After a long and distinguished career, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Executive Director Della Warrior is stepping down from the position she’s held for eight years. Warrior’s retirement was announced by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) on June 16 and is effective as of Aug. 27.
“It was a long, hard decision, but I finally decided it was time,” she says. “I didn’t want to retire during the pandemic because I’d be leaving the museum without leadership. But now, I feel we’re in a comfortable place.”
Warrior, a member and former tribal council chairperson of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, dedicated her life to serving Native communities and was recognized for her efforts with a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) in 2018.
For the majority of her career, Warrior, who’s in her mid-70s, was an educator.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1966, she worked on the Cherokee reservation in the northeast corner of her home state of Oklahoma, where she studied student involvement levels in public school classrooms. Her intention was to seek a way to turn around dropout rates. She continued this focus after obtaining a master’s in education from Harvard University in 1971.
“I wanted to help these kids to understand their own tremendous, amazing history and how beautiful their culture is and gain confidence and pride in who they are,” she told Pasatiempo in 2019. One of her first projects after Harvard was instituting a six-week summer tutorial camp in her tribal community.
In the 1980s, Warrior served as director of Indian education for Albuquerque Public Schools, a position she held for nine years before becoming the first female chairperson for the Otoe-Missouria. In 1993, she became director of development at the Institute of American Indian Arts and accepted the position of president of IAIA in 1998.
She came to MIAC in 2013 with more than 40 years of experience in education, tribal government, resource development, facility planning, fundraising, and economic development.
While the Museum of New Mexico’s Board of Regents searches for a new executive director, MIAC’s Deputy Director Matthew Martinez will assume the role.
Under Warrior’s tenure, MIAC showcased 30 exhibitions, including Turquoise, Water & Sky; Footprints: The Inspiration and Influence of Allan Houser; and Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley. She played a central role in the revision of the core exhibition Here, Now and Always, which is currently underway. The exhibit is slated to reopen in June 2022.
“We’ve had delays,” Warrior says. “We had the pandemic and couldn’t really work on it this past year. But now, we’re coming out of the pandemic and the museum is open. The staff is coming back to work onsite, and the work on Here, Now and Always is going along smoothly. We’ve completed the demolition. They’ve put the new wiring in for security, lighting, and AV systems. The actual construction will start in a couple of weeks. The interior designs are pretty much complete. So I believe we’re in good shape to open it next year.”
Warrior established several educational programs in her time at MIAC, including the Summer Tribal Libraries Program, the Youth Film Camp, and 2018’s mobile exhibition, Wonder on Wheels. She also helped organize a collaborative exhibition between MIAC and Walt Disney World’s Epcot in Florida. The exhibition Creating Traditions is located in the park’s American Experience Gallery and consists of objects from MIAC’s collection and the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington (where she served a six-year term as a trustee). Creating Traditions, the first Native-themed exhibit at Epcot, is on view through 2023.
The museum’s current exhibition, Clearly Indigenous: Native Visions Reimagined in Glass (through June 2022), is the first authoritative survey on Native glass art, and it’s an exhibit that Warrior wanted to see mounted since early in her
“I remember looking at the Native Treasures show at the Convention Center not long after I started and seeing a few glass objects. I asked one of our curators if we had a glass collection, and she said we didn’t. So we bought a couple of pieces that year. The next year, we bought a few more. The current curator of that exhibit, Dr. Letitia Chambers, came by, and we were talking about glass. She commented about how she was talking with Lloyd Kiva New about telling the story of how glass art came into Indian
Chambers wanted to do a book, says Warrior, who pushed for an exhibition as well.
“It exceeded my expectations. Her research found far more glass artists than we were aware of. At the time, I could count about eight on my two hands.”
Warrior hasn’t overstayed her welcome at MIAC, but she does feel it’s time to move on.
“I’ve always felt that you’re most effective in a position within the first five years. Not that I’m not effective now, but that’s just been my own preference. I’ve enjoyed the position immensely. I work with great people, I’ve had great support from DCA and, certainly, the supporters and donors of MIAC have been very generous and enabled me to reach most of my goals.”
Warrior isn’t leaving to pursue a position elsewhere and plans to remain in Santa Fe.
“Knowing myself, I’m not one to not have a project,” she says. “That’s my nature. I’m not going to have a full-time job, but I might find various short-term projects just to keep my mind busy.”
As for MIAC, she plans to keep attending exhibit openings and “be a part of the community.” ◀