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American Indian students find refuge in cultural curriculum

For Jamie Figueroa and Blue Tarpalechee, graduating as valedictorians from the Institute of American Indian Arts is not just a personal achievement, but a way of honoring the American Indian community as well.

By Chiara Sottile
NBC News

After he dropped out of the University of Oklahoma, Blue Tarpalechee of the Muscogee-Creek tribe worked more than 20 jobs in two years: fast food restaurants, movie theaters, and eventually his tribal casino. He was 21 when he got a job counting money at the Creek Nation Casino Okmulgee. He would wake up hours before the sun, put on his uniform -- a black, sleeveless and pocketless jumpsuit -- and report to the casino's vault.

The room was cramped with tables and filled with the constant flick-flick-flicking of the money counting machines. For six hours each day, Tarpalechee counted the money box of every machine in the casino. And counted them again. And a third time. One morning as he "counted someone else's money" in the confines of the vault's faded yellow walls, Tarpalechee realized this was not the path his life was meant to take, and he had to make a change.


That's when he found the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a serendipitous weekend visit. "The Institute is really special," said Tarpalechee. "They honor our traditions and where we come from and the communities that we represent." On a windy Friday in May, Tarpalechee, now 26, not only graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Moving Images from IAIA, but graduated as one of three valedictorians.

IAIA is one of 37 tribal colleges in the United States and the only institution of higher education in the world dedicated to contemporary Native American art. Like the other tribal colleges, IAIA was created and chartered by American Indian people with the specific purpose of offering higher education based in American Indian culture.

It is a place where you might find an atole pot on the stove of the student center during finals, where the subtle citrus scent of Palo Santo might drift across campus on prayers said in Native languages. And for Jamie Figueroa, it was also home for the last four years.

'I felt totally safe'

Figueroa, 35, graduated as a valedictorian at IAIA's ceremony on May 11th. She says that from the first time she stepped into the "sage fields, high desert, clean air, and enormous sky" at IAIA's campus, she knew it was the place for her.

Before coming to IAIA, Figueroa had enrolled and taken classes at five different colleges and universities between the ages of 17 and 29. At the time, Figueroa said she thought to herself, "Clearly I did not belong in academia. Clearly I had trouble finishing what I started. Clearly I was not smart enough."

But at IAIA, Figueroa felt nurtured by the school's inextricable connection between culture and curriculum. "Every time we talked about something, we did it from our perspective," said Figueroa, who is Taino and Puerto Rican. Her courses discussed authors from William Shakespeare to N. Scott Momaday, and rarely did a lecture not mention power, assimilation or cultural hybridity.

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"I felt totally safe" at IAIA, said Figueroa, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. "I could let down so many defenses. Before I always felt I was fighting but when I didn't have to fight anymore then I could actually get to learning." It was a feeling she had never experienced at the previous schools she attended.

In her valedictory speech, an impassioned Figueroa told her class that their graduation was, "a gift we not only give ourselves, but to everyone in our lives. It is an honoring of our ancestors and to future generations as well." Indeed, the class of 2012 not only welcomes a new generation into IAIA's 4,000 alumni, it also marks the Institute's 50th year since its founding.

The emergence of American Indian education

The Institute of American Indian arts was established in 1962 as a high school for American Indians, and then became a two-year college in 1975, three years before President Jimmy Carter signed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act that authorized federal assistance to American Indian colleges.  

Indian control of education dates back to the school systems of the Cherokee and Choctaw in the 19th century and tribal colleges themselves have made great progress since the first one, Navajo Community College, was established in 1968. Tribal colleges got another boost from the federal government when they were designated as land-grant institutions in 1994, giving them the opportunity to apply for millions of dollars in grant money. Since Congress authorized this change in status, all the educational programs in tribal colleges designated as land-grant institutions have grown.

But the United States government has not always been a benefactor of American Indian education; in fact, thousands of Indian people were sent away to government-run boarding schools from the 1870s into the 1960s. Historians have documented the abuse the American Indians endured at those schools, where they were forced to abandon their traditional ways. 

“Tribal schools have largely been a response to the boarding schools,” said Tom Grayson Colonnese, Chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington.

“Native Americans haven’t done well in higher education because of the stigma of boarding schools trying to break up Native culture,” said Colonnese. Tribal colleges were founded as "Indian-centered and Indian-run institutions," as a response to the “traumatizing” boarding schools, he said.

Despite prior attempts to suppress American Indian culture in education, Native traditions still thrive. Tribal elders and esteemed artists encouraged the graduating class of IAIA to develop their connection to their Native traditions through art. N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer-prize winning author; James Luna, a groundbreaking performance artist; and John Trudell, actor, recording artist and poet all spoke at the IAIA graduation.

Bridging the achievement gap

The road to graduation was a rough ride for Figueroa, Tarpalechee and many of their fellow 49 graduates, but then, so are many of the roads in Indian Country.

American Indian students continue to face a formidable achievement gap compared to non-Native peers, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress

Limited economic opportunity, lack of healthcare and justice inequities perpetuate this underperformance. But reports show, and American Indian students and educators agree, that a lack of cultural sensitivity also hinders American Indian success at mainstream institutions. In Education Secretary Arne Duncan's report "Tribal Leaders Speak: The State of American Indian Education, 2010," he wrote that educators across Indian Country indicate that school curricula are not appropriate for American Indian students and that there is a systemic failure to include Native language and history in mainstream education.

Figueroa hopes to empower her community with the author's voice she developed at IAIA. While a student, she volunteered with a community arts group in Santa Fe called Little Globe and an ESL reading program called El Otro Lado, where she helped others find their writing voice. "It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tell one's own story, and then to share that story takes even more courage," said Figueroa.

As for Blue Tarpalechee, his first mission will be working on a new seven-part film series called "Growing Native" for Native American Public Telecommunications.  

In addition to art and film, Tarpalechee stays connected to his Creek culture through the game of stickball, a traditional Native game from the tribes of southeast. He founded the stickball club at IAIA and also led the way for a stickball field to be built at the school.

On graduation day, in addition to his black mortarboard and gown, Tarpalechee wore a red and white sash with blue trim and a stickball motif. Traditionally, stickball players would wear sashes to mark important events, and Tarpalechee explained that "each design tells you about the personality of the wearer."  It isn't only a game to Tarpalechee, but a daily link to his tribe, and a tradition he hopes his brother -- now a student at IAIA -- will carry on.

"Sometimes you're not sure where you belong or where to turn to for answers," said Tarpalechee. "I turn to stickball and stickball is a part of my culture. So give your culture a shot."