Have you seen the series of signs on Pitzer’s campus? What do you think they are saying to you? This is a question I have been asking to myself and many other visitors who are willing to challenge themselves and think outside of the industrial design and its associations with the colonization and our unfortunate indifference towards its symbols. Although the signs remain in the same place every day and will remain for several years to come, this language and these symbols push us, move us- that is, if we allow this perspective to infiltrate our thoughts, actions, and point of view towards this land that we may have previously considered as ‘your’s’ or ‘our’s.’
Edgar Heap of Birds is the infiltrator of these pointed, perplexing messages demonstrated on the 19 signs on Pitzer’s campus and one outside of Pomona’s Museum of Art. These signs read: ‘CALIFORNIA’ (in reverse text) ‘Today Your Host is’ followed by a word or title unfamiliar and perhaps unpronounceable to the English tongue. The signs have an industrial design, with a white-silver backing and bold blue font- a symbol that might typically read something like ‘Welcome to California,’ but these signs are perhaps a bit more unsettling.
Like all good art, its meaning reaches beyond any one person’s experience or definition, but to me I was left with the question “whose land is this anyway?” To me, the signs carry quiet power that echos messages of environmental justice for Native peoples and facilitates questions and discussions about what is land sovereignty? The first sign I saw was in the Scott Hall Courtyard by the Pitzer Cafe and it certainly brought me to a halt. “Why is this here?” I thought to myself, “is there a tour on campus going on? This is not a name I have ever seen before. I am not even sure if I can pronounce it…” I felt uncomfortable. Rude, ignorant or at least uninformed and unsettled.
After learning that ‘Puntitarjaln’gna’ meant Claremont and all of these other “unpronounceable” words on the metallic industrial-looking signs symbolized Sacred Spaces throughout the LA County Basin my perception changed completely. We are being ‘hosted’ by a sacred piece of land and how are we treating it? Is this land significant to the foundation and development of our identities? The land is something that I study here at Pitzer College, being an Environmental Analysis major, but what is my actual connection with it? I feel disgraced by this ugly, unwelcoming and unnatural sign in my space? This sign illustrates the industrial claim of land and when I look around me, doesn’t everything around me represent the same thing? Whose space is this anyway? And who is being hosted or left to feel hostile or held hostage? This space belongs to the Tongva, to whom grew and grow with this land that we stand, sit, litter and loiter on. This space belongs to the Tongva who, even if they have been forced to move into an urban environment, still consider this place their home and an extension of who they are. The Tongva are a part of this land and we are its visitors.
Edgar Heap of Birds is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. His work has appeared in numerous museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia. Different versions of his Native Hosts series appears across in diverse areas from Vancouver to Illinois to the US Virgin Islands and most recently in Claremont, California. Many if not all of his pieces inspire thoughts and questions about environmental justice for Native peoples and their land rights.
The installation here in Claremont is a part of the Native Hosts series, where Heap of Birds works closely with local tribe members in order to construct his works specific to each area. For the inaugural first year of Pitzer’s art+environment program, Heap of Birds was invited to do a Native Hosts public installation in Claremont, thanks to associate professor of Art History, Bill Anthes, who is presently writing a monograph on Edgar Heap of Birds. For this particular exhibit, Heap of Birds collaborated with Julia Bogony, a Tongva elder, in order to translate Native words and locate appropriate sites for each sign. He is currently a professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma.