Six Native American artists were honored on Friday, September 10, for using arts to sustain the values of Native people. The occasion was the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards, held at SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul. The honorees, who come from all over the country, were recognized for connecting their communities to a shared history and culture and for manifesting the tools supporting the spiritual practices of their people.
The event was sponsored by the First Peoples Fund, an organization based in Rapid City, South Dakota; the organization was founded in 1995. The group aims to honor and support creative community-centered Native artists, and to nurture endeavors that sustain Native cultural traditions and values.
The awards are named after Jennifer Easton, a founder of First Peoples Fund, who is a Stillwater resident. Easton is a philanthropist and activist who has produced award-winning documentaries about Native American issues. The awards were established in 1999, and recognize the artists with a gift of $5,000. The honorees are nominated by members of their communities and selected by an independent panel of American Indian reviewers.
Among those honored were Alfred “Bud” Lane III (Siletz), who has spent his adult life perpetuating Siletz culture through revitalizing Athabaskan language and ancient basket making techniques. Trudie Lamb Richmond (Schaghticote) is a storyteller who believes that storytelling is essential to cultural survival and that it teaches us about our relationship and responsibilities in the natural world. Wade Fernandez (Menominee) teaches a mixture of Menominee style and modern blues, rock, country, jazz, soul, and folk music using native flute and guitar, hand drum, percussion, bass, keyboards, bouzouki, mandolin, and the harmonica, and teaches native flute and guitar lessons at the Menominee Tribal School. Ramona Peters works with clay and teaches the way of the ancestors and has revived the lost form of Wampanoag potter. Therese St. Cyr (Oglala Lakota) was taught by her grandmother how to dance and create beadwork, and taught herself how to make burial moccasins and clothing, and is oftentimes is called upon by tribal members who require moccasins within a short period. She also started her own youth dance troupe- Many Moccasins Dance Troupe.
Also honored was Richard Zane Smith (Wyandot), who uses language, storytelling, singing and ceramics as a method of healing within his community. In an interview, Smith said that one of his activities was trying to revive ancient traditions of pottery. His interest in pottery started for him in high school, but it wasn’t until the late seventies when he gained an interest in ancient techniques. For the most part he has learned Iroquoian and Wyandot pottery on his own, by studying old pieces and looking at photographs from archaeological digs.
Smith said that he was raised to be proud of his ancestry. “We knew about it but we didn’t know the details,” he said. “When I got into high school, I started really being hungry to find out about my native ancestry.” He traveled to the southwest part of the country, and began looking at old pottery. In the desert, he found shards of pottery dropped hundreds of years ago that were still there. He now shows work at galleries, including The Blue Lane Gallery in Santa Fe. He also teaches classes in Oklahoma, where he lives, for tribal members in the area. “I’m hoping for a pottery revival in our area just like what happened in the southwest,” he said.
He also is very interested in preserving his Native language. He works as a volunteer with children from preschool all the way up to the 6th grade. “In some ways it relieves me,” Smith said of his volunteer work. “It’s not some kind of job- because it’s really important.”
Smith said that it was an incredible honor to be chosen for the award, but he especially appreciated being able to find out what others were doing in their communities. “Every one of these honorees have a real vision for the future,” he said. “We all want to see our own nations become strong again. We are trying to work with children and really bring change and face some of the outside influences that have been so negative.”