Native Artists Find a Place
Institute for American Indian Art shows signs of resurgence
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO — 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 S tates. 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. The MacArthur Foundation recently awarded the Institute a $300,000 planning grant.
The Federal Building downtown was also donated and a $2 million grant was received for renovations for museum space to house IAIA's collection of contemporary Indian art. The institute even has a new name: the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development.
Kathryn Tijerina, a Comanche with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, is a dynamic presence on campus - fueling faculty dedication and student ambition. ``Kathryn Tijerina ia an excellent leader in a time of great transition,'' says James Santini, a trustee. ``She brings extraordinary credentials to the institution and has already met some demanding first challenges.''
IAIA faculty always have encouraged and taught a wide variety of art forms and scholarship. Cultural studies are on the upswing, too. Tribal elders are regularly brought in to explain tribal religion and history. ``We can bring greater understanding as tribal people, to help the US be better world partners in their dealings with the tribal peoples of Africa and Asia,'' Tijerina says.
Tijerina agrees with Hill that the institute's primary function is to educate and act as resource to the Indian community. ``In one sense, we're a kind of Smithsonian Institution for Indians,'' Hill explains. ``We have a quasi-federal status and a little bit of authority....We haven't always been as competitive as we should have been in recruiting students. But that's changing. There is really great excitement now out in Indian country for the Institute. It's being reborn.''
Hill left his teaching position at SUNY-Buffalo because he believes in IAIA. ``I think we'll have a higher impact on the national dialogue about Indians from here then we would in Washington.''
The need for Indians in museum work is increasing, Hill says, with repatriation issues as important as they are. Increasingly IAIA's museum studies program will be seen as a training ground for expert testimony. ``We don't want a brain drain from Indian country.''
GEORGE BURDEAU, a Blackfeet, attended IAIA in 1962-63. He has been a successful television director and documentary filmmaker. He now heads the new communications program, which includes broadcast-quality equipment. The history, culture, and folklore of American Indians as well as their unique perspective on the environment provide subject matter for productions.
Many of Mr. Burdeau's students already have been given practical experience as interns on movie and television projects because of Burdeau's professional contacts.
``We hope our communications students will go back and document their own cultures and oral traditions. As we lose our elders, we lose our cultural perspective. We don't want to lose that.''
One of the problems Burdeau faces with his students is the manipulative art market that influences students to produce ingrown work. ``Indian art has become big business. We have to prepare students to understand how the art market works. There's always a demand for what has already been successful. The school needs to make the students aware of the pitfalls. They need to grow and develop and not simply manufacture one style.''
Charles RenCountre, student body president, has been a successful artist for 10 years. Some of his carvings have been collected by the Smithsonian. He came to IAIA because ``I wanted to learn to work in marble and other media. IAIA has been very important to me. To begin with I am here with Indian people from all over the US [to learn] about the different tribes and their traditions. We do share ideas.''