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First Peoples Fund honors six Native artists’ community spirit

ST. PAUL, Minn. – On the night before he was to receive a national Community Spirit Award for the impact of his work within his community as an artist, Richard Zane Smith said he suddenly woke up with inspiration about just how he should accept the special honor.

“I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning, and knew what I had to do.”

An acclaimed Wyandot potter whose work has received award recognition at the Blue Rain Gallery during the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market and elsewhere, Smith was given a 2010 Community Spirit Award for revitalizing long-dormant tribal pottery making traditions as well as helping children learn the Wyandot language.

Sponsored by First Peoples Fund, the awards recognize not individual achievement but the broader, collective impact of Native artists on the cultural renewal of Native communities. In the spirit of giving back, Smith turned the spotlight from himself to the audience.

“One of the first songs that we teach our little kids is a Wyandot woman’s dance,” he said. “This is all about giving thanks. I want to give thanks to all the women that are here, and, in fact, when I sing this song I’d like you to stand because I’d like to honor you.”

Sept. 10 was a night of thanksgiving and celebration in St. Paul. Smith and five other artists were honored in a ceremony featuring tribal song, dance, humor and ample doses of humility.

“I’m not sure how to begin after all those things that were said about me,” said Trudie Lamb Richmond, a traditional storyteller of the Schaghticoke Tribe who is revered across New England. “I’m just a little old lady from northwestern Connecticut. I’m a grandmother of nine and a great-grandmother of five.”

After being nominated by fellow community members and selected by an independent group of national panelists, each honoree received a $5,000 award.

“I am indeed very humbled by this evening and I’d like to thank the First Peoples Fund for selecting me for such an honor,” said Alfred “Bud” Lane III, a master basket weaver and teacher who also is vice chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. “It really does honor me and my family, and it also honors my Siletz people.”

Lane went on to thank his family and friends who make his traditional baskets and caps possible by helping with the gathering and preparation process.

“Weaving the basket is the easy part. They are a tremendous amount of work, and they require picking and peeling and processing. No one can do this type of work on their own. It can’t exist that way.”

Lane is president of the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association which includes nearly 1,000 weavers from Northwest tribes. He explained how the intensive, all-hands-on-board production effort aligns with art’s greater purpose in telling Native peoples’ collective story.

“How can we keep alive the knowledge that took 10,000 or more years to get in to our hands?” Lane said. “I remind my students of this. [This wisdom] comes from a time long, long ago. It is precious beyond description to us.”

Founded in 1995, First Peoples Fund has a mission to support creative community-centered indigenous artists, and nurture the collective spirit that allows them to sustain their people. The fund works through a national network of these artists and supports them through fellowships and other resources, while also promoting the role of art in community and economic development.

“There is no word for art in tribal communities,” said Lori Pourier, the fund’s Oglala Lakota president. “Art is an expression of everything that we represent as Native people – our language, ceremonies, family relationships, spiritual beliefs, and how we live. In the same way, the Community Spirit Awards are the heart and soul of our work.”

It was the first time the award ceremony was held in Minnesota, and the night began with greetings on behalf of that area’s Ojibwe and Dakota people.

“As a Dakota woman, I welcome all of you to our traditional homelands,” said Gabrielle Strong, a First Peoples Fund board member. “This is now known as the City of St. Paul, but to us, it is called Iminiza Ska, White Rock. Iminiza Ska has always been a gathering place.”

The audience of nearly 300 people was also welcomed by City Councilman Melvin Carter, who hailed the event for honoring diverse cultures and educating the public about other worldviews. Then Joe Spencer, the City of St. Paul director of arts and culture, read a proclamation from the mayor declaring “Community Spirit Day.” Earlier in the week, representatives of First Peoples joined the City Council to receive a resolution during their council meeting.

The awards were described as the “un-awards” in how they recognize community-spirited action rather than individual accomplishment. All of the awardees offered thanks to their communities, families, ancestors and other teachers, such as the Native youth with whom several of them work.

“I learn from [children] every day,” said Oglala Lakota beadwork artist Therese St. Cyr. “My grandmother said to me, wherever you go try to change lives for the better. In our own way as artists we are doing that.”

Ramona Peters has revived Mashpee Wampanoag pottery making traditions that had been dormant since the early 1700s.

“We’re instructed to live a life of being in thanksgiving, and to be in thanksgiving you have to know who you are. You have to know the gifts that the Creator and our ancestors implanted inside you. That’s the way I try to live my life. I would like to thank First Peoples Fund for making me feel like I was successful in my path.”

The awards have been funded by Minnesota residents Carole Howe, Howe Family Foundation and Jennifer Easton, founder of the First Peoples Fund. Easton thanked the honorees for sharing and teaching the audience.

“I am enriched by what they have shared and have a deeper insight and a profound understanding of what they stand for and what they are really saying to us,” Easton said. “They don’t do this for themselves or their children, or even for their grandchildren. They do this for their grandchildren’s grandchildren. I think that is a good way.”

The final presentation of the evening was to Wade Fernandez, a Menominee man who is well-known for his music but less known for his work with tribal youth. Rather than play his guitar, Fernandez decided to offer a spontaneous spoken-word performance that honored his grandmother’s teaching and inspiration.

“That’s what we call art. Its true essence is not [about] us. It’s our Creator, ancestors and the spirits all those voices living and gone all coming through us. We’re hopefully open enough to let it come through.”

In a separate presentation, First Peoples Fund gave a Spirit of Generosity Award to Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet community leader, for her role as one of the fund’s earliest advisory board members who FPF partnered with through the Blackfeet Development Loan Fund in Browning, Mont.

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