Della Warrior

Back to the Future at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

Della Warrior

Della Warrior arrived at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in July 2013 after serving as president of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), director of Indian Education for the Albuquerque Public Schools, and the first female chairperson of her Otoe-Missouria Tribe in Oklahoma. Contributing Editor Steve Cantrell asked her about her plans for the future of the museum.

Cantrell: Della, when you took this position you must have had some immediate visions and some ideas for the long term. What were some of the more immediate needs that you’ve addressed, where are you now, and where is your vision headed?

Warrior: My life’s work has focused on trying to bring about positive change for Native people. I’ve worked primarily with schools, tribal governments, and a little with museums. Initially, my vision was to help build partnerships and collaborations with tribal museums and Native communities as well as with schools serving not only Native students but all students, to help them better understand and appreciate Native history, arts, and culture.

[When I arrived] there hadn’t been a director for almost a year, so we needed to focus on developing goals for the future. I first met each staff member individually to hear their recommendations. One of the things that came out of my meetings with staff, and also with our volunteers, friends, and some of our longtime supporters, is that this is a fabulous museum with an amazing collection. We’ve just about finished our strategic plan for the next five years, from 2015 to 2020, and have our exhibits planned for the next four years.

Cantrell: Have you had any “Oh wow, what have I gotten myself into?” moments?

Warrior: Oh, of course! And I have all these great ideas for exhibitions that I’d like to see. One of those is [an exhibition] where the general public can learn about some of our contemporary Native American heroes, some of the key individuals that helped to lead various movements. For example, Annie Wauneka. She was a very strong, outspoken Navajo woman. She was active in the ’50s, leading a grassroots effort to eradicate tuberculosis among the Navajo people—it was very prevalent throughout the reservation. It’s a very different world now than it was in the ’50s. These are people and stories that we have to share, that even the young Native people of today may not be aware of.

Cantrell: You have long been a tribal leader and an expert in education. How does this position enable you to advance longtime goals?

Warrior: My life’s work has been about helping Native people obtain an education, letting them know they could do this and still be Indian and remain a member of their tribe. In the past, there was an attempt to eradicate Native people’s history, cultures, and languages, to take the Indian out of Indian. “Save the child but kill the Indian” was the philosophy of the government at one time. Native peoples perceived that if you left your home, your community, or the reservation and went away to school you would take on the mores and cultures of the dominant society and stop being a Native person.

As Native people, our identity and our cultures are very strong. Our arts are strong. If you keep that with you and carry it forward then you’re able to function in both worlds, both the general dominant society and your own tribal culture and way of living.

Within the last thirty or forty years, there’s been tremendous progress, especially in the arts and culture. My heart swells when I see all these young Native artists—painters, potters, jewelers, and weavers, and the Native people going into technology, film making, writing novels, and fashion.

Cantrell: MIAC is in a museum-rich environment, here in Santa Fe. How do you see MIAC within this context of the other museums?

Warrior: Santa Fe has very good museums. Currently, I’m working on a project with the New Mexico Museum of Art. They’re doing a show in 2016 on the influence [that the] Institute of American Indian Arts students and faculty had on the Santa Fe art scene in the ’60s. And there are obviously a lot of collaborations we could do with the New Mexico History Museum and the Museum of International Folk Art.

Cantrell: Tell us about your background at IAIA and about the internship program you’ve initiated with IAIA.

Warrior: As the president of IAIA I had the privilege and honor of working with young Native people from all over the nation. IAIA had a Museums Studies program for undergraduates which has since developed into a four-year program. It’s important to give these students the opportunity to get experience so that they’re better prepared when they return to their home community’s museums to take on a leadership role.

Because of my long relationship with IAIA and with the school’s current president, Dr. Bob Martin, we got together and developed the internship program here at MIAC. It’s been ongoing since August of 2013. This semester we have four interns. One in ethnobotany is working with us on revitalizing our Avanyu Heritage Trail behind the museum. Two interns are in collections. One is working with NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] specifically. And we have one in the library. I hope to grow this program by forming collaborations with other colleges and universities. I would like to develop an endowment so these students could receive some type of stipend. After all, they are students, and the majority come from economically deprived communities and homes. I want to develop an internship program that can continue long after I’m gone.

Cantrell: A recent report by the Center for the Future of Museums notes that if current trends continue, museum audiences are going to be radically less diverse than the American public at large and will serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society. How will MIAC attract diverse audiences and be a comfortable place for all kinds of Americans from all different backgrounds?

Warrior: I’m not an authority on this, but I would say that the audiences at museums have not been diverse for a long time. I know that Native people very rarely go to museums. If they do it is on, say, a school field trip. I think this might be true of a lot of other cultures. I think that there is a feeling within minority cultures that they’re not really . . . I wouldn’t really say so much unwelcome, as it’s that they don’t feel comfortable in a museum setting.

We’re now at a stage where we have the opportunity to change that and to help people know what they can learn from the resources that museums have. At MIAC, we are working with the tribal museums and the tribal libraries and the leadership of the Native communities in the Southwest. In fact we hosted the World Café a few months ago. Two hundred Native people working in health, education, the environment, museums, libraries, and government were invited to help us develop ideas that we will incorporate into how MIAC can better serve and engage Native communities, how we can get more Natives to visit MIAC, and what opportunities there are for collaborations with tribal museums and the tribal communities. It’s important to start with the Native people, to let them know about the resources here, how those resources can benefit them, and also how these can enhance their work. You have to remember that so much Native culture has been lost. Like our languages, our histories. Most tribes didn’t have a dictionary, and they didn’t have a written language; we’ve had strong oral traditions.

Now things have moved forward. A lot of tribes now have language-immersion programs, and they are writing their own histories. There are a couple of tribes in the state that are utilizing our collections to research, document, and write about some of the societies that existed a long time ago in an effort to reestablish them. Once we’ve developed this action plan to engage Native communities, we can then focus on other audiences by creating some really great programs, using new technologies, and creating very exciting and vibrant exhibits, so everyone will come.

Cantrell: Tell us a little bit about your tribe.

Warrior: The Otoe-Missouria were two tribes that merged sometime in the late 1800s. We were relocated to Oklahoma in 1887. Our numbers were small, so when they removed us to our reservations the two tribes merged into one. Our tribe numbers a little over three thousand. We still have the reservation boundaries there, but we don’t technically have a reservation because of the Dawes Act [which divided American Indian tribal lands into allotments for individual Indians. Its purpose was to integrate Native Americans into mainstream society]. Recently a film was made of an elder there telling youth how to put up a teepee, in the native language. It felt so good to hear these young people speak their own language, my language, which I can’t speak.

I know a few words, but I don’t know it, and I am always sad about that. The tribe is doing very well in revitalizing the language, and they’re sending more kids to college. It feels good to see them doing good things for the tribe with the money they are getting from gaming. The tribe is also developing other businesses to provide employment opportunities.

Cantrell: Not long after you started you left for your family’s big annual gathering. Describe this for us.

Warrior: The Otoe-Missouria Tribe hosts an annual encampment in a beautiful pecan grove in northern Oklahoma, the third weekend of July. It goes for four days. Often it’s around 100 degrees, very hot, and very humid, with 600 or 700 people camped out. In other tribal cultures, such gatherings are referred to as “powwows.” Our tribal ceremony is more of a social and cultural, not a religious, ceremony. It’s a homecoming. It’s a time for those that don’t live around there to come back. We visit relatives, listen to songs and dances, the Round Dance, Gourd Dance, Buffalo Dance, and the War Dance. At my camp we have a large family, and we cook three meals a day for 50 to 100 relatives. If we’re involved in a ceremony, for example if one of our relatives is the head dancer, the princess, or they’re raising our cousin’s flag, that’s considered an honor, and we will invite the camp to come over for breakfast, lunch, or supper. It’s an elaborate affair. It’s so hot that I’ve cheated the last couple of years by bringing in a little air-conditioned trailer to rest better at night. Some people complain and say “that’s not traditional,” but I’m not the only one. At my age I’ve got to be more careful in this heat!

Cantrell: Finally, give us an overview of the upcoming exhibitions we should expect to see.

Warrior: On August 3 we open Footprints: The Inspiration and Influence of Allan Houser. Mr. Houser would have been 100 years old this year, and he is probably the most famous Native artist in the world. He was very important to the Santa Fe art community, so I thought it appropriate that we honor his legacy. Fifteen artists that do monumental sculpture were invited to exhibit their work on Milner Plaza, and about twenty works will be on view there for one year. These artists were either Houser’s students at IAIA or artists that worked and studied with him. Mr. Houser also taught painting, but our galleries were scheduled, so we’re not doing anything with painting, only with the sculpture. That’s pretty exciting.

In November of this year, we’ll start an annual exhibition in the Roland Sculpture Garden featuring female artists whose work deals with women’s strength and endurance. We are working on a David Bradley exhibition for 2015. He’s a very important contemporary artist. We are planning an exhibition honoring the legacy of the late Lloyd Kiva New. He was the founding artistic director at IAIA and had a huge influence on thousands of Native American artists. Students from all 565 tribes in the nation have attended IAIA at one point or another. He was a well-known fashion designer, so we’ll also have a major Native fashion show that year. One of our curators, Dr. Maxine McBrinn, is working on an exhibit called Footgear, about footwear from ancient times to the contemporary, such as high-top beaded tennis shoes.

Cantrell: What project have we not touched on that is near and dear to your heart?

Warrior: We’re restoring the Avanyu Heritage Trail. We used to offer a weekend family time called Sun Mountain; people would come out and engage in educational opportunities. The Santa Fe Indian School and IAIA are seeding traditional edible and medicinal plants, and we will replant those in the various types of agricultural gardens that the Pueblos used years ago. We’re repairing the trail and rebuilding replicas of traditional dwellings and fieldhouses. I hope that within three to five years the Avanyu Heritage Trail is a true museum-quality, outdoor exhibit where people can learn about the traditional ways of this region’s tribes. I hope to accomplish that through partnerships with various organizations interested in the environment, gardens, and nature. n

Steve Cantrell is a public relations manager for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, a contributing editor for El Palacio, and the organizer of FUZE.SW, the annual Museum Hill “food+folklore festival” to be held this year the weekend of September 12–14, 2014.