Fortifying a Nation through Art and Cheese

Native American tribes intent on nation-building are also increasingly intent on bringing traditional artists into the process. Governance and culture must work hand in hand.

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Over the 4th of July I watched an Oneida boy dressed as a wedge of Swiss cheese march down the road, and I wondered, “What is art and how important is it for Indian communities?”

Seems like a bit of a stretch, I know, but hang with me.

The First Peoples Fund, a non-profit organization supporting and honoring Native artists, brought me to Oneida, Wisconsin, this place where walking cheese prompted such profound questions. Actually, it was more than cheese.

Loretta Webster, an Oneida artist who does Iroquois raised beadwork, the Oneida Nation Arts Program, the Woodland Art Show and Market, the Oneida Nation and its Annual 4th of July Powwow including a community parade (and walking cheese) all had contributed to my philosophical state of mind.

Art, according to Lori Pourier of the Oglala Lakota tribe, plays an essential role in tribal nation building. Pourier is executive director of the Rapid City, South Dakota, based First Peoples Fund. The mission of the Fund includes nurturing the collective spirit that allows Native artists to sustain their peoples. The organization does this through grants to native artists.

“Unfortunately, the question of what constitutes art bogs down discussions about the role that it plays in tribal nation building,” Pourier observes. “I think a better word might be ‘culture,’ so that we can consider the importance that art plays in culture.”

Pourier and the board at First Peoples believe that to be successful, tribal governance should bring cultural leaders who practice traditional art to the table during the nation building process.  Many tribes, she admits, lead a hardscrabble existence and get caught up in day-to-day survival when making decisions about such things as economic development. Consequently, they may not always include the communities’ traditional artists in these practical discussions.

Pourier, however, believes passionately in the essential role that artists play as culture bearers in the practices of native-nations governance.

“Spirituality, art and culture are inextricably tired together. The embodiment of these practices can make us whole again as nations. These are the things that truly sustain us,” she says.

She and the folks at First Peoples Fund created the Community Spirit Award to draw attention to the important role that artists play in tribal communities. The prize is granted to artists who exemplify a vision of creativity as a community-supported process.  Loretta Webster of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin is one of the winners of this year’s award.

Webster’s handsome beadwork, with its double rows of large beads, involves much more than its distinctive texture. Beading has emerged as a spiritual, healing act that she shares with the community through her Beading Circle.

The Circle meets often at Bear Paw Keepsakes, the retail store she owns and runs with her husband Stan in nearby Green Bay.  The store features local native art.

Although Webster started the Circle as a way to share knowledge and expertise about raised beadwork, the Circle has become an important community-gathering place.

“We share our lives when we come together here, our joys and grief,” Webster says. “Beading has become a way to creatively work through our pain.”

She also sees the Circle as a means to pass along spirituality and tribal culture and attitudes. “Artists are the community’s storytellers, “ she observes.

Before retiring and beading fulltime, Webster worked as a tribal attorney while she and husband Stan raised 5 children.  Stan served as tribal judge. The law, however, was never her passion. It was always beading.

“Beading is very spiritual for me. If I don’t get time to bead everyday, I find that I feel more tense,” she reports. She believes that artists gain spiritual support from their art.

Mary Annette Pember
Loretta Webster’s beadwork and her work as a cultural leader earned the First Peoples Fund’s Community Spirit Award.

The Beading Circle’s attendance and its discussion subjects are unpredictable, according to Webster. “Sometimes it’s a little like a therapy session for us,” she says smiling.
 
Webster organized the first annual Woodland Art Show and Market and continues to help out with the event that has outgrown its first venue in her little shop. The Show now takes place on the reservation during the annual Oneida Nation 4th of July powwow.

According to Webster, the raised beadwork style, which uses larger beads than traditional native beadwork, emerged sometime during the 1800’s.  The evolution of the style is typical of native art and culture, organic and ever changing.
 
“Before we had beads we used things like moose hair and porcupine quills. We quickly embraced beads since they were so much easier to use,” she reports.

This willingness to incorporate new styles and materials is reflective of native people’s resourceful survival spirit.

“Artists draw from everything. Anything (that works) goes,” she observes.

The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin is one of only a handful of tribes in the U.S. that maintain a government-supported arts program according to Beth Bashara, Director of the Oneida Nation Arts Program.

All tribes, notes Bashara, have great respect for the arts, but they often find it hard to go beyond the emergency state of demands that plague many reservations.

“They don’t think that the arts might be helpful to solving those problems,” says Bashara. “Fortunately, the Oneida Nation had the forethought to know that the arts would be helpful for the community.”

Examples of arts programming include: Arts in Residency, Summer Arts Camp for Kids, Artist Services including training camps for professional development, Apprentice/Internship Program, Public Arts that develop and display art reflective of the community, Oneida Youth Choir, Dollars for Arts Program, a regranter for the Wisconsin Arts Board, Community Arts Classes and more.

Sherry Salway Black of the Oglala Lakota tribe agrees that support for the arts is a critical component of tribal nation building. Black is the Director of the Partnership for Tribal Governance at NCAI, the National Congress of American Indians.

“Art reflects the collective spirit of a people, of a nation,” declares Black. “Supporting efforts that protect, preserve and enhance this collective spirit will strengthen tribal nations and nourish its soul.”

For Pourier, the Community Spirit Award celebrates the quiet leaders, the artists who actively live the collective spirit of creativity within their communities.

“Their process of creation requires patience and thought as well as the active support and participation of the community,” she says.

For tribal communities, the challenge is how to carry that thoughtfulness into the tribal council chamber, observes Pourier.

Now back to the walking wedge of cheese in the powwow parade. The cheese and other great parade costumes and floats were among the many things I witnessed during my visit that embodied the creative, exuberant heart of the Oneida people. I marveled, once again, over Indians’ uncanny ability to make something fun, useful and spiritually nurturing out of even the most limited resources.

 

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