CONCHO, Okla. — Overgrown grass creeps up around the decayed remains of the Concho Indian Boarding School, its faded yellow walls pocked with gaping doorways and boarded windows. Emerging from a far side of the complex are several faces swirled with paint, the hard strokes of their features contrasting with the huge Oklahoma sky and the soft sprawl of the surrounding green landscape. The mural by artist Steven Grounds was started two years ago as a tribute to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, a gesture of bringing some honor to a place now characterized by its decay.
The American Indian boarding schools were constructed from the late 19th to early 20th centuries as a tool of assimilation. Military-like discipline regimented the days of the students, who were not allowed to speak their native tongues, had their hair cut short, and wore European-style clothing. Boys learned farming or other trades; girls were taught domestic skills. While the schools became more community oriented by the midcentury, they still carried this history of the government’s forced “civilizing” of Native American children.
Walter Richard “Dick” West, a Cheyenne artist who attended Concho from 1917 to 1927, described his experience, as quoted in Bill Anthes’s Native Modern: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960:
If you fouled up or did something wrong during the weekday, it was similar to [what] they have in a recognized prison. You had to work it off. If you had two demerits, you had two hours. On the weekend you cracked big rocks to make little rocks. What they strove to do, and perhaps the only thing they had in mind, was to make a little white man out of you.
West added that “you had to feel that at that point the philosophy of the federal government was [that] the Indian … didn’t have a brain. But he had dexterity of hand and so trades were paramount in their instruction.”
I went to see the mural northwest of El Reno, Oklahoma, last month after reading about it in the Oklahoma Gazette. The Concho School buildings that survive today are not that old — completed in 1969 — although a series of schools have stood in the area since 1871. Concho’s last graduation was in May of 1982, the closure caused by federal funding cuts. The boarding schools of the 1980s, however, were not the boarding schools of the 1880s. Tribal members protested Concho’s shuttering, as they saw it as another broken promise by the government for education. The closed buildings were turned over to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes; most of them remain empty.
Grounds, who is Navajo and Euchee, got approval from the Cheyenne-Arapaho executive council a little over two years ago. What he foresaw as an experiment in large-scale art, compared to his previous work in smaller drawings and paintings, evolved as he spent time at the site. “After the years went by, I started to push for making an ongoing Cheyenne-Arapaho mural,” Grounds told Hyperallergic.
Some of the faces are specific people, including Chief Black Kettle of the Northern Cheyennes. Like many tribes now headquartered in Oklahoma, both the Cheyenne and Arapaho, which are distinct tribes joined by an alliance, did not originally live in the area. They were forcibly relocated from the Northern Plains to the state when it was still Indian Territory. Black Kettle was a leader who attempted to peacefully negotiate with the government. He was ultimately shot in the back by Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Washita River (or, more accurately, the Washita Massacre).
Alongside Black Kettle are people modeled on photographs Grounds discovered in the tribal archives, as well as contemporary figures like Native American advocate Suzan Shown Harjo, who was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Grounds also often collaborates with photographer Benjamin Oscar, transforming his portraits of contemporary indigenous people into large-scale paintings. The result is a fluid connection of faces across time, all representing Cheyenne and Arapaho people on a building that’s still a reminder of a system that attempted to control that heritage.
“Since before I started the mural, most people were going out there to look for ghosts, and now it’s giving them a different reason,” Grounds say, referring to popular belief in the paranormal that draws people to the vacant halls. “It’s something a little more steeped in the historical context of the people who live here in Concho.”
Importantly, the school isn’t just off in the middle of nowhere, there are people living right across the street, and newer buildings used by the tribes alongside. Yet as a rural place, it’s an unlikely one for state-funded public art, with the mural being very much a grassroots effort (Grounds’s paint is supplied by Cosmos Street Supply in El Reno). “The dialogues [in the mural] are about the people that are here, and are from here,” Grounds said.
The Concho Indian School mural by Steven Grounds is on White Antelope Road in Concho, Oklahoma.