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

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) — The hallways of Bacone College are cold and dark. In the main hall, there are no lectures to be heard, only the steady hum of the space heater keeping the administrative offices warm.

Students aren’t attending classes here this semester, but work still needs to be done. In the college’s historic buildings, there are leaks to plug, mold to purge and priceless works of Native American art to save from ruin. Not to mention devising a plan to keep the college from shuttering for good. It’s a daunting task for the nine remaining employees.

But on this rainy December morning, the college’s president is running a DoorDash order. “If we have the money, we can pay,” Interim President Nicky Michael said regarding 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 an Indigenous-led institution that provided an intertribal community, as well as a degree. With the permission of the Muscogee Nation Tribal Council, Bacone’s founders used a treaty right to establish the college at the confluence of three rivers, where tribal nations had been meeting for generations.

Throughout the 20th century, the center of this was Bacone’s Native American art program, which produced some of the most important Indigenous 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 hostility against tribal sovereignty by the U.S., Bacone became defined by the exchange of ideas its Native faculty and students created and represented a new opportunity for Indigenous education and academic thought.

“Bacone was the only place in the world where that could happen for Native people,” said Robin Mayes, a Cherokee and Muscogee man who attended Bacone in the ’70s and taught silversmithing there in the ’90s. “It’s a tragedy to think that it’s going to be discontinued.”

For decades, the college has been plagued by poor financial choices and inconsistent leadership, triggering flashpoints between administration, students and staff over the mission and cultural direction of the college.

Some have accused recent administrations of embezzlement, fraud and intimidation, resulting in multiple lawsuits. Students expressed frustration with a lack of resources and cultural competency among some school leaders. The college also has had trouble 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 deferment is temporary, but if the college can’t muster up millions of dollars, Oklahoma’s oldest continually operating college likely will close its doors.

“It has endured for over 140 years through terrible decisions,” said Gerald Cournoyer, an instructor who was hired in 2019 to restart the college’s art program.

“Providing oversight for Bacone has been a struggle because of the leadership or lack thereof,” said Cournoyer, who also is a renowned Lakota artist. Some presidents focused time and money on athletic programs, others on Bacone’s Baptist missionary roots. “When you put absolutely no money, nothing, not $20, not $10, into your fundraising efforts, this is what you get.”

During the time Patti Jo King was the director of the Center for American Indians at Bacone from 2012 to 2018, leadership wanted to build a state-of-the-art museum to replace the 80-year-old building housing many priceless pieces of Native art.

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

Even when she first arrived on campus, King said Bacone’s financial debts already had caught up to it. The student dorms didn’t have hot water, staff were severely underpaid and graduation rates among the college’s remaining students were low.

Still, she and other faculty endeavored to make it a place where Native students could find community, but Bacone’s old problems never went away. Like Cournoyer, after years of working toward rebuilding, she left in frustration.

Today, the old museum is empty. Its artifacts were moved to another location so they wouldn’t be exposed to extreme temperatures.

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

Michael, the interim president, and others have been cleaning up buildings in hopes they might soon host graduation banquets and student gatherings. Other staff chase off looters. Rare paintings still hang across 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 from 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 college’s board of trustees, said he’s concerned, but the cost of restoring them falls far down the list, behind broken gas lines, flooded basements and a mountain of debt.

Bacone’s current financial crisis stems partially from a lawsuit brought by Midgley-Huber Energy Concepts, a Utah-based heating and air company that sued the college over more than $1 million in unpaid construction and service fees. Twice last year, the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office put Bacone’s property up for sale to settle the debt. Both times the auction was called off, most recently in December.

MHEC owner Chris Oberle told KOSU last month that he intended to purchase the historic property. Attorneys for MHEC have not returned repeated requests for comment from the Associated Press.

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

Michael said she doesn’t know what stalled the auction, but she is grateful for more time to try to save Bacone.

Across the country, there are only a few dozen tribal colleges, according to the American Indian College Fund, a nonprofit that supports Native American access to higher education. Tribal colleges must be sponsored by a federally recognized tribe and have a majority Native student enrollment. 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 it special.

Now a private institution, Bacone no longer receives state or federal assistance. Its finances have long relied heavily on student tuition, and now it has no students. Michael said judging from the finances, it’s a miracle the college managed to keep its doors open this long.

“Now I’m looking back on this thinking this was set up for failure,” she said.

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

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