Native kids' art heads home to Arizona from Louisiana attic

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — When antique dealer Ray Stevenson first saw the Chinle Boarding School student artwork in an attic at a Shreveport garage sale in 2000, he had no idea what he was looking at. All he knew was that he was drawn to the children’s drawing.

“You need to get this,” he told himself.

So he purchased the folder, which was filled with about 60 drawings, a 1964 yearbook and several black-and-white photos.

All he knew at the time was that the items had belonged to a “Mr. Palmer.” One photo inside the folder depicted a man who was thought to be “Mr. Palmer.

Stevenson then stored the folder in an old trunk in his house. And there it stayed for the next eight years.

Meanwhile, Stevenson’s love of antiques morphed into a love of history, especially a love of African American history. Stevenson thought there was much about this history that was untold. He saw it as his mission to preserve as much as he could.

It was with this new perspective that Stevenson reexamined the Chinle art and saw that it was more than just children’s art.

Many of the pictures had pieces of white paper on a corner identifying them as entries in the 12th annual arts and crafts show at Chinle Boarding School in Many Farms, Arizona. The labels bore each artist’s name and age, the medium in which the art was created, and its sale price. An example: Arlene Nez’s chalk drawing of a profile of a Native American man with long hair and feather was priced at 20 cents.

The closer Stevenson looked, the more he wanted to learn. After researching Native American boarding schools, he saw parallels between their history and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

“Each culture has a struggle, and each has its own story,” he said. “Although we are all in the story together, each is different.”

One thing Stevenson learned was that the Native American schools were created by Christian reformers to mold children to be more “western.” An article in a 2014 Navajo Times article summed it up this way:

“These boarding schools would, as Carlisle Indian School founder Richard Pratt would so famously put it, ‘kill the Indian in order to save the man.’”

Stevenson reached out to the Navajo Times with his find and, in 2012, the newspaper published an article along with his contact information. He hoped to find some of the students whose artwork he now owned.

It worked. Stevenson learned that Mr. Palmer was a math teacher at the Chinle boarding school during the 1960’s. Former students and teachers told Stevenson that they remembered Mr. Palmer as a wonderful person.

Stevenson contacted the Navajo Nation Museum in Arizona, and secured a showing of several pieces of the art for October 2018.

Stevenson then connected with Native American artist Elmer Yazzie, who stopped by the Stevenson’s shop, Big Mamas Antiques and Restorations in Shreveport, on a recent trip to Louisiana to look at the art. Yazzie helped choose 12 student artworks to be shown at the upcoming show. Together, Yazzie and Stevenson made mats for the art and discussed how to present them.

As a former boarding school student and then as an art teacher for several years, Yazzie had a unique perspective.

While his boarding school experience was positive, Yazzie is aware of the schools’ historical and not entirely positive significance.

“The boarding schools were a follow-up to the conquest of the West,” Yazzie said, adding that the intent was to “change the minds of the native students to become more Americanized.”

As Stevenson and Yazzie looked at the several pieces of art, Yazzie talked about the land depicted.

“This is so valuable because it tells a bit of their experiences that they have and appreciation they have for the land, the earth and the animals, and appreciation for human life.” Yazzie said.

Stevenson is happy the art is going back to Arizona for the upcoming show.

“I think it is wonderful that the work will be going back to where it once started,” he said.

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