Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Back from the Brink of Extinction

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Back from the Brink of Extinction

Article excerpt

AFTER SURVIVING FUNDING BATTLES AND A STUDENT INSURRECTION, AMONG OTHER THINGS, THE NATION'S PREMIER NATIVE AMERICAN ARTS INSTITUTE FINALLY IS GETTING A HOME OF ITS OWN

Its federal funding was slashed by nearly half and nearly cut off completely. Enrollment plunged, roughly 60 percent of the faculty had to be let go, and students went to war against the administration.

At one point, Native American leaders around the country wondered whether their one-of-a-kind college -- Sante Fe, N.M.'s two-year Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development (IAIA) -- had any future at all.

But those were the dark years of 1996 and 1997.

"Stories went out all across the nation that we were closing down," says the college's president, Della Warrior. "We're still trying to recover from that."

Under Warrior's guiding hands these past two years, the institute has made nothing short of a miraculous recovery -- one evoking comparisons to the mythical phoenix that arose from the ashes of ruination and death.

The college has been taken off of academic probation. Enrollment is on the rise once again. And just last month ground was broken on the $14 million first phase of what eventually will be a brand new campus.

When the new facility opens in September 2000, the institute will have its own home for the first time since Congress founded it in 1962 to "serve as a multi-tribal Native center of higher education for Native Americans."

Called by some a "national treasure," the institute has been "dedicated to the study, creative application, preservation, and care of Indian arts and culture." It has survived through more than three decades and educated more than 3,000 students from hundreds of tribes.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization recognizes the institute as one of seven exemplary institutions worldwide that provide unique cultural education and training.

The college also houses a museum that is home to the "National Collection of Contemporary Indian Art," which contains more than 7,000 pieces of the best art created by faculty, students, and alumni since 1962.

It is the largest collection under Native Americans' care. The museum's research holdings include 40,000 slides, 30,000 historic photos, 700 videos, 11,000 monograph rifles, and 350 audio tapes that give visitors a glimpse of Native American culture.

Recently, state lawmakers here passed a resolution urging the federal government to continue funding the school whose graduates, the document states, are "some of the most renowned Native American artists in the country."

Following Warrior's Lead

"People should realize the value of this institution to local and national cultures," Warrior says.

"Much tribal knowledge has been lost over the years. People are beginning to realize that Native American concepts have value to all cultures, even science. They have to realize our knowledge has value and we have to preserve Native culture and language."

Many folks here credit Warrior with the institute's turnaround. Before she came on board, Congress slashed its annual support for the college from $9.2 million in 1995 to $5.5 million in 1996. It later threatened to end funding altogether.

That forced the college to thin its faculty ranks from 27 full-time instructors to just 11. Most of those laid off were Native American instructors. The college also reluctantly began charging tuition for the first time in its history.

Then, a finance office worker pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $300,000 in college funds. Heaping more heartache on the misery, student enrollment fell from 250 to 85 in just two years.

Amid all that turmoil, three-quarters of the institute's students later signed a petition demanding then-President Beatrice Rivas Sanchez be booted from office. …

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