To some, controversial murals at Portland's Grant High School reflect history; to others, hurtful stereotypes
Portland's Grant High School re-opened after a major remodel last year, debuting a modern, sleek touch, but students say one portion of the school's legacy hasn't aged well.
Murals in the school's revamped auditorium not only were untouched during the remodel, they remain unseen.
The nearly 90-year-old murals have been shielded by large screens since students returned to school in September 2019. Students say the content, which depicts Native Americans and early colonizers together, is offensive and doesn't belong in the school.
Regardless, the school's alumni association says it's secured roughly $200,000 to restore the murals.
A key element of the massive, 20-foot-by-50-foot paintings is the depiction of Native Americans meeting face-to-face with colonial settlers. The two groups meet with hands raised as if to signal a peace-keeping gesture.
Members of Grant's Indigenous Peoples Student Union say the paintings are not only historically inaccurate, but perpetuate a painful, false narrative.
Jackson Wolfe, co-president of the student union, said the murals represent white supremacy with their depictions and "misrepresent history."
Wolfe said PPS "has a responsibility to teach the truth" when it comes to Native history, violence and stolen land.
The Indigenous Peoples Student Union has urged the Portland School Board to replace the murals with a community art project.
School administrators have kept them covered to address student concerns.
'Ideals of Education'
The "Ideals of Education" paintings, created by Chicago-based artist Carl Hoeckner, were donated to the school by the Grant High School Alumni Association, as a memorial dedication to William T. Fletcher, the first principal at Grant High. They've since been dubbed the Fletcher Murals.
Citing years of damage and degrading paint from light exposure and sheer age, the association hopes to restore the old paintings.
Association members say "ample funds" have been raised to secure the $200,000 needed for the project, noting restoration on the art will start this year.
Part of that funding came via the promise of a matching grant, up to $100,000 from the Leo Lester Browne Charitable Fund, according to the nonprofit association.
Despite fundraising efforts, the Alumni Association may be moving ahead on a project without buy-in from the school or district.
"There's no plan yet, moving forward, for what we're going to do," Carol Campbell, current principal at Grant High, said in December. Campbell said she hopes community input will drive the decision making, but acknowledged the inherent issue at hand.
"In the space we're at now, with what we know about history, we know there are inaccuracies in the murals," she said. "Some of the images in the murals are perpetuating ideas that aren't consistent with our ideals, with the ideals of inclusivity that we promote in our school."
Portland Public Schools board member Julia Brim-Edwards asked whether the district's lawyer might come to the same conclusion.
"Could we get a legal opinion of whether the display of the murals is aligned with our racial equity education policy?" Brim-Edwards asked the superintendent following a plea from student union members to have the murals removed.
The school board is expected to revisit the issue in coming months.
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Where alumni see peace, others see pain
It's unclear who outside of the Alumni Association wanted the restoration project.
Student union members said, out of roughly 130 students they surveyed, nearly 105 signaled no emotional attachment to the art pieces.
Alumni say the murals are historically and culturally significant.
"The works ... represent equality, education and peace. Issues regarding the historical accuracy of the murals are extremely sensitive and are being addressed by the school district," the association wrote via email.
The group's website says this about the murals:
"A reverence for things of the past has faded in this post-modern age," the association's website states. The former Grant students suggest the paintings "reflect progressive and forward-thinking work of President (Ulysses S.) Grant and Susan Anthony, the positive interactions between Native Americans and immigrant pioneers and the striving of both men and women to attain a hoped-for ideal."
But for thousands of Native Americans, education meant mandated boarding school and forced assimilation.
"This was America's idea of education, to remove or relocate the indigenous people of this land permanently and force the remaining to conform to Euro-centric values," Grant student and Indigenous Peoples Student Union co-president Aanii Tate told the school board. "These murals represent an outdated logic of native appropriation, misrepresentation and erasure."
She called the art a "whitewashing of the painful history this country was built on."
The district prioritizes diversity and equity, which is why students and staff say the sentiment of "positive interactions" between colonial settlers and Indigenous tribes is at odds with modern curriculum and district standards. As schools in the district work to eschew falsehoods around North American history, students are leading the fight to remove antiquated language, practices and symbols from the public sphere.
What's more, PPS and other public agencies have incorporated land acknowledgements — brief statements telling which Indigenous tribal land the buildings they occupy were built on— into their groundbreaking ceremonies and public events.
"It is a piece of art, it has some value, but should it be in our schools today? Should we spend the money on restoring something that is causing harm?" Campbell added. "We're not saying bad things about the artist or the artwork, or the fact that this was gifted, but what we are saying is the impact of these murals today, it's negative and it's causing harm to members of our community."
The school district is expected to address the mural restoration project again in coming weeks.
A previous version of this story misstated the titles of the Indigenous Peoples Student Union members quoted. They are both co-presidents.
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