Statement on the Death of NEA National Heritage Fellow LeRoy Graber

Leroy Graber photo Michael G. Stewart 2009.jpg

A man in a suit and a man in a red plaid shirt and black vest look at two baskets.

2009 NEA National Heritage Fellow LeRoy Graber and concert emcee Nick Spitzer at the National Heritage Fellowships Concert. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of 2009 National Heritage Fellow LeRoy Graber, a willow basketmaker from Freeman, South Dakota.

Graber learned to weave willow baskets from his grandfather, Jacob Graber, who came to the Dakota Territory from the Ukraine in 1874. Known locally for his award-winning dairy farm until his retirement, Graber demonstrated basketmaking for more than 25 years, weaving both willows and stories at the annual Schmeckfest (tasting festival) held in Freeman, South Dakota. To ensure the perpetuation of the tradition, he and his son Kim planted acres of different kinds of willows on their farm and Graber demonstrated the craft at local schools and taught basketmaking in the apprenticeship programs of South and North Dakota arts councils.

In a 2009 interview with the NEA, Graber described what he liked about weaving willow baskets: "I can feel my heritage that goes back to the Anabaptist times and how that has connected me with my spirituality and the joy that people had living a very simple lifestyle, the wonderful people I meet.... People ask me, 'What was one of your greatest moments?' Well, I had to think about that, but one of my greatest moments was when I was demonstrating at a show and a lady came by in a wheelchair and the lady that was pushing her said, 'This is somebody making baskets,' and I looked, and the lady was blind. Well, I thought, 'This doesn't mean anything to her,' so I said to the lady in the wheelchair, 'May I take your hand?' and I went to step one and I ran her fingers over the process of step one. Step two, putting the willows in on the side and bending them up, and I ran her fingers over that, and she began to smile. And then we went on to make it short, until we finished the basket. By that time, she got a hold of my hand and she held it tightly and thanked me profusely and wouldn't let go. And she says, 'Well, we have to go on,' and then a tear rolled down my cheek. That was a great moment."

Visit the NEA's website for more information about LeRoy Graber and to read the full interview.

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