At DAM, con­flict and res­o­lu­tion

The Denver Post - - OPINION -

Thank­fully, the “Wheel” con­tro­versy has come full cir­cle. The “Wheel” it­self — 10 red porce­lain trees as­tro­log­i­cally placed out­side the Den­ver Art Mu­seum in homage to im­por­tant Amer­i­can In­dian reli­gious sites and cer­e­monies — makes a state­ment about break­ing the cy­cle of Amer­ica’s mis­treat­ment of Na­tive peo­ples.

How re­liev­ing it was, then, that the re­cent dust-up and sub­se­quent res­o­lu­tion of plans to phys­i­cally move “Wheel” em­bod­ied the spirit of how to honor com­mit­ments to a group of peo­ple his­tor­i­cally cast aside in con­sid­er­a­tion of ex­pan­sion.

Of­fi­cials with the Den­ver Art Mu­seum de­serve ac­co­lades for rapidly ad­dress­ing the con­cerns of na­tion­ally renowned artist Edgar Heap of Birds when he learned from Den­ver Post re­porter John Wen­zel’s story this month that plans to ren­o­vate the mu­seum called for mov­ing his sculp­ture.

“It was hard. It was hard on me,” Heap of Birds said Fri­day. “We’ve all deep­ened our un­der­stand­ing, and the mis­sion of art is to deepen our un­der­stand­ing.”

He praised the mu­seum’s com­mit­ment to Amer­i­can In­dian art and their re­spect while work­ing with him on this is­sue.

But we find it puz­zling that the con­flict ever oc­curred in the first place.

The Den­ver Art Mu­seum has long known that “Wheel” is on the cusp of tran­scend­ing art into the realm of spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance.

Heap of Birds’ thoughts on the is­sue were in­cluded in the mu­seum’s 2008 book “Rein­vent­ing the Wheel: Ad­vanc­ing the Di­a­logue on Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can In­dian Art.”

He ex­plained Fri­day that he also ren­dered the sculp­ture dys­func­tional as a cer­e­mo­nial site by leav­ing out two of the poles found at his­toric reli­gious sites like Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wy­oming and by leav­ing off the roof put on cer­e­mo­nial lodges.

“I was hope­ful that the com­mu­nity would fin­ish it, that in a sense that would fin­ish the top,” Heap of Birds said. “I feel pretty happy that that’s what has oc­curred. The sa­cred­ness is in how the com­mu­nity has used it.”

The sculp­ture has served as the end­ing point of the an­nual Sand Creek Mas­sacre Spir­i­tual Heal­ing Run-Walk.

Den­ver Art Mu­seum of­fi­cials knew mov­ing “Wheel” would be sen­si­tive and they had talked with Heap of Birds in 2015 about the po­ten­tial ren­o­va­tion of the Gio Ponti build­ing’s north en­trance.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the mu­seum con­sulted with Gor­don Yel­low­man, a Cheyenne chief, who helped ded­i­cate the sculp­ture in 2005 when it opened with a bless­ing cer­e­mony.

It ap­pears the mu­seum did ev­ery­thing right, un­til it failed to fol­low up with the artist be­fore re­leas­ing the redesign plans to the public more than a year later.

But it’s im­pos­si­ble to ac­cuse Heap of Birds for over­re­act­ing.

The Cheyenne words on the wall above the sculp­ture are from Heap of Birds’ grand­mother and roughly trans­late to mean “turn­ing back around to where we come from.”

In “Rein­vent­ing the Wheel,” Heap of Birds writes: “I wanted to make that clear in terms of the big text on the wall — that this place was our home­land in the 1870s and be­fore. So when Wheel comes back as it has done here in Den­ver, Colorado, that means we are home again as well.”

How to re­spond to the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing that home once again?

A strongly worded let­ter would be one rea­son­able op­tion.

Edgar Heap of Birds’ “Wheel” sculp­ture stands just out­side the en­trance of the Den­ver Art Mu­seum. As­so­ci­ated Press file

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