Institute of American Indian Arts Has Come a Long Way

Courtesy IAIA - The school moved to its current campus in 2000. (Courtesy IAIA)

Indian Country Today

Institute of American Indian Arts Has Come a Long Way

In this country’s not so distant past, many Native American youths were involuntarily enrolled in government-run boarding schools, distancing them from their families and cultures. Realizing a great loss of history, culture and art could result, among other tragedies, a conference addressing the future of Native art was held in 1961. Hosted by the University of Arizona with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Southwestern Indian Art Project was created. Youth from around the country were instructed in contemporary arts with great success, spurring the development of a Native American high school specializing in the arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Let’s try to find challenging opportunities for the young Indian mind. Let’s be more concerned with the evolution of artists rather than of art products. Let’s see that the young Indian realizes the values of his great and wonderful traditions as the springboard to his own personal creative ideas. Indian art of the future will be in new forms, produced in new media and with new technological methods. The end result will be as Indian as the Indian,” said Lloyd H. “Kiva” New in his 1959 paper, “A Proposal for An Exploratory Workshop in Art for Talented Younger Indians.”

Under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) opened on the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School on October 1, 1962 with 280 students, predominantly from Navajo tribes, and more than half in elementary school. “There’s always been a lot of boarding schools, but not one specifically for the arts,” Karita Coffey, Comanche, says about her experience as one of the first graduates of the school, in 1965. “I came from Oklahoma and was told there’s this new school for the arts, and the art part interested me.” Coffey has taught ceramics at the institute since 1987, and her artwork has been collected by museums across the United States.

Some 50 years and 4,000 students later, the school’s innovative focus on contemporary art education has made it a leader in the field. From the very first IAIA Invitational Exhibition of American Indian Paintings in 1964, students have earned recognition in the art world. Coffey’s classmate and studio arts colleague Linda Lomahaftewa, Hopi/Choctaw, is an accomplished painter and printmaker. “The school gave me a good foundation of who I was as a Native person and supported us with whatever we wanted to study,” she says. “Meeting students from across the nation was an eye-opener at 15, too.”

“The establishment of the school and the vision of the university of arts that was articulated by Kiva New and others led to the birth of contemporary Native art,” says president Robert Martin, Cherokee. “Before that, I think a lot of young Native artists had limitations. That really changed in terms of creativity and imagination.”

Offering two-year degrees in studio arts, creative writing and museum studies since 1975, the institute was accredited in 2001 as a four-year college awarding baccalaureate degrees additionally in creative writing, indigenous liberal studies and new media arts.

Some students returned to complete higher degrees once they were offered, like Jameson Chas. Banks, Seneca-Cayuga and Cherokee Tribes of Oklahoma, adjunct faculty in printmaking. “There’s nothing like IAIA in the world, spiritually and otherwise,” he says. “Native people agree we need to be amongst each other, there’s something empowering about that, and so many people are formed from these relationships at indigenous schools.” His grandparents met at a boarding school, he explains, and they and his parents were all educators. Banks says his son is also a product of the Native educational system in a manner, as he met his wife while studying at the institute.

Award-winning poet and writer James Thomas Stevens, Akwesasne Mohawk, graduated in 1991 when the institute shared the College of Santa Fe’s campus. Former Army barracks rumored to be a former Japanese internment camp, the dormitory was believed haunted by some. “As you walked down the halls there, you might hear other footsteps,” creative writing faculty member Stevens says with a smile. “It’s one of the many fables of the old IAIA.”

The school moved to its current campus on 140 acres 13 miles south of Santa Fe in 2000. “For the first 38 years, we were in temporary facilities, so it was easier for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress to consider saving money by cutting us,” Martin says. “The permanent campus brings stability and permanence to this institution, and moving forward, building the campus is a priority.” New developments include a February groundbreaking on an administrative building, with the master campus plan featuring a fitness center and performing arts building next.

Other exciting developments include a “low residency,” mostly online masters in fine arts in creative writing being offered for the first time this summer. Faculty mentors are a who’s who of Native writing, including Sherman Alexie, Spokane/Coeur d’Alene; Natalie Diaz, Mojave; and Susan Power, Sioux; while the program director is Santa Fe’s current poet laureate, Jon Davis.

“There were maybe five of us in creative writing when I graduated,” Stevens says. “But it has always been one of the most influential departments—we publish a lot.” Writing alumni include Joy Harjo, Muskoke-Creek, and Elizabeth Woody, Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs. Davis lauds the support alumni offer each other and said after 23 years, more than half of his Facebook friends are fellow undergraduates from the institute. “I see that in the arts programs with the galleries in Santa Fe, too, where alumni help introduce the students to the art scene and other artists.”

The institute’s campus art museum moved to downtown Santa Fe in 1992 as the world-renowned Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Museum archives are housed at the institute’s campus where museum studies students are surrounded by the permanent collection including works like Papa and Mama Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues by early student T.C. Cannon, Kiowa, and paintings from the Coyote Series by former faculty member Harry Fonseca, Nisenan Maidu.

Stevens says that change has been slow coming in the Santa Fe community regarding Native American art since the school’s inception. “We’re situated in a city built on the Indian tourism industry that wants people wrapped in blankets selling pottery,” he says. “They don’t really want to see contemporary Native film, and they ask how what we’re doing is considered Native American.”

When he taught poetry to non-Native children, he’d show them images of traditional dress from places like Italy to illustrate how they no longer look like their ancestors either. “Why would we as an ethnic group be expected to remain as we were 500 years ago?” he says. “We all live in the same world.”

Of the 415 students currently enrolled, about 73 percent are Native American, representing 88 tribes nationally. Staff and faculty are also predominantly Native. “Our history and what we’ve contributed to Native American art helps us to attract quality faculty, staff and students,” Martin says.

As one of the country’s few universities with land-grant status, the institute receives funding to help indigenous communities, usually rural, with environmental and farming instruction and support. The campus boasts a greenhouse and outdoor gardens where students learn firsthand about regional tribal agriculture.

The institute is home to the world’s first fully articulating digital dome where students have the unique opportunity to develop audio, video and fine art installations with this cutting-edge technology. The Cinematic Arts Program has received grants from NASA for research in this multidimensional environment often reserved for planetariums.

Current cinematic arts major 21-year-old Tamara Colaque, Jemez, was recently awarded an internship working with the dome for the summer session. She excitedly discusses a documentary she’s working on called Walking the Life Road about Jemez musician Jimmy Shendoh and his band, which incorporated traditional Native and contemporary rock music. “I grew up with that music and my dad is part of the band,” she says. She plans to pursue funding from crowd-sourcing websites like or “I want to make music videos with his songs as part of the documentary and inspire with his music. My head’s so big with ideas, it’s hard to know where to start.”