Oklahoma’s oldest Native American school, Bacone College, is threatened by debts and disrepair

MUSKOGEE, Okla.– The hallways of Bacone College are cold and dark. No lectures can be heard in the main hall, only the steady hum of the space heater keeps the administrative offices warm.

Students are not attending classes here this semester, but there is still work to be done. In the historic buildings of the university, leaks can be sealed, mold cleaned and priceless Indian works of art saved from destruction. Not to mention coming up with a plan to keep the college from closing for good. It is a difficult task for the nine remaining employees.

But on this rainy December morning, the university president is executing a DoorDash order. “If we have the money, we can pay,” interim president Nicky Michael said of the salaries. Even she has to find a way to make ends meet.

Founded in 1880 as a Baptist missionary college focused on assimilation, Bacone College transformed into a Native-led institution that provided both an intertribal community and a degree. With permission from the Muscogee Nation Tribal Council, Bacone’s founders used a treaty right to locate the college at the confluence of three rivers, where tribal nations had gathered for generations.

Throughout the 20th century, the centerpiece of this was Bacone’s Native American arts program, which produced some of the most important Native artists of their time, including Woody Crumbo, Fred Beaver, Joan Hill, and Ruthe Blalock Jones.

They and their contemporaries pushed the boundaries of what was considered “Native American art.” During a period of intense U.S. hostility to tribal sovereignty, Bacone was defined by the exchange of ideas that Native teachers and students created and represented a new opportunity for Native education and academic thought.

“Bacone was the only place in the world where that could happen for the indigenous people,” said Robin Mayes, a Cherokee and Muscogee man who went to Bacone in the 1970s and taught silversmithing there in the 1990s. “It’s a tragedy to think it will be stopped.”

For decades, the college has been plagued by poor financial choices and inconsistent leadership, giving rise to conflict among administrators, students and staff over the college’s mission and cultural direction.

Some have accused recent administrations of embezzlement, fraud and intimidation, leading to multiple lawsuits. Students expressed frustration with the lack of resources and cultural competency among some school leaders. The college has also had problems maintaining its accreditation.

Last year, a lawsuit crippled Bacone’s finances. Ultimately, Michael made the decision to suspend classes for the spring semester. She hopes the delay is temporary, but if the college can’t raise millions of dollars, Oklahoma’s oldest still-functioning college will likely close its doors.

“It has endured for more than 140 years because of terrible decisions,” said Gerald Cournoyer, an instructor hired in 2019 to restart the university’s art program.

“Overseeing Bacone has been a struggle due to leadership or lack thereof,” said Cournoyer, who is also a renowned Lakota artist. Some presidents devoted time and money to athletic programs, others to Bacone’s Baptist missionary roots. “If you put absolutely no money, nothing, not twenty, not ten dollars, into your fundraising, this is what you get.”

During Patti Jo King’s time as director of the Center for American Indians in Bacone from 2012 to 2018, leadership wanted to build a state-of-the-art museum to replace the 80-year-old building that housed many priceless pieces of native art. art.

“We didn’t even have the money to keep it open seven days a week,” says King, now a retired Cherokee professor, writer and academic.

Even when she first arrived on campus, King said Bacone’s financial debt had already overtaken her. The student dormitories had no hot water, the staff was severely underpaid, and the graduation rate among the university’s remaining students was low.

Still, she and other teachers tried to make it a place where Native students could find community, but Bacone’s old problems never went away. Like Cournoyer, she left frustrated after years of working on the reconstruction.

Today the old museum is empty. The artifacts were moved to another location so that they would not be exposed to extreme temperatures.

The remaining staff serve as caretakers of the historic stone buildings that predate Oklahoma, themselves important pieces of the past. At the museum, Ataloa Lodge, the fireplace is made of stones sent to the college from indigenous communities around the country: one from Sequoyah’s birthplace, one from Sitting Bull’s grave, another from the field where Custer died. Five hundred in total, each stone a memory.

Michael, the interim president, and others have been clearing out buildings in hopes of soon hosting graduation banquets and student gatherings. Other staff chase away looters. Rare paintings still hang on campus, including pieces by members of the Kiowa Six, who became internationally famous a century ago, and Johnnie Diacon, a Muscogee painter and alumnus whose work can be seen in the background of several episodes of the television show Reservation Dogs.

A few years ago, experts at a museum in Tulsa warned that many of the paintings are contaminated with mold, which will spread to other nearby works of art. Leslie Hannah, a Cherokee educator who sits on the university’s board of trustees, said he’s concerned, but the cost of repairing it falls far below the list, behind broken gas lines, flooded basements and a mountain of debt.

Bacone’s current financial crisis stems in part from a lawsuit filed by Midgley-Huber Energy Concepts, a Utah-based heating and air company that sued the university for more than $1 million in unpaid construction and service fees. Last year, the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office put Bacone’s property up for sale to pay off debts. The auction was canceled both times, most recently in December.

MHEC owner Chris Oberle told KOSU last month that he planned to purchase the historic property. Attorneys for MHEC did not return repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Alumni have questioned the validity of any sale of the property, pointing to the treaty that established the campus and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Lawyers for the college declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Michael said she doesn’t know what stopped the auction, but she’s grateful she has more time to save Bacone.

There are only a few dozen tribal colleges nationwide, according to the American Indian College Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports Native Americans’ access to higher education. Tribal colleges must be sponsored by a federally recognized tribe and must enroll majority Native students. But unlike most of those colleges, Bacone was built on its identity as an intertribal school, a quality that former staff and alumni say made the school special.

Now a private institution, Bacone no longer receives state or federal support. Finances have long been heavily dependent on student tuition, and now there are no students left. Michael said that, judging by its finances, it is a miracle the university has been able to keep its doors open for so long.

“Now I look back on this and think this was a failure,” she said.


Graham Lee Brewer is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.