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Vandals targeted the Native American art at KU, but dozens gather to celebrate the reinstallation

Artist Edgar Heap of Birds' "Native Hosts" was vandalized and stolen last month from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. It was re-installed this week — an achievement highlighted by speakers and musicians.

The vandals are still on the run, but the public artwork "Native Hosts" — created by Edgar Heap of Birds — is back where it belongs, prompting an outpouring of gratitude.

Last month one of the five panels of "Native Hosts" was stolen and four were damaged. All five were reinstalled on Wednesday.

"What is it about the panels that invoke such a response in someone, that they would

want to destroy or desecrate?" asked first-year Ph.D. student D’Arlyn Bell, an officer in KU’s First Nations Student Association. Bell was one of the speakers at the museum's celebratory event filled with flute-playing, singing and drumming.

Spencer Museum of Art

According to Bell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, Indigenous people see themselves in the artist’s work "and that's why we took such personal offense."

She added, "And when something is destroyed, we build it back up, we recreate it, we do it again. And that's what we're doing here today."

The panels include the names of tribes from the region now called Kansas. They feature the colonial name of Kansas, and the names of the area's original occupants, who were from tribes such as Kaw and Kickapoo.

Kansas is spelled backwards — and that's one of the reasons Robert Warrior says people will take a second look at the work.

"The way that Edgar (Heap of Birds) describes that is he says there's a 'turning back,' that is an invitation that is part of these panels," said Warrior, a professor of American Literature and Culture at KU and a member of the Osage Nation. "He's saying you're going to look behind you to give some extra thought."

Spencer Museum of Art

Museum director Saralyn Reece Hardy said she was "deeply troubled" by the recent acts of theft and vandalism.

"This series is a land acknowledgment, an acknowledgment of place," explained Hardy. "The panels recognize the land we occupy, who has been here before, and call us to know erasure."

Hardy said that the museum and the university were determined to re-install all five panels — with added security.

“We remain committed to displaying public art," said Hardy, "and to amplify Indigenous and native voices."

She added, "The panels represent the creative work of Edgar Heap of Birds and the work of all artists who strive to express their freedoms."

According to the Deputy Chief of KU Public Safety, James Druen, the theft case was sent to the Douglas County District Attorney's office for "charging considerations."

Investigators have photos of the vandals.

But, Druen said, the vandalism case remains open, and "until somebody comes forward and identifies the people in the images we are kind of at a standstill.”

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Laura Spencer caught the radio bug more than a decade ago when she was asked to read a newscast on the air on her first day volunteering for KOOP, the community radio station in Austin, Texas.