Indigenous Arts Tribal College Amplifies Creativity During Pandemic Crisis

Tribal Board Provides Swift Support; Fine Arts Faculty Utilize Virtual Reality

Tribal College and University (TCU) governing boards and presidents are working collaboratively with national associations like the American Indian Higher Ed Consortium (AIHEC) and with their Native communities to protect their people and to help students succeed during the COVID-19 crisis.  According to Dr. Robert Martin, president of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he and his board of trustees have had to move quickly in the last three weeks to develop, approve, and implement the college’s Emergency Response Plan to protect students and staff and prevent the spread of COVID-19. “This COVID-19 disease is so challenging that we have had to make swift decisions to protect our students from harm,” admits Martin.

Campus and art museum closures, dormitory closing, online faculty and staff professional development, and AIHEC basketball tournament cancellation were some of the key decisions made by the board and president. “The board reviewed the plan and gave the green light to put it into effect,“ Martin adds.  “All along the way, we consulted with the board to get their feedback. The board has provided overall guidance and strategic planning. I have confidence in their support, and they in me. I have the best, best board.” This is Martin’s fourth tribal college presidency. He is from the Cherokee Nation.

Faculty stipends

Colleges across the country are quickly pivoting to virtual online instruction, and the nation’s 37 TCUs are no different. For the most part, like IAIA, they have closed their campuses, moved classes online and developed websites and other communication platforms in providing resources and information to students. According to AIHEC, some colleges have set up pop-up type hot spots in semi-public places and are utilizing a strong TCU community of practice of faculty mentoring each other.

“The first phase of the college’s emergency response plan was to move to online learning for all classes and to close our residence halls for the remainder of the semester,” states Martin. “We had two weeks to transition classes to online delivery mode and extended spring break to provide faculty time to receive training to implement virtual instruction. One of the biggest challenges for an institution specializing in the fine arts was how to deliver instruction requiring studios and specialized equipment online.”

IAIA faculty did not hesitate. Martin reports that the board approved expenses to bring in training consultants to support both full-time and adjunct faculty. “We are providing a stipend for each faculty member. The Board and I appreciate the sacrifice and commitment of each faculty member to make the change so quickly.”


Open concern among educational leaders and the media throughout the pandemic thus far has been equity for the underserved, low-income populations who either do not have access to online technologies or to secure food and housing. According to Martin, “Connectivity is a big challenge. Even though Comcast and others are making wi-fi and hot spots available for little or no cost, the question is, ‘Are their services accessible to our students who often live in rural and remote areas?’” (Even prior to the pandemic, this concern was raised by rural community college leaders throughout the country during ACCT’s Strengthening Rural Colleges initiative interviews.)

He adds, “Because the vast majority of our students are low-income, first-generation college students, they are challenged with gaining access to the proper technology and equipment in their homes, assuming they are able to return to a place they call home, to successfully complete online work.” 

Like other presidents around the nation, he provides online resources in his communications. In an open letter on the IAIA homepage, Martin identifies free resources for students and faculty alike:

 Emergency assistance to students

For resident students who could not go home, the college moved them to the “casitas,” small family housing apartments. In addition, in the past week, the college awarded 11 students with gas cards ($1,200), food gift cards ($800) and housing payments directly to their landlords ($600), for a total of $28,600. The college is also providing regularly scheduled van runs to Wal-Mart and other grocery stores, and individual trips can be scheduled as needed by calling several staff members, shared Martin.  

AIHEC and national advocacy

Based on their ongoing assessment of TCU cyber infrastructure, AIHEC’s leaders claim that the TCUs comprise a major part of the “digital divide” because many of the institutions are located in low-income areas and in educational and digital “deserts” far away from sufficient broadband, wi-fi or other robust technologies that can help students and faculty continue  teaching and learning online.

In a letter to the Department of Education and other federal agencies and members of Congress, AIHEC cites the estimated costs of addressing career and technical courses, faculty professional development for course redesign, upgrades to equipment for online delivery as well as access in students’ home for the TCUs to move to online instruction.   

Nearly all TCUs are moving to online instruction and closing their physical campuses, due to tribal or state directives. The best estimate of the immediate and short term (8-10 weeks) costs that TCUs have and will incur is $745,520/institution, for a total of $26,838,720. 

Through a recent National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded assessment of TCU cyber infrastructure (needs, capacity, and strategic planning), AIHEC identified approximately $46 million to upgrade the TCUs. “The study revealed that TCU internet speeds are the slowest of all institutions of higher education in the country, and that, on average, TCUs pay more than other IHEs for internet connectivity. One TCU has the most expensive, and slowest, internet speed of all IHEs in the country. TCU equipment refresh rate is 8.3 years, while 3-5 years is standard practice,” cites the report.

AIHEC CEO and President Carrie Billy says, “If TCUs are to deliver high-quality online/distance learning to American Indians and Alaska Natives in times of emergency, these gaps must be addressed as rapidly as possible.” She continues, “While COVID-19 is having an obvious impact on all institutes of higher education, the effect of this virus impacts our institutions to a much greater degree because our IHEs are under-resourced, often do not have the infrastructure to allow for distance education, and have historically lacked the requisite funding to address the inequities in the higher education system.

Institute of American Indian Arts’s unique national mission

IAIA’s stated mission is: “To empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education, lifelong learning and outreach.” According to their website, IAIA represents 93 federally designated tribes from 34 U.S. states“IAIA is a place where traditions are rediscovered, explored and deepened. Where your art and cultural identity will be celebrated and revered. It is a place of welcome that you will feel part of and will remain part of you no matter how far you go in life.”

Online studio arts resources

One of the biggest concerns for an institution focused on the arts during times of social distancing is how to deal with studio arts—sculpture, design and painting. These are hands-on, materials-rich courses that students would not necessarily have an easy time to completing at home rather than in an equipped studio.

Martin cites the creativity and flexibility of both students and faculty who now are challenged by home supplies. Using Canvas, the college’s online learning management system, IAIA faculty have proven themselves to be flexible and creative in accessing resources for students. “Our advanced painting class professor distributed to each of her students, painting kits with canvases plus design and a revised syllabus with lesson plans. Other studio arts classes and supplies used in them are more challenging, e.g. sculpture and metal works, etc.” notes Martin.

Keeping an optimistic but thoughtful outlook, Martin says the college and faculty have made tremendous progress in developing the transition plan. The faculty have been identifying resources and collaborating virtually with colleagues from other universities and colleges who are confronted with similar challenges. For example, our studio arts professor joined a Facebook group, “Online Art and Design Studio Instruction in the Age of Social Distancing” in which the 9,000 members share online teaching resources and their creative strategies in developing curricula for distance delivery. “There is a silver lining in this cloud in that we have moved the needle to quickly expand our online capacity to offer distance learning for all classes.”

As an institution focused on the creative arts, IAIA also maintains the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) , the country’s only museum for exhibiting, collecting, an interpreting the most progressive work of contemporary Native artists and which also showcases student artwork.  He itemized some aspects of the current situation that had gone well. “Senior students completed their senior projects and the bachelor of fine arts exhibit was already set up in our museum. Seniors will be able to graduate,” he adds.

The board and President Martin also had to notify students and the Santa Fe community of the closure of the museum located in downtown Santa Fe. In a message March 17th from MoCNA about Covid-19, Martin announced, “MoCNA will be going virtual, by sharing our most recent exhibition, Indigenous Futurisms: Transcending Past/Present/Future, which will be displayed through a virtual environment designed by Senior Manager of Museum Education Winoka Yepa (Diné). The virtual environment will be a Virtual Reality (VR) space that will allow online visitors to tour the exhibition on their computer or phone.”

The virtual exhibition has been launched, and more information on how to access the exhibition will be shared with museum members and friends by email and through IAIA’s social media platforms. After the launch, the museum will begin sharing more educational content through the virtual exhibition as well as through educational guides that will be placed on the website.

IAIA is one example of decisive action by a collaborative board and creative thinking by fine arts faculty.

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