AggieFunded – Intermountain Intertribal Indian School Murals Conservation and Exhibition

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About

Intermountain Intertribal Indian School opened in Brigham City, UT in 1950. During the first twenty-five years of its existence, the school welcomed exclusively Navajo/Diné students, but later modified its policy to accept students from all tribes and renamed itself the Intermountain Inter-Tribal Boarding School in 1975. The school was the largest boarding school for Native Americans in the United States and throughout its operation housed over twenty thousand students from ninety-nine tribes across the country. 

While the Native American boarding school era is one heavily marked by the abuse and mistreatment of Native Americans, in some ways, Intermountain developed a more progressive approach in its teachings, most notably in its encouragement of students’ artistic expression. While earlier boarding schools primarily focused on strict assimilation policies that intended to “wipe out the Indian and save the man” by eradicating all forms of expression of Native American culture, Intermountain deviated from this approach to edification in many ways. In particular, the school’s robust arts programs provided students with a unique platform upon which to express their cultural heritage through their artistic creations. Students were encouraged to incorporate Native American themes and imagery into their artwork, much of which was permanently featured in public spaces across campus. 

Throughout the years, Intermountain would go on to employ famous Native artists as instructors such as Alan Houser, Urshel Taylor, and John Huskett. The school was also home to students such as Zig Jackson, who became the first Native American photographer collected by the Library of Congress. 

The impact these renowned Native American artists had on the students of Intermountain was immense. Although most Native American boarding schools discouraged the expression of Native American culture, these artists showed Intermountain students that they could embrace both their past and their future as Native Americans and feel comfortable in expressing their own unique and complex identity. Under the guidance of Houser, Huskett, and Taylor, Intermountain was soon decorated with a vast array of artworks that reflected Native American themes and traditions. Students were allowed to realize their power in telling their stories through creative expression. By the time the school closed in the mid-1980s, Intermountain was a place completely adorned in student artwork and was an environment that quite literally surrounded its students with physical reminders that their own cultural identity was valued enough to be permanently showcased in both public and private spaces.

Intermountain was described in a Bureau of Indian Affairs brochure as “one of America’s most unusual educational enterprises.” The school’s programming, plans, and academic philosophy were all quite progressive especially compared to those of other boarding schools of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The school claimed it aimed to help students maintain pride in their heritage and respect for their traditions.

The twelve murals, under the care of Utah State University, are some of the last physical remnants from Intermountain and contribute significantly to depicting the experiences of the Native American students who attended the school. While most artists of the murals remain unknown, we hope that by making this history accessible to the public, we can find out more information about who created these incredible artworks.

The need for the conservation and rehousing of the Intermountain murals arose when the remaining buildings of the school were demolished. At the time of demolition, the abandoned buildings still housed many paintings and murals created by Intermountain students. Although many of the murals had been vandalized, Brigham City community members tried to salvage those that were still intact, recognizing their cultural significance and contribution to the story of Intermountain. Painted by former students, the murals are significant for what they reveal about the history of Intermountain and the Native American boarding school era. With USU owning the land and property, these murals became the responsibility of Utah State University and formed a committee led by Katie Lee-Koven, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art.

The committee, which helps oversee the progress of the conservation of the murals themselves, as well as the exhibition planning, and development of educational outreach materials and programming, is comprised of a variety of scholars and other community members who offer a wide range of perspectives on the Native American boarding school experience as well as alumni from Intermountain. 

It is imperative that these murals be conserved, as they are possibly the only remaining material, cultural artifacts from Intermountain. 

We have begun conserving some of the murals, working closely with renowned California-based conservator Scott Haskins who works extensively in Utah, most notably with the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The estimated total to conserve the murals is $107,000. We also seek $75,000 to support the exhibition, programming, and publication costs associated with the project. It is our goal to reach a total of $182,000 in philanthropic commitments.

Once conserved, there will be an exhibition, Intermountain: Cultural Identity, Assimilation, and Repatriation, featuring the eleven murals created by students who attended the Intermountain Inter-Tribal Indian School in Brigham City, Utah from January 2025 to July 2025. Events including a special reception and gathering for Intermountain alumni, discussion groups with alumni and Native American USU students, and a community-wide panel discussion will take place during the exhibition.

The exhibition and its associated programming will provide regional and national audiences the opportunity to learn about this important history. Our intention for the exhibition is to shed light on the Native American boarding school experience in a way that supports Native American communities in feeling more represented and helps the wider community better understand how Intermountain specifically contributed to this complicated history. The Native American boarding school experience—which has significantly shaped our nation’s history—has been widely ignored. We hope that by sharing this exhibition and programming with the public, audiences will not only appreciate the murals’ artistic value but also reflect upon what lessons Intermountain can teach us about the diversity of American identity. 

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