In 1982, Duff Severe was one of 15 original Master Craftsmen named National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. He was selected after the Smithsonian judges found him most mentioned by his peers when asked who was the best leather worker in the country.
His first invitation to display his work at the Smithsonian Institute, however, did not come gracefully. Duff had a friend from Canada who had an uncanny ability to disguise his voice over the phone. One day, in 1982, this pal called Duff with an unfamiliar imitation of a trapper and hide trader. “He called me wanting to sell me a bunch of furs–coyotes, bobcats, and beavers. Then he said he’d throw in a packhorse to seal the deal. I told him, ‘Hey, I’m a saddlemaker. I don’t buy hides.’ But he had this laugh that gave him away every time.”
Shortly after the fur salesman called, Duff received another funny call. This time, a young lady called offering him an all expense paid invitation to display his creations at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Along with the trip, he would also receive awards and $10,000. Duff responded, “I suppose you want to throw in some coyote furs too,” thinking his friend had enlisted the help of a young woman for his newest practical joke. The two argued until the lady offered a confirmation letter written on official Smithsonian letterhead. Never expecting the letter, Duff agreed to accept a written invitation.
On his second trip to Washington, a man who worked at the museum approached him. Duff remembers, “He said, ‘Oh, you’re here again.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it’s me.’ And then he told me that in the 30 years he had worked there, I was the only one he had seen come more than once.”
In 1994, the Institute invited both Duff and Randy to participate at the Festival of American Folklife. The mall in front of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian was the gallery for about 10 Masters of Traditional Arts. For 10 humid Washington D.C. summer days, these artists demonstrated their skills and showed hoards of tourists why they, above all their peers, had been selected to represent their particular craft – and how they are passing the tradition on to new generations. Duff and Randy Severe, western saddle makers and rawhide braiders supreme, joined masters of weaving, potting, lei making, wood carving and lace making to show their skill at saddle making and leather braiding. Marjorie Hunt, the folklife program’s curator, says, “Without a doubt, they are the greatest Western saddle makers in the country.”
Duff Severe has exhibited his skills at the Smithsonian eight times as part of this program.