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Browse: Honoring the Boarding School Survivors: Indigenous Artists in the Gilcrease Collection

Eighty-five of the Indigenous artists represented in Gilcrease’s collection of Native paintings and drawings are or were survivors of boarding schools. From the founding in 1879 of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—the prototypical boarding school for Native children—until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, Indigenous parents had little recourse when the federal government forced their children to attend off-reservation schools. During that time, the government, Christian missionaries, and some tribes established more than 367 boarding schools across twenty-nine states.[1] Many continue to operate today, although they are no longer compulsory and are often run by individual tribes or tribal groups who promote the preservation and continuance of cultural values. While, with some exceptions, art curricula were not consistently included at these schools historically, over time the resilience of Indigenous artistic practices emerged nonetheless.[2] The impacts and effects of boarding school on survivors remain under-researched.[3] However, the artworks, and resilience of the artists themselves, serve as critically vital resources for communities.[4]

The idea for the boarding schools began in Florida in the nineteenth century. The genre known as ledger art emerged in the 1800s at Fort Marion (St. Augustine, Florida) under U.S. military officer Richard H. Pratt, who conducted wartime educational experiments on Native American prisoners there.[5] Gilcrease Museum’s collection of ledger art includes two ledger books created in 1879 and 1887 at Fort Marion by Cheyenne and Arapaho warrior artists. Based on his experiments with the prisoners, Pratt developed the federally mandated, militarized boarding school system for Indigenous children that was established by the U.S. government and its partnerships with Christian churches and other educators during the industrial age. The boarding schools were intended to forcibly assimilate the children of Indigenous nations into Anglo-American Christian ideologies,[6] stripping away Indigenous identities from the prisoner-students and instilling a shame of non–Anglo American worldviews. Many descendants and survivors continue to heal from these traumatic experiences today.

Following boarding school, some artists and survivors were instructed by individual art scholars in studio arts classes at the college and university level. Beginning in 1926 at the University of Oklahoma, for example, artist and scholar Oscar Jacobson taught studio arts classes to boarding school survivors including Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Bou-ge-Tah (Lois Smokey), Jack Hokeah, Stephen Mopope, and Monroe Tsatoke. In 1932, the Santa Fe Indian School adopted a studio arts program headed by art instructor Dorothy Dunn, which influenced artists and boarding school survivors including Harrison Begay, Pop Chalee, Joe Hilario Herrera, Allan C. Houser, Oscar Howe, Ben Quintana, Quincy Tahoma, and Pablita Velarde, among others. Shortly after, other universities in Oklahoma followed suit, adopting programs aimed at developing Indigenous arts; for example, Bacone College, a historically Native American institution, opened an art department in 1935, originally headed by Acee Blue Eagle.[7] All of these artists, named and not named, endured unimaginable circumstances while remaining committed to sharing their art with the world.

“He [Stephen Mopope] was still dancing, he was painting. All of [Mopope’s] artwork that you see up there, all of that was forbidden. You would have your food rations withheld, you had the possibility of . . . going to jail. You had the possibility of having your children removed from your custody and be placed either into the Indian School [federally mandated boarding schools], or possibly being adopted by non-Indian people, just because they were so bent on us being mainstreamed. . . .  He [Stephen Mopope] was supposed to be beaten into submission, and instead his mother got him by the hand and walked him to the door and excused him. . . . And he wrote a letter to her. He said, ‘If you ask me to stop painting, it would be as if you asked me to stop breathing.’”[8] —Vanessa Mopope Jennings, granddaughter of artist Stephen Mopope (Kiowa)

Over half of the more than twenty-five hundred Indigenous artworks at Gilcrease intersect with the lived experiences of boarding school survivors as well as myriad other historical colonial events across the U.S. and Canada. Learning these critical histories can inform broader contextual understanding, provide more accurate interpretations, and instill a deeper appreciation for Indigenous artworks. Importantly, the endurance of Indigenous artists’ experience is illuminated through the persistence of Indigenous subjects in the works of a diverse generation of late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century artists.

On June 22, 2021, for the first time in U.S. history, the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, an extensive investigation into the records and documentation of U.S. boarding schools. The initiative will identify sites where there may have been student burials in hopes of shedding light on perspectives and stories untold, addressing the lasting, intergenerational impact the schools have had on Indigenous communities, and promoting spiritual and emotional healing. Initiatives such as this provide opportunities for increased education and deeper context to the work and lives of artists who attended and survived these schools.

—Jordan Poorman Cocker, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Indigenous Painting Collection Research, 2021


[1]  For more information, please see the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition’s website. Articles under the “Education” menu relate the history and impact of the boarding schools, and provide a list of additional resources.

[2] The education of Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Bou-ge-Tah (Lois Smokey), Jack Hokeah, Stephen Mopope, and Monroe Tsatoke is a case of Indigenous students being encouraged to create art at a boarding school attended by Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache children, St. Patrick’s Mission School (Anadarko, Oklahoma). 

[3] Charbonneau-Dahlen, Lowe, and Morris, “Giving Voice to Historical Trauma through Storytelling,” 598–617.

[4] Fur, Painting Culture, Painting Nature, 143. 

[5] Mackay, review of Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, 113–17.

[6] Slivka, “Art, Craft, and Assimilation,” 225–42.

[7] For more about this important institution and its students, see Bacone College: A Legacy of Indigenous Art in Indian Territory.

[8]  “A Conversation about Stephen Mopope, Kiowa Artist,” with Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings and Barbara Hale, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, October 25, 2017, 1:27:43; quote at 4:30–6:24. Posted online November 16, 2017. Available on YouTube. (She is also known as Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings and Vanessa Mopope Jennings.)