RAPID CITY, S.D. - From the vision of one woman who smelled a sweetgrass
basket and had the desire for real, authentic mukluks, First People's Fund
began with a commitment to honor those artists who keep the cultures alive.
Jennifer Easton grew up in New York, in Mohawk country, where her father
showed her a sweetgrass basket that was not just beautiful, but functional.
"The basket was sweet to the smell, different in shape and was exquisite,"
The family moved to a colder climate, her feet were cold and she wanted
mukluks to stay warm. The only way to get mukluks was to provide a hide to
a woman that would make them for her. They were authentic.
From those experiences Easton got the idea to start First People's Fund. On
Dec. 3 the organization gathered five artists who are also cultural keepers
to receive awards in an elaborate ceremony and performance of visual art.
"Listen to the plants and they will talk to you. Feel the rain and hear the
sounds, we take from the earth and we give back," said Julia Parker, Kashia
Parker teaches the traditions of the Yosemite, she teaches young people to
make baskets and she is also well versed in the foods of her culture. She
uses natural materials in her baskets, which she said are parts of life
that were here before and that can still be here.
"The plants are the masters. I feel they are the superior beings, the
plants," Parker said.
Artists are more than creators of works that people buy as investments and
display as ornaments. In many American Indian cultures there is no word for
art. The functional baskets, clothing, bags and tools were made to serve
the people, and many were adorned for uniqueness.
"Artists are powerful people. Cultures that have disappeared are all
revisited in the art on rocks, on pottery and are part of the artist. When
we dance and sing the songs of the people the ancestors are here again,
they live through us," said Bruce Subiyay Miller, Skokomish.
Miller spent time as an actor on Broadway and returned to the northwest
after he felt the emptiness within him.
He grew up in a family with 15 children. They created baskets and sang the
songs of the Skokomish and spoke the language. He said he thought everyone
knew what he knew as a child. Then he met the outside world and that world
valued some of the things, artwork mostly, that he took for granted.
"Our ancestors live today as long as artists pass on the art to the
children," Miller said.
Language, an integral part of the culture can keep the culture alive, but
the teachers need to be ready to pass it along. Miller said he was one of
the last speakers of his language.
But the Tlingit-speakers in Alaska have an advocate that intends to keep
the language alive. Nora Marks Dauenhauer, was honored by First People's
Fund for her work in recording the Tlingit speakers and her work to make
the language part of the school curriculum.
Dauenhauer has compiled a dictionary and has translated the stories of the
Tlingit into English. She is also a writer.
She started recording the language more than 30 years ago. Her belief, she
said, is that healing is at the heart of the work of words and the
language. And folk art is also at the heart of healing.
"I will continue to write so others will have the will to do so," she said.
What is most interesting about this year's recipients is that most of their
work is devoted to teaching others. Sharing their gifts with the younger
generations is also a standard for the First People's Fund awards.
Many of the recipients lead lives that were not part of their culture only
to return for one reason or another. Frank "Pipe Woman" Sheridan Sr.,
Cheyenne/Arapaho, began beadwork 35 years ago when he took some mismatched,
multi-colored beads to his mother and asked her to teach him how to bead.
He has continued that practice through today.
For 29 years he has worked in the federal service and is now employed with
IHS as a community intervention specialist. He uses his artistic gift
within his professional work to help people heal. Like all health
caregivers he has a compassion for people and is willing to share.
"I share whatever a person needs from me. I let them take as much as they
need. I try to be there for them ... I try to take them to a place of
healing," Sheridan said.
Another recipient, Genevieve Running Horse Moore, Sicangu Lakota, dedicates
her life to nearly all of the art forms of the Lakota and teaches and
shares her gift with the entire community. Moore beads, quills, quilts,
tans elk and deer hides, all learned from her mother. She started her
artwork at age 13.
The First People's Fund is also involved with providing artists with
business knowledge to allow them to make a living by creating the art of
Information on First People's Fund can be found on the web at