The National Endowment for the Arts was in the news again Wednesday, but the only four-letter word in the air was "folk."

The beleaguered agency awarded $5,000 National Heritage Fellowships to 13 practitioners of traditional arts ranging from balladeering to flatfoot dancing, silk weaving to storytelling. There was even a Montana cowboy affectionately known as the "poet lariat" of America.

"These are people who are really humble and talented, and who at the same time have the wisdom of the country," said NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer at a special congressional gathering at the Russell Senate Office Building, where the fellows were honored for lifelong efforts to preserve the nation's cultural heritage.

Tonight they will be honored in a free concert celebration at Lisner Auditorium, hosted by newsman Charles Kuralt. (Tickets will be available at the door.) This is the ninth year of the awards.

The artists, nominated by neighbors, artists, scholars, tribal or ethnic associations and ordinary citizens, came from 11 states. Speaking eight languages, they included Finnish accordionist Art Moilanen, Cambodian silk weaver Em Bun, Southern Italian musicians and dancers Giuseppe and Raffaela DeFranco, Puerto Rican woodcarver Emilio Rosado, Appalachian ballad singer Douglas Wallin, Ojibwa storyteller and craftswoman Maude Kegg and flatfoot dancer Robert Spicer.

Like the artists below, they are not only masters of their art or craft, but teachers who enthusiastically pass on values forged in daily battles at a time when cultural traditions are threatened by homogenization.

Poet lariat Wallace McRae is a third-generation rancher from Colstrip, Mont., whose first poem was written as a tribute to a guy who had been writing cowboy poetry for calendars published by a local credit association. He'd seen them ever since he was a kid. "We used to cut them out and hang them up around the house for decoration," McRae said, "kind of like you put Ann Landers on the refrigerator now."

"Bill Green had entertained and informed me for a long time, and when he sold his ranch and retired and his poems weren't going to be circulated any more, I thought it was an appropriate thing to do." In fact, McRae, 54, ended up taking over the calendar duties -- "the torch was passed to a new generation" -- and has since written hundreds of poems, published in four books.

"There's a long, strong tradition of writing and recitation of poetry in the cowboy culture," McRae says, "but I don't think anybody really knew this -- except the cowboys." These days hundreds of people gather in Midwestern states for cowboy poetry conventions. PestTest The Lord in His great wisdom

Placed critters on the earth

Each has his place, his niche, and yet

I ponder at the worth

Of lice and grubs and termites

Deerflies and biting gnats

Mosquitos, prairie dogs and ticks,

Coyotes and sewer rats

Perhaps they're here to test us.

Our patience to assail

If this be the case, and it's a test ...

Oh Lord, I fail I fail!"

-- Wallace McRae

The form's uniqueness "never really dawned on us because we thought every occupational subculture was doing the same thing," McRae says. "And for a while there were a lot of groups that wrote metered, rhymed poetry about their work -- railroaders, loggers, farmers, sailors, soldiers. But of all of those groups, the cowboy is about the only one who has kept on doing it for well over a hundred years," partly, McRae suggests, because "the other groups usually have somebody to speak for them -- the union or organization. The cowboy really doesn't have that so he's really speaking for himself. We're fiercely proud of our tradition and what it is we do every day."

Cowboy poetry is a living tradition, built on century-old poems memorized and passed through generations, often transformed into song, or vice versa ("some songs in the mind of a cowboy who flat couldn't sing became poems," McRae admits). There's always new lifeblood, some of it free verse, though McRae worries that "funny is popular now, and gosh, everybody wants to hear a funny poem." McRae is partly to blame, since his "Reincarnation," a new twist on an old scatological joke, is one of the funniest ever.

"A lot of people think that's the only good poem I ever wrote," McRae winces, "but most of the good poems I like are serious. ... I should thank the energy industries and the strip miners that came in here and disrupted my life because they've given me a lot of material to write about."

Meanwhile, McRae continues to ranch -- using traditional methods -- on land that has been in his family for more than a century. He is aided by his son Clint. "He's an artist -- illustrated my last book -- and that's where Clint works out his pride in the culture," says McRae. The first fellowship winner from Montana, as well as the first cowboy poet, McRae insists he's receiving it "as proxy for a whole lot of other people -- my granddad who came here and carved a ranch out of the wilderness, my dad who went through the Dust Bowl and drought and economic hardships of the '30s, my kids, and a whole lot of nameless, faceless people out there that have stayed in this tradition. It's for all those people who subscribe to the cowboy code."

Lei Maker

It's hard to think of Hawaii without thinking of leis, but 50 years ago this elegant art created out of nature's gifts had almost disappeared, according to Marie McDonald.

"We were so involved with {World War II} we forgot some of the things we should be doing. Prior to the war, Hawaiians made leis out of all kinds of beautiful things, but when the war came along they were restricted from going into the forest areas and along the coastal areas where they used to gather their materials. So they didn't make their beautiful leis, and following the war they continued not to make them."

In the early '50s, McDonald and several others gradually revived the craft, and she has since become its primary scholar, as well as its best-known practitioner, with a 10-acre "flower farm" providing all her raw material. McDonald's gardens have also nourished hundreds of lei makers who learn not only the craft but the heart of the craft.

"What's important is not the lei itself -- it is so temporary -- but the making and the giving," McDonald explains. "That's very important. You have to make sure you've done the best job and that you're giving the most beautiful thing you can construct to your friend or the person you're honoring or your loved one. ... The memory of giving is what lingers on forever, and you remember that moment of beauty in your life -- the giving and the receiving."

Before leaving for Washington, McDonald was making several leis when her 13-year-old granddaughter came to ask for any extra flowers. Both she and her 15-year-old brother "do beautiful leis and they do them when they feel like it -- for their friends, to honor a special occasion -- like I do. She was making a lei for her mom to wear to work. They do the same thing I do -- they make a lei when they want to say 'I love you.' "

Mariachi Master

Natividad Cano appreciates the fellowship because "it's good for the young people who sometimes are afraid or don't want to try something because there will be no recognition. So many young kids are not trying to educate themselves as to where they are coming from." That has changed in recent years thanks to a surge of cultural pride, but Cano remembers "when they didn't even want to speak Spanish, never mind learning the music."

Cano, who is musical director of the Los Angeles-based mariachi ensemble Los Camperos and owner of the popular restaurant La Fonda de Los Camperos, where the ensemble performs five nights a week, was born in Ahuisculco, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, in 1933. Both his grandfather and father were musicians and he started on the vihuela (an oversized guitar) at age 6, switching to violin two years later and joining the family band in Guadalajara cantinas at 14. "I can see now why my father wanted me to learn," says Cano. "He wanted me to be part of the group so he could make a little bit more money, but it was easy for me because I really did enjoy the music and being with them."

Cano's gifts as a musical arranger led him through various mariachi ensembles, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1957, opening the restaurant in 1962. It is now one of the city's landmarks, attracting visitors from all over the world. Los Camperos tour frequently (most recently with Linda Ronstadt), and Cano does volunteer work in the region's schools. He has no children, but because of the popularity of the school programs, "they might as well be my children."

Mariachi is a blend of Mexican and European influences, and at yesterday's reception, Los Camperos' buoyant rhythms and melodies were augmented at one point by the sprightly organetto (button accordion) of fellow fellow Giuseppe DeFranco, the resulting music proving irresistible for yet another fellow, Tennessee buck-dancer Robert Spicer. It was the melting pot in action in the nation's cookery.

Protean Fiddler

Howard Armstrong, of Detroit, is a living encyclopedia of America's musical heritage, a wonderful singer and master of the mandolin, fiddle and almost anything with strings. Somebody once asked Armstrong if he could play B.B. King. "I said yes -- if you put some strings on him, tune him up and give me a fiddle bow, I'll play H out of him."

He's been performing for 60 of his 82 years, playing even longer: His father carved a fiddle with a pocket knife when Armstrong was a Tennessee 10-year-old. He grew up in an ethnically diverse culture, and embraced both the South's rich rural traditions and, later in Detroit and Chicago, urgent urban styles. Along the way he learned songs from friends and neighbors, ranging from blues, jazz and gospel to country, hymns and popular ethnic tunes.

"That was survival," says Armstrong, looking a good three decades under the truth. "I found that if you're going to catch a certain kind of fish, what are you going to use? The kind of bait the fish will bite. If we wanted to spend some Polish money, we had to learn how to play some Polish songs. And we were welcome in those different communities because we were the only black group that had a variety of ethnic songs. ... The music was one key that seemed to open nearly every door." Along the way, Armstrong became comfortable in eight languages, including German and Mandarin Chinese.

As a teen he teamed up with fiddler Carl Martin and in the '30s they played regionally at fish fries, picnics and medicine shows, and occasionally on the radio. Armstrong had a parallel passion for art (as a child "I had to make my own paint brushes -- there wasn't a cat in the neighborhood that liked me cause I'd catch him and pull the hair out of his tail to put in the goose quill") and he's well known for his handcrafted good-luck talismans and colorful conceptions (Steven Spielberg hired him to design the juke joint for "The Color Purple").

"Sometimes I like to just rest up on the music and paint," Armstrong says. In the '70s, he was reunited with Martin and guitarist Ted Bogan, touring the world as "the last of the black string bands" until Martin died in 1979. Armstrong still performs -- "whenever I get gigs, that's when I go" -- and still shocks audiences with his verve and pure delight in the music.

"Many people look upon you as a participle when you get a certain age -- a past participle," he says. "But whenever I get up on the stage I try to impart some knowledge." He teaches at many workshops around the country, and at home too: His son Ralph, who will accompany him tonight, has played with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and with Jean-Luc Ponty. "He's supposed to be one of the best in his age bracket," says the proud pe`re.

For Armstrong, the Heritage Fellowship is the latest in a long string of honors and awards, which are much appreciated, "though I couldn't pay my rent with that." This one, of course, carries a $5,000 honorarium. "When the lady told me, I told her to run it by me once more, slowly," he says. "And she did. It was almost like something out of a fairy tale. It seemed too good to be true."

Lakota Flutist

At 36, Kevin Locke, a Lakota Sioux from Mobridge, S.D., is one of the youngest fellowship winners ever, but he's also a crucial conservator of an elegant tradition -- the courting flute -- that had virtually disappeared in the '70s, when Locke and others rescued it before it could fade forever. Also a singer, hoop dancer and storyteller, Locke feels that "the real motivation for wanting to preserve our traditions comes from my conviction that every culture on this planet has a valuable and priceless gift to contribute toward an emerging global civilization. In making this contribution, we are in effect redeeming the lives and the very purpose for existence of our ancestors."

Locke grew up with an elderly uncle who spoke only Lakota; thus he absorbed not only the language, but the traditions and values of a culture that, like all native populations in North America, had undergone centuries of stress. "Within that time frame certain aspects of the culture took a back seat. For instance, the flute was a way for young men to express themselves emotionally to young women, but how is the culture going to be able to carry that on when the whole culture is geared toward survival?"

Yet the old values, with their deeply spiritual foundation, have great meaning in today's materialist world, and can coexist, Locke suggests. The Lakota hoop dance even portrays life as a concurrence of individuality and interdependence.

"When the Sioux first met people of European background, what struck them was the fact that they do everything square. So one of the original terms for European people was oblatonpi, 'people who make everything square.' So metaphorically speaking, for almost 500 years, the people of the square and the people of the hoop have been at odds, and we've finally reached the pinnacle where we can look back and see that there's nothing wrong with the hoop and there's nothing wrong with the square and in fact we desperately need these different points of reference together to find out where we are and where we're going."

As the fellowship winners gathered in Washington this week, he realized why "the traditional arts are so powerful," Locke says. "When I was in the room with all the people, I couldn't help but see all their ancestors. They really are the mouthpiece for all those ancestors who've gone before; they are the thread that connects all of them. It's really a powerful thing and I can almost feel them standing, rank on rank. We are in a position to redeem their lives, to assist in transforming their lives and offering that out to generations of the future."