This year’s applications due Friday
By Debora Gordon for Ashland.news
Applications are due at 5 p.m. Friday for $3,500 grants to help preserve and pass along cultural heritage.
Ashland hula teacher Andrea Luchese received one of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program (TAAP) grants last year — an award made after making an exception to the usual guidelines.
Based in the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the Oregon Folklife Network (OFN) awards go to artists skilled in traditional arts who can pass these “living traditions on to promising apprentices of the same cultural heritage and community.”
Oregon is home to a diverse range of traditional arts, OFN notes, including everything from Native American basket weaving to Southeast Asian dance, Mexican-American embroidery, Americana fiddling, African-American gospel singing, rawhide braiding for working cowboys, and Northwest logger poetry.
It’s all meant to help, OFN says, “accomplished artists, elder culture bearers, and community-trusted tradition keepers to share their knowledge, skills, and expertise with apprentices of great promise, empowering them to carry on and strengthen Oregon’s living cultural traditions.”
In making the awards, OFN is sensitive to the distinction between “cultural sharing” and “cultural appropriation,” meaning in almost all cases, those being considered for mentorship grants are members of that culture and heritage.
A notable exception is Luchese, an Ashland-based teacher of Hawaiian hula dancing. The review committee took into consideration that she does not have Hawaiian ancestry, and that she is passing down a heritage that is not her own. Described as having been “thoughtful and culturally humble,” Luchese was awarded a grant in January after submitting her second application.
OFN Director Emily Hartlerode explained, “We think very closely about that cultural appreciation and sharing can turn into celebration, but not cultural appropriation. Luchese has been lifted up by many members of the community, as a culture keeper.”
OFN seeks a slate of artists in 2024 representing artists, demographics and regions underrepresented in the last 10 years. All Oregonians practicing cultural traditions emerging from their heritage are encouraged to apply.
“Part of my process was with the Oregon Folklife Network,” Luchese recalls. “Before I applied for the award, I was identified as a ‘Culture Keeper,’ with non-native status. The vetting was more thorough, to authenticate and validate me as a cultural keeper.”
Luchese identifies as a teacher. “I’m a traditionally trained ‘Kumu Hula.’ ‘Kumu’ means teacher (and has other meanings) and refers to someone who has gone through a vigorous and in-depth process of training, connected to a lineage of Kumus. It is the equivalent of a Master’s or Ph.D.— training on traditions, including being initiated through specific forms of ceremony; demonstrating proficiency.”
Luchese began dancing when she was 5 years old. She obtained her Master’s in Dance & Spirituality at Prescott College in Arizona in 2004. She went on to study dance in India, then started an Indian dance school in Ashland.
“I reconnected to Hawaii through another trip, living on Maui,” Luchese said. “I was invited into a class, by Kumu Raylene, a Hawaiian woman who became my Kumu Hula. It was a very profound relationship; she was the spark of inspiration. The environment she created while teaching — more was going on than hula itself. … She was conveying so much more wisdom about life … It was the spark of inspiration that would change my life.”
Luchese returned to Hawaii more regularly for longer visits. After a time, she felt it was a time to start teaching.
“I wanted to go back to the source, and I asked if it was culturally correct and where I was in my own development,” Luchese said. “Kumu Raylene gave me her blessing and she would support me on that path. … She is the heart and essence and why I have continued. … There’s also that energy that we call ‘the aloha spirit,’ and Kumu Raylene was really a living embodiment of that spirit. People felt deeply loved and accepted, whether or not they were Hawaiian.”
Luchese’s cultural heritage is predominantly Italian. There has been a mixed reaction to her teaching Hawaiian traditional dance. As a non-Hawaiian, she is aware of the possibility of being seen by some as appropriating a culture not her own.
“I would say that is always an edge I’m riding because there is so much generational pain and trauma, because of the effects of colonization, and the overtaking of their lands, and the times in history where their practices were made illegal, including hula and the language, and it’s tragic, and their kingdom overthrown illegally by wealthy businessman,” Luchese said. “I’m sensitive to that, and I’m aware — and as a hula practitioner, it’s something for me to be mindful of, and to have humility.”
After Kumu Raylene’s sudden passing in 2012, “Another Kumu, Keala Ching, also took me on as a student,” Luchese said, “and took me through the ceremonial gates, to become a ‘Kumu hula’ …. Kumu Raylene saw beyond the color on one’s skin. (She noted that while) Hawaiians scrutinize each other, that I will be scrutinized more (because I’m not native Hawaiian). I live with that and I know that, and perhaps has been why I have endeavored and strived to learn as much as I can and have such a standard, a high standard … when they see the merit of my work, when they get to know me, hopefully most of the time that the humility comes across that there’s an acceptance and a validation and I am encouraged, to not doubt myself, to keep moving forward that ‘well done.’”
E pōmaika’i ‘oukou a e piha ho’i i ke aloha — “May all good be with you to fill your hearts with love.”
Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist who recently moved to Ashland from Oakland, California. Email her at email@example.com.
Oct. 12: Additional information added to photo captions and corrections and clarifications to text.