Back from the Brink of Extinction
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
By William MacNeil
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 titles, 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. In addition to being outraged with her for the faculty reductions and for eliminating popular courses, the students felt she was wasn’t open to dialogue with them or the faculty. Adding insult to injury, Sanchez was not American Indian but said she was of Mexican Indian descent. She abruptly resigned in December 1997 and Warrior took her place.
Loren Kieve, a Washington, D.C., attorney who serves as chairwoman of the institute’s governing board credits Warrior with helping the college salvage its accreditation and its future.
“The improvements are because of Della,” Kieve says. “She has the ability to touch any number of people or groups. When the accreditation group was at the school in the spring of 1998, we had community day.
“Della is probably the only college president who can cook a very good fry bread on an outside piñon fire,” Kieve says with a laugh. “She has the human touch — she doesn’t put on airs.”
Since Warrior took the reins of the congressionally chartered school, enrollment has surged to 120 students — 100 percent of whom are Native American — and it is expected to grow to 250 to 300 students when the new campus opens.
Faculty discontent also has diminished under Warrior’s leadership.
Last year, Congress gave the institute $4.5 million and another $4.25 million this year — despite earlier pledges by lawmakers to cut off funds. Another $4.25 million is expected next year. That’s because New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators, Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and its three representatives have convinced their colleagues that the institute is getting its house in order.
The college, which had been on academic probation since the heavy staff cuts in 1996, also has secured full accreditation through the 2002-03 academic year from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
With its accreditation no longer jeopardized, faculty morale has lifted, says award-winning poet Arthur Sze, a professor of creative writing who has taught at the institute since 1982.
“Much of the accreditation had to do with Della Warrior. The students and faculty like having a Native woman running [the institute]. She runs the school through consensus. She really is open,” Sze says. “Previous presidents said they wanted consensus, but didn’t really.”
Warrior’s background includes a master’s in education from Harvard University. She has been director of Indian education for the Albuquerque public school system, an educational consultant for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Navajo Community College, and former chairwoman of the Oroe-Missouri tribe in Oklahoma.
Warrior also served as the institute’s development director prior to becoming president, a job that she says has made her acutely aware of the need for fundraising. The institute has $8.6 million in hand for the new $14 million campus.
Raising Money and Expectations
The 30-member American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which lobbies for Native American education issues in Washington, D.C., has pledged $3 million from its national fundraising campaign.
The institute also has requested a $2 million capital grant be included in next year’s federal budget — a move Warrior believes is appropriate based on the college’s history and the U.S. government’s pledge to native peoples.
She points out that mainstream public colleges and universities receive state and federal funding and that “in treaties, the government agreed to fund education for Native students. They did not tell us to be self-sufficient.
“But Congress passed a resolution telling [the institute] to become self-sufficient,” she adds. “These Native students have a right to become artists just as much as they would to become science teachers with government support.”
Before 1996 tuition was free, but now it’s $4,800 a year. Room, board, books, and supplies bring annual costs to about $10,000.
The institute also has asked the state Legislature here to either provide $1 million for the new campus or to put a $1 million bond issue before the state’s voters.
The college also has conducted its own extensive fundraising. Singer Willie Nelson, who lives in Dripping Springs, Texas, has promised to put on a benefit concert for the college before the end of the year.
The college also has set up regional committees of alumni to conduct fundraising campaigns from Connecticut to California. Warrior says even some non-Native Americans who support Native culture and education have pitched in.
The new campus will be built upon 140 acres near this city’s other two-year public college, Santa Fe Community College, just south of the city. That should help student recruitment and fundraising, Warrior says.
The institute has been housed in old portable classrooms and barracks on the College of Santa Fe campus for which it has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars annually since 1981. The bill for 1998-99 was more than $840,000.
The college currently offers four degree programs: creative writing, museum studies, two-dimensional arts, and three-dimensional arts.Next fall, the institute will partner with Santa Fe Community College to offer a degree in media arts and design. The community college has the labs and equipment for such a program that the institute now lacks.
And the institute’s first four-year degree in Native American studies will be introduced in 2000. After that, the college will add a four-year program in museum studies. Administrators plan to keep the two-year museum studies degree, too.
Warrior also is talking to tribal leaders around the country — nearly all 554 federally recognized tribes have had members attend IAIA — about their economic development needs to see what areas of applied arts the institute should offer.
The president expects to add courses and perhaps degrees in technology, art marketing, and administration. Institute officials also are trying to determine what role they should play in preserving Native languages.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com