Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

IAIA Cinematic Arts and Technology will now help house the NBCU Journalism Program

Since 2000 N.M. has made a conscious effort to court the film industry. At that time, there were no “film” programs per se in the state. Media aficionados had to find coursework in fields like journalism just to get their feet wet. The Institute of American Indian Arts has undergone many versions of its film and digital media for the past decade, but the school has really found a good groove in the last few years. IAIA’s courses are more extensive, the equipment is up to par, and new opportunities have come knocking.

That new era will take a drastic turn this fall as IAIA will begin to offer journalism to its list of the programs provided. Furthermore, this isn’t any regular journalism program; this is a journalism program built with an NBC News partnership. What is touted as NBCU comes as the result of NBC Universal announcing a 100 million dollar initiative to help address concerns of systemic racism and inequality nationwide—and, in this case, directly through the media’s lens.

The NBC designation makes IAIA one of only 17 academic partners—alongside the likes of UTEP, Cal-State Fullerton and Xavier University for 2021. The multi-year program will provide some funding opportunities, make scholarships available and offers live, in-classroom learning opportunities from NBC’s enormous pool of talent. N.M.’s own son Gadi Schwartz, a current NBC national correspondent, will be making a few trips home or virtually to talk with IAIA students. “He is scheduled to speak to one of our classes as early as this spring I think,” said James Lujan, Chair of the Cinematic Arts and Technology Department at IAIA. “We didn’t have a journalism focus prior to this, but we did have two classes focused on Indigenous Journalism in the Creative Writing department, and we had a broadcast class as well as documentary classes in the Cinema Arts Department.”

Storytelling Tradition

The Native American community is not new to the journalism world, just underrepresented. Many Native journalists have come out of great journalism schools, some from tribal college programs, and many are self-taught in some respects. But this will be the first major partnership of its kind in Indian Country. The goal is to provide Indigenous people with an opportunity to learn the best practices and techniques for telling stories in the journalism framework. And that is what IAIA does best: storytelling. 

The storytelling itself is a testament to the effort the school has put into the program. Many student works have been chosen as the best in the state, based on reviews. “The N.M. Film Foundation has a showcase every year where all the film programs in the state are invited to submit work. For three years in a row, IAIA students have won the best dramatic film award. That’s a really good performance measure for the quality of our work,” Lujan shared proudly.

The school’s undergraduate degrees in filmmaking and media in the past have had working relationships with groups like ABC and Disney, and continue to professionally court faculty to continue those relationships. The programs have resulted in the work of up-and-coming filmmakers like Shandiin Tome and Razelle Benally gaining notoriety on a national level. Writers lke Tommy Orange and Terese Malhot are also being considered at the forefront of their artistic medium.

The Need for Native Journalists

New Mexico is a state built on small communities. These communities are often left out of the news cycle, and their stories are never heard. It is important that a journalistic platform exists for these communities, but done with the skill and the attention to detail that major news networks are built on. As hyper-local news seems to be vanishing, and more newspapers shrinking or no longer publishing, local TV news often doesn’t cover but a small portion of the daily news that affects Indigenous communities. Online media, in the video news package form or the written form, is more important than ever before. It is not an easy job, nor a glamorous one, but one that is needed. How do people get the news? Or do they? Gossip and social media don’t count in this context. 

James Lujan agrees: “Many of the students who graduate our media arts programs often find their first jobs in places like newsrooms and TV stations. In fact, well before NBC approached us, I had a student who was complaining about taking ‘broadcast media’ classes. And a few years later, I’m in Albuquerque doing a local morning talk show. There he was, our former student, now floor-directing the local talk show.”

IAIA currently offers an Associate’s degree and Bachelor’s of Fine Arts with a more concentrated speciality. They have a four-year degree in Cinematic Arts and Technology, and a Minor in Interactive Arts and Game Design. This new program will be a separate, additional Certificate in Journalism. The screenwriting focus that is available through the school’s Master of Fine Arts Low Residency program rounds out the media offerings. 

“What differentiates IAIA from any other [college] in the country is that we are a program built on the foundation of meaningful storytelling. Even more so than the technical side, the storytelling side is just as, or more important,” said Lujan. “Screenwriting is a requirement here.” 

In the age of digital storytelling, where virtually anyone can pick up a phone or camera and share something with the world, it is important that places like IAIA exist to allow Tribal communities access to these resources. Currently, nationwide, there are about 30 or so fully accredited tribal colleges in the United States. Clearly, opportunities like this are far and few between. So to be able to offer this in New Mexico, as a place where Indigenous people have held on to and told their stories for centuries, is not only fitting but paramount to their futures.

Power comes with controlling the storyline. So, if you’re looking to try your hand at being a journalist, a filmmaker or a writer, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe wants to help you become a storyteller through whatever medium you chose.