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Sunset on the Longest Day — and a new earthwork at ISU's Horticulture Center

A performance centering on Native American voices Wednesday kicked off what will be years of work for a natural art piece upon a one-acre plot at Illinois State University's Horticulture Center.

Ruth Burke is an assistant professor in ISU's Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts who describes her multidisciplinary work as socially engaged art — "art that comes out of relationships."

"My work is, hopefully, going to be over the long term an argument for why we need to revisit these definitions of what socially engaged art is," Burke said in an interview. "In social practice, the outcome of the work ... is not as important at those relationships that come out of whatever the art brings forth."

The plan, Burke said, is to build a semi-circle mound on the site off Raab Road in Normal and grow plants native to the area on the property. The endeavor will use as few fossil fuels as possible, and avoid herbicides and other chemicals.

"A big motivation behind doing these works are also to do some kind of like ecological healing," she said.

But ecological healing wasn't the only focus. Burke said she wanted to recognize the land had once been that of indigenous peoples, before colonization forced them out via removal, assimilation or death.

She collaborated with ISU instructor Shannon Epplett, who has taught Native studies and is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

"It's not enough to just read a land acknowledgement — I don't think it is," he said. "Like this is great (that) ISU has the land acknowledgement, and it lists all the people that used to live here. Great. What do we do next? That's great, but we need to do something, you know, we need to right this wrong."

Instead of a statement, Epplett created a piece of performance art that involved eight Native performers from across central Illinois. They stood encircled around a fire, holding placards that formed phrases when read together. When a drum beat, each person would toss their placard into the fire, revealing a new word and a new phrase. Periodically, someone spoke.

The performance was designed for spectators to participate — walk around, lean in and listen to the speakers, Epplett said.

"Part of the experience of this event is you're not going to read everything, and you're going to miss parts of it, you're not going to hear everything," Epplett said. "Welcome to being Indian, where people aren't talking to you, they're talking about you. It's meant to kind of create that for the spectator; there's a little bit of frustration."

More than one hundred people attended Wednesday's performance, formally titled "Sunset on the Longest Day" — a nod to the summer solstice, Epplett said, and a metaphor.

"We're hoping this is, maybe, the end of the long day of settler colonialism and the start of something new," he said. "We've had 500-some years of invasions, epidemics, starvation, having our land taken away and not being listened to. It's to the point of: Hear us, and... move forward differently."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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