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