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Fund honors artists who preserve culture

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DENVER, Colo. ? Artists who sustain cultural values and through art support the spiritual practices of the American Indian nations were honored at the annual First People's Fund Community Spirit Awards gathering here.

The eligible candidates are artists who devote long-standing professional careers to ensuring that their culture survives. According to the People's Fund advocates, beadwork, flute making, pipe making, basket weaving and clothing design bring together the richness and beauty of the pow wow and ties together the past, present and future to strengthen a community.

Artists who are selected to win the Community Spirit Awards must demonstrate that they have worked to pass along their skills to the younger generations.

"The artists spoke to their responsibility to the community because they have been given a gift. It goes beyond the making of a basket. They will teach the young the responsibility to the land.

"Many of our own communities don't recognize the value of our artists. And the artists sometimes don't consider themselves artists, they keep the traditions and pass them to the young," said Lori Pourier, executive director of the First People's Fund.

The awards ceremony was held at the Denver Center for the Arts, whose board of directors encourages a diversified artistic community. Pourier said the artistic and business communities came together for the event.

"It felt good to be there and be part of the whole event," she said.

Artists are changing the landscape of the art world in the Indian community in many ways. Some work with new technology. Others follow old ways of gathering materials from the land and using the old methods of creating art while teaching young people how to become part of their culture.

In making the fellowship awards, the First People's Fund considers that artists have the responsibility to bring back the spirit to a community.

Kathy Wallace, a traditional basket maker of the Karuk, Yurok and Hupa peoples, is one of the five artists who received this year's spirit award. She uses the technique of basket weaving known as the half-twist, closed-twined overlay work. She says she uses natural materials gathered in the forests and wetlands of northern California, as a way of keeping the old traditions alive.

"The only way we can hang on to our culture is to practice it. I was given a gift to use, so I practice it. Basketry is woven into the lives of my people from the first time we are put into our baby cradle basket at birth until we die, when a simple basket is woven to hold food for our spirits at the graveside until we pass to the other side," Wallace said.

Wallace weaves baskets that are requested by her community. She said she will continue to honor the requests. Her time, however, is taken up with teaching and consulting with restorationists and environmental agencies while she helps to preserve the materials that are used in the making of baskets.

"Not just our people, but the world is dependent on our making it right again, every year. I am trying to pass on my gifts to the future generations, including my own children and grandchildren," Wallace said.

Two other artists represent the elder and the youth of the Community Spirit awards. The younger, a twenty-something artist, brings a new technology to the community by way of video, film and performance in multi-media.

Shawna Shandiin Sunrise, Dineh/Santo Domingo Pueblo, grew up as a weaver and also learned the art of silversmith from her father.

"The idea of creating an environmental form of art that contains texture, smell, sound is something others can interact with on a much higher level," Shandiin Sunrise said.

"Within this next generation of artists I have brought a new medium to my community. Through the use of TV/video/film we are all coming together to create our own future with creative control of our own images.

"Through this new medium we can link all our communities through self-expression of art, music, and whatever we feel is positive in our community."

The new technology is a way of preserving the talents of the community members and passing along their skills to the younger generation. Shandiin Sunrise is a teacher who passes along the skills of weaving, performer, producer, director and more.

What she does may be considered as change in the traditional methods of art, but Shandiin Sunrise says that change is what makes a people strong.

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"Our ancestors had change and they figured out a way for us to be here. Now it is our time to take this in our hands to create the same path as they did for us to survive," she said.

She produces a public-access television program that promotes all Native arts. She is building a live webcast site and is working with the Navajo Nation in its development of an Olympics program with performers for the Winter Games 2002.

On the upper side of the age bracket, 80-year-old Rose Kerstetter, Oneida, works in clay. She is writing a book on Iroquois design. When the book is completed she said her next project will be to open a studio where classes could be taught, and the art of Iroquois pottery would be kept alive.

Kerstetter shares her love of the pottery with everyone in and outside the community. It is a source of cultural pride for her, she said.

"It has been said that strength comes from within. I love to create my pottery, but I also know that I can strengthen this community because I can show to others that it is something that is a part of us that we can be very proud of."

"Art is universal; it exists in all cultures in different forms. Because it is a common activity among cultures, it is a starting point for conversation, an appreciation, and an understanding.

"It demonstrates that people share emotions, goals, desires and dreams," Kerstetter said.

Kerstetter lives in the heart of the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin. She holds a degree in art from the Institute of American Indian Art, Santa Fe. At age 60, she received that degree on the same day her daughter received a degree from the University of New Mexico.

Another IAIA student, Ruth Waukazo from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, brings a studied, historical perspective to her creation of regalia, beadwork and sculpture.Waukazo received the Community Spirit Award for her work in preserving the designs of the southern version of the sub-arctic traditions and of the Red River Metis. She is a student of the pre-contact and post contact beadwork of that style.

She focuses mostly on dance regalia and beadwork today. But Waukazo adds the intricate elements in her work that she learned from extensive study of the artistic designs that adorned the clothing of her ancestors. She spent the past 10 years traveling throughout the country and Canada, researching and studying the art and teachings of the Anishinaabe. The intricate ancient art that she found has evolved under the influence of new materials of the trade era to create what is known today as the traditional art forms, she said.

"While acknowledging that a culture that remains static risks dying, I revive the old art objects and designs. I ask how can we be confident of where we are going when we do not know where we have been."

This question inspired the First People's Fund Community Spirit Awards and its fellowship program to encourage emerging artists. The importance of sustaining a community art program that will continually influence future generations is its most important focus.

"Today, I feel it is important to teach our young people what their traditional styles of dress and culture are. Through empowering them with this knowledge and if we learn to accept their artistic renditions and individual expression, our culture and people will survive," said Rodney Cawston, Colville, who does weaving and beadwork.

Cawston found that many of the schools in the Colville area were teaching the art work of the Sioux and Navajo and other tribes, but not the art and culture of the Colville. Now the schools have many of the materials and books needed to teach the Colville children about their own culture.

Cawston is the contracting officer for the Colville. He encourages workers to use their Indian names on their desk nameplates and door plates. He has also changed some of the tribe's standard forms by using the Colville language in headings. He is also involved with the planning of the cultural center for the Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce on the Colville Reservation.

He said he will continue to teach the art forms that he has learned to the children of the reservation or anyone else interested. "One of the elders that I learned from told me never to be stingy with your knowledge. She told me if I were stingy, our traditional art forms wouldn't survive."

The First People's Fund solicits recommendations about artists to recognize. They must be deeply rooted and maintain ties to the community, work in an art that passes on the traditions and have a commitment to strengthen the Native community by sharing skills and talent.

"People who pay attention to art as a culture rise to the top," Pourier said.

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