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Cultural Resiliency and Indigenous Boarding Schools

American history begins with the people who lived here first: Native Americans. The story of Oklahoma begins with the indigenous Spiro Mound builders, 500 to 1300 A.D. as an extension of the Mississippian mound builders east of the great Mississippi River. In the following generation early people settled along rivers: indigenous Caddoans (Caddo, Wichita, and Pawnee), Siouans (Quapaw and Osage), and Athapascans (Plains Apache).

Shortly after settler-colonists arrived in the 18th century, the government started to establish boarding and mission schools -separating indigenous children from their families, forcing them to wear uniforms, change their names, identities, and language into Euro-American culture. Aftter the 1830s, dozens of tribes were forcibly migrated from across the country in what is known as the Trail of Tears. Tribes relocated include the Arapaho, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Comanche, Creek, Delaware, Iowa, Kaw, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, Ottawa, Peoria, Ponca, Potawatomi, Quapaw, Sac and Fox, Seminole, Seneca, Shawnee, Wyandotte, and others.

In total, Oklahoma  became a relocated home to a total of sixty-seven different tribes. All of these peoples and their communities developed cultures whose traditions have survived today in spite of several setbacks from colonization. Oklahoma had the largest number of boarding and mission schools for indigenous people. Many tribes were offered treaties, which instilled that all of the children were required to attend a boarding school.

Source: Oklahoma Historical Society


"When they began in the late 1800s, federal off-reservation boarding schools became responsible for the education of thousands of Native American children and young adults. This “education” went far beyond the merely academic, reaching into every aspect of life spent “growing up.” Children of differing tribes and background lived together, united at first by homesickness and later through work, study, play, and plain survival. They forged bonds of friendship that often lasted for decades, transcending family, tribal, and generational ties. To enter the world of the boarding school, to understand the particularly unique society experienced and created by (Native) students, one cannot rely solely on documentary evidence preserved in dusty gray boxes in the Federal Archives. The reality of that world, of that life, remains better preserved in the living memory of the former boarding school students themselves."

Source: Oral Histories from Chilocco Indian Agricultural School 1920-1940



This exhibit features artists who have attended a boarding or mission school.

Their heritage is visible through art; their histories expand upon what it means to be an American.

"The truth about the US (Indigenous) boarding school policy has largely been written out of the history books. There were more than 350 government-funded, and often church-run, (Indigenous) Boarding schools across the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. Native children were forcibly abducted by government agents, sent to schools hundreds of miles away, and beaten, starved, or otherwise abused when they spoke their native languages."

Source: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition


Prior to Oklahoma's statehood,  treaties were offered to the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes requiring every child to attend school. The reservation schools were operated by missionaries and boarding schools were established by religious denominations and the government. Over 65 tribes were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma.

In 1871, the Wichita-Caddo school (later renamed Riverside) was opened by Quaker missionaries. This is considered to be the nation's oldest Indigenous boarding school, as it is one of four in the nation still open today.

From its founding, Riverside integrated students across tribes, although segregated from the rest of society. This was largely by effect that so many were tribes were forcibly migrated to Oklahoma. The only remains of the original campus is a nearby graveyard in Anadarko.

Beginning in the 1880s, the government established non-reservation boarding schools for students from tribes all over the country and offered academic classes and vocational training for primary grades through high school.


Image: The Sac and Fox Boarding School, begun by Quaker missionaries in 1872, was located on reserve land and many children were forced to attend. 

Source: Oklahoma Historical Society

Image: Wheelock Academy, A mission school founded in 1832, functioned from 1844 to 1955 as a boarding school for girls and young women.

Image Source: Oklahoma Historical Society

Bacone College and the "Bacone Style"

On February 9, 1880, Oklahoma’s first college began classes in a small cottage in Tahlequah with three Native American students in attendance. Originally called Indian University, the school was renamed Bacone College in 1910 in honor of its founder and first president, missionary Almon C. Bacone. Chartered by the Muscogee-Creek Nation and governed by the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the purpose of the school was to provide Christian education for Native Americans. The campus was moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1885.

Under the leadership of Roger Getz (college president from 1957 to 1966), Bacone became self-governing under an Oklahoma charter and earned accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. This institution is still open today.

In an effort to revive Bacone’s history as a tribal college established for Native American education, the tribal nations of Oklahoma took control of the college in 2019. As a historic American Indian-serving institution, Bacone College provides a quality, holistic, liberal arts, educational experience for students in a culturally diverse environment, empowering life-long learners with the knowledge, skills, and capacity to be transformational leaders in both Native and non-native communities.

Source: Bacone Website

A traditional form of painting grew out of the school’s focus on aesthetics and Native American culture which came to be called the “Bacone style”. Bacone style portrays tribal life with stylized, outlined forms of bright colors. Bacone College produced many artists in the following years during this defining period of its development; and the contribution of Bacone artists is insurmountable.

Artists in the current exhibition who attended Bacone College include Virginia Stroud and Joan Hill.


Chilocco Agricultural School

Chilocco was one of many federal schools designed to dissolve tribal identity and erase indigenous beliefs and practices. In the process, the lives of Native people were indelibly altered, and Chilocco alumni, whether they praise or curse its name, will always know themselves as Chiloccoans.

From 1884 until the early 1930s Chilocco operated according to a template devised by U.S. Army officer Richard H. Pratt at Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. The large off-reservation schools used rigorous military discipline and stressed instruction in trades and manual and domestic labor—known as "actual work." Alumni from these years remember twenty-two bugle calls a day, government-issue uniforms, scanty meals, inadequate health care, and a paucity of individual attention. They also remember the bonds of loyalty and love that knit students together, and the rivalries of tribe, degree of blood, age, and language difference that cross-cut school society.

In 1928 an exposé of federal Indigenous Service mismanagement scathingly critiqued conditions in the boarding schools, and in the early 1930s some reforms were introduced. Boys and girls could sit together in the dining rooms, more attention was invested in academic work, and drudgery work devoted to school upkeep was cut back. Nonetheless, many aspects of student life endured: separation from home and family for years at a time, devotion to fellow students, strict discipline, and curricula that remained focused more on vocational than academic preparation.

Through the 1960s and 1970s changing social conditions, growing Native enrollments in public schools, critiques of boarding school conditions, and federal reluctance to fund and operate schools for American Indians (despite treaty and trust obligations) led to the closure of many institutions. Chilocco closed its doors in 1980.

Source: Oklahoma Historical Society


Dwight Mission School

Dwight Mission was an evangelistic venture and an offshoot of work being done among the Cherokees in the American South before removal. While many buildings were burned in during the Civil war, in 1886 the Cherokee National Council reestablished the school, and the Presbyterian Women's Board of Home Missions provided funds. A large building was erected as a boarding facility for Cherokee girls. Dwight remained open until 1895, after which it served as a day school. It reopened in 1900 as a boarding school for boys and girls. A 1944 report indicated that Dwight Indian Training School consisted of nine buildings on eighty-six acres, operated under the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church USA, and served seventy-one students, mostly Cherokee and Choctaw. The school closed in 1948.

Source: Oklahoma Historical Society


Riverside School

As the oldest non-reservation boarding school still in existence, Riverside school (Anadarko, OK) is home to over 75 tribes and 800 students, and encourages "an atmosphere of holistic development for each student and staff member through cultural, spiritual, physical, technological and academic experiences."

Source: Riverside School

Ghost Horse by Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Crumbo, (Potawatomi), 1912-1989

"Woody" Crumbo attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. Born near Lexington, Oklahoma, "Woody" Crumbo was orphaned at the age of seven and received no schooling past the third grade. At seventeen he resumed his formal education at the government reservation school at Chilocco. Meanwhile, he received private instruction in art from Anadarko teacher Suzie Peters, who supplied him with materials and taught him the basics of drawing and painting.

Examples of his work are found in many public and private collections, including the Gilcrease and Philbrook museums in Tulsa, the Creek Council House Museum in Okmulgee, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City,  the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery, and U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. There are two of his works in this exhibition.

Source: Oklahoma Historical Society

For more information on this artist visit: this site.


Untitled by Joan Hill (Chea-Se-Quah) (Creek-Cherokee), 1930-present

Joan Hill (Chea-Se-Quah) is from Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her grandfather, Red Bird Harris, was a noted Creek leader. Many of Hill’s paintings are in public collections, including the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York, New York; Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; Cherokee Heritage Center, Park Hill, Oklahoma; and the Philbrook Museum of Art. There are two of her works in this exhibition.

Source: First American Art Magazine

For more information on this artist, visit: this site.


Fancy Dancer by Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Crumbo (Potawatomi), 1912-1989

"Woody" Crumbo attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. He works in oil and egg tempera, as well as in watercolor, sculpture, stained glass, silkscreen, and etching. The largest collection of Crumbo’s work, about 175 paintings, is owned by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, although his work has been exhibited in many museums throughout the United States.

Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

For more information on this artist, visit: this site.

The Scream by Benjamin Harjo Jr, (Seminole/Absentee-Shawnee), 1945-present

Benjamin Harjo Jr. attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, and later the Institute of American Indian Arts. He works in gouache on watercolor paper, conte crayon, pen and ink, and woodcut. The bold color of his work is closely contained and formally ordered within his free compositions. He uses geometric patterns, often incorporating hands and faces into his pictures. His imagery contains clear echoes of Seminole, Navajo, Plains Indian, and Northwest Coast designs, but also frequently references international themes and art forms. 

Source: Wheelwright Museum

For more information on this artist, visit this site.

For more information on the Chilocco school, click here.

Woman on Horseback by Virginia Stroud (Cherokee/Creek), 1951-present

Virginia Stroud attended Bacone College. From her own statement, "identity is established by what is familiar to a culture, and the viewer is asked to both recognize the differences through identity and to overlook those differences, thereby enriching the spiritual world by minimizing the distance between themselves and the art."

“I paint for my people. Art is a way for our culture to survive…perhaps the only way. More than anything, I want to become an orator, to share with others the oldest of Indian traditions. I want people to look back at my work just like today we’re looking back at the ledger drawings and seeing how it was then. I’m working one hundred years in front of those people and saying ‘this is how we still do it…we still have our traditions.'”

Source: U.S. Department of State

For more information on this artist, visit this site.

Comanche Horseman by "Doc" Tate Nevaquayah (Comanche), 1932-1996

Joyce Lee "Doc" Tate Nevaquayah was given the name "Tate" when a Christian name was required upon entering the Fort Sill Indian School. His native name is Nevaquaya, which in English means "well-dressed."During his life, Doc Tate was a teacher, minister, lecturer, historian, dancer, composer, singer, flutist, and painter.  He had received his high school diploma from the Fort Sill Indian School in Lawton, Oklahoma, and then attended Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1951-2.  He was married and had nine children.  He resided on allotted land near Apache, Oklahoma, until his death.

Source: Adobe Gallery

For more information on this artist, visit this site.

For more information on Fort Sill, click here.


Home of John Ross by Joan Hill (Chea-Se-Quah) (Creek-Cherokee) 1930-present

Joan Hill (Chea-Se-Quah) is from Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her grandfather, Red Bird Harris, was a noted Creek leader. Many of Hill’s paintings are in public collections, including the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York, New York; Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; Cherokee Heritage Center, Park Hill, Oklahoma; and the Philbrook Museum of Art. There are two of her works in this exhibition.

Source: First American Art Magazine

For more information on this artist, visit this site.

For more information on John Ross, click here.

Chief on Horseback by Albert Harjo (Creek), 1937-2019

Albert Lee Harjo attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. Harjo’s subject matter derives from his own life experiences as well as those of neighbors, friends, and family.  He painted in what is recognized as the Bacone style, as established by tribal artists active at Bacone College. There is no erasing or covering up.  His paintings use colors and multiple contour lines to define figures and shapes, as opposed to three-dimensional perspective or shading.  He worked in tempera and watercolor.

Source: Adobe Gallery

For more information on this artist, visit this site. 

For more information on the Chilocco school, click here.

For more information on the Bacone style, click here.

Prayer to the Buffalo by "Doc" Tate Nevaquayah (Comanche), 1932-1996

Along with being a visual artist, Nevaquaya released two recordings, Indian Flute Songs from Comanche Land (1976) and Comanche Flute Music (1979), and appeared in numerous performances around the United States and abroad. He is remembered as a performer, researcher, and teacher, working among the Comanche people as well as other tribes. He taught his three sons how to make and play the courting flute; all are committed to keeping the tradition alive and vital. There are two of his works in this exhibition.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts

For more information on this artist, visit this site.


The National Native American Boarding School Healing Center was established in 2012 to raise awareness and cultivate healing based on the experiences of those individuals, families, and communities affected by the U.S. Boarding School Policy in 1869.

For more information, click the resource above or visit

Curator: Oliver Ellington