Growing Native Artisits
By Gregory Pleshaw
The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico is busy expanding upon its mission, developing its facilities and bringing in new personnel to further its standing as the nation’s premier Native American arts school. Established in 1962 during the Kennedy administration, IAIA was originally led by Dr. George Boyce and Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) and featured such now-famous artist-faculty members as Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), Charles Loloma (Hopi) and many others.
In the past 50 years, the institute has evolved from a Bureau of Indian Affairs high school into a full-fledged college offering baccalaureate degrees in studio arts, creative writing, museum studies, Indigenous liberal studies and new media arts. But with the arrival of new personnel, most notably the new president, Dr. Robert Martin (Cherokee), the venerable art school is beginning to expand its programming to include such courses as business and entrepreneurship, and even sciences.
New Personnel and Educational Programs
The walls of Martin’s office are covered with paintings by IAIA staff and alumni. By his own admission, Martin has learned a great deal about art, creativity and the creative process since arriving at the IAIA in July 2007. Prior to coming to IAIA, he served as president of the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico; president of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas; president of Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona; and also as the Associate Head of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Arizona. With Martin’s extensive experience in higher education, there were few reservations about his selection to lead IAIA at this important stage of its development.
What led Martin to look upon IAIA as a place where he’d like to be was the history—and the promise—of the institution.
“I’ve always been of the belief that art lends itself well toward the establishment of Native sovereignty,” he says. “IAIA’s history has been one of helping Native Americans to establish their own voices and tell their own stories, which ultimately leads to greater self-determination. I wanted to be a part of that, and I’m glad that I am.”
Martin began his IAIA tenure by convening a series of discussions with the key constituents in the institution, including faculty, staff, administration, students, trustees and alumni. The result of these meetings is a strategic document known as Plan 2012, developed to determine the priorities of the Institute and its future direction, both in terms of academics and overall student achievement.
“We had a strategic plan in place that was basically in a file somewhere and wasn’t really consulted when making major, directional decisions,” says Martin. “The process of working on Plan 2012 really gave us a chance to bring together all the various stakeholders to have a dialogue about vision, mission, core values and priorities, and distill all those ideas. It was also a real learning process for me, in terms of learning where the Institute has been, how people feel about it, and who’s involved in making IAIA one of the best art schools in the nation. It was the first strategic plan approved by everyone, including the board, and it gave us a mission statement that is really meaningful to who we are and where we’re going.”
Plan 2012 has also spawned new programming, new personnel and new infrastructure for the Institute. The expansion of academic programming will include new curricula, which has required new hires to lead the charge in each discipline. These include Michelle Montgomery in science, Jennifer Coots in business and entrepreneurship, and Eva Flying in health and wellness. “We were fortunate to be able to recruit these candidates for these positions,” Martin says. “All three are bright, energetic Native women who bring a lot to the table with their experience and their enthusiasm.”
Michelle Montgomery comes from a small northeastern tribe in North Carolina called the Haliwa-Saponi. With a bachelor of science in biology and a master’s in plant pathology and social microbiology, along with ABD status on her Ph.D. in education (her dissertation was titled “Language, Literacy and Socio-Cultural Studies”), Montgomery is uniquely positioned to head up the new science programming at the Institute, which features a heavy emphasis on ecology and botany, and how plants are used by Indigenous people.
“I’m very passionate about what it means to educate, and what we’re doing here at IAIA is very exciting,” Montgomery says. “What we’re attempting to do is place a cultural lens to the knowledge of science and show how it is relevant to the students in their daily lives. I’ve been put in charge of developing a science program that will incorporate what is important about science into arts and culture. People have always been taught science from a Western cultural perspective. The point of Indigenous science is to offer some cultural history in ecological terms, bringing science to a place which shows the culture and tradition of plants, ecology and landscape, and how they relate to the realities of Indigenous people.”
Meanwhile, the Health and Wellness Program has a true champion in Eva Flying, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana. With a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and a master’s in sports administration from Montana State University, Billings, Flying is also a certified personal trainer and is gearing up to deliver a multitude of fitness services to the students of IAIA—everything from new intramural sports and drop-in fitness classes to forming women’s empowerment and health advocate groups.
“The students come here looking to be artists, but a lot of them have other talents in the physical world that go unaddressed,” Flying says. “We’re trying to show students how fitness can help foster their creative juices and emphasize how safety and wellness are part of developing an artistic career.”
Another newly developed programming initiative was begun last summer with the hiring of the first-ever business faculty member, Navajo tribal member Jennifer Coots. Coots, who holds an MBA from the University of New Mexico, will begin teaching business classes this fall as she develops a five-course business certificate.