Passing Down Traditional Knowledge

Courtesy Reuben Naranjo / Reuben Naranjo’s apprentice Kathleen Vance holds a pottery sample at the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center & Museum in Topawa, Arizona.

Apprentices absorb traditional knowledge from master artisans

The Southwest Folklife Alliance, based in Tucson, Arizona, is trying to put the brakes on diminishing traditions with its Master-Apprentice Program, which supports traditional artists by providing funding to both the teacher and their student engaged in passing down traditional knowledge.

“At a time when the world demands of us ever more increasing speed, multi-tasking, productivity, and efficiency, it is important to make room for the kind of in-depth learning, patience, attention to detail, and exchange of fellowship and hospitality that a master-apprenticeship relation provides,” said Southwest Folklife Alliance Executive Director Dr. Maribel Alvarez. “Our mission is to build more equitable and vibrant communities by celebrating the everyday expressions of culture, heritage, and diversity in the Greater Southwest.”

“While we recognized the skill and mastery of traditional art forms to help in cultural transition, our research found a deficit of support of tradition bearers, so three years ago we started with four awards and committed to increasing that number annually. This year we will make nine awards to help mentors and their students find their voice and narrative,” said program manager Leia Maahs.

Masters are awarded $2,500 while their emerging tradition-bearing apprentices receive $500 to assimilate traditional knowledge.

Courtesy Steven Meckler/Southwest Folklife Alliance / Master potter Ron Carlos, of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, was a 2015 recipient of the master award. He worked with apprentice August Wood and shared his traditional knowledge of collecting and processing natural clays and pigments, making tools, firing pots in open pit fires, and using Native designs.

One previous recipient, Ron Carlos (Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community) never intended to work in clay. But an introductory class sponsored by the Huhugam Ki Museum changed all that. Now, as a paddle and anvil potter in the Piipaash tradition, he uses materials he digs from the nearby desert and works in traditional fashion.

“Unfortunately, this is a dying art and I don’t know if it will continue for long; many today are detached from tradition and nature… a lot of people don’t even know what clay smells like,” Carlos said. “The Master-Apprentice Program allows for an in-depth transfer of tradition. Sitting with a master who retains traditional knowledge allows the apprentice to absorb not just the process, but the master’s love and commitment to the traditions they carry within themselves. I’ve been making pottery for 23 years now and know there is still a lot more to learn.”

A 2016 master awardee, Reuben Naranjo (Tohono O’odham/Yoeme), first learned how to make a pot at age 12 from his hu’ul (grandmother) before formal study with tribal mentors in Hickiwan, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. Unfortunately today, “Among a tribe numbering over 30,000, I can count the numbers of potters on the fingers of both hands,” Naranjo said.

Courtesy Steven Meckler/Southwest Folklife Alliance / Traditional Tohono O’odham potter Reuben Naranjo learned pottery from his grandmother and received a master award in 2016.

“Pottery was once a fundamental element of O’odham culture and identity,” he said. “In fact, according to oral tradition, the word O’odham is derived from the word o’od, a type of sand used in the pottery-making process. Some Tohono O’odham creation stories tell of first creation as being one part clay, one part water, one part heat, and one part spirit molded in the form of man. Clay is central to my identity as an artist.”

A grant recipient from last year, Gerald Lomaventema (Hopi), is an overlay jeweler who learned the basics from his father before entering a formal apprenticeship as a teenager. “Although jewelry making was in our culture before European contact with bone and copper, silversmithing didn’t come to Hopi until the late 1800s when we began using an overlay technique with tribal designs for a look that was different than that of the Navajo and Zuni. Back then, our sheet material was made out of melted-down coins and my trainees and I still work that way to carry on tradition.”

Courtesy Steven Meckler/Southwest Folklife Alliance / Gerald Lomaventema shared his traditional knowledge of Hopi jewelry overlay in 2016.

Another awardee, Adolfo Guerro (Acjachamen Tribe of California and Opata from Sonora), began making masks in 1975. A student of the Nahuatl language, he works to disseminate ancient Mexican cultural art forms carving drums and fabricating traditional headdresses used in Aztec ceremonies.

Retired teacher Felipe Molina, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and a lifelong resident of Yoeme Pueblo, is an oral historian, a teacher of Yaqui language and culture, and an accomplished deer dancer practicing the pahko arts. “Programs like this allow elders and indigenous persons to transmit their traditional knowledge through stories, songs, informal instruction, and cultural demonstrations,” he said.

The deadline for the Master-Apprentice Program for 2017 has closed, but for those interested in the future, it is open to artisans, occupational practitioners, oral tradition practitioners and performing arts practitioners.

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