2 men return to site of KU theft and publicly apologize for stealing Native American artwork

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Samuel C. McKnight, left, and John W. Wichlenski, pictured with members of the First Nations Student Association — Tweesna Rose Mills at rear left and D'Arlyn Bell, rear right — read apologies in front of those gathered at Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St., on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. McKnight and Wichlenski were charged with stealing a panel from the “Native Hosts” artwork at the Spencer Museum of Art in 2021.

In a rare display of atonement — and an apparent first of its kind in Lawrence — two young men on Saturday publicly apologized at the scene of their crime.

Their offense, which in previous generations might have been callously dismissed as a college-boy prank, deeply affected the University of Kansas’ Indigenous community — not the least because the sign they stole from KU’s Spencer Museum of Art was an artwork meant to commemorate land that was stolen from Native Americans.

Additionally, the artwork, titled “Native Hosts,” by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, which was KU’s Common Work of Art at the time, had been vandalized by others just a few weeks before the theft.

“I want to start by saying how extremely sorry we are,” said John Wichlenski, who, along with Samuel McKnight, admitted taking one of the five aluminum signs that make up “Native Hosts” to use as “décor” in their apartment.

The signs name Native tribes who historically or currently inhabit the region now called Kansas. On each sign, the colonial name is printed backward while the name of the land’s original inhabitants is printed forward. The two men stole the sign that reads “Kaw.”

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World Photo

The Kaw sign that’s part of “Native Hosts,” by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, is pictured Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022.

According to court documents, the now 23-year-olds were drunk on the night of Sept. 28, 2021, and stole the artwork from the museum’s grounds. A police officer later noticed it on their balcony at Varsity House, 1043 Indiana St., and arrested them.

“There truthfully isn’t a second that goes by that I don’t unconditionally regret our actions and the damage that was caused,” Wichlenski, speaking into a microphone, told dozens of people, many of them Native American, in front of the Spencer Museum of Art. “I wish I could stand up here and apologize to you all a million times.”

“I can assure you that it was never our intent to be malicious or to hurt anyone or any group; rather (it was) our naïveté and selfish desire to use it as décor for our apartment,” he said. “However, our ignorance of the nature of the artwork is by no means an excuse for our actions – rather, we want to use this opportunity as a wakeup call to perpetually shed light on the systemic reform that is necessary.”

McKnight, taking the microphone from his former roommate, said that the restorative justice process allowed him and Wichlenski to see “the gravity of our wrong-doing, not only to the Lawrence community but to the Indigenous community who has been historically stolen from.”

“I will never be able to put how sorry I am into words,” McKnight told the crowd.

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Samuel C. McKnight, left, and John W. Wichlenski, pictured with members of the First Nations Student Association, read apologies in front of those gathered at Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St., on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. McKnight and Wichlenski were charged with stealing a panel from the “Native Hosts” artwork at the Spencer Museum of Art in 2021.

The public apology came about as part of a diversion agreement that the men, who were originally charged with felony theft, reached with the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.

A diversion is a process whereby someone accused of a crime is “diverted” from the usual legal procedures and instead completes the terms of an agreement with the expectation of criminal charges eventually being dropped.

Early on, KU’s First Nations Student Association requested that it be involved in the resolution of the criminal cases and indicated a preference for restorative rather than “punitive” justice. FNSA along with representatives from the Spencer and KU faculty and staff participated in a restorative justice meeting conducted by Building Peace Inc. on Nov. 7 and came to an agreement with the men about the apology, as the Journal-World previously reported.

The apology is intended to be much more than words, however; everyone who spoke at Saturday’s brief event, from the two men to the museum’s leader to FNSA representatives and others, spoke of the restorative justice process as an ongoing concern, as a process of “learning and healing,” as museum director Saralyn Reece Hardy put it in her opening remarks.

“Restoration is tough,” said Lori Hasselman, a member of the Shawnee and Delaware Tribes, who also addressed the crowd and conducted a moment of silence. “… and it’s also very beautiful at the same time.”

She said the process involved confronting trauma and fear and, in the end, instead of perpetuating resentment and ill will, promoted resilience, strength, forgiveness and love.

McKnight said that his commitment to righting his wrong included a plan to educate himself about Indigenous culture and history and to participate in opportunities to share that awareness, including via a presentation at KU’s upcoming powwow in April with Wichlenski.

As part of Saturday’s event, Tweesna Rose Mills, of the Eastern Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations and a KU graduate student and co-chair of FNSA, sang a Native American Church Kickapoo song that she said represented the importance of adaptability and honoring the land.

Another member of FNSA, D’Arlyn Bell, who is Cherokee, thanked the DA’s office for “this unusual process” and shared her hope that restorative justice would become much more common and would encourage inclusivity.

That was a hope shared by Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen, who is one of the directors of the nonprofit Building Peace, which conducted the restorative justice meetings in this case.

“This has been an opportunity to start the healing process and to move forward,” she told the Journal-World Saturday. She said Wichlenski and McKnight did a lot of hard work that they might not have otherwise done in a traditional criminal case, and most importantly, the victims of their wrong-doing had a meaningful “opportunity to be heard.”

Participants in the process expressed optimism that Wichlenski, who graduated with a degree in finance, and McKnight, who said he is still pursuing a biology degree, had learned an important life lesson.

Melissa Peterson, a member of the Diné Tribe and director of tribal relations at KU, closed the event by saying “this is only the beginning of what is to come from these two gentlemen.”

Myltin Bighorn, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes and a KU graduate student and co-chair of FNSA, told the Journal-World afterward that he hoped the confidence was warranted.

“Actions will speak louder than words,” he said.

“Native Hosts,” created specifically for the Spencer by KU alumnus Heap of Birds for its 2019 “Power of Place” exhibit, is still on display in front of the museum. The two men accused of vandalizing it on Sept. 4, 2021, Josef Robert Keivan, 20, of Burr Ridge, Illinois, and Owen Patrick McAuliffe, 19, of La Grange Park, Illinois, have each been charged with one felony count of criminal damage. They are scheduled to appear in court in January on those charges.

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Dozens of people gathered Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, outside KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, to hear the public apology of two men who stole a native American artwork last year from the museum grounds.

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