CLEVELAND - In 1991, a group of people gathered in Harrison Lowe's apartment just on the edge of Hollywood to start an organization dedicated to American Indians in the arts that would not only support and promote the established artist, but also provide funding opportunities for up-and-coming American Indian artists. They also believed that part of their organizations' mission would be to honor Native actors and actresses for their achievements in the arts. Today this group is known as the First Americans in the Arts.
''There were not many opportunities for Native American actors and actresses, especially in the early '90s. Our group did not have any money; as a matter of fact, we started off in the hole but continued to reach out to the communities and studios. And now look, we just celebrated our 15th annual awards show,'' explained Lowe, Navajo, FAITA founding trustee.
In mid-April FAITA hosted the 15th annual awards presentation, honoring American Indians for their outstanding performance in motion pictures, theatre and in prime time TV at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The gala's master of ceremonies was longtime actor Wes Studi, who was joined by host, Native comedian Charlie Hill.
Mary Youngblood, Aleut and Seminole, the two-time, Native American GRAMMY Award winner and the only Native woman flutist to win a GRAMMY, also received the FAITA award for outstanding female performer (traditional) for her fifth CD, ''Dancing with the Wind.''
About her award and the evening, Youngblood said, ''I was very honored to receive the award and glad I got the chance to play as well. It was so great! I was so happy to be around such creative Native people. Success is a journey, not a destination. I want to do good work with the youth and kids and not be known for my awards. I want to help them realize our obstacles as a people and be a part of their healing and growth ... I want to give young people hope.''
Another winner that evening was Thirza Dafoe from the Ojibwe and Oneida nations of Wisconsin. She was awarded outstanding performance by an actress (theatre) for her performance as Sacajawea in ''Stone Heart.'' She felt the evening was very inspiring for her as a young actress to see the accomplishments of those American Indian entertainers before her.
Dafoe, a traditional Hoop and Eagle dancer, spoke enthusiastically about her award. ''I am very honored to get recognition ... for something so many worked so hard on. I accepted the award on behalf of the group representative of ''Stone Heart.'' She is also a recipient of the FAITA scholarship, which has provided funding for a current project she is working on.
There were also well known non-Native actors who presented or received a FAITA award. Mel Gibson presented Rudy Youngblood, Comanche and Yaqui, with the Outstanding Performance by a New Actor Award for his role as Jaguar Paw in ''Apocalypto.'' Clint Eastwood of Malpaso Productions was presented the ''Trustee Award,'' which is given to a production company who has provided American Indians opportunities in the entertainment industry.
Between the established Natives who are already members of the entertainment industry and the up-and-coming multitalented entertainers of the next generation, the next 15 years at FAITA will most definitely busy, fun and exciting.
Who would have ever thought a meeting in someone's living room would end up bringing so much pride and honor to those American Indians performing in motion pictures, TV, theater and those making the music? One thing is for sure; their ancestors would be proud.