Out­rage over mu­seum plan to re­lo­cate a sa­cred Amer­i­can In­dian sculp­ture with­out renowned artist’s in­put leads to spe­cial ac­cord

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wen­zel

An iconic sculp­ture at the Den­ver Art Mu­seum that is con­sid­ered sa­cred by some Amer­i­can In­di­ans will re­ceive an un­usual re­lo­ca­tion in 2018 — in­clud­ing the soil it stands on — af­ter last week’s out­rage that the mu­seum planned to move it with­out the artist’s in­put.

In re­sponse to a let­ter of protest, the Den­ver Art Mu­seum this week said it reached an agree­ment with renowned Amer­i­can In­dian artist Edgar Heap of Birds to re­lo­cate his “Wheel” sculp­ture, which faces Civic Cen­ter along West 14th Av­enue Park­way, once the mu­seum be­gins the es­ti­mated $150 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of its North Build­ing in 2018.

Heap of Birds, a Cheyenne tribal leader and artist whose work has been dis­played at New York’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, sent the let­ter to the mu­seum Dec. 11 af­ter learn­ing from a Den­ver Post story about the mu­seum’s plans to move the sculp­ture.

“I op­pose any dis­man­tling, mov­ing or up­set­ting of the sculp­ture,” wrote Heap of Birds, who has worked as a pro­fes­sor of Na­tive Amer­i­can stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa for 28 years. “By con­tract, DAM must con­sult with the artist on the fu­ture of ‘Wheel.’ DAM did not abide by the con­tract. The site of ‘Wheel’ is holy ground.”

The sculp­ture, which was ded­i­cated

in 2005, sits at the Gio Ponti build­ing’s north-fac­ing en­trance and ref­er­ences Amer­i­can In­dian lodge and medicine wheel iconog­ra­phy with its cir­cle of red, forked tree forms. It has been cer­e­mo­ni­ally blessed by re­gional tribal lead­ers and has lately served as the end­ing point of the an­nual Sand Creek Mas­sacre Spir­i­tual Heal­ing Run-Walk.

“Count­less emo­tional tears were shed at the site thus tran­scend­ing nor­mal mu­seum deco­rum and firmly ush­er­ing ‘Wheel’ into the realm of Na­tive Amer­i­can sanc­tu­ary as a cer­e­mo­nial Medicine Wheel wor­ship place,” wrote Heap of Birds, who also ref­er­enced the Amer­i­can In­dian Re­li­gious Free­dom Act of 1978.

In the let­ter, Cheyenne Chief Gor­don Yel­low­man also noted that mov­ing the sculp­ture would “de­face and des­e­crate the art­work and Cheyenne bless­ing prayers which were of­fered dur­ing the last 10 years.”

“This is es­pe­cially true given the DAM’s re­liance on and de­pen­dence upon Na­tive artists and its re­la­tion­ships with Na­tive artists, which it has pur­sued to great self­ben­e­fit,” said Christina Fi­flis, who owns a nearby law of­fice in the Golden Tri­an­gle neigh­bor­hood. “To so bla­tantly dis­re­spect th­ese facts in this man­ner is an egre­gious breach.”

This week, how­ever, the mu­seum pro­vided The Den­ver Post with a joint state­ment from Heap of Birds and mu­seum di­rec­tor Christoph Hein­rich. The state­ment came af­ter their in-per­son meet­ings last week that were or­ga­nized in re­sponse to Heap of Birds’ let­ter.

“As part of this process … the DAM hosted Mr. Heap of Birds in Den­ver to ex­plore po­ten­tial sites for ‘Wheel.’ … ‘Wheel’ is one of the mu­seum’s largest-ever art com­mis­sions and a prom­i­nent piece in its col­lec­tion. The DAM rec­og­nizes that the piece has a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance to mem­bers of the Amer­i­can In­dian com­mu­nity,” the state­ment read.

“With sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards his­tory, tribal her­itage, ce­les­tial align- ments, is­sues of re­newal and me­mo­rial, ‘Wheel’ will be re-sited very near the orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion,” Heap of Birds wrote in the joint state­ment. “The new set­ting for the sculp­ture shall carry all of the orig­i­nal and im­por­tant, earth­based ref­er­ences and now be­comes a cen­tral el­e­ment of the DAM’s ren­o­va­tion project.”

As part of the re­lo­ca­tion, the mu­seum will col­lect the top 12 inches of soil from the sculp­ture’s cur­rent site and move it to the new site. Heap of Birds said it will prob­a­bly sit a few dozen yards away on Acoma Plaza, be­tween the Den­ver Pub­lic Li­brary’s main branch and the art mu­seum’s North Build­ing — where Mark di Su­vero’s or­ange steel sculp­ture, “Lao-Tzu,” is in­stalled. (It, too, will be re­tained and re­in­stalled).

“It’s stress­ful, but it’ll be re­vi­tal­ized with the mu­seum’s own­er­ship in a sense,” said Heap of Birds, 62, who is also a Heads­man of Tra­di­tional Cheyenne Elk Scraper War­rior So­ci­ety. “I will be back when they get the ground ready in a year and a half or so. I’ll bring lead­ers with me and we’ll make the bless­ing again with cer­e­mo­nial peace pipes and chiefs and medicine men.”

“The mu­seum did not per­suade the artist in any way re­gard­ing his claims,” the mu­seum told The Post in a state­ment. “We un­der­stand through our outreach ef­forts that there are dif­fer­ing opin­ions within the Cheyenne and lo­cal Na­tive com­mu­nity about this topic; how­ever, we un­der­stand that the sug­gested fu­ture site sat­is­fies the artist’s vi­sion and pro­vides promi­nence to this very im­por­tant work of art and place of gath­er­ing.

“The con­tract ref­er­enced ex­pired in 2002 (three years be­fore the piece was in­stalled), al­though with the place­ment of ma­jor out­door sculp­tures like ‘Wheel,’ we aim to col­lab­o­rate with liv­ing artists about their works in our col­lec­tion. In this case, we had planned all along to col­lab­o­rate with Edgar Heap of Birds should a move be needed, and are de­lighted to work with him mov­ing for­ward on the ob­ject’s move and re-in­stal­la­tion.”

The Den­ver Art Mu­seum sculp­ture “Wheel,” which was ded­i­cated in 2005, sits at the Gio Ponti build­ing’s north-fac­ing en­trance and ref­er­ences Amer­i­can In­dian lodge and medicine wheel iconog­ra­phy with its cir­cle of red, forked tree forms. The sculp­ture, by Amer­i­can In­dian Edgar Heap of Birds, faces Civic Cen­ter park along West 14th Av­enue Park­way. Helen H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

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