Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

First Dates, Homesickness, and Desert Murals: Selected Works from the Intermountain Indian School, 1950-1984

‘“Where are my people?” the mountains cry out.’ This line from a young Diné (Navajo) poet sets the tone for an exhibition curated by Dr. James Swensen, Melanie Allred, and Meagan Anderson. Featuring visual art, poetry, and ephemera produced by students of the Intermountain Indian School, the display sensitively acknowledges the established narrative of Native American boarding schools as sites of cultural genocide while simultaneously celebrating the creative works of these Intermountain students.  Though the exhibit is confined to the small square footage of the fifth floor gallery space of the Harold B. Lee Library, Returning Home manages to confront big issues and broaden the discussion of its content.

Among the hundreds of students that filtered through the school between its opening in 1950 and closure in 1984 was a student by the name of Robert Chee. Born Hashke-Yil-e-Cale and from St. Michaels, Arizona, Robert came to the Intermountain school and found himself serendipitously under the tutelage of Allan Houser. Houser, a renowned Chiricahua Apache sculptor, painter and book illustrator who had a significant impact on Chee. The training Chee received and lessons he observed equipped him with the artistic skills necessary for various aesthetic projects. Whether it was the design of the 1956 school yearbook, or his army building murals in Mainz, Germany, where he served a stint in the US military following graduation, Chee was recognized as an “energetic and capable young paper.”

Robert Chee’s “First Date”

Chee’s work offers a friendly greeting to the left of the exhibition. His silkscreen diptych entitled “First Date” is a vibrant treat for the eye and, depending on how it is displayed, encapsulates both the excitement and disappointments of the youth experience. The profile of a young girl trots across the desert landscape on her faithful horse. She clings to the reigns and looks slightly downward in an effort to remain focused on her destination. In a separate frame, a young boy in profile essentially does the same. The curators have chosen to display the frames in such a way that the riders face each other, perhaps implying that they are eagerly, though not without some trepidation, journeying towards their first romantic encounter. However, if the images were displayed in reverse, the figures would be riding away from each other, giving new meaning to the girl’s downcast stare and the boy’s gallop. “First Date” and “Navajo Family,” both on display in the gallery, are other excellent examples of the artist’s signature style. The profile approach to his two-dimensional figures harkens back to the black silhouette portraits so popular during the 18th century. However, his colorful but muted hues add a distinctive modern element that is easy to look at and genuinely enjoy. There is nothing complicated about them, and yet a viewer could be fascinated for hours by the elegance of the wind blowing through the strands of the loosened hair or the graceful momentum of the figures proceeding along a path that extends beyond the paper.

While Robert Chee represents at some level the success of the opportunities available at “Intermountain,” the work of the student poets included in the exhibition speak more specifically about their experience away from home at the boarding school. In his poem “Remembering the Mesa,” Alex Tso wrote:

Standing alone on the mesa,

The air was still—soundless

My heart was heavy and torn

As I looked down across the

great wide plains

Tears come to my eyes.

c. 1970

This feeling of homesickness was ever present for the students. Although the federal representatives advocating for the school initially included representation from the Reservation communities involved, it is difficult to say how voluntary the participation truly was. The poetry speaks to the complexities of assimilation and further invites viewers to consider the ethical underpinnings of the school’s purpose. Another student, Joann Shepard, confronts this even more directly in her poem “Leaving the Reservation”:

Leaving the reservation

Ignoring the world

Throwing myself into it

As a swimmer throws himself

Into the sea.

As wandering people do,

I brought with me bundled belongings

Of personal value—

Memories mostly.

Ignorant of the world

I fronted it

As a boat, the waves.

I asked no more than a chance

To live a full life

And leave some record

Among the crowded distortion

Of indifferent places.

I survived on what I’d brought

With me—

A provincial’s sensibility.

Ignoring still

I set out to cross life

As sailors, the sea.

Some survive.

Some sink.

Will I?

While the poetry included throughout the space engages with similar themes of nostalgia, fear, survival and resilience, Shephard’s experience is particularly vulnerable and profound. Her work is thoughtful, questioning, and sincere, offering a glimpse into the memory of a young girl far from home.

Since the school’s closure and subsequent demolition, the words and works that whisper from the walls are among the few remaining relics of the Intermountain Indian School. One of the few remaining artifacts from the building is a mural. Although the artist is unknown, it has been beautifully preserved and in its frame acts as a window to the desert landscape. How many students walked by this very image longing for their homes and families? How many were confused at why they were even there, looking at piece of painted drywall, when they could have been in the very land it depicted? And how many walked from the entire experience truly better off?

Returning Home facilitates an environment in which these questions can be appropriately and productively considered. The art and the experience of its creators can be appreciated at every level. The works are of high quality, the presentation is appropriate, and the discussions fostered have the potential to bring about a change in how complicated local histories are viewed and sensitively treated.

Returning Home: The Art and Poetry of Intermountain Indian School, 1951-1984, Harold B. Lee Library, BYU, Provo, through June 28.

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Maddie graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in Music, BA in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Minor in Art History in 2018. She has assisted in the curation of art and multimedia exhibitions throughout Utah–as a Curatorial Fellow at the BYU Museum of Art (2016-2018) and an independent curator (2013- Present).

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