Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards recognizes Native artists


City Council Member Melvin Carter took center stage and started this year’s Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards by declaring September 10th as Community Spirit Day in St. Paul. “People of color have learned time and time again to know who they are and where they come from and tonight we are honoring people who do that” Carter said.   

First Peoples Fund hosted their annual Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards recognizing six Native artists who preserve the cultural identities of their people and embody the fund’s theme of generosity, community and wisdom.

The Community Spirit award was created in 2005 to honor Jennifer Easton, the founder of First Peoples Fund, whose mission is “to honor and support the creative community-centered First Peoples artists; and nurture the collective spirit that allows them to sustain their peoples.”

This year’s awards were held at the SteppingStone Theater in St. Paul. David Cournoyer, member of First Peoples Fund, hosted the evening which featured a multimedia presentation that showcased some of the artists’ work, along with audio clips from community members that emphasized their work in their respective community.

Each artist gave a speech and performed or spoke about their work. The event also featured performances by Jennifer Kreisberg and Pura Fe Crescioni of Ulali, Native Pride Dancers and a reception which followed the ceremony and provided locally grown indigenous food.

This year’s recipients were artists from across the country that work with many forms of art, some intangible and others tangible, but all share their culture with the community and pass on important traditions in order to sustain their people.

The Honorees this year were: Richard Zane Smith (Wyandot) for his work in ceramics, language and storytelling; Trudie Lamb Richmond (Schaghticoke) for her work as a storyteller and teacher in Connecticut; Bud Lane III (Siletz) for his work in basketry; Therese St. Cyr (Oglala Lakota) for her traditional beadwork and youth dance group, Many Mocassins; Ramona Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag) for her ceramic work and finally; and Wade Fernandez (Menominee) for his work as a professional musician and songwriter/composer.

“The evening was really, really inspiring with so many people there, with a good purpose and community spirit. I was blown away. I felt a little unworthy to be there,” Fernandez said.

When notified of winning the award, St. Cyr was surprised. “My nominator kept telling me to apply but kept putting it off because I didn’t think I was good enough for it and I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t think I was doing anything spectacular. I was just doing what I do and being myself.”

Based out of Rapid City, SD, First Peoples Fund was founded in 1995 with the intention of supporting and honoring indigenous artists and it is now, the only national Native organization that provides grants to Native artists.

“We looked for what is lacking and needed by artists in the field, in particular in the northern plains region and how to provide access to markets for artists and help them get supplies for their work. Particularly, emerging artists interested in promoting work from reservations,” Lori Pourier, President of First People’s Fund, said of the founding of the organization.

In addition to the Community Spirit award, First Peoples Fund created the Artists in Business leadership grant and the Cultural Capitol program that is available to previous Community Spirit Awards recipients. The Cultural Capitol program further helps artists in distributing and sharing their work through local networks around their communities. The Business leadership award helps those entrepreneurial artists with small business ventures.  

“It was Jennifer Easton’s vision that it would be run by Native Americans to support individuals primarily in arts and culture. We wanted to honor those tradition bearers who teach and share their work with their community” Pourier said.

According to Pourier, First People’s Fund has recognized about 52 individuals for their work so far. Each year there are between 75 and 100 nominations. There is a national selection committee composed of Native American artists, art administrators, and other involved in the arts, and is only given to five or six artists each year. “The community spirit is at the heart of everything we do,” Pourier commented.

“When you see an organization start from nothing come to a total reality it’s breathtaking and that night it came to reality for me,” Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) said, who received the Spirit of Generosity award for her work with First People’s Fund.

Cobell was a part of the original team of people that began the groundwork for what would become First People’s Fund. But once Cobell began her lawsuit about the government’s mismanagement of Indian trust funds, she had to leave the board but remained an advisor to the organization.

“I missed it, I really missed it. It was one of my true loves,” Cobell said.

“Community spirit is not just about the art but more about sustaining and uplifting our cultural values, giving back to our communities and supporting our youth and elders. First People’s Fund wanted to recognize those “unsung heroes,” Pourier said, “but someday we hope that tribes will do it themselves.”