Building Minnesota" (1990) a 400-foot installation where the names of 40 Dakota tribal citizens who were executed in Minnesota in 1862 and 1865 were honored on 40 metal signs: "Honor Wa-kan-o-zha-zha, Medicine Bottle, Death by hanging Nov. 11 1865, Fort Snelling, Minn. - Execution order issued by President of the United States - Andrew Johnson." The signs were originally exhibited outside in the "historic" grain districts, Minnesota.

"Diary of Trees" features 12-foot tall rag paper on plywood maquettes and clear overlay stencils that make the structures look like the text and drawings are covering them. Some of the forked trees' names are "Petroglyphs and Time Spirals," "Indian Religious Freedom Act," "Federal Government Acronyms," and "Bent's Fort and Peaceful Trade"

"There are 10 trees total, and but I think those four give a good overview of the whole project," Heap of Birds said. "Number one is the petroglyphs, it goes in the beginning, then near the end, number nine is about international outreach and alliances, so it goes from pre-history to my own international projects in Zimbabwe and Australia."

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The exhibition also features four wall drawings where the text also works as an image or spatial experience. "I'm dealing with a lot of personal information in the wall drawings, the marker drawings," Heap of Birds said. "It's like a diary, which is why it's called 'Diary of Trees.' It's as if the trees are the public or official artwork that I'm doing, because it's a public piece, and then the wall drawings are more of the diary, they are the private information, actually in a code; I coded it myself about certain experiences. I really feel good about the combination of the two bodies of work because it's a good metaphor for life in general, but particularly for Native people. There's a strange expectation that if you are Native American you are 'public domain.' If you are sitting on a bus with somebody they feel they can ask you about your tribe and what your name means, but I can't go up to somebody and ask them who their relatives are. The drawings, on one level, and this is political, are existing in a very open, public, major venue, but they are all coded, so they kind of sit like you do on that same bus; you're there, but you're not open for business to be quizzed. Some people say that Natives ought to stay on reservations and not come to cities if they don't want to be asked questions, so a lot of them do. A lot of people stay in their communities because they are tired of being hounded by people. The show is partly about getting out the point that they can be anywhere and have the privacy that everyone deserves and be themselves."

The "Federal Government Acronyms" tree is covered with the initials JTPA, BLM, CHR, FBI and others. "The government acronyms is a major way that we live, through government programs, at one point being wards of the government, trustees of the government, then physically and politically having all these programs are the way you survive. On the tree there is a 10-part discourse about the sculpture, so each tree is handling a certain piece of history. It's kind of my autobiography, going back to Colorado from the Fort Laramie Treaty, to the Fort Wise Treaty, to the Little Arkansas Treaty, to the executive action to make Oklahoma the reservation for the Cheyenne-Arapaho people. It's them coming up through reservation days through acclimation or indoctrination, then the boarding school era, then the radical '70s, and then into the future. The acronym tree talks about that kind of government dependency during the post-reservation era in the late 1900s that is still going on today. I grew up and still had WIC for my kids, and the CHR comes to my parents' house to see if their health is good. Non-Natives do not see that litany of institutional affiliations with Native people. They think Natives are free on the prairie somewhere."

Heap of Birds said that the inspiration for this exhibition came from the museums wanting the most up to-to-date ideas in Native art for its "Continuum" series. "It needed to be about right now, and showing how the lineage of Houser and Morrison continues to push ahead in contemporary art for Native people. I decided to organize what I was working on in my studio for the last couple of years or so and bring it right to the museum."

For more information on the artist and to see his on-line galleries, visit