Master Class

Thanks to RISCA and an NEA grant, the Apprenticeship Collective Teaching Program will help keep Native American artforms alive

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If you ever want to lose yourself in an Internet rabbit-hole, try reading about the history of wampum. First you’ll read about wampum belts, which hold special significance to northeastern Native Americans. Then you’ll learn that purple beads came from quahog shells – that same hardshell clam that Rhodies revere. And then, after you read about treaties secured with wampum and Dutch colonists mass-producing wampum in factories, you’ll learn that the artform is thousands of years old.

Last year, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts received a $30,000, multi-year grant from the NEA for the study of “folk arts.” This isn’t a new genre for RISCA, which cultivates a wide range of creative pursuits across the state. What is new is the way that these arts are taught: The Apprenticeship Collective Teaching Program gathers master artists and new students in the Narragansett Longhouse in Charlestown. The crafting techniques are traditional, as is the entire method of teaching.

“This collective way of teaching provides a highly effective approach to reach a broader number of students, to create a bigger impact and legacy that results in more Junior Artists becoming Master Artists,” says Elena Calderón Patiño, director of the community arts program.

The lynchpin of the program is Nancy Brown-Garcia, a master beader and chief deputy preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe. The 24 intensive workshops focus on “regalia,” but the subjects take many forms. Students can learn leathercraft, beading, percussion, dance, singing, and yes, the creation of wampum. Instead of a “one-on-one model,” where a single student apprentices with a single master, workshops are held in groups and each step is augmented with cultural context.

At the end of each cycle, the Longhouse will offer presentations to the public, so curious visitors can see these traditions come to life. The Longhouse itself is a beautiful structure of shingled walls and a curving roof, modeled on the Narragansetts’ winter lodges.