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“Indians in T-shirts”

The Institute of American Indian Arts, now in its 50th year, encourages its students to upend conventional expectations of Native American culture
Lloyd Kiva New, IAIA Co-founder. Photograph by Walter BigBee, 1998. Courtesy of the Archives of the IAIA.

It’s a bright-hot afternoon in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Indian Market is operating at full throttle. Each August, the Market fills the Santa Fe plaza, clogging it with prospective buyers and sellers of traditional Native American artwork and crafts. Here, authentic Indian art is big business: a Navajo rug sells for almost $3,000, a Pueblo clay pot for $5,500. A stage sits in the crowded center, and on it a group of elaborately costumed dancers reenact an ancient Native myth.

Twenty years ago, poet James Thomas Stevens read from this stage while studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He and his classmates stepped forward wearing T-shirts and jeans following a reading by local Indian poets dressed in buckskin and beating drums. “How quickly the audience dispersed when the drum ended, when they ceased to hear mention of Coyote or Raven, of how English was ‘like a razor slicing the indigenous tongue,’” Stevens wrote in 2010, remembering the incident. “We were simply Indians in T-shirts reading about who we are today.”

The writers, artists, and musicians of Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) have always navigated a delicate relationship with their Indian Market neighbors—often upending expectations of what it means to be a Native American artist. Since its inception, the institute has concerned itself more with the present moment than the past, encouraging its students to move beyond the traditional conventions that events such as the Indian Market offer up.

The IAIA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, is the only four-year college in the United States devoted entirely to Native American arts and culture. It is known for its visual artists, but it has also made its mark on American literature. Joy Harjo, Allison Hedge Coke, James Thomas Stevens, Sherwin Bitsui, and other award-winning Native writers have their roots at the institute.

Last year’s class of 368 students represented 84 different tribes from across the United States. “Here, it’s like the United Nations,” says IAIA creative writing chair Jon Davis. He has taught students from Alaska to Hawaii, as well as First Nations students from Canada. Though Davis says the program leans heavily toward verse—the 2012 IAIA student anthology contains mostly poetry—his students also study fiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction.

IAIA alumni and faculty, as well as most scholars of indigenous writing, stress that each tribal nation has its own unique culture and language, resulting in differing tribal aesthetics. “Most Native poets do not share stylistic tenets, so a school of poetry is not really apparent in the way that schools normally are,” says poet Allison Hedge Coke, who graduated from the IAIA in 1993.

Interestingly, it is only at this school for Indian artists that many Native writers feel emancipated from writing “Native American poetry.” Guided by the Chinese American poet Arthur Sze, who directed the program for 22 years, the IAIA’s creative writing program has forged a new tradition by embracing many traditions. This has resulted in a wide variety of poetics emerging from the institute, from Hedge Coke’s first collection, Dog Road Woman, which references her experiences working on farms and in factories, to James Thomas Stevens’ love poetry that is interwoven with historical allusions.

 “When you go to the IAIA, you’re in an indigenous space, a place where your perspective is part of the fabric of knowing, and it’s respected,” says Diné Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui. “If I had gone to another school, I think there would be a lot of investment in me having to explain everything politically, or having to speak on behalf of all Native people.” At the IAIA, Bitsui says he was “free to begin telling without always having to explain.”

The IAIA, founded in 1962 as a high school under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was the brainchild of Lloyd Kiva New, a Cherokee artist and designer. New was deeply concerned with his students’ ability to achieve in the contemporary art world, writing in 1964, “The Institute assumes that the future of Indian art lies in the Indian’s ability to evolve, adjust, and adapt to the demands of the present, and not upon the ability to re-manipulate the past.”

This approach was controversial among Native artists who labored to preserve their ancestral artistic traditions. But New’s vision drew national attention. After visiting the school in 1967, art critic Robert Coates praised New’s “revolutionary approach” in The New Yorker. That same year, LIFE magazine featured the school in a photo essay. Actor Vincent Price, who served with New on the Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board during the 1960s, threw his support behind the IAIA’s young writers. He sponsored a yearly poetry award, reading the winner’s poem in his distinctive voice before presenting the prize.

In the 1970s, the high school program was phased out and the school became a two-year college. The IAIA then entered a long rocky period, plagued by funding difficulties during the 1980s and 1990s. But during this time, the creative writing program found an unlikely champion in Chinese American poet Arthur Sze, winner of a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship and author of nine books. In 1984, Sze, who had been living in Santa Fe for more than a decade, was recruited to teach at the institute. He was married to a Hopi woman at the time and feels, as he put it, “a kind of cultural connection” with Native peoples. Initially, he says, he took the job because “I felt I could make a difference there. I took it year by year.”

Sze remembers fistfights in the hallways over tribal differences, but also flashes of extraordinary talent in the classroom. “When I started at the institute, I was surprised with how creative the students were—that they were willing to take risks with the language,” says Sze. “They didn’t know how good they were.” In 1989, after yet another budget cut, Sze found himself in charge of the program, and the sole member of the creative writing faculty. He remained at the IAIA for the next two decades. By the time he retired in 2006, the institute boasted a four-year bachelor of fine arts program and a sleek new 140-acre campus, funded by government grants and private donors.

Rather than teaching only the Western canon, Sze decided to focus on world literature, a curriculum that is still in place today under Jon Davis. Students read the work of Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, and Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. The faculty has invited poets from Iraq, Colombia, Germany, Slovenia, Siberia, and Kenya to visit. “It was very empowering to see beyond the Western curriculum, to take a more global approach,” says Bitsui, who graduated in 1999.

Many alumni mentioned how influenced they were by Sze’s introduction to classic Chinese poetry, as well as the way he helped them translate these poems into English and even their own Native languages. Allison Hedge Coke said she saw parallels between lyric and celebratory Chinese poetry and the use of those forms in traditional Native poetry. “We could totally relate to those poetic structures in our own genetic history,” she says.

Allison Hedge Coke
Allison Hedge Coke with a classmate.
Photograph by Michael Lujan, 1992.


Hedge Coke, who calls Sze “the greatest liberator of minds I know,” won an American Book Award in 1998 for her first book, Dog Road Woman, which collects many poems she wrote while studying at the IAIA. It includes “The Change,” an autobiographical poem describing her former life as a tobacco sharecropper.

While we topped the lavender
blooms of many tiny flowers
gathered into one,    gorgeous.
By grasping hold below the petals
with our bare, calloused hands
and twisting downward, quick, hard,
only one time,    snapped them off.
Before edgers and herbicides took
what they    call weeds,
when we walked for days
through thirty acres    and
chopped them out with hoes.

“She came to the institute with an extraordinary range of life experiences,” Sze says of Hedge Coke. When she read her poetry to the class, Sze remembers, she once switched between English and the Lakota language without noticing. He points to her careful, almost musical use of the caesura in “The Change,” saying that “the spaces and the rhythms are very much hers. I think they are from that unique combination of knowing a Native language but working things out in English.”

James Thomas Stevens
James Thomas Stevens.
Photograph by Akwiratekha Martin.


James Thomas Stevens, another of Sze’s protégés, takes a different approach to incorporating Native languages into his work. A member of the Akwesasne Mohawk nation, Stevens writes poetry that investigates themes of colonization and queer sexuality through the eyes of a historian, often using ancient languages and quotes from 17th-century texts. In the poem “Alphabet of Letters,” a satirical “primer for the use of Mohawk Children,” Stevens elegantly balances the intimate with the academic. The poem is expansive, containing English pronunciation guides, a singsong alphabet, Arabic text, and intimate vignettes:

                                       You call and
                                       leave a message on my machine,
                                       greet me in Mohawk.

                                       I call back and you’re not there.
                                       I want to list the words for
                                                      the parts of your body.

You write and tell me, Coucou, is the word for hello.
You call and say, Bisous, is the word for kiss.

And these words
make bearable all others,
                                                the warrings and warnings.

Stevens entered the IAIA in 1989, intending to major in sculpture. But he soon transferred into the creative writing program, disappointed with how, at that time, the institute’s art department had swayed from its original mission: “The then-president had a very clear agenda that all art coming out of IAIA had to be like what you see in Santa Fe ‘Indian’ art galleries,” says Stevens. “Arthur supported us all in finding our own styles, no matter what they were. He understood that it was all Indian writing because Indians wrote it.”

Stevens became one of the first of Sze’s students to garner national attention, winning a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2000. “His work went from fairly conventional to very unconventional in no time,” says Sze. “That undercurrent, that subtext of desire and longing, it evolved very, very quickly in two years.” Stevens went on to serve as the director of American Indian studies at the State University of New York at Fredonia before returning to teach at the IAIA in 2009. “We get a lot of good poets out of the sculpture department,” Davis jokes.

Like Stevens, poet Sherwin Bitsui began as a visual artist, and his work reads like a series of small, surreal paintings:

I bite my eyes shut between these songs.

They are the sounds of blackened insect husks
                                                    folded over elk teeth in a tin can,

they are gull wings fattening on cold air
                           flapping in a paper sack on the chlorine-stained floor.

The above lines open Bitsui’s Flood Song, a book-length poem that won an American Book Award in 2010. The poem reflects the writer’s experiences growing up on the Arizona Navajo reservation and includes many references to the natural world. But Bitsui’s poetic landscape is slightly askew, spiked with interruptions such as “an alarm clock” that “wails from speaker box to speaker box” and “amniotic clouds of car exhaust.”

Before Bitsui transferred to the IAIA, he studied at a community college in Holbrook, Arizona. Such poetic juxtapositions did not go over well with his teachers there. Sze remembers Bitsui’s first visit to his office, when the young poet explained how his previous instructors had encouraged more conventional subjects, “about, you know, Native American blessings and the sky and horses and mesas,” says Sze. “He wasn’t doing that. It was pretty easy for me to give Sherwin confidence in his own voice and vision.”

With the encouragement of Sze and Davis, Bitsui thrived at the IAIA, writing many of the poems that appeared in his first book, Shapeshift, published in 2003. “It was freedom,” Bitsui says. “I wasn’t really concerned with how my work was going to be read by my community or outside my community. I was more concerned with the artistry of it.”

Many alumni feel strongly connected to the IAIA; Harjo, Hedge Coke, Stevens, and Bitsui each returned to teach there. “It’s a real pivotal point, I think, for a lot of tribal artists,” says poet Layli Long Soldier, a 2009 IAIA graduate and winner of two Truman Capote Creative Writing Fellowships. “There’s really a sense of community that runs deep between the students and between the faculty.” Older generations of IAIA graduates support the younger generations; in 1997, Joy Harjo published Allison Hedge Coke’s early work in the anthology Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, and in turn, Hedge Coke selected graduate Orlando White’s first collection of poetry, Bone Light, for publication in 2009.

Harjo, perhaps the IAIA’s most recognized poet, having won dozens of honors over her long career, explains that this strong sense of community existed at the institute from the beginning. When she studied painting there in the late 1960s, the school served as her refuge from abuse and racism: “The experience at the IAIA literally saved most of our lives,” she says.

“A Native arts school of all Natives—it’s sweet and it’s rough at the same time,” she adds, recalling not-infrequent tensions between classmates from different nations. But since Harjo graduated in 1968, these differences have become the institute’s creative foundation. Like her colleagues, Harjo points to the diversity of indigenous poetic voices and rejects the label “Native American poetry,” finding it limiting. “Language serves us—everyone—in a similar manner,” she explains. But as she looks back at the impact of the last half-century of indigenous poets who write in the language of their colonizers, Harjo says, “I like to think that maybe we’ve transformed English in some way.”


“Indians in T-shirts”

The Institute of American Indian Arts, now in its 50th year, encourages its students to upend conventional expectations of Native American culture

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