Institute of American Indian Arts: A survey course
A survey course
South of I-25, deep in the vastness of Rancho Viejo on Avan Nu Po Road, is the Institute of American Indian Arts, better known as IAIA. It’s the only congressionally chartered tribal college in the country. Since the new campus opened in 2000, buildings have gone up based on the availability of federal and privately raised funds. The campus now includes multiple classroom and studio buildings, a library, dormitory and family housing, a wide variety of indoor and outdoor spaces for students to gather, a dance circle, sweat lodges, a hogan, and a community garden and greenhouse. Most of the wall space throughout campus is dedicated to student art.
Outside of the Allan Houser Haozous Sculpture & Foundry Building after a recent rain, the wash of colors from ground to sky combined with the early evening light and the perfume of sage, verbena, and juniper for the ultimate moment of high-desert beauty that so many artists attempt to capture or convey. That an art school exists here seems like a miracle — or the result of extremely hard work and faith in the future.
The history of IAIA is intertwined with that of other educational institutions. It grew out of the Southwestern Indian Art Project, created in 1960 by the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Arizona. Led by Bureau of Indian Affairs educator George A. Boyce and Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) — a successful fashion designer with studios in Scottsdale, Arizona — the program operated at the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School (but was not part of it). During this time, the BIA shuffled SFIS students and faculty to new schools, primarily the Albuquerque Indian School. In 1962 SFIS was closed, and the Institute of American Indian Arts officially opened as a high school on the same campus. A press release announcing the October 1962 opening declared that “American Indians have always caught the public eye and inspired interest. Sometimes this interest has been based on sentiment or glamour. Quite often, though, it has been sincere and deep-rooted. … Many persons, Indians and non-Indians alike, have used every means possible to point attention to the need for a school where the unusual artistic talents of America’s Indians may develop ... a school where the best of the traditional tribal arts may be appreciated and continued ... a school where the artist or craftsman will also feel free to reach for new horizons.”
“Lloyd Kiva New’s idea was to let Native people know they didn’t have to give up their Indianness,” said Della Warrior (Otoe-Missouria). Currently the director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, she served as president of IAIA from 1998 until 2006. “There was a time when the art of Native Americans was being lost because of all the policies put in place to get them not to practice their culture, their religion, and their language. The art was dying. People were beginning to sell trinkets on the side of the road. So the school was created.”
Early alumni of the high school and post-high school programs include T.C. Cannon, Roxanne Swentzell, Joy Harjo, Dan Namingha, Benjamin Harjo, and Anita Fields. IAIA was accredited as a two-year college by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1978 (and by the Higher Learning Commission in 1984). Also in 1978, with educational facilities in Albuquerque in serious disrepair, the All Pueblo Indian Council began lobbying congressional officials to reopen the Santa Fe Indian School to serve students from the local pueblos. The pueblos believed their right to the land superseded the need
for a pan-Indian art school. Using the Indian SelfDetermination Act as the basis for its argument, the council triumphed and SFIS was returned to the pueblos in 1980. IAIA, with some assistance from Congressman Manuel Luján Jr., secured a lease down the street at the College of Santa Fe, built on the site of the abandoned Bruns Army Hospital. IAIA took over a couple of dormitories and held classes in hospital barracks. “We paid a nice chunk of change for those substandard facilities,” Warrior said.
A push to remove BIA oversight of the institute began in 1982, led by then-Congressman Bill Richardson and Sen. Pete Domenici, and succeeded in 1986 with the congressional charter that charges the institute with the study, preservation, and dissemination of traditional and contemporary expressions of Native American language, literature, history, oral traditions, and the visual and performing arts.
“This means we’re the only tribal college where the board of trustees is appointed by the president of the United States. It means we’re a line item in Congress — though we do still answer to tribes both locally and nationally,” explained artist and activist Charlene Teters, an alumna and longtime faculty member at IAIA, who recently became the academic dean.
In 1994, 29 tribal colleges were made land-grant colleges in the tradition of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which had established agricultural colleges and ensured educational opportunities for African Americans. The 1994 Land Grant Act made IAIA eligible for several annual federal grants, and the school fulfills the obligations of the land-grant designation through its Center for Lifelong Education and various outreach programs in local Native communities. The same year IAIA received land-grant status, however, Congress decided to slash the school’s budget, with the intention of eliminating the line item entirely after three years.
By the mid-1990s, students were growing weary of the dilapidated campus, student and faculty groups were at odds, some staff members had been laid off, factions had formed, and negative press had resulted. When the school’s budget was cut by more than half and the future was, at best, uncertain, it seemed the only way out was to restore IAIA’s reputation. Warrior was then working in the IAIA development office.
Indian Country Today ran a series of alumni artist profiles while she mobilized the tribes to send resolutions about the importance of IAIA to their congressional representatives. “We had to learn to work together or the school was going to go off a cliff. The budget had gone to two million, and the next year there was to be nothing. But we got 300 resolutions, and then we had a Call for Unity, a big feast and ceremony, and about 400 people came. Finally, Sen. Domenici’s chief of staff called me and told me we were back in the budget and to stop sending him telegrams and faxes. That was a happy, happy day.”
There was definitely a sense during those years that IAIA needed a permanent home, but not all students minded the setting. Sherwin Bitsui (Diné) earned his associate’s degree in creative writing from IAIA in 1999. “The students and faculty make the community, so I never felt like we were outside of a system. I can
From top to bottom, construction of the hogan on the IAIA campus, 1999; actor Vincent Price reading poetry by IAIA students, circa 1960s, photo Kay V. Wiest; IAIA ceramics studio at the College of Santa Fe Campus, photo Merritt Edson Youngdeer; images courtesy IAIA Archives