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KU students charged with felony in September theft of Native American art installation

·3 min read

Two students at the University of Kansas were charged last month with the theft of a Native American art installation set up on school’s campus.

The installation from Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, a Native American artist whose work focuses on the heritage and sovereignty of indigenous people, was vandalized in September outside of the Spencer Museum of Art.

Personnel from the museum and at least five separate witnesses allege two students, Samuel C. McKnight and John W. Wichlenski, both 22, stole one of the pieces in the art installation on Sept. 29, according to court documents.

They were charged with theft of property of at least $1,500 worth of art, but no less than $25,000, which is a low level felony, according to court documents. The artwork was eventually returned.

The students had their first court appearance in front of Judge Stacy Donovan on Nov. 10.

Wichlenski brought himself in for booking at Douglas County Sheriff Department on Nov. 11 at 11:30 a.m. and McKnight was booked the following day at 11:15 a.m., according to the department’s booking log. Each student was released on a $1,500 bond.

The incident comes after two other students were caught on surveillance footage vandalizing four of Edgar Heap of Birds’ art pieces on Sept. 4.

In a Wednesday night conversation with students and faculty from KU, his alma mater, Edgar Heap of Birds said he expected the piece to spark a public dialogue.

The artist’s “Native Host” series features five aluminum signs. Each names a Native tribe that calls Kansas their ancestral home. The tribe that originally lived in the region is printed reading forward on the sign and the word “Kansas” is printed backward.

Edgar Heap of Birds, who is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nation, said the installation is an effort to celebrate tribal heritage and sovereignty.

“When you display art outside, you open the piece up to reactions, which sometimes can be violent and inspire others to tear it down,” he said during the conversation via Zoom on Wednesday.

He said he wanted the signs to be exhibited in public to present tribal art to students and is dismayed that some were unable to treat the series with respect.

”You have a lot of people who aren’t used to seeing Native American art because most of the statues on campus are of white historical figures and donors,” he said

Edgar Heap of Birds said he’s been proud of the solidarity the community has shown following the vandalism.

Faculty and students have come forward in support of the piece’s re-installation, which occurred in October, said Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokeswoman for Kansas University.

“Its not really me its the tribal heritage and sovereignty we’re representing,” he said of those embracing and defending the art.

McKnight and Wichlenski, are still attending university for the fall 2021 semester, Barcomb-Peterson said.

The students are scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 14 at 10 a.m., according to George Diepenbrock, a spokesman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s department.

University of Kansas students and faculty walk past Fraser Hall on campus. The Kansas Board of Regents recently asked universities to list courses that include Critical Race Theory.
University of Kansas students and faculty walk past Fraser Hall on campus. The Kansas Board of Regents recently asked universities to list courses that include Critical Race Theory.
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