Artist, Steven Grounds, has been working hard the last couple years, filling the interior and exterior walls of an abandoned Native American boarding school in Concho, Oklahoma. The boarding school, during its years of operation from 1909-1983, had members from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes among other Native American students. Grounds is Navajo and Euchee himself, and he obtained permission to paint the buildings from the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe two years ago. He has been painting portraits of his heroes and even of students who once walked the same halls ever since.
Native American boarding schools have a dreadful history in the United States. They were built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to provide education and to give opportunity for children with no formal schools in their vicinity. In reality, Native American boarding schools were seen as the means for the government to achieve assimilation of Native Americans. Children were usually immersed in European-American culture through appearance changes with haircuts, were forbidden to speak their native languages, and traditional names were replaced by new European-American names. The experience of the schools was often harsh, especially for the younger children who were separated from their families. In numerous ways, they were encouraged or forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures.
Abandoned Native American boarding school in Concho, Oklahoma
Photograph from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency’s Catholic School (1920-33) (via Bureau of Indian Affairs. Concho Agency/National Archives and Records Administration)
Grounds’ work is connecting history, culture, and time to place. The abandoned school was left for ruin but he has done what street artists are good at – activating spaces. “When you walk in here you can feel that energy, that there is a history here,” says Grounds. And about his portraits he adds, “I take them as a way to show reverence. So what I paint in here comes from a place of respect.”