After years of debate, the superintendent of Portland Public Schools announced that controversial murals depicting Native Americans would be removed from the Grant High School theater.
The district is "beginning the process of removing and relocating the Fletcher murals from the Grant High School auditorium," PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said at a school board meeting in November.
He said the "school's leadership will work closely with students to develop and collaborate on a conceptual design on a new mural, one that more appropriately celebrates and affirms the lived experiences and culture of Native American students."
Some students and community members have said the murals are hurtful to Native American and other students. They charge that the murals are offensive in their depiction of Native Americans and white colonizers together and that the art does not belong in the school.
The Indigenous Peoples Student Union has urged PPS to remove the murals for several years.
Aanii Tate, president of the student group at the Northeast Portland school said at a virtual school board meeting that "the removal of the murals has been a long time coming."
She said "throughout this process the psychological safety of Indigenous students and staff has been continually harmed due to the opposition" of the removal by the Grant High School Alumni Association.
"The murals depict a peaceful relationship between the Native nations of North America and settlers. Greatness in this country has not been built on the peaceful meeting between them, but rather on the mass genocide of millions of people, stolen land and years of forced assimilation," Tate said at a board meeting last year.
The murals also depict the school's namesake and former president Ulysses S. Grant as a "supreme" being, Tate said. Grant "represents colonialism and enshrines the violence United States presidents have inflicted upon Indigenous people throughout history, she added.
Tate asked the district to inform students of a starting date and an ending date for the removal of the murals.
The two huge, nearly 90-year-old murals have been covered by screens since Grant was remodeled recently.
The Alumni Association has objected to the removal of this historic work of art and, in fact, raised about $200,000 to have the murals restored.
The Alumni Association sees the murals and the situation differently from the current students and administration.
"We both agree on the importance of social justice and racial equity," Bob Erickson of the alumni group said. He stressed that the group admires the students seeking the removal of the murals.
But, the alumni said, the theme of the murals, "The Ideals of Education," represent standards and goals that are to be aspired to and achieved. Erickson said the paintings are about the ideals of the equity of all people in the United States and peace around the world.
Tate held it is an "offensive and ignorant" title because Indigenous children were removed from their families to attend boarding schools where "their culture was stripped from them and assimiliating into white society was the only given option."
Some students have said the murals were historically inaccurate, but Erickson counters that art is idealized, often made to prompt discussion and is not always a precise rendering of historical detail.
Further, he said the group was not included in the decision making to remove the murals.
"We do not feel we were involved in the process of the decision to remove the murals," Erickson said. Promised meetings never took place, he added.
In fact, Erickson said, former principal Carol Campbell and PPS brass "welcomed and encouraged us to do this."
Up to $100,000 of the community-raised funds were matched by the Leo Lester Browne Fund, which focuses on music and art. The Browne money will be returned and the alumni group will offer to refund the money to individual donors.
The situation may make it harder to raise funds for scholarships and other future projects, Erickson said.
The alumni group had sought compromise. For example, the group has suggested signs explaining the murals more fully or masking the parts of the murals that students found offensive.
The "Ideals of Education" paintings, created by Chicago-based artist Carl Hoeckner (see sidebar), were donated to the school by students and the community, as a memorial dedication to William T. Fletcher, the first principal at Grant High. They've since been dubbed the Fletcher Murals.
Removing the murals will require erection of scaffolding and a six-person crew of qualified personnel composed of conservators and technical assistants. They will be assembled in various configurations as required by tasks, a PPS spokesperson said.
The murals will be put in eight custom wood crates for transport and storage.
The work is estimated to take approximately 40 work days. The auditorium walls will be patched and get a fresh coat of paint.
And then what?
A number of public and/or art institutions have expressed interest in the works, the PPS spokeswoman said in an email. She did not name them.
The announcement that the murals would be replaced took place during National Native American Indian Heritage Month in November, which was recognized by the Portland Public Schools Board earlier in the board meeting.
Not all Grant graduates feel the same way as some of those in the alumni association.
Scott Bailey a school board member and graduate of Grant High School also applauded the removal of the murals. "I'm so glad this is moving forward," he said.
Livi Buck, a senior at Grant and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma told the school board she is "thankful the process to remove these murals has begun."
About the artist
Carl Hoeckner was born in Munich in 1883 and immigrated to Chicago in 1910.
Early on, he supported himself as a commercial illustrator and began showing his works at the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to paintings, he did lithographs. He also was employed by the Works Progress Administration.
The beginning of World War I radicalized Hoeckner and he told a newspaper at the time that his art was about "truth, in bitter truth, and the struggle of life in general," according to an essay on Hoeckner by Patricia Smith Scanlan.
After the war, Hoeckner painted "The Homecoming," a gruesome picture of emaciated, disfigured victims of the war that caused a stir in the art world.
Some of his themes included the darker side of society and the injustices of capitalism, oppression of labor and exploitation of women, Scanlan's article said.
"Through his teaching, original oil paintings, lithographs, and social activism, Hoeckner left behind an enduring legacy of the art scene in Chicago during the Depression," Scanlan wrote.
Hoeckner died in 1972.
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