The Indian Arts Program at Bacone College, Oklahoma’s Mohawk Nation has 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, have given 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.
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.
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.