Native Artists Find a Place Institute for American Indian Art Shows Signs of Resurgence

By M. S. Mason, | The Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 1991 | Go to article overview

Native Artists Find a Place Institute for American Indian Art Shows Signs of Resurgence


M. S. Mason,, The Christian Science Monitor


AMERICAN Indian art crosses every art medium and style known. It's a lot more than silver jewelry, fine pottery, or exquisite weaving, though it encompasses those venerable forms.

From performance art, filmmaking, and painting, to sculpture, graphic design, and haute couture, Indian artists are now exploring every field and art form. Yet most Indian artists continue to draw inspiration from their individual tribal histories and culture.

Only an institution with a special mission could fully address the needs of young American Indian artists by allowing them to find their identities as Indians while nurturing individual expression. Most colleges and universities are engaged primarily in passing on Western culture.

But Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) is special. This federally sponsored community college intentionally engages students with native American traditions and contemporary art.

Since opening in 1962, IAIA has nurtured artists who have earned distinguished reputations. Names like Dan Namingha, Earl Biss, Rollie Grandbois, Doug Hyde, Kevin Red Star, and T.C. Cannon grace its alumni rolls. Many of the most important Indian artists working today have either attended or taught at the institute.

To those who work and study there, IAIA is more than an institution: It's a cause. "There's nothing like IAIA anywhere," says Richard Hill, the institute's museum director and a member of the Tuscarora nation in New York.

"There's no other place where Indians can go to school to learn about Indian art. IAIA offers a new approach to Indian art predicated on the fact that you are an Indian individual living in a modern world. You have to find out what that means and then you have to find ways to express that - with no cultural parameters except those you set for yourself," he says.

The institute was established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as a progressive experiment during the Kennedy administration. The 1960s saw a growth in popular interest in Indian culture.

"In the early years the institute got wonderful support," says Kathryn Harris Tijerina, IAIA's new president. "It was just a powerhouse. Allan Houser, Fritz Scholder, Lewis Ballard, Charles Loloma - in fact, almost all the great names connected with Indian art - taught here.... But as the government changed hands and interest in native Americans cooled, the bureaucracy took over. There was no one fighting for the budget," Ms. Tijerina says.

The school declined. Its cause foundered. The institute was evicted to make room for expansion of the Santa Fe Indian School. The IAIA found temporary accommodations at the College of Santa Fe in 1981. Morale of faculty and student body plummeted as funds dwindled. So, in 1988 Congress sprung IAIA loose from the BIA just as it teetered on the brink of extinction, assigning it a federal charter and a governing board of trustees (the majority of whom are Indians) appointed by the president of the United States. The board reports directly to Congress.

TODAY the IAIA's student body and faculty are 66 percent native Americans from tribes all over the country. While all Indian students receive tuition scholarships, most come from low-income families and living in Santa Fe is financially difficult. Many students have families, and institute-supported family housing and daycare are not available.

"The dwindling federal dollar impacts very directly on the students," Mr. Hill says. "It's very expensive to live in Santa Fe, and the average wage is very low. The No. 1 reason why Indians don't finish school is financial."

Yet despite its ongoing financial problems, the IAIA shows glittering signs of regeneration. Last year 140 prime acres a few miles south of downtown were donated to IAIA for a new campus. …

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