Recent History and Ancient History

Photo credit: http://publicartfund.tumblr.com/post/54037605111/top-image-from-our-1988-exhibition-native-hosts

Photo credit: http://publicartfund.tumblr.com/post/54037605111/top-image-from-our-1988-exhibition-native-hosts

I was incredibly taken with the art done by Edgar Heap of Birds, mentioned in Hayden’s reading. The idea behind his work is to force the viewer to focus on the sign by grabbing their attention with backwards letters, and then to remind them that the land we all stand on is not ours but belonged to a native tribe. He’s done work all over the place– my quick search turned up examples done in Oregon, California, and my home state, Illinois.

We’ve seen other ways that you can bring Native Americans into conversation in everyday discussions: namely, Dean Spade’s insistence on first recounting the history of the land he’s speaking on, regardless of whether or not others would deem it “relevant” to his talks. But how would this look when we apply it to a project like Erin Bernard’s?

The premise behind the Philadelphia History Truck (which, I should say, I think is an absolutely brilliant project) is that the stories within current communities of Philadelphia matter. But on some level, that limits us to the span of human memory. How do projects like this take into account the history from an era before any living person can remember?

Sometimes the landscape itself will help solve this problem. My grandfather, for example, grew up in Germantown and can remember the buildings that had bullet holes left over from the Revolutionary War dotting the landscape that he played in as a child. In moments like that, oral history can lead to an investigation of an earlier period. It is easy to say that a community member remembers physical evidence and use that as a jumping point to get to the archives and to layer multiple stories on top of each other. But what do you do in the case of Native Americans, where the evidence of the people who lived here before us has been almost completely wiped off the map? How do you tell that story? Should you tell that story, or is the History Truck not the place? Is it too much of a burden to place upon the shoulders of an already beleaguered community? And who gets to decide?

I don’t have answers to any of those questions (though I welcome yours!). But I do think we have a moral obligation to consider the problems they pose, particularly in the case of Native Americans, and I wonder how projects like Erin Bernard’s can be grafted to show multiple layers of history at once.

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