February 28, 2018
Graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts are beginning to make their mark
by Simon Reichley
On October 1st, 1962, Lloyd Kiva New and George Boyce successfully pushed Congress to create the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a land grant college that would “provide scholarly study of, and instruction in, Indian art and culture, and… establish programs which culminate in the awarding of degrees in the various fields of Indian art and culture.”
Over time, the administrators, staff, and faculty of the IAIA would, from their campus near Santa Fe, breathe increasing life into that original remit, and today, the Institute’s stated mission is “to empower creativity and leadership in Native Arts and cultures through higher education, life-long learning, and outreach.” In 2012 the college began a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, extending their mission to the literary arts, and this year, two graduates of that program, Terese Marie Mailhot and Tommy Orange, are releasing highly anticipated books developed during their time in the program.
As detailed in a deep-dive profile by Anne Helen Peterson at BuzzFeed News, the publication of Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries (out this month from Counterpoint Press), and Orange’s novel, There There (out June 5th from Knopf Doubleday), is something of a triumph for a program that has from its inception hoped to expand the horizons of Native American and American Indian literature. Not just by helping its students land book deals (important though that may be), but by establishing an idea of “Native Excellence… and creating a path to it with its own expectations and standards, instead of relying on those established by white academia or publishing.”
Mailhot and Orange were of course very clear about the material difference that a high-profile book deal can make. The money definitely changes “the little things,” as Mailhot puts it: “When you have nothing, and you’re hungry, and you’re like, god, it would be nice to have some boneless buffalo wings. So you go on a date, and you eat the boneless buffalo wings, and you’re like, well, this wasn’t worth it. But now I don’t need to sit next to some lackluster motherfucker and eat my Applebee’s. I’ve got my own fucking Applebee’s.” Choice.
But Mailhot and Orange have done a lot more than make money. The Institute encourages writers who are building the idea of “Native Excellence” to set standards and foster deep convictions. As Peterson tells it in her piece:
For Mailhot, that means uncompromising honesty. In her craft talk, she recounted a story from her time in a mental health facility, when she spent a full day watching Maya Angelou on OWN, where she was telling Oprah about the position of moral and artistic integrity she’s been able to achieve. “When she sees somebody being homophobic,” Mailhot said, “she’ll say, not in my house.”
“She can find the line and hold it,” Mailhot continued. “And I felt like, when I didn’t have money, when I was struggling, that line was blurred. Because when you are subjugated and exploited, holding that line means starving. Holding that line means sometimes not being able to feed your children, so sometimes the line didn’t exist for me. And I remember thinking, I just can’t wait to get to live where I can say what is inexcusable to me.”
Orange and Mailhot are both returning to IAIA as teachers, the first graduates of the program to do so. It’s an inspiring and remarkable model of community creation, and maybe a viable template for the growing number of writers and readers who demand a more diverse literary landscape. It’s also a reminder that strong institutions with explicit backing from the federal government can sometimes be potent agitators for social progress.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.