The Legacy of Native American Art

The diversity and beauty of Native American jewelry, pottery and other traditional crafts is an ongoing legacy of the different tribes and their cultures. One of the reasons for that legacy continuing into this century and hopefully the next is the concept that the knowledge must be passed on, that it must be encouraged and developed by new artists. This concept was behind the founding of one place that has done much to continue the development of Native American art: The Institute of American Indian Arts.

Understanding that the programs in place at the time through the Santa Fe Indian School were not enough to meet the needs of traditional artists, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ department of education and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board collaborated on the idea of a place of higher education which would allow art and creativity to be the focus of its students. From this collaboration, IAIA was born.

The Institute began operating on the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School in October of 1962. Guided by Dr. George Boyce, Lloyd Kiva New and other influential leaders, the institute offered an innovative approach to the arts, first at the high school level and later as a four-year college degree. Studies offered included studio arts, creative writing and museum studies. Each course reflected the commitment of the Institute to “the study, preservation and dissemination of traditional and contemporary expressions of Native American language, literature, history, oral traditions, and the visual and performing arts.”

Today IAIA stands as the only four-year college in the US to offer a fine arts degree centered on Native American and Alaska Native arts. Its operations include the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, a leading facility for exhibitions of the work of indigenous artists. In 2000, the Institute moved to a 140-acre campus of its own, allowing for the expansion of its programs. Now offered are a BFA in Creative Writing, a degree in New Media and an Indigenous Liberal Studies program. The new campus also includes a science and technology building and a sculpture and foundry area, which offers studio space for sculptors and wood/stone carvers. There is also a residence center, family living area and a cultural learning center.

The contributions IAIA has made over the years to the world of indigenous art are immeasurable. Its alumni include Allan Houser, Charles Loloma, Rose Simpson, Joy Harjo and Sherman Alexie. Courses have aided the careers of poets, musicians and cultural leaders. The Institute’s ongoing commitment to the values of collaboration, creativity and integrity continue to make its programs valuable to the world of indigenous art. Their goal remains more than simply allowing students to earn a degree. They wish, as the mission statement puts it, “to instruct and inspire”.  The leadership of the Institute view the school’s mission as the foundation for their faculty, their programs and all they develop to offer their students. It is this vision which guides their choices as they look ahead to the future. For the world of indigenous art, that vision is an invaluable asset to maintaining both traditional expressions of art and their contemporary adaptations.