The studio of painting at the Santa Fe Indian School : a case study in modern American identity

Hahn, Milanne Shelburne
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Founded in 1932, the Department of Painting and Design, or “Studio,” at the Santa Fe Indian School was the first official, government-run boarding school program to promote pictorial paintings based exclusively North American Indian arts and culture. It was yet another program designed to bring about the assimilation of Indians into the economy and society of American, but progressive influences had introduced a change in orientation to Indian Policy by the beginning of the 1930s; instead of demeaning Indian cultures by demanding cultural assimilation, a beneficent stance was adopted that promoted them and their assimilation as American Indians into the ethnic diversity of society. As the Studio experience unfolded, it became a unique art world in which Indian artist-students from various cultures and non-Indian educators and patrons engaged in a cross-cultural effort to carry forward ancient Indian decorative arts to shape what became know as traditional modern American Indian painting. But the Studio also became a forum in which its young artists engaged in a cross-cultural search for an American art and identity with their non-Indian educators and patrons. As such, the Studio is a unique social microcosm for studying the nature and formation of the modern American identity of both its young Indian artists and of it non-Indian progenitors. This v study will examine the personal and collective identities that arose through this cross- cultural interaction during the formative years of the Studio – the tenure of its first “guide,” Dorothy Dunn, from 1932-1937. In order to gain a fuller understanding of the concept of identity formation, individual members of that art world are prominently portrayed against the background of BIA education policies concerning indigenous arts and the Studio’s unique historical position in that regard. A selection of 150 Studio paintings is examined to detect ways in which the artist-students chose to depict themselves and their cultures, i.e., their identities. And on that score, the Studio artist- students expressed themselves and their cultures, however marginal they were then and now to American society, and they shared with the non-Indians a new understanding of how they both were Americans.