For Native People, Art is Not Optional

Aug 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 10-4: Native Arts Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Sherwin Bitsui with fellow IAIA students Crystal Henry (Oneida), Summer Nez (Navajo), Gabriel Lopez-Shaw (Paiute). Photo by Lee Marmon © American Indian College Fund

When Sherwin Bitsui was growing up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, everyone in his family was an artist. They made quilts, jewelry—anything that they could sell to live for awhile, he said. Bitsui wanted to do more with his art. He tried going to a nearby community college, but he claims he was a terrible student. Then he decided to go to the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. The decision was a good one. To Bitsui, now 23 years old, it seemed predestined. “I was meant to come here,” he said. Since enrolling in the spring of 1997, his poetry has been published internationally, he was invited to read poetry at a national education meeting sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and his art was selected for the cover of this issue of the Tribal College Journal.

“I always did these things without real direction. When I came to IAIA, I found people like me who come from similar but diverse backgrounds. We all have this desire to express ourselves. I got to work with Arthur Sze and Jon Davis (writing instructors) to develop my poetry to where it’s my own,” he said. Commending the whole faculty, he said, “We get a lot of support—everyone pushes everybody to keep producing.”

To the outside world, it seems only natural that an Indian person would become an artist. Museum art galleries and amateur collectors value American Indian-made blankets, baskets, beadwork, and jewelry. However, with a few outstanding exceptions, Indian artists rarely make enough money to do more than get by.


Selena Farmer (Cherokee) works in her painting class at IAIA. Photo by Lee Marmon ©American Indian College Fund

Several tribal colleges are trying to change that, but they encounter obstacles. Like other schools and colleges across the country, tribal colleges must continually find new grants and scrounge resources to help their arts programs get by for awhile. Ironically, despite the widespread interest in certain types of Indian art, public and private funding agencies encourage science and math much more than arts education.

“Most colleges cannot afford to offer arts,” said Marie Smallface Marule, president of Red Crow Community College in Alberta, Canada. According to a tally of recent catalogs, only 9 of the 32 Indian-controlled colleges and universities offer any arts degrees. At least one tribal college campus in the United States with a long standing program is considering discontinuing it. Even well established arts programs at universities such as the University of California at Berkeley have been threatened with closure.

“The mainstream mindset is that art is optional. To our indigenous people, it’s not optional,” said Rita Alvarez, the fine arts instructor at D-Q University in Davis, Calif. “It’s the way we express ourselves and pass on the ways of our ancestors. For me, it’s prayer work. We don’t make art to decorate things. It’s a form of prayer,” said Alvarez. D-Q offers an associate degree in Native American fine arts to its predominantly Indian and Hispanic student body. The college serves many different tribes, mostly from California.

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