Challenges to Building an Intellectual Apparatus for Indignous Art Scholarship

Dr Nancy Marie Mithlo - IIRC20
Thursday, November 19, 2020

This fall 2020, a new resource for teaching and learning about Native arts was published – Making History: IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (University of New Mexico Press). The group that participated in this project as writers, poets, artists and administrators collectively wished to make an educational resource for learning about Native arts that did not alienate American Indian students, and that also would also serve as a “best practices” example for an unversed audience to appreciate the complexity and depth of our field. Meeting these two audiences proved to be a challenge that is still not entirely resolved. 

Making History specifically foregrounds the ideas and artworks that emerged from the experiences of students, staff and faculty of the only tribal college in the United States that is focused on the arts, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and its Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). In an effort to highlight the mostly-unknown histories of this central resource for Native arts production, teaching, and research, we referenced our desired approach to guiding readers as creating “embedded conversations” connoting a dialectical give-and-take. While our central reference was one of exchange, the planners of this book, (which features almost 200 images of works, many that have never before been circulated), were committed to telling a uniquely Native story, unmolested by the aims of capitalism or acceptance by scholars unversed in Indigenous research methodologies. We wanted to provide educational materials in a form that reflected Indigenous knowledge systems—materials that are holistic, embracive, and free of jargon. The Indigenous Studies approach pursued does not follow strictly chronological or regional premises, but rather seeks out “defining moments of conflict” in the history of Native North American arts.

Our rather utopian aim to meet both audiences of Native students and novice readers encountered the still-prevalent restrictions of simply telling a Native story. This publication was the first time the almost 60-year-old New Mexicobased IAIA tribal college had partnered with its flagship state college established in 1889, a time when this author’s tribe (whose territory is within the current state boundaries) was still seen as sub-human.

What happens when we seek to be legitimized by institutions that have traditionally delegitimized Indigenous communities? What strategies work best when creating scholarly tools that we hope will empower Indigenous students and artists, while also reaching an unversed public? This author identifies the following interventions: A) the employment of immediate and vocally empowered assertions of status in light of unilateral policies atypical to the normal practice of academic publishing, B) a willingness to walk out - withdraw the entire project and publicly expose institutional bias and, C) activation of cross-institutional alliances that safeguard and support Indigenous-led projects seeking to establish narratives of empowerment and belonging. The author concludes that cross-cultural alliances in Native arts are still something of a contact sport that demand rigorous, continued and committed assertions of Indigenous rights, even in the perceived safety of the academic project.