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Sophomore scholar provides free website aid for Native American artisans

By Taylor Graham

Taking part in a group service project or working with fellow students on an established project means you have a job to complete. Assigned to you is a set of tasks to accomplish deadlines to meet. With others, I have had the opportunity to work on some fantastic projects, including running a photography workshop for developmentally disadvantaged adults through the Ithaca Youth Bureau and helping the local nonprofit Loaves and Fishes further its online presence through 180 Degrees Consulting. However, for me, the most challenging, yet most rewarding, service experience has been envisioning my own opportunity for service through the creation of my own organization, Free Web Aid for Native Artisans.

When three fellow Park Scholars and myself jumped into a car and traveled down the East Coast to Cherokee, N.C. to work with artisans and test drive our newly envisioned project, we had no idea what we were getting into. I had a basic idea of what I wanted to accomplish: I wanted to come away from the weekend with a feature of each artisan we met and a greater understanding of who they were and what role their art played in Cherokee heritage and culture. My initial trepidation gave way to excitement as the weekend wore on, and our inaugural trip led to a greater understanding of the role my organization could play both for artisans and students alike.

I realized FWANA could do what I had envisioned: promote artisans while giving students an invaluable cross-cultural experience working with media. At the same time, FWANA could document artistic and broader cultural traditions that have become threatened by time and the advancement of society.

Over the summer, I took time to step back from the project and envision the change that I hoped it could create. During my time home over the summer, I spoke with David Nighteagle, a Lakota flute player and storyteller who has himself worked to document the fascinating traditions of the native peoples that live in our southwestern corner of the United States. While speaking to him, I began to appreciate some of the challenges I faced with FWANA.

He spoke of one Diné couple that he knew, and whose lives as rug makers he had spent countless hours documenting. They raised sheep near their small house in northeastern Arizona and took the sheep high into the Lukachukai Mountains each summer to graze. They then sheared the sheep, and, using natural dyes, formed the wool into yarn with which they wove the intricate designs of their rugs.

The couple did not own a phone, and each time David went out to talk with them and document another piece of their timeless tradition, he brought them a gift — usually flour — as is customary in Navajo culture. It took him years to witness their full process and even longer to get to know the couple well enough to film their artistic technique.

It is a challenge to find the people whose lives could be changed through the generation of a larger, online consumer base and can be challenging as well to communicate with them. Yet, I believe this is what makes FWANA such a powerful project. If it was easy to find out about this couple’s fascinating artistic tradition, its use of natural elements and painstakingly intricate process wouldn’t be at risk of disappearing. As communicators, we are in a unique place to keep these beautiful traditions alive and, in the process, learn more about the people around us and further the power of our media.

In the future, I hope to engage more students in the project in the hopes that they will learn as much as I have. Additionally, I want to challenge myself to find artisans who have messages to be heard, traditions to pass on, and can truly benefit from reaching an online consumer base.



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