By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Through the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards, we recognize the work of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian culture bearers who uphold the Collective Spirit®. Through their work and their lifeways, these artists embody the traditional values of First Peoples Fund — generosity and wisdom, respect and integrity, strength and humility.
These culture bearers are sustaining the arts of Indigenous people within their communities, growing arts ecologies, and teaching the next generation of artists and culture bearers of their People.
In 2017, we honor four outstanding culture bearers as they join nearly 100 past recipients of this prestigious award.
TRIBE: Jemez Pueblo
Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico
Anyone who desires to learn the traditional practices of stone carving is never turned away. For Cliff Fragua, stone carving has its place in Jemez Pueblo culture. It remains a vital part of their ceremonies.
“Teaching others how to carve stone for their own use is another way of passing on traditional cultural knowledge,” he says. He’s been asked why he shares his skills. To him, it not only helps the individual economically, but also moves the community to another level when they gain knowledge of the art form.
Over the past 40 years, Cliff has demonstrated his dedication to helping Native artists, whether through his award-winning art, committee and volunteer work, or teaching. In 1990, he was instrumental in founding the Towa Arts and Crafts Committee, which evolved into the Jemez Arts and Crafts Association. Cliff saw the need for such an organization early on to help local Jemez Pueblo artists. The association provided venues and shows for artists to sell their work, creating an art economy so they could provide for their families. Now he helps other Indigenous communities set up their own associations.
Chris Pappan (Kaw) chose to nominate his fellow artist for the Community Spirit Award because Cliff immerses himself in the cultural practices of the pueblo and the ways of his People, expressed through his sculptures.
“This deep sense of responsibility to sustaining the arts of Indigenous people is just one of the many reason I supported the nomination of Cliff Fragua,” said Chris, a ledger artist in Chicago and former First Peoples Fund Artists in Business Leadership fellow.
TRIBE: Aquinnah Wampanoag
North Providence, Rhode Island
Traditional singer, dancer, speaker and carver, Jonathan James-Perry is grounded in the traditions of his oceangoing ancestors. His vessels bring the community together. One of his projects, Mission Mishoon, became a community center with feasts created on the fires that burned diligently in the vessel as it was created. The community shared traditional foods — roasted whale meat, wild rice, turkey, venison, buffalo, bear, fish, mussels and the occasional doughnut.
Laughter, memories and prayers came together with people from the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities and brought in people from the Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, Passamaquoddy, Hunkpapa Lakota, Crow, Haliwa-Saponi, Navajo, Shinnecock, Cree, Apache and many other Nations. Visitors brought pieces of their communities to the boat, and those gifts are now the vessel’s existence.
“All the vessels that I have made have been paddled and cared for by people in our New England Woodlands communities and Native-owned-and-operated museums and cultural centers,” Jonathan said.
Elizabeth James-Perry, Jonathan’s sister and an accomplished artist, sees how Jonathan strengthens the Aquinnah tribal community through showing how Aquinnah Wampanoag people still exist in their homelands against the odds.
“That key element every tribe needs for their continuance is put into practice in Jonathan’s boat-making projects — the ability that develops over time to work together in a thoughtful, respectful way to learn our lifeways,” Elizabeth said in her nomination of Jonathan. “Before you know it, we’ll be watching the next generation of culture bearers on the ocean, racing boats, splashing each other, celebrating a successful harvest, watching whales, and bringing their children out to view the sunrise.”
TRIBE: Oglala Lakota
Oglala, South Dakota
In Lakota tradition, the gift of a buffalo robe is considered a great honor, second only to receiving an eagle feather. When the government and settlers destroyed the buffalo herds, some women replaced the buffalo robe with handmade star quilts.
Taught at a young age by her mother, Norma Blacksmith has been a self-employed seamstress and quilter since 1986. In 1987, she approached the Oglala Lakota College with the idea of teaching students how to make star quilt tops as a Lakota traditional art. The board accepted the suggestion, and classes were presented to people in the community interested in learning the art form.
In 2011, with the help of Bruce BonFleur of Lakota Hope Ministry, Norma moved her business out of her home and opened Native Quilting Shop, a lifelong dream come true.
A highly respected elder in her community, Norma honors others by wrapping them in star quilts and singing songs over them. She honors people in all walks of life — men or women released from prison to Vietnam veterans.
Norma says, “I believe Wakan Tanka is a God of second chances. I believe this helps them to heal emotionally, mentally and spiritually.”
Bruce BonFleur, who helped Norma open her shop and runs Lakota Hope Ministry — an organization where Norma serves on the board — nominated her for the Community Spirit Award. “Like many women who have grown up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she has endured struggles that have only served to strengthen her and instill fortitude,” he said. “She is in her mid-70s. Her face is lined with deep experience of all that life on the reservation means. That quality, tempered with her contagious laugh and self-deprecating humor, exudes strength, and that extends out into the community that she loves and cares for so much.”
Timara Lotah Link
TRIBE: Chumash Coastal Band
Timara Lotah Link is one of California's preeminent weavers. A generation younger than many of her weaving counterparts, she has dedicated her life to learning, reviving and teaching California’s oldest and most rooted arts in her Chumash community and broadly to Native Peoples throughout California.
“I am an ‘alaleqwel, a maker,” Timara said. “I am much more than a textile artist — I am a rich tapestry of human connections to the past, to the present and to the future, and my role is an active one. My art draws from the past, interacts with the present and prepares for the future.”
She makes baskets, fish traps, bows, seed beaters, headdresses, cradles, boats, traditional houses, dolls, hats, jewelry, regalia, musical instruments and canoe paddles. Each new skill she obtains is a small piece of her culture she can return to her community, though proximity to one another is her People’s greatest challenge.
Timara’s art helps heal her community by returning tangible cultural skills to the people, which in turn gives them a fierce sense of identity they can pass to their children. Her father taught her to be proud of her heritage. “Because of him, I care about my basketry, not as a craft but as part of my heritage — it’s who I am, not what I do.”
Lindsie Bear, contributing editor for News from Native California magazine, nominated Timara for the Community Spirit Award. She said, “We, like the communities she touches with her teaching and weaving, are sustained by knowing her.”