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186 Dancing Chairs and Mythic Trees The Power of Folk Arts in Creative Aging, Health, and Wellness Troyd Geist Our elders are the most productive facilitators and largest repositories of folklore, folk art, and folk material culture (fig. 10.1). They also are among the greatest beneficiaries of that body of knowledge, practice, and way of life. And, ironically, they may be the ones most in need of the positive impact folk culture engenders in relation to health and wellness. In the mid-1990s, as the folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA) directing its Folk and Traditional Arts Program, I began developing projects and programs with an eye toward the intersection of folk art, health, and well-being. Among those efforts, for example, is the creation of an exhibit of Ojibwa birch bark pictographic scrolls. This rare tradition involves the telling of ancient narratives in an elaborate series of pictographs. Traditional stories are still with us because they address issues that remain a part of the human condition . Each “written” scroll depicts a story that includes themes such as unrequited love, self-esteem, and violence. Unfortunately, these are issues with which today’s children continue to grapple just as did past generations. Translations of the stories along with activity plans were developed and used as a counseling tool in schools. The exhibit toured extensively and clearly illustrated the power and accessibility of folk material culture as a tool to impact well-being. Another example involves the utilization of storytelling as a counseling mechanism for the biological and adoptive families and their children impacted by fetal alcohol syndrome. Or the use of folk art and folklore in traditional gardening to address challenges associated with nutrition, diabetes, and cultural re10 The Expressive Lives of Elders (2018): 186–204, DOI: 10.2979/expressivelivesofelders.0.0.11 Dancing Chairs and Mythic Trees | 187 tention. Some efforts like the traditional gardening project have been taken over and continued by the community in some form or another over the years since. While most of these projects were one-time activities, I also considered ways in which additional impact could be created from existing, ongoing programs. Specifically with regard to the health and wellness of elders, the agency’s targeted actions began in 1998–1999 as a spin-off from the public presentation requirement of the NDCA’s long-standing Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. This program fosters the perpetuation and growth of folk arts by supporting master artists who teach apprentices one-on-one and face-to-face. Over a two-year period, I worked to schedule performances and presentations by apprenticeship program participants in nearly every eldercare facility in the state. Powerful anecdotes surfaced as to the association of those interactions with the elders’ well-being. For example, a disassociated, immobile woman in a wheelchair tapping her finger to the songs and music of folk musicians. Or a man who, after many years, was able to dance again with his Alzheimer’s disease–stricken wife. In many cases, such occasions left as profound impressions on the eldercare staff and artists as on the elders themselves. In 1999, Lila Hauge-Stoffel and Mary O-Reilly Seim received a small apprenticeship grant to teach and learn traditional textile arts and the use of natural dyes. Lila first learned informally as a child to weave and color fiber while Fig. 10.1. Mary Louise Defender Wilson leads elders in creating a painting through traditional Dakota Sioux dance. Courtesy of North Dakota Council on the Arts. 188 | The Expressive Lives of Elders darning socks and tending the garden with her grandmother. Later, as an adult, she became a professor of art with an interest in therapeutic arts. At the time of the grant award, Mary worked as an activities director for an eldercare facility in Fargo, North Dakota. While the reported stories from their public presentation and that of other apprenticeship program folk artists were compelling, Lila, Mary, and I wondered if such interaction could be quantified regarding the health and wellness of elders. So, from 2001 to 2003, with grant support from the National Endowment for the Arts, we developed and coordinated a small-sample, pilot study in the care facility where Mary worked. We sought to measure the effects of intensive arts and artist interaction on what William Thomas (1999, 11) identified as the Three Plagues—loneliness, boredom, and helplessness—which is detrimental to the health and wellness of elders in care...


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