IAIA Reaches Out to Native Students in Denver

May 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 12-4: Colleges for the Community, Tribal College News
By Miguel Navrot

IAIA alumna Sally Wesaw (second from left) teaches a pottery class to students from Denver (left to right) Cecily Lucero-Martin, Deborah Marshall, Jesse Adams, and (bottom right) Erica Rodriquez. Photo by Dale Deforest

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) has long used creativity to nurture the personal lives of Native American students. Now, the 38-year-old in stitution in Santa Fe, N.M., is shipping its efforts across borders.

Sena Harjo, an aspiring writing teacher and IAIA student in Santa Fe, will return to her hometown of Denver this summer for a furious-but-intimate assignment: foster a hands- on love for art and spark the individual talents of nearly four dozen youngsters, many of whom come from disadvantaged families. Harjo and the other intern teachers will spend three weeks with the kids, who will eventually put their works on display in the renowned Denver Art Museum. It’s a challenge, but Harjo’s bright face shows she enjoys the task.

Though her background is a mix of Seminole, Choctaw, and Creek, the self-described “urban Indian” came from Denver and understands the situations faced by many of the students enrolled in IAIA’s Native American Youth Outreach Program. Few, if any, have learned from Native American teachers. Some have learning disabilities. Others are stifled by low self-esteem.

“Some of them didn’t know a thing about their own Native backgrounds,” said Harjo, who became an instructor in the summer of 2000. Jim Rivera said, “When we first asked them about their Indian backgrounds, many had to ask, `Mommy, what am I?'” Rivera (Pascua-Yaqui), an IAIA graduate, now is the assistant coordinator for the IAIA Native American Youth Outreach Program.

Art teaching doubles as lessons in culture at the summer art camps. From traditional crafts of beadwork and pottery to contemporary arts of photography and mural painting, Rivera and Harjo work with the students during a rigorous schedule, taking on and completing new projects almost daily.

The program benefits from the Wallace Funds of New York, which provided a four-year grant to IAIA. One example of the students’ work is “Creative Natives,” a three-minute compact disc recording. Within an unbelievable eight hours, the pupils selected instruments to use, penned lyrics, composed the piece, and committed the results to laser media in a professional sound studio. “Creative Natives” juxtaposes the traditional and new, combining a turtle shell rattle with — of all things — hip-hop rapping. Harjo boasts that the CD received radio airplay in Denver and overseas.

Last year’s camp involved four faculty and seven interns. Of the 45 students who originally enrolled in 2000, 42 completed the course.

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