Making Everyday Life More Beautiful

The objects in Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., are striking for both their beauty and the amazing intricacy of their craftsmanship. If a visit to the exhibition leaves you wondering how the artists created those beaded dresses or expertly stitched baskets, we’ve planned a series of Saturday sessions during which local Native artists will be on hand to demonstrate their work and showcase the continued vitality and creativity of Native North American people and their cultures.

Robbi A. Swift, a member of the Whitefish River First Nation of Ojibwa, is helping to coordinate these artist demonstrations for the museum. A resident of Cleveland’s West Side, her family is originally from Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. Below, she explains her own artistic process and the role the arts play within the Ojibwa culture.

Can you describe the tradition of the arts within your culture?
Historically within my own nation, winters were hard and contact with outsiders very rare. So, to pass the time during the long winters, my ancestors used various means to occupy themselves. They decorated clothing and household items—simple things like baskets woven with different dyed ashes and grasses; birch baskets, mats, and clothing decorated with dyed porcupine quills; elk or deer hides painted with stories or family histories; and carved stone and wood for the protection of families or bands. It wasn't until later, in the 20th century, that these actions became viewed as art forms. We simply continue to decorate and protect. I am sure that my great-great grandparents would be amused that dances such as deer dances or jingle dances for healing are now considered an art form and that a simple berry gathering basket or family-story hide is considered art.

You'll be demonstrating and sharing your art as part of the programming for the exhibition. Can you describe your process?
One of the things I will be demonstrating is quill work techniques. This involves using porcupine quills to decorate simple items. It is difficult to describe, but, in a nutshell, you take a quill, soak it, flatten it, and work it by either bending or sewing.

I’ll also show dentalium work. Dentalium is a small white shell that is tubular in shape; it is used to make earrings, chokers, and hairpieces. This is easier to describe: You measure the “dent” off and, using sinew and beads, string it together or sew it on. I also do bone work, which involves using bone beads to make various objects, such as chokers and breast plates.

Do you have favorite traditions, either memories during your own childhood or traditions that you currently share with your family?
To the best of our abilities, we continue to maintain those traditions and values which our ancestors practiced. We continue to teach our children about adulthood ceremonies, naming ceremonies, feast of the dead (when we celebrate our ancestors and those we care for who have passed), our dance of victory for our warriors (veterans), the gifting of eagle feathers, the ceremony for bringing a new child into the circle … so many things we continue to do.

As I remember my grandmother saying, as long we continue to be, we shall continue to be. In other words, if we continue to remember who and what we are, to practice and try to maintain our beliefs, our values, and our traditions, we will continue to be. We teach what we teach to our children and our grandchildren so that we as a nation continue. My favorite memory is the naming of my youngest by her great-grandmother; she was my last child to receive her name and that memory still brings tears and joy to me.

How would you describe the Native American communities in Northeast Ohio?
Very diverse, so many tribes and bands are located in this area, mainly due to the relocation programs of the US. The communities are spread out over a large area, but come together for events and to provide assistance to one another. We may be of many tribes, but at our hearts we are a people who try to maintain the values of our ancestors.

We all work hard to place a good face on our people and our ways. Too many times in this state, we find groups that are not Native American Indians but proclaim that they are, doing things which are darn right embarrassing to us and incorrect. So, we always welcome the opportunity to share the correct ways of our people with others.

What do you hope that visitors to the museum will take away from the exhibition?
An appreciation of the stamina and bravery of the people to survive; to view those items which had an everyday use and are decorated to make something beautiful so that it was enjoyed as well as being useful. To see that today we continue to find ways to make our everyday life more beautiful and, most important, to realize that we just don't exist in the movies or books but that we are here today and our people continue to celebrate each day. We are people with hearts and minds.

Art demonstrations will take place in the museum’s KeyBank Lobby on selected Saturdays throughout the run of the exhibition. Local Native American artisans will be on hand beginning at 1:30 p.m. on April 3, 10, and 24; and May 1 and 22. For more information about additional programs, visit the museum’s web site.

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