NEA Awards National Heritage Fellowships 

Storyteller and saddlemaker earn top honors

Idaho's vibrant arts scene is attracting national notice, and 2008 has been an extraordinary year. Two of the 11 winners of the prestigious National Heritage Fellowships awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts hail from the Gem State. The fellows are Horace P. Axtell, a Nez Perce elder and storyteller from Lewiston, and Dale Harwood, a master saddlemaker from Shelley.

"I was so tickled, I couldn't believe it when the NEA told us we had two winners coming from Idaho," said Michael Faison, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts. "It's significant and very unusual to have two winners from the same state—and that two would arise from a state with a population as small as ours speaks to the fact that these men are masters in their traditional art forms. It's very cool."

The NEA National Heritage Fellowships are this country's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. It's a highly competitive award with a $20,000 cash prize given each year to a select few who are recognized for their artistic excellence and contributions to the nation's cultural heritage. In addition to Axtell's and Harwood's artistry, this year's winners represent traditions such as Southern quiltmaking, Ethiopian liturgical music, Korean dancing, Peruvian retablo making, traditional New Orleans jazz and bluegrass music.

click to enlarge Horace P. Axtell - MARGO ARAGON
  • Margo Aragon
  • Horace P. Axtell

Both Axtell and Harwood are typically modest about the honor. "It was kind of a shock," said the 84-year-old Axtell, who is the Nez Perce tribal historian. "Like some elders I had in my growing-up years who were very nice about explaining things if you had questions, I just always had it my mind to take the time and help people out. Next thing I know, a government man calls and says 'I'm talking to you from Washington, D.C.,' and I say 'Oh, what'd I do now?' When it came out in the news, I had to guess it was really true."

Dale Harwood also admitted to being taken aback and a little skeptical when first presented with the news. "Quite honestly, I was amazed," he said. "I actually thought someone was pulling a gag on me. [This honor] is the kind of stuff I never think about so it really caught me by surprise."

Axtell, whose Nez Perce name is Isluumts, fought as hard as any warrior at Whitebird to conquer the personal demons that, at times, threatened to engulf him in his youth. Today, Axtell is honored as a language preservationist, storyteller, drum maker and singer. His 1997 memoir, A Little Bit of Wisdom: Conversations with a Nez Perce Elder, eloquently follows his journey on the path of the spirit. A pipe-carrier for the tribe, he is also a spiritual leader for the Nez Perce Seven Drum religion, which requires its followers to memorize songs accompanied on handmade, hand-held drums. Axtell continues to fashion the drums as his elders did: curing the hide and stretching it over a wooden frame. Axtell has taught the Nez Perce language at Lewis-Clark State College and shared his knowledge of tribal skills through the Idaho Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. He received the President's Medallion from the University of Idaho and the Washington State Historical Society Peace and Friendship Award.

click to enlarge Dale Harwood - MARIA CARMEN GAMBLIEL
  • Maria Carmen Gambliel
  • Dale Harwood

In his book Tools of the Cowboy Trade, author Casey Beard calls Dale Harwood the "saddlemaker's saddlemaker." Known for his intricate, stamped designs, and silver and gold engraving, Harwood is generally considered to be the greatest living saddlemaker and, according to Beard, the "chief influence and mentor of a generation." Harwood has crafted more than 1,400 Western stock saddles in his career, each one unique. Each saddle can take from 30 to 350 hours to complete. Ranch-raised, Harwood processes his own rawhide, makes his own saddle trees and then cuts and stamps the leather before applying it to the tree. He designs and engraves his own silver and gold finishes. He insists he is just a saddlemaker. "I don't know how else to describe it," he said. "I just had a desire to be the best I could be. I'd encourage young people that, regardless of their life's pursuit, to be as good as they can be." Harwood is a co-founder of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association and in 1997, received the Best of Show award from his saddlemaking peers at the Western Folklife Center's saddle exhibition in Elko, Nev.

Axtell and Howard will be presented with their awards at a September ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. "These heritage awards are important not so people can say who we were," said Faison, "but rather, who we are."

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