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Back to the Future at the
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
With Steve Cantrell
ella 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 long-time 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
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 educa-
tion. 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,
Photo by Blair Clark.
S u m m e r 2 0 1 4 E l P a l a c i o 33
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
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 Ameri-
cans 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
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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
. 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.
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.