The Last Indian Standing: Shared Governance in the Shadow of History

By Cary Nelson

The call went out from Bacone College in 1932 to the Nations for pieces of the earth—stones, to be specific—that were steeped in Native American history. From Big Fish Place in Tennessee came a stone evoking the place identified with a traditional Cherokee story: Long ago a great fish overturned a warrior’s canoe, swallowed him, and coughed him up onto that Tennessee shore. Tennessee also provided a stone from Tuskegee in recognition of the birthplace of Sequoyah, the leader who created the Cherokee syllabary. From New England came stones from the Deerfield and Mohawk Trails. From Manitau, Colorado, a stone arrived from the old quarry on the Ute Pass Trail, once used by Utes, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowas in very different times. A sandstone block bearing the image of a Katchina figure hailed from Walpi, oldest of the Hopi villages. From old Fort Yates in North Dakota came a stone from Sitting Bull’s grave.

War and peace were balanced in the gifts: The battlefield where Custer met his end was represented, but so was a Pima village in Casa Grande, Arizona, commemorated with a grinding stone used to crush grain. As Rose Henderson reports in a journal published by Virginia’s Hampton Institute, no stone was available to honor a parallel racial struggle, so a brick from John Brown’s fort at Harper’s Ferry was added. Five hundred stones in all, a weave of history and place, were assembled to create the fireplace in Bacone’s new Art Lodge in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Above it were pine beams cut and hewn by Cherokees from the Ozark Hills.

In the 1930s, the Art Lodge helped inaugurate one of the college’s golden eras, as founder of the Bacone School of traditional Native American art. In the Bacone style, nostalgic, sometimes mythical, historical subjects were given stylized representation within clearly outlined areas of often brilliant color. In the process, what for earlier artists had amounted to a form of historical notation and religious expression evolved into a modern graphic style that influenced Native American art for the rest of the century.

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