Fortifying a Nation through Art and Cheese
[imgbelt img=heart-320.jpg]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.
[imgcontainer left] [img:cheesboy530.jpg] [source]Mary Annette PemberAt a Wisconsin 4th of July parade, an Oneida boy marched in trubute to the region’s dairymen and packers.
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.
[imgcontainer left] [img:heart-320.jpg] [source]Mary Annette PemberLoretta Webster’s beadwork and her work as a cultural leader earned the First Peoples Fund’s Community Spirit Award.