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American Routes Shortcuts: NEA National Heritage Fellows 2019

2019 National Heritage Fellows
National Endowment for the Arts

This week, we're celebrating the National Heritage Fellows, past and present. It’s our annual tribute to great traditional artists, musicians, storytellers, and craftspersons, who have been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts since 1982. 



Nick Spitzer: Grant Bulltail, a 2019 Heritage Fellow is a native of Crow Agency, Montana, and comes from a family of storytellers who held the history of the Apsáalooke people. Grant spoke of his path in storytelling and sustaining his family’s traditions. 

Grant Bulltail: Storytelling was a part of our lives. People would sit around and tell things that they did, you know, chasing horses, chasing cows, and people were glad to talk about it because things were changing at that time in the 1940s. The whole world changed after World War II I think, for the worse. We have newer things and more technology but we’re losing the way we used to live with nature, and I believe that’s how we were supposed to live. And then it suddenly changed; people had stopped telling these stories because their lives were so hard. After a while, people wanted to listen to stories, and nobody knew the stories anymore, and so I tried to tell them how we lived.  I do it for my children and my grandchildren so that they’ll know where we came from and how we lived before the reservation days. I think that will help people understand that we don’t have to be violent, we can cooperate and help people who need help so that our society will be much better. 

NS: Josephine Lobato is a master of colcha embroidery, a style of needlework that traces its history to Spanish colonial times. Her canvases depict everyday life in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. 

Josephine Lobato: I was raised in a little town called San Luis, Colorado, and it had a lot of history, so I knew all the stories. Many of the stories were tied to the Catholic church, but it was mixed in with the folklore that I heard as a child or heard over the years. Slowly I began to come up with different ideas, and I would design them myself. That was the only way to go. But I came up with my idea–oh I did paper dolls as a kid, I’ll use my characters that I used in paper dolls. So I drew my women, my men, and I stuck pretty close to the period of time that the colcha was going to be. Like if it was 1920, I made a 1920 hat or a 1920 truck. I wanted it to be realistic because the stories were real. My idea, when I first started, was what happened in Colorado? Where did they lose this? And they did, they lost it. I had seen the colchas in the museums, and I wanted to learn to work just with one stitch. The rest is history, that’s my life. 

NS: Rich Smoker defines his art form as floating sculpture, making wildfowl decoys of water birds on the eastern shore of Maryland. Rich shared with us how he got his start. 

Rich Smoker: My dad had a couple of decoys, and he wasn’t using them so what the heck, I’ll try it. So I grabbed the decoys and went down along the river and floated them. I was hooked, that was it. Floating sculpture. When I could see that surrounded by fall colors, running water that was crystal clear, why would you want to do anything else but this? Working decoys, it’s a decoy that’s made to be utilitarian; it’s made to be used to bring birds to the gun. Then you have decorative decoys. Now that fits into a number of different things. You can do it like a smooth bird, like everything is painted on it. Or you can get into the real decorative birds, where each feather is individually carved, textured, and painted that way. You know I’m trying to teach people to show people that what we do is not a bunch of guys sitting around a wood stove chewing tobacco and making ducks. It’s more of an art form than what people realize because there are so many factors that go into this, into the carving, you know the research, the background, seeing it in life and everything involved. It all comes to a head when you’re working on the wood. After doing it so long, I really can’t imagine doing anything else but. 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.