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FOLK ARTISTS STEP TO TRADITIONAL BEAT

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The other kids would be out sledding. Forty years later, Robert Brien still remembers how unfair that seemed then: his cousins out playing in the snow while he was stuck indoors with the old people and their interminable stories.

Sit down and listen, the old people would say. So Robert would sit at their feet and listen to the stories about his Crow ancestors, about the old days when the Deer Track Society still sent its members out to find the safest campsites.Although he was only 4 then, the elders could already see in Robert the kind of boy who would turn into the kind of man who would keep the traditions of his people alive.

Now, all these years later, Brien is living up to their expectations - with the help of allies his ancestors would never have imagined.

As part of the Utah Arts Council's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Project, Brien receives a grant to teach his son Everette how to make traditional Native American hand drums.

Brien also passes along the stories, songs and dances he learned from his grandparents and his aunts and uncles. Now the eight Briens - Robert, wife Gloria and six children - make up the last remaining members of the Deer Track Society. As the Deer Track Society Singers, they perform at powwows all over the West. Last month they did their ceremonial dancing at Abravanel Hall for the visit of National Endowment for the Arts chairwoman Jane Alexander.

The Briens' folk art is one of 75 chosen by the Arts Council since 1989 - projects that have enabled folk and ethnic artists to pass on their skills and their culture to the next generation.

The projects range from Goshute bas-ket-weaving to Tibetan carpet weaving, Samoan dance to East Indian sitar music - the kinds of at-risk skills and arts that make Utah more diverse than our phone books and our Jell-O salads might indicate.

The Folk Arts Apprencticeship Project also awards grants to arts that grew out of the American West: to Jeffrey Freeze of Box Elder County, for example, who is teaching Brent Rose how to do horse hair hitching, a tedious concoction of braids and knots made of delicate strands of a horse's mane.

The Arts Council is currently accepting applications for additional artists and artisans. Deadline is Dec. 31. Master and apprentice partners must submit a jointly conceived plan of study, with examples, photographs or tape recordings of their work.

Robert Brien teaches Everette how to make hand drums the way his Crow ancestors did - with some concessions to changing times. The old drums were made from living wedges of cottonwood trees. When the Briens moved to Salt Lake City 10 years ago, though, they discovered the limitations of urban life.

"I tried it here but I got in trouble," says Brien about the time he looked for the usual drum supplies. "It was someone's private tree I guess."

These days he and Everette use plywood for the drum rims. They also use fiberglass and "fun fur" for the drum sticks.

These days they record their powwow chants on cassettes and play them back on boomboxes. They plan to send a recording to Gloria's father, who is his tribe's official "drum keeper." The father, now ill, will soon pick his successor, an honor that also carries with it a lifetime of responsibility.

It's possible that Everette, now 26, will be chosen, which will mean that the Briens will have to move to North Dakota with him.

Like his father before him, Everette didn't like listening to the old stories when he was little. Now, like his father, he believes that the traditional ways are what keep an urban Indian sane.

"They're something to hold onto," explains Robert Brien.

Urban Indians, adds Gloria, are often more traditional than their relatives still living on reservations.

"Either more traditional," says Gloria, "or more lost."