SANTA FE, NM — In 1962, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) was founded in Santa Fe, marking a pivotal year for contemporary Indigenous arts on Turtle Island. IAIA was and is a revolutionary educational space with a core philosophy of celebrating difference, which was developed by the organization’s first art director Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) and others. This value was about connecting with and celebrating traditional arts and cultures as pathways to developing personal creative expressions — in other words, being informed by history and heritage but not bound by static notions of either.

“Wherever you go and there’s Indigenous art being exhibited, there’s probably going to be some connection to IAIA. We’ve had a major impact, especially in contemporary Native arts,” says Dr. Robert Martin (Cherokee), president of IAIA. 

Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) with student in the IAIA textile printing studio, c. 1967 (photo by Kay V. Wiest, courtesy IAIA Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico)

IAIA remains the only educational institution in the world dedicated to the study of contemporary Native American and Alaska Native arts, with a mission “to empower creativity and leadership in Native Arts and cultures through higher education, life-long learning, and outreach.”

So what were some of the conditions that shaped the conception and evolution of IAIA? Although sharing all the known details of IAIA’s histories would be impossible in this short feature, it is important to name a few pivotal conditions. In the early 20th century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was taking steps to address the violent boarding school programs that assimilated Native American youth into colonial ways by forcibly separating children from their families, languages, ceremonies, and other ways of being.

These policy changes contributed to the start of Dorothy Dunn’s the Studio School in 1932 at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS), which would become IAIA’s first campus. Ryan Flahive, IAIA’s archivist and author of Celebrating Difference, Fifty Years of Contemporary Native Arts at IAIA, 1962-2012, explained that by the time of IAIA’s founding in the early 1960s, “Santa Fe was firmly established as the center of the Native art market.” The confluence of these factors alongside an intentional departure from the dominant “studio style” — and departure from projected or limited notions of what Native arts are and can be — led to the birth of IAIA.   

Peter B. Jones (Onondaga) and Karita Coffey (Comanche) in the IAIA ceramic studio, c. 1964 (photo by Kay V. Wiest, courtesy IAIA Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico)

The institute immediately started collecting their students’ innovative artworks. These initial collections became the seeds of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), “the country’s only museum for exhibiting, collecting, and interpreting the most progressive work of contemporary Native artists,” stewarding over 10,000 contemporary Indigenous artworks. 

The fact that IAIA and MoCNA are the only institutions stewarding contemporary Native American and Alaska Native art has made them (and the region at large) a gathering place for many Indigenous people across the continent, which has shaped the experience and sense of larger community. Artist Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), an IAIA alum, illustrates this in her photograph “Making History.” Through the process of making and the image itself, Romero transforms photography into a portal of honoring, reclaiming, and stewarding the diversity of Native identity and community, a potent gesture given the history of how photographs, and even the archive and museum institutions, have been historically weaponized through practices such as theft, erasure, tokenism, and perpetuating stereotypes. 

Romero describes “Making History” as her largest endeavor to date, taking approximately six months to create. The decisions about who and what to include in the photograph came from a committee selection process, aspiring to a fuller and intergenerational representation of the IAIA and MoCNA story. The photograph gathers six generations of innovative and esteemed IAIA and MoCNA graduates, leaders, and other community members from different departments, backgrounds, and creative disciplines. “It really became like each person in the photograph was representing not only themselves, but something bigger than themselves,” says Romero. 

IAIA, “Making History” (2022), photograph by © Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) ’05 (courtesy IAIA)

The image also includes artworks from the MoCNA collection such as a tapestry by Lloyd Kiva New, a painting by T.C. Cannon, and pottery by Diego Romero. Each individual in the photograph is named here and a documentary trailer, which includes interviews with the participants, is here

Travel schedules, budgets, and other logistics prevented everyone from being in the same room on the same day, challenges that lent themselves to Romero’s panoramic style and post-production process. With many people to include, it was important to Romero to have different visual planes in the image and to work in a space large enough to accommodate the composition. Solutions came in the form of pedestals — like those found in the artist’s studios on any given day — set in the Coe Center’s new industrial warehouse.

The panoramic image came together through four separate sessions on four different days, for which Romero kept her camera stationary while moving the entire set from left to right. With her training in fine art and photography technology, she stitched the images together and created digital illustrations of historical figures, their likenesses seemingly graffitied on the cinder blocks of the photo’s backdrop wall. 

2019 IAIA commencement (photo by Jason Ordaz)

“‘Making History’ is a tribute to the power of the institute, and of the museum, and the artists who emerge from the school and then go on to create our intertribal community. We really follow each other throughout this life, and hold each other; we all have a deep sense of pride,” says Romero. “It’s such an honor to be able to photograph this historical gathering.”

Throughout 2022, a series of programs commemorates the 60th year of IAIA and 50th year of MoCNA. Highlights include the launch of the IAIA and Jane Goodall Institute Partnership, a scholarship auction, a summer exhibitions opening reception, and IAIA’s History Symposium.

The institute is also gathering oral histories with six graduates, one from each decade, over the next six months in the IAIA Alumni Voices Series, which launched in April. Flahive says the series — conversations about the social and cultural interactions between IAIA students, staff, and faculty— will culminate in “IAIA History,” a two-day symposium in October.

“Exposure: Native Art & Political Ecology,” installation view, August 20, 2021–July 10, 2022, MoCNA (photo by Brad Trone)

IAIA is remodeling a physical space for the IAIA Research Center for Contemporary Native Arts (RCCNA), anticipated to open in the spring of 2023. The project involves housing both the MoCNA arts collection and IAIA archives, serving to “unite art, artists, and archives,” and supporting Indigenous scholars and artists to lead the narrative and stewardship of Indigenous arts and cultures. 

IAIA is also starting partnerships with CalArts and the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), collaborations intended to expand mutual learning, employment, representation, and other opportunities for students. According to IAIA’s April newsletter, the partnership with JGI is an effort to “increase programming for both IAIA’s Land-Grant programs and JGI’s Roots & Shoots youth program in Indigenous communities, offering a summer internship for one IAIA student and five to eight mini-grants for Indigenous youth.” The CalArts partnership is still in exploratory stages, but hopes to build from the pre-existing community ties between the two schools.

I had the chance to ask Martin about how the collaboration with Jane Goodall Institute and the expansion of Land Grant programs (with the development of Land Grant classes/workshops and agricultural education outreach) fit into IAIA’s future visions. He mentioned that land is the basis of identity for Indigenous peoples throughout the world, and with climate change, and the challenges to and needs for cultivating nutritious foods, it is imperative for the world at large to practice being good land stewards through traditional agriculture. When it comes to adapting to climate challenges, Martin said, “Indigenous people have a lot to offer, and we want to expand on that.” 

Land Grant garden (photo by Jason Ordaz)

IAIA’s future also includes global Indigenous critical scholarship. Martin said, “what the pandemic did was to accelerate history for us.” The pandemic made undeniable the inequalities racialized communities including Indigenous communities face, heightening national awareness and contribution. IAIA adapted quickly with new technologies for remote learning, and Martin believes this will influence the institute far beyond the pandemic, giving more options for virtual, in person, and hybrid education and making staying involved in one’s home community while attending school more possible. They also make knowledge sharing more accessible nationally and globally, expanding IAIA’s legacy of alchemizing challenges into nourishing spaces for Indigenous people to thrive in their self and community wellbeing, and expression.

Land Grant garden (photo by Jason Ordaz)

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Sarah Sao Mai Habib

Sarah Sao Mai Habib is a multidisciplinary artist, builder, writer, and cultural worker based in O'ga P'ogeh aka Santa Fe, New Mexico. Habib works at the intersections of healing, social ecological justice,...