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Indigenous artists honored for community spirit

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Even though there is no word for ''art'' in any American Indian language, that which today is referred to as art were decorated, functional objects and songs that taught, inspired and deepened a spiritual life.

Baskets, canoes, clothing, weapons, homes, protective wear, songs and stories all are now considered works of art. Those lucky enough to have had someone pass those traditions down to them continue the culture of their ancestors; many of them have dedicated themselves to educating members of their communities about their work, thereby continuing cultural traditions.

Four such people are honored each year at the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards, sponsored by the First Peoples Fund in Rapid City.

Each artist receives a $5,000 stipend and national recognition. They are chosen from a list of artists whose names are submitted by community members and relatives. FPF has presented the Community Spirit awards for the past 11 years.

The artists come together in Rapid City to meet each other, and to meet with some past award recipients and with other artists from a variety of programs that are part of the FPF mission.

The public honoring occurs during a specially produced theatrical production, which follows a banquet held to introduce the artists to the community.

This year's artists join a list of alums that have heard the words of their ancestors through teachers and mentors, and have accepted their role in continuing the culture and traditions so that many adults and, especially, the youth will never forget what connects them to a community.

Susan 'Tweet' Burdick

Burdick, a basketweaver, passes the art and craft of basket weaving on to her community members. She is also active in gathering the materials for baskets and foods, and creates regalia of the Yurok people.

''Three family members submitted my name for this award. I thought that was an award in itself,'' Burdick said.

For more than 20 years, Burdick has devoted her life to the good of the Yurok people and to insure the continuance of the culture.

''My elders taught me to love, respect and nurture a healthy relationship with our precious homelands. They gifted me with a true passion of sharing my knowledge with others,'' Burdick said.

Burdick is a founding member of the California Basket Weavers Association; and through basketmaking, she said, she weaves the culture and spiritual beliefs of the Yurok into her work.

''Weaving empowers the weaver through spiritual and culture discovery and belonging to a community of people,'' she said.

Burdick, with the use of several baskets, explained the importance of the acorn to the Yurok, a group of people who live on the West Coast adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. The acorn is a staple of the Yurok, she said, and then explained the process of preparing the acorn flour that uses the baskets she weaves.

''I wouldn't feel good going home if I didn't pass on something to you,'' she said.

''Getting here had many roadblocks, and if we were a weak people I would have turned around.''

Ronald Paquin

The Ojibwe is one of the many Northern and Eastern cultures that perfected the skill and art of birch bark canoemaking. The canoes are identified with the culture that depended on them for transportation, gathering of lake herbs and fish and movement to locations for seasonal gathering and ceremonies.Paquin, from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., taught himself the art of birch bark canoe-making and has made 21 full-sized traditional canoes and some 15 models in the past 20 years. Paquin gathers all the natural materials needed, and in doing so he passes on his knowledge and the traditional art form. He said he believes what he does is important because he is one of the last canoemakers of his community. By his work with other members of the community, this art and skill will continue.''I marvel at the ingenuity of whoever invented the first canoe - probably by trial and error and out of necessity for survival,'' he said.''Teaching is valuable and we can't be a good teacher unless we are a good student.''Paquin said he believes that his purpose in life is to help improve the lives of people in his community.''His education is the result of years of listening to the elders he has been influenced by during his lifetime. His mastery of wood and bone carving, quill work, basket making, lodge and birch bark canoe construction, is symbolic of his commitment to his heritage,'' Pacquin's nominator wrote.Delia Cook''I am always ready to help and I will go out of my way,'' Cook said.Cook is a traditional artist whose skills range from dressmaking to basketmaking, and through her art she not only gives back to the community but also shows her traditional generosity.Cook may be known to her community members as a committed member of the Daughters of Tradition group with a mission of educating young girls on the traditions of making dresses, baskets and preparing food for ceremonies.''By bringing back the rites of passage for the young people, I am trying to help our community heal from the past things that have been done and taken away from us.''It makes me very proud to see the happy faces of those who work hard and make something beautiful for themselves or for someone else,'' Cook said.Cook told the crowd that she was proud of herself for being able to stand up and speak to them.''I teach the women at home to finish what you started. ... It is not what I take with me; it is what you leave behind,'' Cook said.Cook is a mother, grandmother, Turtle Clan Mother and teacher, as she was taught by her elders her entire life. Sadie BuckBuck, a singer and composer, is the lead singer of the Six Nations Women singers. She fuses her traditional training and ideology and brings it to the contemporary. Her life as an artist, performer, facilitator, director, author, trainer, researcher and consultant allows her the background to continue the songs of the cultures.It is said by those who know her and nominated her that she breathes life into her traditional songs and dance. Her spirit inspires her to create new works of art within the framework of traditional values.''As a people, we have to take steps and make conscious decisions to do things that are culturally specific to our people, and internationally and on a national level. We have to step into that now, or we will suffer a great loss and suffer far more than we have suffered at this point in time,'' Buck said.''When we use our bodies and voices to the best of our abilities, we are sovereign. No one can take this from us, just as no one can give it to us.''Sovereignty is in our minds. When we understand and have the freedom of expression, we are sovereign. When we are sovereign, we are well,'' Buck said.