Public Apology

Attendees gather outside the Spencer Museum of Art for Samuel McKnight and John Wichlenski's public apology following their 2021 theft of an Indigenous piece titled "Native Hosts."

KU students Samuel McKnight and John Wichlenski publicly apologized in front of the Spencer Museum of Art on Saturday, Dec. 10 — the same place where they stole from a Native American art display over a year ago.

The First Nations Student Association, the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence Citizens, and Wichlenski and McKnight gathered in front of the Spencer Art Museum for the public apology. According to Melissa Peterson, director of tribal relations at the University of Kansas, the public apology and restorative justice circle conducted by Building Peace Inc. were part of an agreement reached by the NSPA, the Lawrence District Attorney’s office, and Wichlenski and McKnight in order for Wichlenski and McKnight to be granted a diversion after being charged with theft of property of a value of at least $1,500, but less than $25,000 in Douglas County Court in November 2021.

The event began with Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer Museum of Art, addressing the crowd.

“Today’s gathering is one of several actions toward learning and healing that were determined by a group including staff from the Spencer Museum of Art, FNSA students, Native faculty and staff, and the individuals offering their apologies today for the 2021 theft of the “Native Hosts” panels,” Hardy said.

Hardy ended her address by pledging the Spencer Museum of Art to continue its commitment to Native artists.

“I want to pledge our ongoing stewardship of this work of art and our commitment to working with and learning from indigenous artists, art and communities,” Hardy said.

Lori Hasselman, citizen of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes of Oklahoma and Native student success coordinator at the University of Kansas spoke at the event.

“I think that we all have come here today, feeling encouraged to be included in this process and are very thankful to the DA’s office for allowing us to have our voices heard in this process. We don’t often get that opportunity and we don’t often get a voice at the table in these situations where we’ve experienced harm or our communities have been impacted,” Hassleman said.

Hasselman also added how grateful she was to see students and Native relatives participating in the traditional systems of restorative justice and the peaceful manner in which NSPA and McKnight and Wichlenski were able to restore balance to KU native communities.

After her speech, Hasselman invited attendees to participate in a moment of silence to honor the restoration process they came together to create.

After Hasselman introduced them, McKnight and Wichlenski stepped forward to apologize.

Wichlenski began by apologizing to Heap of Birds, the artist behind the "Native Hosts" display; the indigenous students of KU, Haskell University, the Spencer Museum of Art, and “anyone who felt the ripple effect from the situation.”

“There truthfully is not a second that goes by that I don’t unconditionally regret our actions and the damage that was caused,” Wichlenski said.

Additionally, Wichlenski said that he and McKnight never had any malicious intent when stealing the artwork but a “naive and selfish desire” to use it as decor for their apartment.

“We want to use this opportunity to perpetually shed light on a systemic reform that is necessary,” Wichlenski said.

McKnight said that throughout the restorative process of the past 14 months, they have heard from indigenous communities that were affected by his and Wichlenski’s actions. McKnight also added that he and Wichlenski have recently worked with the Building Peace Organization, the Spencer Museum of Art and the NSPA to create a plan to further their education of indigenous culture through various volunteer projects and presentations.

After McKnight and Wichlenski’s apology, Tweesna Rose Mills, lecturer and graduate student in the University of Kansas film department and co-chair of the FNSA, told the crowd that she is working with the pair to have a presentation during the KU Powwow in 2023. Rose Mills also sang a traditional Kickapoo tobacco song that her aunt modified for women of her tribe to sing.

“The song shows adaptability and the change we need as indigenous people…What I’m saying is ‘Father, spirit of tobacco, show me the way, hear my prayer.”

As Rose Mills’ voice resonated throughout the hills of the KU campus it was as if the world stopped to listen to her song. The crowd became silent and contemplative, the previously loud birds stopped chirping and the sun, previously absent from the cold December day, peaked through the clouds on the gray columns of the Spencer Museum.

Peterson ended the event telling the audience that the public apology was only the beginning of what is to come from Wichlenski and McKnight, and the work that NSPA is doing around “Native Hosts” and the work that needs to be done at the University of Kansas.

According to Hardy, the five art panels from which McKnight and Wichlenski stole are works of Edgar Heap of Birds, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations. Heap of Birds created the “Native Hosts” panels for the museum’s 2019 exhibition “The Power of Place” which highlighted works by artists that graduated from the University of Kansas. The “Native Hosts” panels named five tribes who originally inhabited or currently hold reservation status in what is now Kansas. The panels feature the text of colonial names printed backward, while the original native names are printed forward.

“The visual and emotional tension that Heap of Birds creates between these names means to remind us all of the displacement of Native Americans from their homeland,” Hardy said.