Voices of native wisdom 

Reducing racism and increasing understanding of American Indians are the dual functions of a new cultural heritage project being launched this month by an Oregon nonprofit group.

The Portland-based Wisdom of the Elders (WOTE) was founded in 1992 by the late Martin High Bear, a Lakota Sioux spiritual leader, and Rose High Bear, an Alaskan Athabascan.

The organization produces radio programs, documentaries and other educational materials. Its latest venture is the Turtle Island Storytellers Network, slated for public unveiling at www.turtleislandstorytellers.net on April 24.

The network will serve both as an online educational tool and as a way to interact with about 80 profiled tribal elders, musicians, cultural leaders and historians for speaking and concert engagements, training seminars and other events, says WOTE staff member Elaine Lanegan.

The first round of profiles will include Montana residents and Crow tribal members Alma Snell and Barney Old Coyote, as well as Dorrance “Bodu” Comes Last, a member of the Fort Peck Reservation’s Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. To start, American Indians from 13 states in the Northern Plains and Pacific Coast will be represented.

“We’re hoping to be adding and adding until we do the whole United States,” Lanegan says.

WOTE is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Park Service and its Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail program, the Oregon Arts Commission and the Spirit Mountain Community Fund.

The group’s audio programs are distributed by National Public Radio, American Indian Radio on satellite, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the Pacific Radio Network, among other outlets.

“Stories and song define us as human beings,” WOTE organizers say. “Our project’s cultural preservation and language restoration aspect contribute to the cultural renaissance occurring in today’s Indian country. We are discovering and documenting indigenous storytellers, oral historians and song carriers whose gifts of wisdom and oral tradition are rapidly diminishing and could be lost within the next decade.”

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