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Generations of artisans share traditional knowledge

MILWAUKEE - From the painted flower on the small cheek of basket weaver Naomi Jones, to a life-sized bald eagle carved by Ho-Chunk Nation artist Harry Whitehorse, the returning of the Creator's gifts, the theme of 2003's Indian Summer Festival, connected the life and art of the many cultures and generations that gathered on the Lake Michigan shore.

Organizers accommodated every possible interest with theater, dance, a pow wow, authentic Woodland Native villages, entertainers, musicians, fireworks, storytellers, artisans, artists, herbal medicines, vendors, food, wildlife, craft workshops and five hours reserved solely for students.

The heart of the festival was the cultural demonstrators who came from across North America to return their gifts to share with the public.

"We try to get people to see nations from around the world and explain their traditional arts," said Lynn Piworski, festival director who has chaired this area for 16 years. "They have to be something handed down from generation to generation."

The return of these arts required a life of focus, discipline, wisdom and support as told in the stories of four of the participants. Each has made a unique and outstanding contribution to cultural arts.

Julia Parker: 'We bring them back to life'

Julia Parker, Kashaya/Pomo, great-grandmother of four generations of California basket weavers, sits under a white canvas tent. She has barely looked up for hours, focused on a small Pomo basket she is weaving.

After 57 years of learning, she is the only Californian woman to have mastered the weaving of four Native American cultures. She knew nothing of them when she began.

"I met my husband at an Indian boarding school in Carson City, Nev.," she said. "While at school there were no Indian ways, so I did everything I was told to do. When I went to live with him in Yosemite Valley, I didn't know if I wanted to live there because they were following traditional ways, which the school said not to do."

Parker assisted weaver Lucy Tellis, who was cultural demonstrator at the museum there. When Tellis passed away in 1951, her position was unfilled for 10 years until Parker was approached by a friend in the National Park Service.

With some help, Parker concentrated on willow basketry, which she said is one of the most difficult. She researched and thought about where she could find other materials at a time when no one cared about Indian ways.

"When people look at a basket, it tells where to get the willow, how to process it, how it is taken with a please and a giving back, how to think about these plants," she said. "They are like the masters, and we are the tools."

Then she met her own people when Pomo weavers started to come to her.

"I didn't even know my own relatives," she said. "But I didn't feel abandoned or insecure because the people in Yosemite took me in."

Parker is also grateful to the collectors who stored thousands of baskets in the basements of museums. Parker, daughter Lucy and granddaughter Ursula have visited many museums, including those in Alaska and Australia. Now great-granddaughter Naomi is starting to travel.

"I feel like a little basket myself," said Parker. "As the basket gets bigger there are more stories. The basket tells you what kind of person you are and then the wonderment of how those women made huge baskets with tiny stitches. They were carpenters, planners, architects with their natural education."

"I've watched Lucy and Ursula who couldn't believe their eyes, but they said, 'if they can do it, so can we."Ursula, who is 31, sat close by, weaving a tulle basket and helping Naomi to collect money from customers.

"You have to discipline yourself, be very peaceful, very positive. You have to rest your eyes and hands. You have to rest when you live with it. If you don't, your work will be become inferior. As soon as you see money value, it takes away from your artistic ability. All of our family, we strive to be the best."

We can't be like them. We don't have the time they had. But in Yosemite Valley, the sedges, roots, willows, everything is there."

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Parker is working on a new exhibit for the American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C.

"We are getting the story out and we are learning from everyone here," she said.

She has brought Ursula and Naomi to Milwaukee for the first time, so that they will be able to make the journey someday, on their own.

Joe Ettawageshik:

'I didn't want the

tradition to die'

In the next row of tents to the north was the booth of 24-year-old Joe Ettawageshik, of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa in Michigan. He explained that the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next is not an easy road.

His father, Frank Ettawageshik, revived the tradition of Great Lakes pottery, which has been documented to be at least 3,000 years old.

The intensive research required to renew this traditional art relegated family vacations to museum trips.

"At eight years old, holding a 1,000-year-old intact pot in the back room of the Smithsonian, I didn't care. I wanted nothing to do with it," he said.

Ettawageshik still sees clearly his only flexible flyer wagon rusting away, filled by his father with water to soak the basswood bark used to make cord that makes the distinctive bark-like markings in the clay vessels.

Reaching for one of the small twigs he has used for seven years to make the distinctive designs of the pottery, he said it was hard to explain when it came to feel right, when he realized that he did not want the tradition to die.

"I remember the day, the first week in August 1986, when my father grabbed a fern and broke it off at the ends. He still has them."

The pots are fired in a pit dug into the earth, surrounded by a triangle of firewood. They are colored by the smoke. There are no potter's wheels, and no two hand-worked pots are ever the same.

"There is always respect for the fire. It is a very meticulous process, done with respect and care," he said. The fire is lit in three spots. It is both symbolic and practical. Part of the beauty is that you take what the fire gives you."

The difference between the father and son's work is imperceptible to most people, but their decorative tools are different and his cord his slightly thicker than his father's.

Frank Ettawageshik's work is held by several museums. He is now devoting his time to band duties, and is son is working to be recognized on his own. Yet some patterns remain unchanged.

Behind Ettawageshik sat his wife Amy. He motioned to their two-and-a-half-month-old daughter who was sound asleep in Amy's lap.

"My dad, when he taught me, said 'you have to teach two other people.' Someday, I'll teach her."

(Continued in Part Two)