AFTER EARNING a bachelor’s in English and Native literature from Dartmouth College in 2007, Chee Brossy (Diné) took a job as a reporter at the Navajo
Times in Window Rock, Arizona. A few years later he felt the pull of his real passion — fiction writing. A co-worker told him about the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
“Dartmouth prepared me well academically, in research and critical thinking, but I knew in my first semester at IAIA that this was what I’d wanted all that time,” Brossy told Pasatiempo. “I took Poetry I with Jon Davis, and I was able to see and ask questions about the way a writer writes a poem, figure out the writing from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in, the way I’d been taught at Dartmouth.” Brossy earned a BFA in creative writing to supplement his earlier degree, and in 2013 took a position in alumni relations at the institute. He was exploring graduate schools when Davis told him IAIA was about to launch a low-residency master of fine arts program in creative writing — the first master’s program in the school’s history. Though he’d been considering the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cornell University, he chose to get his MFA at IAIA because of the diversity of the faculty — about half are Native, and many are young — as well as the chance to further develop his writing in an environment that prioritizes Native voices.
“And I could keep my job while going to school,” he added. In the two-year low-residency program, students gather on campus for one packed week of readings, meetings, and workshops each semester, and spend the rest of the time corresponding with a member of the faculty. Brossy is taking the optional third year of the program so that he still has access to faculty while he completes a collection of short stories.
“The first time I went out to IAIA, it felt like home in a way no place else ever had, just going to the offices and seeing all the indigenous and brownskinned people in leadership roles,” said Jamie Figueroa, who spent 15 years as a massage therapist after several unsuccessful attempts to earn an undergraduate degree in visual arts — experiences that convinced her, for a time, that she didn’t want to study writing in an academic setting, for fear of squelching her creativity. Originally from rural Ohio, Figueroa is of Spanish and Afro-Caribbean descent, and is a member of the United Confederation of Taino People, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. She moved to Santa Fe in 2005 after traveling here over the years to take part in writing workshops with Natalie Goldberg. She has now earned a BFA and MFA in creative writing from IAIA. “It’s unlike any other academic institution I have experienced,” she said. “There is intense rigor within the arts; the standards are very high. What’s different for me is that this is a place where you bring your whole self — your past, your ancestry, your understanding of how this fits into your life at the present moment. The most important thing I learned was how crucial it is to bring my own authority to the page, and how honest, visceral, and authentic I can be with that authority.” Figueroa runs a creative writing consultant service, www.nextpageconsultancy.com, and is represented by the same agent who represents Sherman Alexie, an author who also happens to be involved in the IAIA MFA program as a mentor.
The BFA and MFA programs provide students ample access to major visiting writers, and undergraduate students often receive funding to attend summer writing conferences around the country, connecting them to the larger literary world. Collegiate creative writing programs are big business,
with graduate and undergraduate programs proliferating over the last 20 years, but creative writing has existed at IAIA since its founding in 1962. Davis, author of several books of poetry including Scrimmage of Appetite (University of Akron Press, 1995) and Preliminary Report (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), has taught at IAIA since 1990. He recalled that the first book by a writer in the program was Miracle Hill: The Story of a Navaho Boy, by Emerson Blackhorse Mitchell (with T.D. Allen), published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1967, and legend has it that it began as an assignment for English class. In the early days, a number of rather famous figures visited the program, including Allen Ginsberg and Vincent Price; the latter visited several times and made a practice of reading student poems aloud in his signature voice, recordings of which still exist. Today, enrollment in the undergraduate program is a bit low, at 15, while enrollment in the MFA program continues to swell, and currently holds at 72 students. At the undergraduate level, the majority of students are Native, while the split is about 50-50 at the graduate level. “I’d like the proportions in the MFA program to shift, so that Natives remain in charge in the classroom,” said Davis, who is non-Native.
Students, faculty, and alumni of both programs explain that participating in a workshop where you are the only Native person, and possibly the only person of color, is very different from being in one where you are part of the majority. Sherwin Bitsui earned his associate of fine arts in creative writing from IAIA in 1999 and went on to earn a BFA from the University of Arizona. He is the recipient of a 2006 Whiting Writers’ Award and has published two books of poetry, Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), and now teaches in the MFA programs at IAIA and San Diego State University. “A program that prioritizes Native voices gives Native students a sense of creative freedom, because their perspective is privileged and acknowledged and they don’t have to waste time and energy trying to convince their peers of their own humanity,” Bitsui said.
Joan Kane (Inupiaq), author of Due North (Columbia University Press, 2006), Cormorant Hunter’s Wife (University of Alaska Press, 2012), and Hyperboreal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) teaches in the MFA program, and says the Native focus isn’t about staying in a comfort zone — because no situation where rooms full of people are critiquing your writing could be considered comfortable — but about grappling with the essential questions of creativity. “In previous generations [of Native writing], there’s been this unspoken issue of tokenism in the literary market,” she said. “It has made the text over-determined and burdened with the need to provide context without considering the more pressing issues.”
Non-Native students can get caught up in the possible cultural meanings of small plot turns in Native writing, Brossy explained, which can distract from serious critique of the writing. “There are references throughout literature to Bible stories, and it’s assumed everyone knows what those are about, but I don’t. If you’re non-Native, you don’t need to understand everything about the culture to understand a story about people.”
“I wanted to get a terminal degree and finish my book at an institution that would support me as a writer, feminist, and woman of color,” said Terese Mailhot (Seabird Island First Nations, Canada) a writer for Indian Country Today whose work has also appeared on the websites The Toast and The Feminist Wire. “I felt like only IAIA would do. The faculty has given me detailed feedback in a multi-dimensional way. They make notes on mechanics, subtext, and they care to talk about Indian representation, culture, and identity. For too long Native people have been shut out of the academic community. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told at other institutions that my work was not sophisticated, or that it was so ‘surprising’ that the main character was Native on page two. I have a sparse style, my main characters are brown, and sometimes the language moves from rez dialect to academic speak. White is the default in all literature, and I’m not having that. I want to write myself into the world.”