Students will identify the issues and events involving American Indians as represented on Wheel. They will research one of the events and develop a presentation of their findings.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonTwo 50 minute lessons
Standards AreaSocial Studies
Students will be able to:
- identify symbols for a work of art and translate their meaning;
- research events in history;
- identify important elements of a historical event;
- identify the location of historical events on a map;
- understand the importance and significance of American Indians to modern society;
- critically analyze Edgar Heap of Birds’ presentation of ideas; and
- develop a presentation based on research.
- Show students the image and 360° view of Wheel. Explain that Edgar Heap of Birds is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho American Indian tribes. Ask students to describe what they see. Point out that this is a monumental sculpture that was made to stand in front of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building. Notice that there are ten structures, or trees. If you look closely you can see that there are three different types of tree tops. Ask students if the sculpture reminds of them of anything else they have seen. The pillars are aligned with the sunrise of the summer solstice. Much of Edgar Heap of Birds’s artwork, including Wheel, is about refocusing how American Indian culture and history is viewed, perceived, and understood, and also promotes global cooperation among indigenous peoples.
- This sculpture was made specifically for this DAM site, and the curve of the museum wall was an important part of Heap of Birds’s design. On it he placed the Cheyenne words “nah-kev-ho-eyea-zim,” which mean, “we are always returning back home again.”
- Share with students information from the About the Art section, pointing out the specific details in the “Details” section. Note that each tree pillar is covered with words and symbols that tell of different events in the history of American Indian peoples in Colorado and the surrounding region. If it is appropriate to your class, share the last few minutes of the YouTube clip of Heap of Birds speaking about the sculpture.
- Edgar Heap of Birds feels strongly about the American Indian history in the area and feels that the land where this sculpture sits can be a way to give indigenous people a small piece of their land back, which was taken from them after the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and other events that occurred involving native peoples and broken treaties.
- Ask students to look closely at the words and drawings on the trees and think about the events that they represent (for example; 1864—Sand Creek Massacre, 1868—Washita River Massacre, 1887—Dawes Act, 1890 & 1973 Wounded Knee, 1902—Dead Indian Land Act, 1990—N.A.G.P.R.A.). Note on a map the geographic location of these events. Ask each student to choose one event to research using historical methods of inquiry. As they begin their research, ask them to think about the following questions:
- What do I already know about this event?
- Where did I learn what I know and can I validate that knowledge?
- How does the geographical location play into the event?
- What primary and secondary sources can I use for research and where will I find them?
- Do I expect to find any information that I didn’t already know?
- Have students prepare a presentation of their findings that presents the impact this event has had on history and how the ideas involved still have significance today.
- After critically analyzing and interpreting what they found regarding their topic, they should decide whether they agree or disagree with Edgar Heap of Birds’ representation of the event or events in Wheel. They should include their opinion in their presentation.
- Access to or the ability to display a Colorado state map and a map of the United States
- Access to the Internet or a library for research
- Paper and writing implements or access to a word processor
- Copies of the About the Art section on Wheel (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- Color copies of Wheel for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Optional: ability to display for the class a video of the artist speaking about the sculpture
- Social Studies
- Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
- Understand the concept that the power of ideas is significant throughout history
- Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
- Analyze the concept of complexity, unity and diversity
- Become familiar with Mexico, Maya, Southwest United States historical eras, groups, individuals, and themes
- Become familiar with Colorado geography
- Use geographic tools to research, gather data and ask questions with geography
- Become familiar with people in the world who are interconnected by geography
- Understand geographic variables and how they affect people
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Edgar Heap of Birds is an accomplished Cheyenne-Arapaho artist who works in a variety of media—drawing, painting, printmaking—and is known for his public art interventions and installations, including Wheel. Much of his artwork is about refocusing how American Indian culture and history is viewed, perceived, and understood.
Born in 1954, Heap of Birds holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the University of Kansas and a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) from Tyler School of Art (Temple University, Philadelphia). He also did graduate work at the Royal College of Art in London. He is on the faculty of Oklahoma University with a joint appointment in Native American Studies and Fine Arts.
What Inspired It?
Wheel was created specifically for its site at the Denver Art Museum and is rich in symbolism. Several American Indian artists were invited to submit proposals for a major public artwork to be located next to the museum’s North Building entrance. Use of the building’s curved wall was a key factor in Heap of Birds’s proposal—on it, in raised letters, he placed the Cheyenne words “nah-kev-ho-eyea-zim,” which mean “we are always returning back home again.”
Heap of Birds wants Wheel to be a gathering place for the community. The circle form is based on the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, a sacred site in northern Wyoming, as well as the circular form of a traditional Plains Indian Sun Dance lodge. The ten forked poles, or trees, are aligned with the summer solstice—on June 21st, the sun rises in an opening to the east between the first and last poles. Each tree is covered with words and drawings that recount different events in the history of American Indian peoples in Colorado and the surrounding region, from conflict over resources to global cooperation among indigenous peoples.
Bison hoof prints and outlines of hands are among the many sketches of actual objects that Heap of Birds included on the poles, along with graphic design elements like the double spiral taken from ancestral Puebloan cultures.
While most of the imagery on the trees refers to historical events, some is specific to Heaps of Birds and his family. On the tenth tree, the magpies flying upward represent the name “Heap of Birds.”
Although words are used literally as text that describes historic events, they also serve as design elements. Heap of Birds chose varied styles of lettering to add mood and visual interest.
Heap of Birds used three styles of forked tree forms in Wheel, inspired in part by a tree that once stood at the site. The forms also refer to the forked poles that hold up a Sun Dance lodge. The artist’s original drawings show twelve trees in the circle, but the final artwork has only ten. According to Heap of Birds, Wheel is his creative expression, and he omitted two poles so that it would not be read as religious.