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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 20, 2003 - Issue 96


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Tribal Leaders Working to Establish Art Institute Campus in Cherokee

by Lisa Majors-Duff The Sylva Herald

credit: Artwork: "Summer Harvest" by Linda Lomahaftewa and Delia Velasco

Artwork: "Summer Harvest" by Linda Lomahaftewa and Delia Velasco

If all goes according to plan - and there's still plenty left to do - a third regional institute of higher learning could be made available to area residents by fall 2005.

That's when the committee working to establish a branch campus of the Institute of American Indian Art, with its headquarters in Santa Fe, N.M., hopes to begin enrolling students in the first tribal college east of the Mississippi and located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

"This is not a new idea," said committee member and Cherokee High School art teacher James Smith. "It's been hashed around for 20 years, but all past attempts have failed for various political and financial reasons."

Smith and other committee members say they believe the time is finally right for such an endeavor, and Cherokee Tribal Council members agreed when they approved funding for a feasibility study.

"The idea for the branch campus has widespread support," said Smith, himself a CHS and IAIA alumnus. In addition to funding support from tribal council, Smith cited support ranging from the business community to both Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University, the Jackson County and North Carolina arts councils, the Museum of Cherokee Indians and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Co-op.

In addition to addressing the higher education needs of local artists - not just local Indian artists, Smith says, but Appalachian crafters, as well - a Cherokee IAIA branch campus makes sense considering the fact that a market for such art is waiting to be tapped in the Eastern United States.

"It doesn't make sense that there can't be a market here," said Smith, who pointed out that the majority of the country's population is located in the East.

While committee members and many others have been exhaustively working toward the establishment of a college campus in Cherokee, the reality of its conception and birth hit home, Smith said, when tribal council members purchased the Boundary Tree property and gave the committee the first right of refusal for its use.

"This property is well-suited for what we want to do," said Smith, who pointed out the potential, with minor renovations, of hotel rooms to become dorm rooms and other housing, a kitchen and dining room already on site, and ample studio space.

As far as what it takes to run a college, Smith said the committee "saw no reason to re-invent the wheel." By bringing an IAIA branch campus to Cherokee, the backing and knowledge of those associated with a 40-year-old accredited college would follow, he said.

IAIA was established in 1962 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs initially as a high school. In 1975 the institute became a two-year college offering associate degrees. Five areas of study are now available: creative writing, general education, three-dimensional art, two-dimensional art and museum studies.

"As the first Indian educational institution to be premised on the value of the cultural heritage of America's native peoples, self-identity and individual expression were encouraged," the school's Web site says, "and the contemporary arts were taught as a vehicle for that expression."

Some 3,500 students from most of the 557 federally-recognized tribes in the United States, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee, have been served by IAIA, where cultural values continue to be the foundation for learning and personal development.

"IAIA has created a living legacy of artistic expression, built on traditional cultures but reflective of contemporary native life," the Web site says. "Because of IAIA's influence, a flood of art now pours out from Indian artists all over America, enriching Indian and mainstream cultures, both aesthetically and economically."

The Cherokee IAIA branch campus feasibility study, which committee members hope to complete anywhere from six months to a year from now, will include details of everything it takes to run a college and educate students. Much of this information - including number of faculty, number of students, renovation of Boundary Tree, curriculum offerings, books, meal plans, housing, administration needs, marketing goals - has been collected. Putting it all together for tribal council's final approval is the next step, said Smith.

Smith, who counsels his most gifted students to consider IAIA after high school, acknowledges that the barriers Eastern Band students often encounter are often too difficult to clear.

"While I think its good for them to travel and see the world, the retention rate is not good because of the distance," he said. Of the three students he's seen enroll in IAIA in the past three years, only one has graduated, he said.

In addition to keeping students closer to home, an IAIA branch campus in Cherokee would allow for closer cooperation with the Museum of Cherokee Indians, which could provide curriculum opportunities; the Qualla Arts and Crafts Co-op, which could provide marketing opportunities; and Western Carolina University and other four-year institutions, which could provide an additional two years of arts education, Smith said.

"This has the potential to be an incredible thing for tribal students and the arts community in general," said Smith. "I don't think we can afford to fail."


Institute of American Indian Art
The IAIA was founded by visionaries who sought to reawaken artistic traditions that had been a primary mode of Indian expression for centuries. As the first Indian educational institution to be premised on the value of the cultural heritage of America's Native peoples, self-identity and individual expression were encouraged, and the contemporary arts were taught as a vehicle for that expression.

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