UO museum honors cultural center with stewardship award

Sara Barton works on a cradleboard

This spring, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History recognized Eastern Oregon’s Four Rivers Cultural Center with its annual Oregon Stewardship Award for the center’s Tradition Keepers Folklife Festival, a daylong public celebration of traditional arts and artists in eastern Oregon.

Launched in 2018 by the museum’s advisory council, the $1,000 award annually recognizes an individual or organization for involving the community in an environmental or cultural heritage project, one that aligns with the museum's mission to inspire stewardship of the region’s collective past, present and future.

With support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Oregon Folklife Network and Starseed Foundation, the Tradition Keepers Folklife Festival was held last June in Ontario and featured a variety of art forms reflecting regional culture. From Japanese Taiko drumming and traditional Mexican dance to Basque cooking and Umatilla shell dress making, the dozens of performances and workshops offered participants a unique view into the Native American, settler and migrant heritages that have shaped Eastern Oregon’s history.

Organizers said that in celebrating the region’s past, the festival encouraged attention to the future.

“Many of these traditions are carried today by only one generation,” said Four Rivers Cultural Center director Matthew Stringer. “By renewing interest and enticing us to connect to our heritage in deeper ways, the celebration helps ensure the continuation of these important aspects of cultural life.”

Project funds from the National Endowment for the Arts also supported the center’s hire of resident folklorist Joshua Chrysler, who directed and curated the festival.

Stringer said that Chrysler’s position enables a much-needed expansion of the state’s folklife infrastructure and builds on the work of the UO-based Oregon Folklife Network.

“Maintaining a staff folklorist here at Four Rivers Cultural Center, more than 300 miles from the university, has significantly enhanced our ability to respond to the needs of local, traditional artists in these underserved rural communities,” he said.

“The Tradition Keepers Festival is an example of cultural stewardship in action,” said Ann Craig, public programs director at the museum. “We are proud to recognize the Four Rivers Cultural Center for this inspiring contribution to our state’s continued cultural vitality.”

This year, the competitive award program drew a dozen nominations for projects around the state. Among the finalists are UO Libraries’ Oregon Digital Newspaper Project; Willamette Falls preservation champion Sandy Carter; Washington County Historical Society’s AgriCulture exhibit; and author Jim Aalberg, nominated for the book “Company Towns of Clatsop County.”

“Ranging from oral history exhibits to environmental advocacy efforts, the nominated projects demonstrate how deeply Oregonians care about our collective ecosystems and cultures. We want to celebrate that,” Craig said. “We also hope to inspire others to become stewardship heroes.”

In addition to the cash prize, Four Rivers Cultural Center will be recognized on the Oregon Heroes display panel in the museum’s Explore Oregon exhibition hall.

—By Kristin Strommer, Museum of Natural and Cultural History