Programs & Activities: Michigan Heritage Awards

Michigan Heritage Awards Ceremony

Since 1985, the Michigan State University Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program has recognized Michigan tradition bearers with a special Michigan Heritage Award, honoring them for maintaining with excellence and authenticity their family and community folk traditions. They bring honor not only to themselves but also to their communities, families, and forbearers. The awards bring recognition and honor to traditional artists who might otherwise go unnoticed by the larger community. Nominations for the awards are sought each fall and are reviewed by a panel of specialists each spring.

Over the years, the honorees have been drawn from all corners of the state and reflect the great diversity of skills, ethnicities, and backgrounds of Michiganders. Some of the awardees have also been honored as recipients of the National Heritage Fellowships given by the National Endowment for the Arts. This year, the awardees, listed below, will be honored at a ceremony, Saturday, August 9 on the Abbott Road Stage at the Great Lakes Folk Festival.

Richard M. Dorson [posthumous]
Folklife scholar and educator

Richard M. Dorson (1916-1981) was Distinguished Professor of History and Folklore and Director of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University. He was a remarkable and energetic scholar, who at the time of his death, was the dominant force in the study of folklore. Dr. Dorson’s documentation of Upper Peninsula and southwestern Michigan traditions is his legacy to Michiganders.

In 1944 Richard Dorson joined the faculty at Michigan State College; in 1957 he left for Indiana University. During his time at Michigan State College, he and his students conducted groundbreaking research in Michigan, documenting everyday life and expression that have since changed or no longer exist. In 1946, Richard Dorson drove the byways of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, sat in hotel lobbies and homes, in barbershops and Grange Halls, in bars and church basements collecting the oral traditions, customs, and beliefs of many of the region’s diverse population. The Upper Peninsula for Richard Dorson was a microcosm of America. In this thinking, he was well ahead of his time. Here he found a truly diverse population, composed of different ethnicities, languages, religions, and occupations. It was a region where the environment, economy, politics, and diverse peoples forged the region’s folklore within the trajectory of American history.

Dorson’s research has left us an important cultural and historical legacy: a record of folklife of a specific region at a specific moment in American history. Dorson’s research in the Upper Peninsula resulted in a number of articles and Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers (1952) which has been reprinted many, many times over the years.

Dr. Dorson also conducted important work among African Americans of southwestern Michigan, exploring the intercultural relation of race in regional and national culture. His research resulted in historically and culturally important records, published in articles and books, including Negro Folktales in Michigan (1956) and Negro Tales from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Calvin, Michigan (1958). He also documented the folklore of Michigan State College students, thereby questioning the popular assumptions about who are the folk and proving that students and educated classes are also the folk.

Our understanding of American folklore and the cultural history of the Upper Peninsula, in particular, would be infinitely poorer without Richard Dorson’s work. His popular writings forced students and scholars of culture to look closely at Michigan’s cultural inheritance and relate it to their own experience. He brought attention to a region, culture, and people who eluded national attention.

Laina Marie Lampi
Finnish American rag rug weaver

Laina Lampi (b.1914, nee Kehus) is an exceptional rag rug weaver in the Finnish American tradition. As a child growing up in Tapiola, she learned about weaving from her mother, who had learned in Finland; however, it would be many years before Laina began to weave on a regular basis. Like many young females of her generation who left home to seek work in big cities in the 1930s, Laina went to Detroit, where she found employment. Eventually she married and raised a family. Upon her mother’s death, she received her mother’s precious loom, large, old and immigrant-made, which Laina values highly and on which she has been weaving for forty years. She credits her loom for her ability to make pleasing rugs. “A good rug,” she declared, “requires a good loom.”

Laina’s technical perfection and expert use of colors are also the result of decades of weaving. Like all Finnish American weavers, she is a consummate recycler. Her rags come from old clothing, blankets, sheets, and towels people give her or she finds at flea markets, rummage sales, and resale shops. Recycling these discards into beautiful rugs is her special art. It also is her way “to save the earth.” Color is one of the standards she looks for in rugs and her own sense of color is exceptional. Doris Allen, weaver and fellow member of FinnWeavers (Farmington Hills, Michigan), lauds Laina’s artistry, “The technical construction [of Laina’s rugs] can be achieved by others, if they work at it, but the colors and designs are from an artistic soul. . . .Laina has managed to raise the production of rag rugs, conventionally thought of as a utilitarian form, to an art form.”

As a preservationist and proud Finnish American, Laina has consciously taught her skills and knowledge perfected over the years with others in her family who share her enthusiasm. She also has mentored many beginning rag rug weavers. She has displayed her rugs at FinnFest and in the traveling exhibition “A Living Legacy: Finnish American Rag Rugs.” She has demonstrated rag weaving and has made presentations about rag rug weaving to other weavers’ guilds. “My weaving life,” Laina said, “has been very fulfilling.”

The Michigan Heritage Award recognizes Laina Lampi’s lifelong dedication to and masterful execution of rag rug weaving.

Ronald J. Paquin
Sault Ste. Marie
Birch bark canoe maker

Ronald J. Paquin (b. 1942) is a proud member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. Although only in his 50s, he is known as a traditionalist and preserver of traditional skills. He believes he has a responsibility to teach others of his tribe about their heritage and he has devoted himself to teaching family and community members a variety of Ojibwa traditions. Ron makes birch bark containers, antler and bone carvings, knives, cedar and deer hide drums, porcupine quill boxes, beadwork, black ash baskets, fishing nets, and birch bark canoes. He is a storyteller and a fisherman. Although a master of these Ojibwa traditions, Ron is being recognized for maintaining and reinforcing the tradition of birch bark canoe making.

Canoes are important to Ojibwa history and Ron is committed to their perpetuation in Ojibwa culture. Years ago, when Ron first realized he wanted to make canoes, his uncle deemed it impractical for him to make canoes because “tourists weren’t interested in buying them.” However, as he watched the masters of this craft die, Ron knew if he didn’t learn, there wouldn’t be anyone left to teach subsequent generations. He worked with family and tribal members to learn carpentry skills and the gathering and processing of materials, and he talked with elders to “learn bits and pieces.” He also studied older canoes and occasionally he turned to books. By 2003 he has made some 12 canoes, about one a year. One canoe was completed with a master artist grant from ArtServe Michigan; another was made with support from the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Ron often involves community youth and adults in his canoe-making projects; males do the actual building and women do the sewing. He has also made canoes in schools with students. Many of his canoes go to tribal collections in museums in Michigan.

Ron has helped many people in his area gain an appreciation of Native culture, through projects at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace, Michigan, through the tribe, with his activities with students, and by encouraging other elders to share their skills with young people. His mastery of canoe making is symbolic of his commitment to his heritage.