Geronima Montoya

Date September 30, 2004 at 10:00 PM

Categories Culture

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Honored October 2004

As a young girl taking elementary classes at the San Juan Day School on her native pueblo, Geronima Cruz so dreaded being shipped off to the Santa Fe Indian School that she purposely tried to flunk. Her ruse failed, however, and she was taken in a horse-drawn wagon to SFIS in 1927, at the age of 12. Her premonitions proved true: The students were not allowed to speak their own languages, and Geronima was miserable. She even tried to run away and return home, but was sent back to SFIS. But then something wonderful happened: The school got a new administration with an enlightened outlook. When Geronima graduated in 1935, she was class valedictorian and had dozens of activities.

A major inspiration was a visionary art teacher, Dorothy Dunn, who urged students to reach deep into their traditions, deep into their roots. So when Dunn offered Geronima a job to stay on as her assistant, she was thrilled. It was the beginning of a 38-year career with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. At SFIS, she and Dunn presided over a sometimes-controversial and now-legendary program called the Studio, which gained national and international attention. And when Dunn left the school in 1937, Geronima became her successor.

Always a fighter for native ways, Geronima withstood several philosophical shifts at the BIA. But shortly after SFIS closed in 1962, and was replaced by the Institute of American Indian Art, she took a position as an adult educator at her home pueblo, San Juan. Starting with five students, she soon had more than 60, and in 1968 founded the Oke Owengee Crafts Co-Op to market their works. The first such Native American co-op ever started, it was an immediate success.

Feeling that a cycle of her life was complete, Geronima took early retirement in 1973 in order to pursue her own art, which she has done with great distinction. The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, the Eight Northern Pueblos, and the Smithsonian Institution have all given her lifetime achievement awards.

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