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Father figures play key role at Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival

Native American dancer and father Patrick Little Wolf Brooks appeared to lose himself in the repetitive chant that accompanied the rhythmic pounding of the drum.

His bright yellow- and green-fringed garb shook and his headpiece feathers bobbed as he hopped and strutted before a gathering of onlookers outside of the Creative Alliance on Saturday in Southeast Baltimore during the annual Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival. Little Wolf Brooks dedicated the dance to his 7-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, a dance enthusiast.

"This is a way of honoring my ancestors," the 30-year-old Baltimore resident said after he finished his solo, a men's grass dance, which originated among tribes in states along the Northern Plains. He said the dance had been passed down in his family for more than 25 generations. "Every step we take as parents are for our kids. ... Dance isn't something we do. It's what we are."

Family traditions passed down from father to child became an unplanned theme of the folklife festival on the eve of Father's Day. Such father-daughter and father-son bonding through customs epitomizes the annual festival, according to Cliff Murphy, director of Maryland Traditions at the Maryland State Arts Council.

"There are fewer better ways of passing on traditions than by watching a family member," Murphy said. "When a person grows up in a tradition, they really come to embody that tradition. It's a beautiful thing to watch the passing on of these skills and knowledge."

The event, which organizers expected would attract more than the 3,000 people, showcased ethnic customs, family traditions and learned trades. The participants ranged from Little Wolf Brooks' dance group, Unwachi-Reh, to Gospel Shout Trombone performers. Many of the performers and craftsmen learned their skills from family members or were in the process of teaching a craft to their children.

Roberto Rivera, a 49-year-old biochemist from Walkersville, brought his 17-year-old son, Julian, to demonstrate the art of making a Puerto Rican cuatro, a 10-stringed instrument similar to the guitar. Rivera is a first-generation cuatro maker; he learned during an apprenticeship. His son, who will enter the University of Maryland, College Park as a freshman this fall, recently began to learn the craft from his father.

"He's really excited that I've been helping him," Julian Rivera said.

Roberto Rivera said he used reverse psychology on his son to build interest in the craft, which can be time-consuming. Each cuatro takes an average of 120 hours to make.

"I started doing things he liked — like going to anime conventions with him," the father said, referring to the popular Japanese animation that interested his son. "All of a sudden he got interested in this."

In less than a year, Julian Rivera has nearly acquired the skills to be able to make the instrument on his own. "I'm getting there," he said as he sanded the exposed curve of the instrument.

Roberto Rivera said he plans to pass along the tradition of cuatro-making to any future grandchildren, even if his son loses interest in the craft. "I hope he'll teach them," he said. "But if he doesn't, I will."

Nearby, Bradley Wendler was busy pounding away at a hot metal rod. The blacksmith apprentice was making a wrought-iron leaf decoration, while his 3-year-old son, Brian, watched with delight.

"I think he likes it," the 27-year-old Baltimore resident said. "He knows that 'I build stuff' is how he puts it."

Wendler, who has worked for G. Krug & Son ironworks for about six years, said he hopes his son will follow in his footsteps.

"I'd like to see him do a hands-on trade," Wendler said, elevating his voice slightly to be heard over the chanting of another Native American dance performance. "My family has always done hands-on work. My father was a steelworker. My grandfather made prosthetics in World War II. It's always been instilled in me."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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