By Zavi Engles
Scattered throughout Pitzer Colleges’s lush lawns and cactus gardens are metal newcomers—stark, direct signs that are perplexing due to their lack of a clear message. We usually expect signs to give us accessible information like directions or instructions. Instead we see the all-too familiar name, California, spelled out in all capital letters in reverse (as if it were in a mirror), followed by the statement: “Today your host is” and ending with a word that seems almost foreign, or at least certainly not English.
The irony, of course, is that the last word on the sign is actually Native. The signs are markers of tribes and sacred sites that existed long before Pitzer’s Mounds or LEED-certified residence halls were ever constructed. The fact that the names of these tribes are unknown to most of us is just one of the many contradictions inherent to the land that we casually refer to as Pitzer College and to the United States of America, which is actually a colonialist empire.
Walking around campus and viewing these signs throughout the semester brought me to the conclusion I stated above. Every time I notice one of the signs on my way to class, I try to take the time to mouth the unfamiliar looking word, ask myself what I feel in response as an audience member but also as a privileged person who is walking on this land, in this space, to which I have no ancestral ties.
A total of 19 different signs adorn different areas of Pitzer’s campus, with one sign on Pomona’s campus. Collectively, they are a public art installation by the acclaimed artist Edgar Heap of Birds who is the first artist-in-residence of Pitzer’s new art+environment program. The installation, titled Native Hosts, reminds viewers that they are essentially guests on the historical territory of the indigenous Tongva people.
Heap of Birds has similar installations from the US Virgin Islands to Vancouver as well as in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where some of his work was vandalized, possibly in reaction to a long community struggle that finally resulted in the university’s decision to retire its racist mascot, the Chief Illiniwek. For the installation here at Pitzer, Heap of Birds worked closely with Tongva elders to choose specific locations, and the words displayed on the signs are the names of historical tribal villages and sacred sites in this area. The installation will be on display for two years.
Some students have expressed surprise that the art installation is so stark and direct—almost like a billboard rather than classical art, which is expected to be typically aesthetically pleasing. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the artist, who hopes that the signs will create a “puncture” for the viewers.
The signs “introduce unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable knowledge…It doesn’t announce itself as ‘artwork’ so we perhaps don’t know how to process it and then have to figure that out for ourselves. I like the dissociation that this creates, between the spaces that we think we know and the things that we don’t know about the land we occupy,” current director of the art+environment program and Art History Professor Bill Anthes said, elaborating on the notion of “puncture.”
The hope is that once viewers are confronted with this information, they will begin to consider the underlying messages more deeply. In my own experience, these signs have cause me to consider my place and what sorts of privilege I flaunt just by virtue of living in a land where I have no historical ties—a land I casually and unthinkingly refer to as “Claremont” or “California” in daily life.
Language is a key aspect of this public art installation. The language that dominates this land today, the same language I use in everyday conversation, works to silence indigenous people’s right to this land and their right to have their land be marked by their language. It is significant that the colonial names of what we unthinkingly consider to be markers for this land must be read backwards while the Native names below do not, though they are unintelligible to most of us. I personally feel grateful to this installation, in a way that usually do not to art, because it challenges us by pointing to a history that too often goes unacknowledged in everyday discourse. As Pitzer students, do we confront and challenge ourselves enough to consider whose land our institution is built on?
Hopefully, “Pitzer students and staff and faculty [will] come through the campus and wonder about the tribal identity that they’re actually walking over,” Heap of Birds said.