Voices of a Collective Spirit

Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) and Elizabeth Woody (Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama)

"We have a term in our language called gW3dZadad— it is a form of wealth. It's the wealth of knowledge of culture of our peoples, our laws, our ceremonies, our songs, of the names of our ancestors...Our ancestors live today as long as we pass it down to our children.”
Bruce subiyay Miller, Community Spirit Award recipient

This is a story of honoring the collective spirit, heartfelt generosity, and human strength of the diverse cultural communities of our nation. Native honoring, like honoring in most cultures, enlightens and upholds a sense of responsibility to sustain the cultural fabric of a community. Our story of the collective spirit relies on sharing the voices of individuals who speak through centuries of ancestral knowledge and who create “art” from a special place of quiet and humility. Hopi tradition calls a spiral the path to peace, and this sym-bology exemplifies the unique visual language of the first peoples of this land. You see spirals or concentric circles within one another everywhere on the landscape in rock art and this is the first art many newcomers encountered upon the land.

Like their “master” teachers who came before them, and before them and so on, each individual First Peoples artist has an inherent understanding of life and an innate responsibility to the spirit within, guiding them through a contemporary form of cultural expression. It is the spirit that moves through each individual artist as he or she pauses to offer prayer and conduct ceremony in preparation for gathering raw materials, or to reconnect for the first time with a cultural artifact housed in a museum. It is a simple prayer of thanks to the Creator for the natural gifts that once were bountiful on this place the Lakota people call Unci Maka (Mother Earth). Spirit is not “something” to define easily or dismiss if it's placed within the context of one's life on a daily basis and as one gathers materials. Nora Noranjo Morse says, “We thank the earth for the clay we gather with the understanding we return ourselves in totality to the earth when our lives are over.”

Cultural expression for indigenous peoples is centuries old and unique to a particular tribal geo-political region of this country. Cultural expression provides each tribal member with a sense of community and a place of belonging. For indigenous peoples it's not the finished “product” or “art” per se but the collective spirit in each piece that moves each individual First Peoples artist to create and to pass on his or her knowledge by teaching and sharing historical knowledge with others. The responsibility to the past and the future is the continuum an artist threads into the weft of our cultural fabric along with unique human experience, which is part of why the artist's gift is so strong. Our artists are emissaries to the world at large. They bring together their communal life with their creative and individual use of the earth's materials. With their insightful energy they represent their ancestors' tenacious will that their progeny will endure.

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon is the universal life force that unites a region of diverse peoples and animals in action and in ceremony. The Pacific salmon are millions of years old and exist in a vast contiguous breadth of land from Korea, through Far East Russia and Siberia, to Alaska and Yukon Territories to the Baja Peninsula. In each region, there was acknowledgement of this species' significance to the way of life and sustenance for all life — from First Salmon ceremonies to massive trading routes of food exchange. The seasons of the salmon brought wealth and the occasion to make some of the most exquisite art pieces and technologically-adept tools and subsistence craft. We have storage baskets, and canoes and kayaks, and cordage woven into nets incorporating carved weights, and other sculptural objects not seen elsewhere. The works of contemporary artists pay homage to the ancient in their attention to form and materials that are part of the living systems of the land.

Pat Courtney Gold, Wasco-Wishram Tlingit textile artist, watches over the imperiled raw basket materials known as dogbane. Most consider dogbane a weed and many do not know its usefulness. She travels the globe to visit the baskets of the Wasco/Wishram peoples and to study their design elements. In a sense, she is visiting her “masters” with each examination of an heirloom stored in a museum. Pat Courtney Gold relies on the ancestral knowledge that is stored in many museums around the world in her effort to revitalize an ancient tradition of her people on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon and of the peoples of the Columbia River Plateau.

Like the women who came before her, Pat's mission is to share her basketweaving techniques, skills, and historical knowledge with the younger generations. As a weaver, she describes her heritage of art and culture as “all-embracing.” She and three other women helped revive the Wasco art of full-turn twine weaving techniques. Pat states, “we rely on our environment for the animal materials (skins, hoofs, shells, etc.), plants for basketry, and a clean environment, water, and air for a healthy community.” Pat believes that it is in the practice of her heritage and art that she becomes a steward of the land.

Lillian Pitt of the same cultural group worked without recognition with her brother and the tribes to see the careful restoration and removal of Columbia River Petroglyphs from the Bonneville Dam to a site at Horse Thief Lake Park. Here they join the great mother of pictographs, Tsagagllallal, or She-Who-Watches. Tsagagllallal was the last woman chief of the village below this location. When coyote, the great changer, told her there would no longer be woman chiefs, he asked her what did she want to do? She asked to stay forever and watch over her people. He turned her into the image we see today, and that inspires Lillian's work.

Through her artwork, Lillian personifies the spirit of She-Who-Watches. Her work engenders a sense of community and reminds all people of the magic and fragility of the earth. Lillian believes strongly that human beings must collectively interpret and reinterpret the role each of us plays in maintaining a balance and supporting life in all its forms. When asked how she describes her work, she says, “My work is a delicate plea for responsible conduct toward the environment.” Today, there are park service officers who reside at the Horse Thief Lake Park monitoring the rock art, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repatriated these cultural materials “back to the land.” These pieces are the last representatives of blasted rock around Celilo Falls, an ancestral fishing village inhabited for over 12,000 years. Both Pat Courtney Gold and Lillian Pitt knew this sacred place in their childhoods. Today they are revered as the culture bearers who share their wealth with others in humility.

Artists who combine tribally-specific stories of the land, culture, art, and their own individual, cultural expression are honored by First Peoples Fund through its annual Community Spirit Award. Community Spirit Award recipients are nominated by members of their respective communities for exemplifying indigenous values of generosity, wisdom, respect, integrity, strength, fortitude, and humility. Since 1998, First Peoples Fund recognized five artists annually, from as far northwest as Alaska and as far northeast as Maine. To date, First Peoples Fund has recognized thirty-six individuals with this award.

Ollie Nespesni (Sicangu Lakota) — an eighty-eight-year-old respected Unci (grandmother, artist, and cultural teacher) — seamlessly personifies the true spirit of generosity. Although officially retired, Ollie continues to volunteer her time to help ensure the vitality of the Lakota language and culture in the elementary schools throughout the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

When Ollie received her Community Spirit honor last year, she did not consider it to be an award solely for herself, but rather an honor for her family and entire community. After using part of the award to buy art supplies for the “days when she cannot drive or walk anymore” and to install electricity in her modest home, she waited for nearly a year until her grandson, stationed in Iraq, returned on leave so that he, too, could share in the celebration. Upon his return and in his honor she used her award to host (two times) a traditional community feast and “giveaway” — honored traditions in Lakota and American Indian society. The simple way in which Ollie redistributed the wealth among her community speaks volumes of her values, her heart, her sense of responsibility, and her commitment to ensuring the vitality of Native culture, spirituality, and lifeways.

When accepting his 2005 Community Spirit Award, Bruce subiyay Miller shared these words, “I never expected any acknowledgement for what I do in life. I merely look upon the things that I do as a personal responsibility to keep what I have alive for future generations.” Bruce Miller passed away in the spring 2005. He mentored more than 2,500 students in the fifty years he walked this Earth. Bruce Miller, an accomplished contemporary artist and actor, could have made his living in a place like New York City where he spent time to great acclaim, but he returned home to teach.

We honor the culture bearers who are the voices of a collective spirit and who, through a lifetime of commitment, teach us all as human beings about the honor of giving. For the 500 plus First Nations in the U.S. there is no word for art. Art is a gift from the creator that comes to us from ceremony, song, and dance. We believe that art has been an important part of our sacred ways for centuries. Indigenous people create art from the soul, from their connection to the natural world. Art helps to heal our spirit and teaches us to honor and share our gifts — it teaches us a good way to live. It is not uncommon for these individuals to view the creation and practice of art as a “personal responsibility” and to humbly embrace cultural continuity.

Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) is president of First Peoples Fund. The mission of the Fund, founded in 1995, is to honor and support creative community-centered First Peoples artists and to nurture the collective spiritâ„¢ that allows them to sustain their peoples. First Peoples Fund is an active member of GIA and of the newly formed Indigenous People's Network. (See page 6.) Before joining the Fund, Pourier served as executive director of the Indigenous Women's Network.

Elizabeth Woody (Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama) writes poetry, prose, and creative non-fiction, is author of three books, and has received many awards including the 1990 American Book Award. As director of the Indigenous Leadership Program for Ecotrust, she manages the Buffett Award for Indigenous Leadership, an annual awards program for mid-career leadership.