Library of Congress
Rufus White at the 1983 Omaha Powwow in Macy, Nebraska.

Masters of Drum, Quill and Basket Tapped for Major NEA Award


The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) presents its Heritage Fellowships annually to master folk artists, and in 2014 the list of recipients includes three eminent Natives: drum group leader Rufus White, porcupine quillworker Yvonne Walker Keshick, and basketmaker Henry Arquette. White, a 76-year-old elder of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, is a tradition bearer of the Omaha who has several recordings preserved in the Library of Congress. Keshick, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa, is regarded as one of the finest quillwork artists working today, and in 1992 received a Michigan Heritage Award (MHA) from the MSU Museum. A Mohawk elder, Arquette has twice received the Traditional Arts of Upstate New York's North Country Heritage Award in recognition of his expert basketmaking. The three esteemed artists belong to a nine-member class of Heritage Fellowship recipients that also includes an Irish-American step dancer, a gospel-singing brother act, and a Mexican-American bandleader.

The Fellowship carries a grant of $25,000; Fellows will be honored at an awards ceremony on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 and a concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium on Friday, September 19, 2014.

Here, from the NEA's website, are the biographical sketches of the three Native recipients:

Rufus White

Born in 1938 on the Omaha Reservation in Macy, Nebraska, Rufus White is a tradition keeper and featured performer of traditional songs of the Umonhon (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska). White, known as Shuda Gina (Calls for Smoke) in Umonhon, was raised to follow traditional ways by his grandparents and father after the death of his mother in his infancy. At the age of ten, White began learning to sing from his father and grandfather who were both spiritual leaders and taught him both the songs and the history behind them. He is a resource for not only Omaha songs but also their related customs and stories.

As a tradition bearer in his tribe, White has played a major role in passing on the songs of his tribe by performing them at powwows and intertribal gatherings both at home, across the country, and internationally as part of cultural exchange. He is also sought after for many other social and ceremonial occasions because his repertory includes a large number of family songs, Hethushka (War Dance) songs, specific Handgame songs, Gourd Dance songs, War Mother songs, and sacred songs from several Omaha tribal societies. White's knowledge extends to knowing which songs are appropriate for which occasions and when during an event they should be sung.

White's singing has been recorded for local schools to use as well as by the Library of Congress, adding his knowledge of Omaha tribal songs to a collection which features Omaha songs on wax cylinders going back to 1893. He has taught songs to young singers through a Nebraska Arts Council's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant in addition to teaching in the schools on the reservation. At the Umonhon Nation Public School he has also been instrumental in teaching the Umonhon language, as well as sharing traditional and family stories, songs, and cultural traditions.

Yvonne Walker Keshick

A basket maker and porcupine quillwork, Yvonne Walker Keshick creates birchbark masterpieces realistically decorated with quills that depict natural images as well as cultural symbols of the Odawa tribe. Also a devoted teacher, she has developed resources and provided instruction to ensure this art form is passed down to others as it was to her.

Keshick was born in 1946 and is descended from a long line of Odawa/Ojibwa quillworkers. Keshick's aunt, Anna Odei'min, was reputedly on the of the finest quillworkers at the turn of the 19th century. In 1969, Keshick began learning the art from teacher and artist, Susan Kiogima Shagonaby.

Keshick quickly mastered both the traditional cultural designs as well as the basic wildlife and floral designs for which her family was known and which are passed down from generation to generation. She then excelled in creating even more complex and realistic designs of flora and fauna as well as depictions of cultural symbols and stories. Her work is known for its technical craftsmanship—the quality of material used, the uniformity of sewing, and the accuracy of the forms and fits of boxes and covers. Keshick avoids using dyed quills in her work and instead creates shadowing affects using the natural colors of the quills. Keshick is also knowledgeable in the stories and traditions associated with quillwork and her culture, which she shares with her community and family.

Keshick has said, "I believe it is truly our responsibility to teach others all of the best things of our culture" and in that vein has passed along the tradition to her sons and daughter. She participated in Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and has also written a manuscript that coves instructions on making quillwork and information on the cultural meanings related to quillwork.

Keskick played an active role in the successful efforts of her tribe's federal recognition in the 1980s. In 1992, Michigan State University Museum honored her with a Michigan Heritage Award for her "mastery of her tradition, attention to authenticity, and commitment to sharing her cultural knowledge within her community." Keshick's quillwork is included in numerous museum collections, including the National Museum of the American Indian. She was a featured participant in the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Carriers of Culture Native Weaving Traditions program.

Henry Arquette

A master basketmaker, Henry Jake Arquette specializes in the utility baskets traditionally made by the Haudenosaunee Mohawks—pack, laundry, picnic, wedding, and corn washing baskets woven out of black ash. This art form was traditionally carried out by men due to the labor required to pound the black ash logs into splints for the baskets, and today Arquette is one of the few individuals who knows not only how to perform this work, but also how to locate the correct black ash trees that face environmental threats.

Arquette, whose Mohawk name is Atsienhanonne which means "fire keeper," was born in 1931 and grew up on the Akwesasne Reservation, located along the St. Lawrence River in the far north of New York State bordering Canada. He learned to make baskets from his father and grandfather and recalls that as a child he could hear the sound of men pounding black ash logs to make splints for the baskets from miles around. Forgoing power tools for the implements that were passed down to him by his father and grandfather, Arquette creates his utility baskets out of black ash splints with sturdy handles made of white ash.

A retired ironworker who spent much of his career working on bridges and skyscrapers across the country, Arquette supplemented his income during hard times by making and selling his baskets. In 1993, Arquette retired from ironworking and began making baskets full time. Today he is a revered community elder, and his skills as a master basketmaker are known across the region. He has mentored others in the art form and taught at the Akwesasne Cultural Center in Hogansburg, New York, for 25 years. His baskets are in collections all over the world including the National Museum of the American Indian.

In 1994, he and other Mohawk basketmakers received the Traditional Arts of Upstate New York’s North Country Heritage Award, and in 2004 he was recognized individually with the same award. His baskets are in collections around the world, including the National Museum of the American Indian.

Environmental threats such as over-harvesting, pollution, insect infestation, and plant disease have threatened the black ash trees on which this art form depends. Arquette has played an advocacy role in protecting this resource. He was recognized by the National Aboriginal Forestry Association with the Ross Silversides Forestry award in 2001.

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