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Can Bacone College reclaim its roots as a center for Native art?

The private college redefined Indigenous art but faces financial and infrastructure challenges today.

When Mary “Ataloa” Stone arrived at Bacone College in the summer of 1927, the small tribal school in Muskogee, Oklahoma, had no art program. Hired to work in the English department, the Chickasaw scholar, originally from Indian Territory, had an impressive résumé: an undergraduate degree from Redlands University in California and a new master of arts degree from Columbia. Despite the very clear racial and gender divisions in the male-dominated America of the 1920s, Stone — who is usually known simply by her Chickasaw name, “Ataloa” — was better educated than most white men of her generation.

Turning down job offers that included a proposed tour of Europe as a singer, Ataloa chose instead to teach at Bacone. The school was unlike other tribal schools at the time: Bacone’s Indigenous students studied advanced academic subjects like social science and Indigenous history, rather than elementary education and agriculture. Established as a private Baptist institution a quarter century before Oklahoma became a state, it is Oklahoma’s oldest college, and Native students have long sought intellectual refuge there. Ataloa, whose own intellectual journey began with the stories of her Chickasaw grandmother, wanted to teach students how to navigate the Western world the way she had. “Realizing the only hope for the Indian is the right kind of education, I know my task must be in helping raise the standard of our schools,” she told The Literary Digest in 1931.

Bacone became a bastion of Indigenous culture as well as a place where Native students learned to use stereotypes and myths to their own advantage. When raising funds for the college, Ataloa implored white Americans to “save” the best of Native culture, “since it is you who have taken the responsibility in changing our old civilization.” This tactic would prove to be one of the most important lessons her students learned, and it helped the small tribal college radically reshape the world of modern Native art.

 

Throughout the middle and later 1900s, as the United States government sought to suppress tribes and erase their cultural and societal structures, the Indian Arts Program at Bacone inspired Indigenous artists to test the perimeters of the Native artistic canon and assert their own identities through their work. Instructors like W. “Dick” West, Acee Blue Eagle and Woody Crumbo, some of the most prolific and influential Native artists of their day, gave hope and continuity to displaced people, reminding them not only of who they had been, but of who they still were and could be, said Stephen Fadden, program director at the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, a Bacone alum and citizen of the Mohawk Nation. “It was a place to, in a sense, resist detribalization by expressing the spiritual and cultural ideas they held dear through their art,” he said. As more and more Native artists thrived there, what became known as the “Bacone style” left an indelible mark on modern Native art.

Cheyenne Warrior by W. Richard West, from the mid-20th century. West was one of several influential and prolific art instructors at Bacone.
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

More than 50 years after it redefined the Native artistic canon, and almost a century after Ataloa’s arrival, the college has quietly fallen into decay and near-financial ruin, its student body dwindling and its old buildings in disrepair. But the institution’s new leaders are ambitious. Hoping to once again produce some of the country’s most vibrant artists, new President Ferlin Clark announced last year that the school would soon offer classes in film production. It will also, after a several-year hiatus, offer an arts degree again. But clawing back from a $2.5 million debt and regaining accreditation, both as a private and a tribal college, will not be easy.

In 2018, the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits post-secondary educational institutions in 19 states in the Central and Western U.S., put Bacone on probation, citing its lack of proper infrastructure and “systematic and integrated planning.” The school’s financial woes damaged recruitment efforts and caused many students to leave. The student body plummeted from a record-breaking more than 700 the year before to fewer than 300, and all but five of the college’s 95 employees were let go and rehired only after the college sold some of its newer properties. In a May 2018 interview with KJRH, then-President Franklin Willis blamed Bacone’s financial woes not on poor investment decisions and financial practices but rather on the students, citing $2 million in unpaid tuition. “If we had that money, we’d be open. It’s the $2 million we need, and there’d not be a care in the world.” But Bacone’s problems will likely cost far more than $2 million to fix. When it temporarily suspended Bacone’s accreditation in 2018, the Higher Learning Commission noted that the college had no existing policy or procedure for monitoring its finances and could provide no evidence on how it would meet its future obligations. It made no mention of unpaid tuition.

Gerald Cournoyer, the newly hired art director at Bacone College, stands next to a Kiowa 6 painting in the college’s library. Cournoyer hopes to restore Bacone’s tradition of producing some of the most influential Indigenous artists in the country.
Dylan Johnson for High Country News

Last fall, the college hired renowned Oglala Lakota painter Gerald Cournoyer to head the art department. When we first spoke in December, about a month before art classes resumed, Cournoyer sounded optimistic despite the school’s setbacks — eager to recapture some of Bacone’s old magic. “It is my dream that we get a new art building large enough to encompass all the art, where we can do more outreach to the communities and have basket weaving, beadwork, silversmithing, things that you wouldn’t be able to find at another institution,” he said.

Given Bacone’s historic accomplishments — the fact that it offered Indigenous students in Indian Territory a proper education when other institutions refused to do so, even as it empowered a generation of artists to change the art world — it’s easy to understand why Cournoyer and Clark are determined to save what is left. When I visited Bacone, the look in Cournoyer’s eye told me he doesn’t want to consider a future without the historic Indian school.

A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874, a fight between Southern Plains Indians and the U.S. Army during the Red River War.

LEDGER PAPER FROM TRADERS' NOTEBOOKS and military commanders’ rosters made its way slowly across North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Combined with commercial paints and inks, the new medium began to take hold, and gradually it replaced animal hide. Paper eventually became essential for record-keeping after white settlers decimated the buffalo to near-extinction.

Shading and perspective are typically absent from early 19th century Indigenous ledger drawings, which have a distinctive two-dimensional quality — images defined by crisp black outlines as much as by their bright colors. Backgrounds, for the most part, are nonexistent. But aesthetic appeal was necessarily not the primary concern; in the Kiowa calendars drawn by Silver Horn, for example, the goal was simply to document everyday life, everything from tornadoes and crops to battles and deaths. Using images for record-keeping and storytelling was common among the Kiowas; preserving and displaying those images as artwork was not necessarily the intention. Rembrandt may have worked well with light, but Silver Horn worked with time.

Stickball Game by Jerome Tiger, c. 1965. The use of movement became a central part of the “Bacone style.”
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

It’s unlikely that the Cheyenne and Kiowa prisoners, among others, who created prolific art in the ledger style in the late 1800s ever worried about “style” or what future art patrons might think. But their distinctive style of portraiture, with its stark absence of background, would later propel the Kiowa 6, a group of Kiowa artists active in the early 1900s, to international stardom.

The Kiowa 6 are best known for their depictions of Indigenous dancers in motion, dressed in regalia. Working with the University of Oklahoma Art Department’s director, a Swedish immigrant named Oscar B. Jacobson, they seized on the fact that, on a practical level, European art stood the test of time, said Russ Tall Chief, former director of the Jacobson House in Norman, Oklahoma, now a museum just off campus. European art was carefully preserved in museums, highly valued by the art world and the broader culture. “Whereas we’ve lost a lot of traditional arts in wood and hides and stuff that just disintegrated,” he said. “Think about the hundreds of years of Native art that we will never see that happened in the 1700s. It had its life, it ran its course, and then it went away. That’s a natural phenomenon.” 

“Think about the hundreds of years of Native art that we will never see that happened in the 1700s. It had its life, it ran its course, and then it went away. That’s a natural phenomenon.” 

Though Jacobson gave the Kiowa 6 easels and a studio in his home, the present-day museum, the artists’ forebears had been recording history through visual representations for generations. The young artists, most notably Spencer Asah, Monroe Tsatoke and Stephen Mopope, excelled at the easel painting, becoming some of the most widely-sold Native artists of their time.

Many of the artists at Bacone saw themselves as keepers of their culture, which they took one step further by incorporating modern artforms, said Tall Chief. They established the rules of the new world based on those of the old; Bacone simply played its part in a progression of visual storytelling that began millennia ago. “That is why the art that came out of (Bacone) was so ‘Oklahoma,’ ” Tall Chief said. “That came straight off the hide, straight off the tepee and onto the paper and tried to keep that essence, while starting to apply some of the Western techniques that make art interesting. You can’t live in a bubble, and they knew that.”

Jacobson and his University of Oklahoma students were deeply involved with their Bacone counterparts, and Bacone’s instructors took that influence and ran with it. Texture, dimensionality and movement became hallmarks of the “Bacone style,” as did abstract imagery, like the darting birds and geometrically entrancing blades of grass in Acee Blue Eagle’s paintings or the crystal-blue deer in Woody Crumbo’s work. It was the natural evolution of the old ledger drawings, and the work of the Kiowa 6 that moved into a new phase of design and structure, “a rearticulation,” said Lisa K. Neuman, a professor of anthropology and Native American studies at the University of Maine and the author of Indian Play: Indigenous Identity at Bacone College.

Peyote Symbols by Blue Eagle.
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma
 Artists like Blue Eagle, Crumbo and West taught their students to harness traditional culture and ceremony and express them in newer mediums and styles. And the college launched generations of young Native artists into the mainstream art world — people like Jerome Tiger, Ruthe Blalock Jones, Mars Biggoose and Marcelle Sharron Ahtone Harjo, whose growing influence not only gave them an opportunity to make a living as artists, but also enabled them to reclaim their own narratives, redefining art through the eyes of Native artists, rather than the expectations of the white patrons who bought their work. It was a chance to tip the balance of power in the art world, and Bacone’s leaders took advantage of it. When one of the respected Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe’s post-Cubist paintings was rejected at the 1958 National Indian Painting Competition at Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of art, which was then the country’s largest Native art market, because the jury said his work did not meet the definition of “traditional,” Howe responded forcefully by letter. “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right to individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been?” he wrote. Bacone’s instructors and students were also steeped in traditional art, and as the Indian Annual began to include more modern elements, thanks to pushback by artists like Howe, Bacone’s artists started moving from small galleries to museums.

“Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right to individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been?”

Contest Dance by Spencer Asah, c. 1940. Asah and the rest of the Kiowa 6 became internationally known artists when Bacone’s art program was still in its infancy, and their influence is seen in the art produced at the college during the 20th century.
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

At the same time, the program’s leaders played up their “Indianness” to sell Bacone and its art to white donors and collectors. To woo white audiences, West would often don a large feathered headdress, face paint and regalia that did not represent his own Cheyenne heritage. Most of Bacone’s art directors exploited the stereotype that Indians were naturally spiritual and artistic to garner more funding or promote their students. “Their politics, we would look at them as being a little bit odd today. But they were playing the system, gaming it,” said Neuman. “I use the phrase ‘playing Indian to Indian advantage.’ ” The artists were confronted, both personally and professionally, with what white buyers thought “Native” art should be, as well as the question of who was qualified to make it. Neuman writes that in 1939, Crumbo lamented to the Tulsa Tribune that he was often asked to certify his own authenticity as Indigenous. A potential buyer once asked him how Indian he is. “Lady, I wouldn’t know,” Crumbo said he replied. “I hung around the barns often enough, but I never got a pedigree.”

Cournoyer knows the sentiment well. Today’s buyers, he said, are no more sensitive or forgiving. “They want to know all these things about your history in order to make a judgment on whether this is true Indian art or not.” Some people only buy work from the reservation, he said, “because that is real art, the struggling Indian artist,” not work by somebody who left to earn a master’s degree, or, in Cournoyer’s case, more than one. “We can tell our story, but if we want someone to buy it, we got to tell the story the way you want it to be told,” he said.

His understanding of that reality should serve Bacone’s students well, as it did for those of his predecessors. Cournoyer is regarded as an accomplished painter, and Bacone’s supporters have a lot of confidence in his ability as an instructor. The big, bold colors of modernism are obvious in his work, but so too are the experiences of the Lakota Sioux. His paintings feel at once modern and traditional. “I think he represents that balance Native artists have found, good Native artists who have been able to hang onto that Native aesthetic,” Tall Chief said.

“We can tell our story, but if we want someone to buy it, we got to tell the story the way you want it to be told.”

Medicine Man by Blue Eagle.
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Cournoyer wants his students to feel connected to their heritage, much as he did at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where class was just a short walk from the sweat lodge. He wants Native artists from across the country to find their way to Muskogee. But for now, his goals have to be more modest. When we spoke in February, his tone was more urgent; he’s focused on getting his students the credits they need to transfer to an art institute. Currently, Bacone can only offer a two-year associate’s degree in art. He hopes to implement a seven-year plan to raise funds and eventually offer studio credit hours. The art department needs a newer facility with more studio space. Supplies are scant, and he has to be creative. While eating at the local Chili’s, he asked if he could take home some empty wine bottles. Those bottles are now part of his still-life display.

Across the hall from the still-life models, on the second floor of the small, rough stone art building, Cournoyer stands in the midst of desks, each covered with piles of sketches. It’s May, and classes ended just a couple of weeks ago. Cournoyer, with his first semester of art instruction at Bacone under his belt, had recently returned from a recruiting trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he grew up. He wanted to show kids there that making art is a viable and fulfilling way to make a living and to see the world. Bacone’s student body is currently about 42% Native American, and if the college can get that number to 51%, it will be one step closer to regaining accreditation as a tribal college. Both the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Osage Nation have recently agreed to charter Bacone, another necessary step. The college will also have to establish a trustee board that is majority Native American.

Oglala Lakota painter Gerald Cournoyer looks at some of the Kiowa 6 paintings awaiting restoration in Bacone’s library. Cournoyer was hired last fall to lead the college’s art program.
Dylan Johnson for High Country News

Looking among the sketches stacked throughout the classroom, it wasn’t hard for me to find impressive examples of promising young Native talent, the likely source of the gleam in Cournoyer’s eye. Cournoyer and Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, who has offered to help create a film program, know there are talented Native artists, writers and filmmakers everywhere, sometimes concentrated in areas just a short drive from Bacone. “I had a hard time leaving Holdenville. I have a hard time leaving Tulsa now,” Harjo said, mulling over whether or not to move to Los Angeles, where he already spends much of his time working. “If they want to stay in Oklahoma, like a lot of us do, then I’d like to create space for them to stay there and work.”

The stone buildings where Cournoyer has stacked his students’ work may be musty and prone to flooding, but there is life here still. And whether or not the students know it — Cournoyer sometimes has his doubts — they are walking among legends. Kiowa 6 paintings awaiting restoration are in the library, sometimes leaning against shelves; a Dick West mural of a dancer adorns a classroom wall on the art building’s steamy second floor, and prints from Jerome Tiger’s studio are piled in a room full of decades of art from past students. The college’s museum overflows with treasures, from oil paintings to beaded regalia; even stones in its fireplace are etched with hieroglyphs. But the old silversmithing basement is often flooded, the boilers fail, and priceless works of art spend decades in buildings that are not climate-controlled.

Cournoyer walks through all of this, the history and struggle, with a sense of purpose. Every corner, every aging façade or dusty sketch, evokes a smile. To Cournoyer, the past is alive and moving all around Bacone. To him, the murmur is a shout. Behind the modest duplex on the edge of campus Cournoyer shares with another professor, he had a sweat lodge built, and when he speaks about the process, the heating of the stones and the seating arrangement, or how he will soon dig a trench the way he had been taught, he can’t help but smile again. “Everything has a purpose, and we’re trying to teach that.”

Women Gathering Corn by Marian Terasaz, c. 1938. The piece’s bold colors and absence of background are indicative of many Indigenous artists in Oklahoma at the time.
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

ATALOA, WHO HELPED PRESIDENT Benjamin D. Weeks build Bacone’s art program in the late 1920s, believed deeply that Indigenous people should be the ones in charge of the preservation of their culture. At the time, genocide was still very much a daily reality in the United States. In her travels across the country, Ataloa saw a generation of Native youth who too often knew little about their history, the collective memories of their tribes scrubbed away by the government. “The Indian has been studied as a curiosity — a ‘dead’ and ‘vanishing’ race, not as a living contributor to the art, music, and religious moral code of later Americans.” Ataloa and Weeks worked together to build an institution that set itself apart from other Indian schools by cultivating their minds, rather than just teaching them “from the shoulders down.”

“The Indian has been studied as a curiosity — a ‘dead’ and ‘vanishing’ race, not as a living contributor to the art, music, and religious moral code of later Americans.”

“The trouble has been that the Indian’s education has never fitted him for anything worthwhile,” Weeks said in 1935. “We have been trying to make carpenters out of artists, house painters out of musicians, and printers out of poets. We are beginning to realize that the Indian is an artist in the truest sense.”

Bacone is no longer solely an Indian school; the private college teaches students of any background. But Ferlin, Cournoyer and Harjo want it to be a place where young Native artists can encounter a way of life that has shown their teachers, and their kin, value and purpose. “There is something amazing about having Native professors,” Harjo said. “People who share the Native student’s life and perspectives. It just makes a big difference.”

Sign of Spring, an original silkscreen by Woody Crumbo, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and one of Bacone College’s most influential art directors and artists.
Courtesy of Citizen Potawatomi Nation

Ataloa, Crumbo, the Kiowa 6, Blue Eagle and countless Bacone students were all rooted in an artistic tradition that thrived long before them and will continue long after. But what sets them apart, what makes them so important to the Indigenous experience, is not how their work was perceived as “different” or “new,” but rather how it preserved the true histories of this place we currently call the United States and hurtled that truth into the future. The popularity of their art in the white world contrasted with, and was likely bolstered by, the invisibility of tribal life in America. Bacone’s art leaders deliberately played up the idea that Native people were natural artists, but even as their patrons saw their art as merely a colorful novelty, an interesting depiction of Indian life to decorate the mantelpiece, the artists knew it was more than that; it was how they carried their ancestors into the future, and how their children escaped the confines of their dreams.

Cournoyer may have just recently decided to call Oklahoma home, but the legend of Bacone found him long ago — in South Dakota, when he dreamed of making art, and in Santa Fe, when he studied to make a career of it. When he strips outdated wood paneling from the walls of his almost century-old art building so that he can slather on plaster and a fresh coat of paint, he might as well be cleaning a precious stone to later smooth and cut into a gem. Cournoyer is every bit as much of a culture keeper as his predecessors were. This place, with its generations of artwork stacked on desks, its peeling walls and its flooded basements, is his church, and he’s putting in the work to keep it going.

In the basement, the waters have receded for now. This summer has been particularly rainy, and the thick Oklahoma summer heat makes for some unbearably humid afternoons, but for now the lower floor of Bacone’s art building feels cool and smells like mold and swollen wood. The old silversmithing classroom’s small windows don’t provide adequate circulation for the craft. But Cournoyer looks around the dusty room, its jeweler’s hammers idle and no silver bars waiting inside its thick iron safe, and he grins. He imagines tables and benches full of students crafting necklaces and rings — things that remind them of home or give them a passport to another world — and then there’s that gleam in his eye again. 

Eagle Dancer silk screen by Wood Crumbo.
Courtesy of Citizen Potawatomi Nation

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.