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Reading Bones: Kalmyk Cultural Symbolism

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

A process of cultural renewal and linguistic revival is taking place in Kalmykia, Russia, home to the westernmost group of Mongolic peoples. Nyamin Songajieyavich Manjieyev and Nina Kochayevna Manjieyeva speak both Kalmyk and Russian to describe the symbolic importance of sheep bones. Linguist Gregory D.S. Anderson translates, explaining how certain features of the bones symbolize facets of the Kalmyk worldview.

Videography by Sara Legg, Michael Headley and Sam Wharton
Edited by Sara Legg

Cross-Cultural Synergy: APA Program

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Many APA festivals encourage each group to come, perform their music or dance, and then leave. At this festival, groups will perform their own repertoire as usual, but they also have been asked to collaborate with a group from another APA culture.

For example, On July 1, Sikh music from India, a Burmese Buddhist monk ordination, Hindustani music and Chinese opera will be performed between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Then, from 2 to 3:30, the Sikh Americans and Burmese Americans share a ninety-minute block where they have been asked to perform Celebratory Music. Likewise, between 3:30 and 5 p.m.,the Hindustani and Chinese opera groups have been asked to show us “Story and Performance” for ninety minutes.

Will they collaborate on a joint piece? Will they each do short pieces and then explain to us why their “Celebratory Music” is different? Even we,the organizers, are curious to find out what will result. No matter what it is, it is sure to be entertaining and educational.

Phil Tajitsu Nash is the curator of the Asian Pacific Americans program at the 2010 Folklife Festival. 

Realtors as Cultural Brokers

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Joanna Zhao (left) and Phyllis Khaing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, July 27, 2010
Joanna Zhao (left) and Phyllis Khaing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, July 27, 2010

Real-estate agents are not always regarded as cultural brokers, but a panel at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Asian Pacific Americans program on July 27 showed how much they can influence an immigrant's view of this country.

Joanna Zhao, a Chinese American who came to this country fifteen years ago, and today owns her own realty firm, and Phyllis Khaing, a Burmese American who arrived twenty-two years ago and is also a successful broker, spoke on the topic, "Making a New Place Home: Enclaves in the Suburbs."

Like other home buyers, immigrants from Asia typically ask to look at homes near good school systems. However, cultural priorities are often evident, sometimes in subtle ways. For instance, Joanna observed that her APA clients tend to like amenities within easy walking distance for their older relatives, such as parks and shopping centers. Phyllis noted that her Burmese American clients want houses that face east, with a kitchen at the back of the house (not visible from the front door), extra bedrooms for visiting family, and no sunken living rooms (which some consider bad feng shui). Any suggestion of bad luck, such as a recent death in the house, can be a deal-breaker.

Joanna reported that her Chinese American clients tend to prefer addresses with street numbers that include an 8, and avoid those with the number 4 (which is a reminder of death). Settlements are typically done on the 8th, 18th, or 28th of the month, and Thursdays (the fourth day of the week) are avoided.

Taking off one's shoes when entering an APA home is not only a traditional courtesy, but can be a requirement of doing business. Some sellers are adamant that prospective buyers must take off shoes, as the family altar is sometimes in a front room. Others have moved away from this tradition, but still appreciate a broker who will ask if they wish to follow it.

In closing, the panelists were asked what special problems, if any, face APA home sellers. Soy-sauce stains in the kitchen and curry smells in the drapery were cited as common issues. Joanna sometimes tactfully suggests a paint job to cover up wear—and also to dispel cooking scents that are pleasant to some buyers, but perhaps not to others. Phyllis inspects the curtains, and if the smell of good spicy home cooking is evident, she suggests replacing them before holding an open house.

Phil Tajitsu Nash is the curator for the Asian Pacific Americans program at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

"The World's Largest Cultural Conversation": The 2010 Folklife Festival

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Introduction to the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and overview of Festival history.

Connecting Communities through Cultural Exchange

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Dora Flor Alba Briceño, photo by Gina Watkinson
Dora Flor Alba Briceño
Photo by Gina Watkinson

As a participant in the Smithsonian’s Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA), I was invited to be a volunteer in the Folklife Festival to learn about basketry techniques, as well as to engage with the presenting artists and Festival  visitors. I spent my day with Dora Flor Alba Briceño, a basket weaver from the Andean Highlands of Colombia. She makes baskets from a material called junco that grows rapidly in Lake Fúquene. She learned basket weaving from her grandmother, which she has passed down to her children and grandchildren. Dora Flor is recognized for her fine work and has won many awards.

At the Festival, Dora showed one of her spectacular pieces through photographs that she had brought with her from Colombia. The photograph depicted a large basket, at least ten feet in height, which was commissioned for a parade in her community. Many of the Festival visitors were astonished and gained a better appreciation for her skill and talent as a weaver. During my time with Dora, she produced three baskets and hundreds of visitors, of varied ages and knowledge of Colombia, were engaged by her nimble hands and her wonderful smile. Dora invited children to participate by showing them the knots and letting them have a go for themselves. A few visitors even chose to stick around for her to complete a large flower vase.

Dora Flor Alba Briceño working on a basket
Photo by Gina Watkinson

Not only did I learn a lot from Dora Flor, but I also learned from the visitors that stopped by. Many of the Spanish speakers that visited the Folklife Festival were gracious enough to translate Dora’s words for the non-Spanish-speaking visitors. Several, who acknowledged Colombia as their original home, talked about the places where they had lived, the diverse cultures that reside within the region, and the current sociopolitical climate. The Festival atmosphere facilitated conversations and cultural exchanges that enabled rich dialogue among the groups of visitors and artists. I have no doubt that these interactions with the Colombian participants, whether through viewing the productions of art, participating in traditional games, or engaging in conversations, generated new perceptions of Colombia and the world we live in.

After a long day and a sore throat from many conversations, I left the Festival not only with a new understanding of Colombia and the unique cultural traditions of the people that live there,  but also with a new appreciation for innovative ways of learning and connecting with others.

Gina Watkinson is a graduate student in the American Indian studies program at the University of Arizona. She is among 12 students who assisted Festival artists as part of the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA), a program offered by the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Cross-Cultural Conversations at the Folklife Festival

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
wo basket weavers, Ofelia Marín Márquez from Colombia’s coffee region, and Mele Vaikeli from Tonga, exchange techniques at the 2011 Folklife Festival. Photo by Sojin Kim
wo basket weavers, Ofelia Marín Márquez from Colombia’s coffee region, and Mele Vaikeli from Tonga, exchange techniques at the 2011 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Sojin Kim

The Folklife Festival has three fantastically diverse programs lined up this year: Hungarian Heritage; One World, Many Voices; and The Will to Adorn. For most of the Festival, each program group will occupy a separate section of the National Mall to share traditions and performances. But the multi-cultural nature of the Festival provides the irresistible opportunity to also explore some intersections among these groups.

This is the motivation behind “cross programs” at the Folklife Festival. These daily events (which will move around the different program stages and are marked “Cross Program” on the Festival schedule) will bring together one or two representatives from each program for a conversation about a common topic. For example: expert weavers from Bolivia, Hungary, and Ghana will compare their traditions and techniques; hairstylists will demonstrate techniques ranging from African-American dreadlocks and braids to traditional Palenque styles from Colombia; and musicians from China, The Republic of Tuva, and Hungary will discuss the relationship between their music and the natural world. Other cross program topics will include: language and identity, wedding ceremonies, clothing design, celebration traditions, and hat making.

This is an exceptional opportunity for both the participants and the public. It is a chance for visitors to hear cross-cultural panels of experts from many fields and to see the diversity of cultures represented at the Folklife Festival at one time in one place. It will also allow speakers the opportunity to share techniques and experiences with other experts in their field. With the aid of multilingual translators, dress and hair models, and handcrafted visual display items, all parties involved will hopefully gain a deeper appreciation for the enormous variety of traditions across human cultures. We hope that visitors, too, will be inspired to explore their own cultural traditions and their connections to the world around them.

Morgan Anderson recently graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology. She is an intern with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, assisting with the One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program.

Intangible Cultural Heritage Within Reach

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Arlean Dawes with three members of Los Masis—(L to R) Roberto Sahonero Cuéllar, Roberto Sahonero Gutiérrez, and Edgar Sahonero Gutiérrez—in the <i>One World, Many Voices</i> program. Los Masis is a group of Bolivian musicians and educators dedicated to preserving the Quechua language and indigenous Andean culture. Photo by Patti Heck
Arlean Dawes with three members of Los Masis—(L to R) Roberto Sahonero Cuéllar, Roberto Sahonero Gutiérrez, and Edgar Sahonero Gutiérrez—in the One World, Many Voices program. Los Masis is a group of Bolivian musicians and educators dedicated to preserving the Quechua language and indigenous Andean culture.
Photo by Patti Heck

Countless times throughout the Festival as I walked through the One World, Many Voices site, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to intern and work with such an amazing program.

For those two weeks on the National Mall, I was in one of the most diverse places in the world! As one participant pointed out, where else would you find Palenqueros from Colombia dancing to the music of Tuvan throat singers as Garifuna drummers added their beats on drums made from turtle shells!

During the Festival, I was assigned to one of the groups from Bolivia—Los Masis—a group of musicians and educators dedicated to elevating pride in the rich indigenous culture of Bolivia and the preservation of Quechua, one of Bolivia’s native languages, through the playing of traditional Andean music.

Since much of my work with the group involved Spanish/English interpretation, I had the pleasure of helping facilitate discussions between Los Masis and the public. The visitors and the musicians directly engaged one another in deep conversations ranging from musical education methods to native Bolivian instruments such as charangos and phututu, the intricate costumes worn when the Pujllay dance is performed, and so much more.

With each conversation, it became clear that Los Masis and the other Festival participants are fighting for the same goal: not only to preserve, but to truly revitalize, their languages and cultures in traditional and not-so-traditional ways!

Hawaiian participants pose for a group photograph by their taro plants in the One World, Many Voices program. Photo by Francisco X. Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
Hawaiian participants pose for a group photograph by their taro plants in the One World, Many Voices program.
Photo by Francisco X. Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution

The very first day the participants arrived on the Mall to prepare for the following day’s opening, I was reminded of the beauty and absolute pricelessness of intangible cultural heritage. While walking to the Hungary program’s Danubia stage where the welcome ceremony for participants was being held, I noticed a few Hawaiian delegates talking among themselves (in their native tongue of ‘O le lo Hawaiʽi, of course) and pointing to some weeds on the ground. As I continued to walk towards the big tent, a fellow intern who is Hawaiian told me that the participants were pointing out that the aforementioned “weeds” can actually be used as medicine to treat boils on the skin. How neat is that?

Less than an hour later, I was leading the Kallawaya delegation—a group of medicinal practitioners from Bolivia—to their tent when I again noticed a few participants pointing at the ground and smiling. One of the ladies proudly proclaimed in Spanish that they cultivate this type of plant for medicine.

At that point, tears started to form in my eyes as I realized how two very different groups, from very different parts of the world, even with very different languages, both recognize this same plant as a form of medicine that is useful to them, and that common knowledge and recognition is something that connects those two distinct cultures.

Arlean Dawes dances with Walter Alvarez, a Kallawaya medicinal expert from Bolivia, while Los Masis performs on the Voices of the World stage. Photo by Karon Flage
Arlean Dawes dances with Walter Alvarez, a Kallawaya medicinal expert from Bolivia, while Los Masis performs on the Voices of the World stage.
Photo by Karon Flage

Admittedly, I first felt guilty for having thought of these plants as just weeds and nothing more, but that feeling of guilt soon transitioned into a feeling of realization: this is it—intangible cultural heritage at its core! Intangible cultural heritage is the parts of culture that are not tangible—our memories that can be shared through storytelling, our songs, dances, recipes, and other knowledge that is passed down through generations.

While the Festival was filled with various physical objects from Hungarian Heritage, Will to Adorn, and the countless communities represented in the One World, Many Voices program, the amount of storytelling, dance, music, craftsmanship, and other demonstrations of intangible cultural heritage expresses exactly what the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is all about: the celebration of cultural heritage—intangible and tangible—and the celebration of those people who sing the songs, speak these languages, and make up these cultures.

Arlean Dawes was an intangible cultural heritage policy intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and gave her time and skills to work with the One World, Many Voices program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She is an undergraduate student at Texas A&M University pursuing a double major in international studies and Spanish and a minor in Italian. She is interested in multilingual, intercultural, and literacy education as a means of language and culture preservation.

Reading Bones: Kalmyk Cultural Symbolism

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
A process of cultural renewal and linguistic revival is taking place in Kalmykia, Russia, home to the westernmost group of Mongolic peoples. Nyamin Songajieyavich Manjieyev and Nina Kochayevna Manjieyeva speak both Kalmyk and Russian to describe the symbolic importance of sheep bones. Linguist Gregory D.S. Anderson translates, explaining how certain features of the bones symbolize facets of the Kalmyk worldview. Videography by Sara Legg, Michael Headley and Sam Wharton Editing by Sara Legg [Catalog No. CFV10572; Copyright 2013 Smithsonian Institution]

Sharing California’s Cultural Treasures

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Amy Kitchener, Maribel Alvarez, and Amy Skillman share a panel presentation at the “Cultural Sustainability in the Age of Globalization” symposium at the Smithsonian in May 2016. Photo by Ying Diao
Amy Kitchener, Maribel Alvarez, and Amy Skillman share a panel presentation at the “Cultural Sustainability in the Age of Globalization” symposium at the Smithsonian in May 2016. Photo by Ying Diao

Last month, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage hosted the symposium Cultural Sustainability in the Age of Globalization along with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan. The event featured community activists, folklorists, scholars, and traditional arts experts exploring efforts to sustain local artistic practices and cultural identities in the face of globalization.

One of the presentations was from Amy Kitchener, executive director and co-founder of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. ACTA was established in 1997 by cultural workers, arts administrators, and traditional artists. Its mission is to support ways for cultural traditions to thrive now and into the future by providing advocacy, resources, and programs for folk and traditional artists. Over the years, it has supported over 1,000 grants and contracts to further traditional arts practice and sharing.

ACTA brings its valuable breadth and depth of work in California to this summer’s Sounds of California program at the Folklife Festival. After the symposium, Kitchener explained more about ACTA’s work, community engagement practices, and some of the artists who will be featured on the National Mall this summer.

What is the role of traditional arts in building a healthy community?

The notion that traditional music can bring people together is not new. Skilled artists are able to adapt their music to bring people together. Our job is to figure out how selected cultural treasures can be brought to bear on policy as well as access to resources.

For example, César Castro, a master of son jarocho music and dance, led community workshops to teach collective song composition in support of a campaign to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. This campaign was significant because street vending provides an important small business opportunity for the large population of Mexican immigrants—some of whom do not have working papers, but have traditional cooking skills.

This activity did not function as propaganda. Instead, it was a bottom-up approach for community members to formulate public statements around the issue.

ACTA program manager Lily Kharrazi (right) talks with an artist at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California’s 2013 <em>Calligraphies in Conversation</em> exhibit in Oakland, funded in part by ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program. Photo by Kutay Kugay, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts
ACTA program manager Lily Kharrazi (right) talks with an artist at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California’s 2013 Calligraphies in Conversation exhibit in Oakland, funded in part by ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program. Photo by Kutay Kugay, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts

What do you think about artists incorporating diverse influences into their own music traditions?

First of all, traditions are constantly changing. California is home to hundreds of diverse traditions and to an incredibly diverse immigrant community. People living in the same community are often from different cultural backgrounds. And it’s inevitable that people will be influencing one another.

We are lucky to have brilliant musicians who are able to use their musical traditions as bridges to connect to other communities. They may introduce new sounds, but they can also stay faithful to the cultural values of their own traditions.

Social context and audience members are really important factors in determining how traditions change and adapt. I am thinking at the moment about the Pilipino-American musician Danongan Kalanduyan. He has been recognized as an NEA National Heritage Fellow for the role he has played in spreading the kulintang (bronze gong and drum ensemble) tradition of his home region of Mindanao to Pilipino communities in the U.S. It is interesting to note that this music, rooted in the Muslim culture in the southern Philippines, is now being appreciated by Christian Filipino Americans.

Since California is home to Silicon Valley, what is the impact of digital technology on traditional arts practices?

I would say technology has largely facilitated, not hindered, people’s ability to transmit their musical traditions. This is a big question, a complex situation—but I can give you an example. We have a master-apprentice program. We can see that technology makes it possible for students to learn traditional music from teachers in their home countries. Several apprentices in our program are doing this through Skype.

Diego Solano of Grupo Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas records a presentation about the preparations for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to share on social media. Photo by Amy Kitchener, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts
Diego Solano of Grupo Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas records a presentation about the preparations for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to share on social media. Photo by Amy Kitchener, courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts

Technology also provides the means through which community members stay connected. Grupo Nuu Yuku, a Mixteco dance group from the San Joaquin Valley, will perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer. The group members are on Facebook all the time. In fact, Diego Solano, the group’s co-director, told me that when they posted about their invitation to the Festival, he was contacted by a mask maker in his hometown of San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca, volunteering to accompany the group to Washington, D.C.

In many towns of the Mixteca Baja, where the group members come from, most of the men have left in search of work in other parts of Mexico, the U.S., or Canada. The majority of people left behind are either children or elders. The internet helps these separated families keep connected.

Can you explain your cultural asset mapping project in rural California communities?

The idea behind this project was to identify people, groups, places, and events—what we called “cultural treasures”—that were considered to be culturally significant. In each community, we created questionnaires that community members could submit online or on paper. We kept our methods flexible—specific to the particular place and situation.

To document responses, we recorded interviews and took videos and photographs. During the interviews, we trained residents how to identify local treasures. Some of the questions we would ask included: 1) Do you have any skills based on your heritage that you found valuable to your community? 2) Can you name any groups or organizations that give you a sense of community or a sense of being at home? Such a process naturally led to conversations where community members had to think about what to feature.

The Santa Ana Cultural Treasures map produced from the community-based research undertaken by ACTA for the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative. Image courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts
The Santa Ana Cultural Treasures map produced from the community-based research undertaken by ACTA for the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative. Image courtesy of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts

Then we created an inventory comprised of the community’s submissions describing who and what they considered to be local cultural treasures. Finally, we made our research visible through organizing a public celebratory event in each site.

What has it been like collaborating on the Sounds of California program?

It has been a beautiful thing to have this trilateral partnership among the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, ACTA, and Radio Bilingüe. Each of us cannot achieve the same scale of work alone. There are a number of participants coming to the Festival whom we have worked with over the years. Some have been ACTA grantees and students in our apprenticeship program.

We are not only excited about the upcoming program at the Festival but also in planning ongoing work to promote the sounds of California in the long run.

Ying Diao recently graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She is currently an intern for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Sounds of California program at the 2016 Folklife Festival.

Story Circle: Cultural Diplomacy for a Post-COVID World

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

“I often think that when we say ‘cultural diplomacy,’ we’re really talking about culture as diplomacy. Culture as connection.” —Rachel Cooper

In this Story Circle discussion, four women leaders explore the power of cultural diplomacy, how it adapts to the situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and what positive changes it can have in building a post-COVID world.

The conversation features Dana Al Marashi, head of cultural diplomacy at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C.; Rachel Cooper, director of Global Cultural Diplomacy Initiatives at Asia Society New York; and Linda Zachrison, cultural counselor at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington. Aviva Rosenthal, director of the Smithsonian Office of International Relations, moderates the talk.

Cross-Cultural Connections at the Festival

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
A Luo potter and a Miao embroiderer share a moment.
A Luo potter and a Miao embroiderer share a moment.
Photo by Michelle Albeit, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution

Before beginning my internship with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, I could not have imagined what a chaotic, enlightening, exhausting and truly wonderful event the Folklife Festival would turn out to be. As with any large-scale event, a few things went awry—schedules changed, participants disappeared before or even during their sessions, materials sent from Kenya were damaged on the journey or had to improvised locally—but one of the best parts of the Festival was coming together with other staff members and participants to invent, rearrange, and reschedule in order for the event to continue successfully.

My official job during the event was assisting Center curator Olivia Cadaval with the organization of cross-program sessions, in which Kenyan and Chinese participants could get together for cross-cultural dialogues. A few days into the Festival, I also began an unofficial stint as a stage manager and assistant to one of the Kenyan presenters, Patrick Abungu, senior curator at the Shimoni Slavery Museum and Heritage Site at the National Museums of Kenya in Mombasa.

Presenter Patrick Abungu leading a talk at the Boma Stage.
Presenter Patrick Abungu leading a talk at the Boma Stage.
Photo by Masatomo Yonezu

Patrick remained intensely dedicated to the Festival throughout the two weeks and became one of our most trusted and reliable presenters, sometimes mediating three or four forty-five-minute sessions in a row and as many as five a day. I met and interacted with nearly all of the Kenyan participants, making connections which I hope to maintain for years to come. My involvement behind the scenes helped me gain a huge appreciation for the Festival as the achievement in cross-cultural exchange that it is.

Participants engaged in some very meaningful exchanges during the cross-programs, a space where talking about ordinary aspects of life revealed similarities between cultures that participants and audiences alike couldn’t have imagined. One such interaction took place between members of pastoralist groups from China and Kenya; during a talk on herding they learned they confront similar challenges in the face of growing populations and shrinking open land areas for raising livestock and farming. The looks of understanding on the faces of two Inner Mongolians and a Kenyan Maasai who would otherwise never have met is what makes the Festival so valuable.

Four very different cooks smiling after a cross-program foodways session on dumplings.
Four very different cooks smiling after a cross-program foodways session on dumplings.
Photo by Kate Mankowski, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and collections, Smithsonian Institution

During an ethnic identity cross-program, one of the China participants, a Mongolian musician named Baoyin, remarked on the words of an astronaut: “Looking at the Earth from space, you don’t see divisions of countries or ethnic groups or colors. It’s just a space where the human beings live.”

The experiences of staff members, audiences, and participants at the Folklife Festival are a small, yet meaningful, step on the journey toward true understanding and acceptance of other cultures, and the realization that, whatever differences we may identify or construct, human beings are more alike than different.

Emily Fuller is an intern with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, currently beginning preliminary work for the 2015 program on Peru. She is majoring in anthropology and cinema studies at Oberlin College, and she is extremely grateful for the opportunity to work behind the scenes of the Festival this year.

Meredydd Evans: The Power of the Welsh Language and Cultural Identity

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Meredydd Evans, professor of philosophy, writer, and performer has long been an advocate for the Welsh language. In this 2008 interview, he discusses how language is an inseparable part of cultural identity.

Building a Cultural Ecosystem: A Welcome from the Festival Director

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival considers how cultural heritage enterprise sustains communities by igniting innovation, promoting economic resilience, transmitting individual and group identity, and fostering the transmission of knowledge. The work of artisans, local food and wine producers, independent musicians, heritage tour operators, and others are part of a cultural ecosystem that deepens and expands our understanding of the long-term vitality of folk and traditional practices.

Our rigorous research exposed numerous fault lines in how we perceive and express the relationship between commerce and traditional culture. To paraphrase a voicemail left by one longtime visitor, what happens to “our Festival” when we talk about tourism and the business of culture? As you will discover, Armenia: Creating Home, Catalonia: Tradition and Creativity from the Mediterranean, and the artisans visiting this year’s Festival Marketplace offer intriguing—and occasionally vexing—answers to this question.

In truth, such considerations are not new to the Festival; however, there is a more intense sense of urgency woven throughout our work. The world has become smaller due to increased migration, advances in technology, the ubiquity of social media—the list goes on. Simultaneously, communities around the globe are at the frontlines of all manner of political shifts and environmental challenges. In this context, the role of traditional knowledge, interventions, and industries in shaping histories, identities, and aesthetics has taken on greater significance. Despite wildly differing pasts and geographies, both Armenia and Catalonia point to the fact that sustaining culture is a complex process.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an exercise in cultural democracy, equity, and diplomacy. The persistent power of its founding vision is made manifest by the work of dedicated staff, interns, volunteers, sponsors, and partners (like our friends at Roadwork Center for Cultures in Disputed Territory whose Sisterfire concert closes this year and points us to the next). The many artisans, musicians, cooks, dancers, and more imbue the Festival with animating energy. Your presence gives it purpose.

As always, I invite you to explore our offerings with a spirit of curiosity and wish you interactions that foster delight, understanding, and wonder.

Sabrina Lynn Motley is the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Cultural Sustainability and Traditional Crafts in Bhutan

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
A student at the Choki School touches up a piece hand-carved and painted in the traditional Bhutanese style.
Photo by Michael Mason

In the mountains of central Bhutan, a small group of craftspeople are struggling to sustain traditional practices that are disappearing as the remote Himalayan country becomes increasingly globalized.

The Choki Traditional Art School in Thimpu Province, Bhutan, offers free training in traditional Bhutanese crafts, such as weaving, wood carving, and painting, providing education to economically disadvantaged youth while revitalizing the fading cultural arts. Choki’s story is part of an important worldwide movement—a global narrative of communities and individuals working to preserve traditions and cultural practices that have great importance to them.

In earlier blog posts, we’ve discussed how traditions change over time, and how new generations often reinterpret cultural practices in order to strengthen identities and communities. This is evident on both a global and local scale in Bhutan. A full-time school with complete curriculum, Choki focuses on several traditional Bhutanese art forms and approaches education from practical and theoretical perspectives.

This student works on a traditional thanka, a painted scroll.
Photo by Michael Mason

During their first two years, students study traditional rimo drawing, the foundation for future specialized study of more complex crafts. Additional practices covered include thanka (scroll) painting, patra (carving), thag-zo (weaving), and tshem-zo (embroidery). These skills are several of the zorig chusum, or “thirteen crafts,” Bhutan’s major traditional crafts. They represent hundreds of years of cultural practice, and many Bhutanese see their identity and history reflected in these crafts.

In Bhutan, painting religious scrolls, or thankas, is considered an act of spiritual devotion. These works of art were originally used as a visual aid for understanding Buddhist philosophy, belief, and practice. Painters had to purify themselves physically and spiritually, and then meditate on the piece they were about to create, before attempting to paint. These pieces are beautiful works of art as well as important tenets of the practice of Buddhism in Bhutan.

Educating painters is a tradition in itself: techniques are passed from lharip (master) to novice, though the practice of thanka painting is no longer as widespread as in previous generations. Painters work with naturally pigmented paints, made from soil and other locally sourced dyes, and paint on scrolls, religious altars, houses, religious statues, and cloth. The subject matter ranges from simple religious motifs to large mandalas and depictions of Buddhist deities.

A female student carries on the thag-zo weaving tradition historically passed down from mother to daughter.
Photo by Michael Mason

Graduates from the Choki thanka program have founded their own painting businesses, contributed to the restoration of ancient monasteries, and painted new monasteries across Bhutan, keeping the artistic handicrafts of Bhutan alive.

Students at Choki can also study thag-zo (weaving), another endangered cultural practice. Woven textiles in Bhutan are highly valued, both materially and culturally. They express the social identity of the owner and carry symbolic and cultural associations.

In the past, textiles were used to pay taxes and as gifts to mark important events, such as religious ceremonies and life cycle events. However, due to increased access to imported synthetic dyes and yarn, very few weavers still practice all the traditional steps in the process.

The practice has been traditionally passed from mother to daughter, but, according to Choki principal Sonam Choki, “Many younger women now opt for other professions. There are far fewer successors to the present weavers than in the past. On top of that, there are now many cheap, mass-produced alternatives from across the border, which makes Bhutanese textiles very expensive as well as time-consuming to produce.” Choki graduates who study thag-zo sustain this culturally important traditional craft by learning all aspects of the process and becoming practioners themselves, producing high-quality woven goods.

Showing off a completed work.
Photo by Michael Mason

Society in Bhutan has transformed considerably since these traditional crafts were widely practiced. Bhutan transitioned from a traditional monarchy to a democratically elected parliament in 2008, which coincided with the Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Modern technology and tourism have opened Bhutan, historically a geographically and socially isolated region, to many outside influences, changing Bhutan physically and culturally.

Organizations like the Choki Traditional Arts School play an invaluable role in preserving and rejuvenating traditional arts and crafts before these forms of cultural identity are forgotten.

Choki’s practice of cultural stewardship and education aligns very closely with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s mission, which envisions a world that recognizes traditional artistry, diversity, and cultural participation as critical to the future of humanity.

James Mayer serves as the assistant to the director and assists with public affairs at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

A Reunion of Ancient Cultural Roots

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
The Leishan Miao Music and Dance Group at an evening concert at the 2014 Folklife Festival.
The Leishan Miao Music and Dance Group at an evening concert at the 2014 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Sara Manco, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution

Growing up in China, the word “reunion” (tuan ju 团聚) always reminded me of a crowded, cozy, and chatty occasion when the extended family got together to catch up, eat a feast, and celebrate. Every reunion strengthens family ties and reinforces common values, which give people a sense of confidence knowing that there are some people in the world who they always belong to.

At the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a profound moment of reunion happened that touched me very deeply.

On the first Saturday of the Festival, after the evening concert with the Leishan Miao Music and Dance Group, two women from the audience approached the performers and started talking to them. All kinds of body language was involved, so I went up to offer translation help when Professor Yang Wenbin, a Festival participant, Miao scholar, and batik maker, told me that the two ladies are from local Hmong community, and they are comparing their languages with the Miao people.

I was immediately fascinated, knowing Hmong and Miao share the same ancestors. Although there were only a few shared words that they could understand, they seemed so excited, as if they had found long-lost family members. The two Hmong ladies, Sia and Yer, invited the Miao participants for a Hmong dinner at their home later.

At this gathering, the Hmong and the Miao people compared their embroidery traditions, costumes, silver headwear, and other craft traditions. Some similarities were found, and differences were obvious too. But it seemed that finding similarities was not as important as simply enjoying the moment of reunion.

“Although I can’t understand their language, I feel we are from the same ancestor,” says Liang Xiaoying, one of the performers from Guizhou. “We are the same people. I feel happy and immediately at home around them.”

A Hmong and Miao dinner reunion: (l-r) Mo Ming, Sia Vue, Liang Xiaoying, Yer Vue, and Yang Wenbin.
A Hmong and Miao dinner reunion: (l-r) Mo Ming, Sia Vue, Liang Xiaoying, Yer Vue, and Yang Wenbin.
Photo courtesy of Yang Wenbin

The term “Miao” is mainly used in China, referring to three major tribes sharing the same ancestry. Hmong is one of the tribes. Without a written language, Miao/Hmong history and culture are passed on through oral history. At a very young age, Sia learned to sing songs about Hmong people coming from a land called shoua, which in the Hmong language means “China.”

“As Hmong diaspora in the west and Southeast Asian countries, we respect Miao people from China, because they connect us to the history and the ancestors’ land,” Sia said. “We feel like a family whenever we see our own people. We need to take care of each other. It was an honor to host a traditional Hmong dinner for them. ”

Miao people are historically known as nomads. Originally from northern China, in the past centuries they moved all the way to southwestern China and Southeast Asia to avoid war and natural disaster. During the migration, families and especially different tribes were often broken apart. Sia told me that because Miao/Hmong people have traveled so much in history and are not confined to any political boundaries, ethnic identity is bigger than political identity to them.

The Hmong people in the United States mostly came from Laos in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct consequence of U.S. covert operations in Laos, the “Secret War,” during the Vietnam War. Because of the detachment from their homeland, Hmong Americans preserve their cultural values seriously. As all immigrant communities probably experience to some degree, preserving their culture while trying to settle in a new society, especially with younger generations growing up in a new cultural environment, is difficult. Some of the first generation of Hmong immigrants had to let go of their own culture to be part of the American melting pot.

Sia and Yer, as second-generation Hmong Americans, face a different challenge. Yer told me that being a Hmong kid in America is very hard. Her parents forced the traditional rules on her that made her very different from her American friends. She once tried to run away from it to be a normal American kid. But as she grew, she learned to appreciate her own culture and feel the longing for her ethnic identity.

Meeting the Miao people is like connecting to a piece of history for Yer. “It is fascinating to meet people beyond the relatively recent history of war and immigration that we know,” she said.

This reunion was one across distance, time, and language. For hundreds of years, those Miao people who settled in Guizhou and those Hmong people who came all the way to America have both managed to maintain their own cultural identities, which allow them to reconnect and celebrate their common yet distinctive journeys.

Jing Li was the program coordinator for China: Tradition and the Art of Living at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Taro in Hawaiian Culture

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

One World, Many Voices presenter Ka‘ai McAfee-Torco and her uncle Earl Kawa‘a, a taro farmer and therapist, explain the central role of the taro plant in the Hawaiian creation story and the importance of storytelling to the preservation of the Hawaiian language.

Videography by Charlie Weber
Sound by Alexander Jusdanis
Edited by Kylie Shryock and Alexander Jusdanis

Painting Peru: Cultural Identity in Murals

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
A mural in El Carmen features the lyrics from the popular Afro-Peruvian song “Zamba Malató.” Photo by Alexia Fawcett
A mural in El Carmen features the lyrics from the popular Afro-Peruvian song “Zamba Malató.” Photo by Alexia Fawcett

In developing the Perú: Pachamama program, the curatorial team crisscrossed the country, from the urban scenes of Lima and Iquitos to the beach town of Huanchaco. Our travels helped us better understand Peruvian folklife, and by the end I was absolutely sure of at least one thing: Peru must be the world’s No. 1 consumer of paint.

There were political campaign slogans and icons painted on homes, advertisements for bottled water or cell phone services painted on the sides of restaurants, declarations of “this property is not for sale” painted on private entrances, registration numbers painted on taxis, and signage painted on all kinds of stores. The most impactful use of paint, however, was in the ubiquitous murals.

Murals bring art into the public sphere, which has the mutual benefit of providing artists a wide audience who in turn has a chance to appreciate art outside a gallery or museum. They can function as a means of communication for the socially marginalized and can be an effective tool in creating dialogue. Although we saw murals in almost every large city we visited, it seemed that Lima was especially chock-full of them. Each work has its own appeal and message, which breaks up the monotony of the urban landscape and illuminates topics that resonate with the people of the city.

Muralists across the world face certain challenges in their work. In addition to economic barriers, they must surmount the negative connotations associated with street art and the laws that forbid it—even when murals are commissioned by property owners or the government. However, like many other artists, they often find inspiration in their constraints, whether they be physical, cultural, religious, or ideological.

This painting in the main plaza of Moche depicts daily life in the small coastal city. Photo by Cristina Diaz-Carrera
This painting in the main plaza of Moche depicts daily life in the small coastal city. Photo by Cristina Diaz-Carrera
A political ad covered in chicha posters outside of Arequipa. Photo by Alexia Fawcett
A political ad covered in chicha posters outside of Arequipa. Photo by Alexia Fawcett

Chicha music and the associated graphic art form definitely fall into this category. This genre developed as individuals from rural areas moved into urban environments and expressed their feelings of marginalization as migrant communities. The chicha-style murals we saw in Lima were much more than graffiti: they painted a picture (no pun intended) of a shared experience of migration and adaptation to a contemporary urban environment. Representing a growing aspect of modern Peruvian culture, there will be multiple music and visual artists representing the chicha tradition at the 2015 Folklife Festival.

As meaningful, beautiful, and important as we found this art form to be, not everyone shares our admiration. On March 13, municipal workers began painting over murals throughout Lima’s historic district. Officials expressed concern that the city would lose its UNESCO declaration as a World Cultural Heritage Site and, after citing an ordinance from 1994 requiring the maintenance of the city’s historic architecture, announced the plan to eliminate all murals from the center of Lima. Critics say that the decision was political—rejecting public art programs and murals commissioned by previous administrations. Whatever the reasons, over that single weekend, dozens of murals were erased.

One of my personal favorites, which I posted to our Instagram in October, was among those painted over, and one of future Festival participant Elliot Túpac’s emblematic murals, with the phrase “Antes Soñaba” or “I used to dream,” was also erased. Gone too are many of the murals created in the 2013 LatidoAmericano festival, organized by Peruvian street artists.

Street art in the beach town of Huanchaco. Photo by Alexia Fawcett

Street art in the beach town of Huanchaco. Photo by Alexia Fawcett
There was significant backlash from the people of Lima, who posted on social media using the hashtags #SalvemosLosMurales (save the murals) and #BorraronUnoPintaremosMil (they erased one, we’ll paint a thousand), as well as staged protests in front of murals so they would not be painted over. Where murals once were, you can now find graffitied phrases and images of protest. One group has tagged the city with QR codes, which activate an augmented reality smartphone app showing the murals that once adorned those now blank walls.

The question at the heart of this conflict is how and by whom culture is defined. The disappearance of murals in Lima is a significant loss, as they reflected the shared experience and culture of many city residents. However, just as many of these erased murals rose in deference to the marginalization of the artists and their work, it seems as though new works will rise from their ashes in the face of further criticism. Even though their physical form is no longer visible in the streets, these murals will continue to live in the memory of the public as integral to the vibrant culture of Lima.

Alexia Fawcett is the community engagement manager for the Perú: Pachamama program.

Cultural Landscapes Shaping the Peru Program

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
The team travels down the Itaya River by the floating homes off the shores of Iquitos. Photo courtesy Olivia Cadaval
The team travels down the Itaya River by the floating homes off the shores of Iquitos. Photo courtesy Olivia Cadaval

The Peru program for the 2015 Folklife Festival has taken a more definite shape since we returned from our second curatorial fieldwork trip in December. My colleagues Cristina Diaz-Carrera, Rafael Varón, Alexia Fawcett, and I continue to marvel at the range of cultural and physical landscapes we encountered as we traveled north along the coast, northeast to Amazonian towns of Iquitos and Nauta, and into the central valleys of the Andes.

What was most interesting to me on this second trip were the distinct ecological relationships between the people, their history, and their artistry and creativity; the physical environment—the land, the water, the animals, the natural resources; and the challenges of industrialization, expropriation of natural resources, tourism, and globalization. I never ceased to be amazed how Peruvians respond to these with cultural persistence and creative reformulation of traditions, successfully sustaining their values and ways of life.

Olivia tries out her hand preparing yarn for weaving a marinera belt under the guidance of Margarita Melchán, member of the Manos Peruanas artisan association in Monsefú. Photo courtesy Olivia Cadaval
Olivia tries out her hand preparing yarn for weaving a marinera belt under the guidance of Margarita Melchán, member of the Manos Peruanas artisan association in Monsefú. Photo courtesy Olivia Cadaval

On the north coast, we encountered the world of the marinera, a dance tradition with many regional variants whose very name (mar) references the ocean. Now considered a national icon, marinera has become a cultural institution not only inspiring generations of dancers but also motivating local artisans to organize creative enterprises that outfit the dancers: embroideries for skirts and blouses, woven cotton belts and straw hats, and delicate silver filigree earrings, necklaces, and hair adornments emulating peacocks.

Angel Piminchumo Domínguez’s nephew shows Cristina how to row a caballito on the shores of Huanchaco. Photo by Olivia Cadaval
Angel Piminchumo Domínguez’s nephew shows Cristina how to row a caballito on the shores of Huanchaco. Photo by Olivia Cadaval

Also on the coast in the town of Huanchaco, we met fishermen who continue the tradition of building caballitos de totora—fishing canoes made with local totora reeds. This millennial tradition is being increasingly replaced by commercial boats; however, some local fishermen chose to continue to make and fish in caballitos—but also rent them for surfing, a popular tourist activity. One of the greatest challenges for caballito artisans are the diminishing totora reserves; some have developed a strategy to use Styrofoam in the interior of the caballito, which gives the canoe the necessary buoyancy while using fewer reeds.

We next traveled to Iquitos, a city once on the Amazon, but when the river changed course in 1972, it became an island surrounded by Amazon, Itaya, and Nanay rivers. This commercial hub is a crossroads of traditions. We met with the music ensemble Los Wemblers, named after the Wembley Stadium in England. In the 1970s, they were one of the earliest groups to play cumbia amazónica, a local style incorporating elements of the popular Colombian cumbia music dominating the radio and commercial recordings. This parallels a similar phenomenon happening in Lima where cumbia is combined with the traditional huayno music of highland migrants to the city to create chicha music.

We then continued on to Nauta on the Marañon River to visit Radio Ucamara. One of the greatest challenges in this region is the loss of the native languages and the concurrent loss of cultural practices. The members of Radio Ucamara have engaged the community in oral history projects involving several generations to help revitalize their language by documenting oral traditions. In this world of rivers increasingly contaminated by oil expropriation, one of the stories describes not only why this impacts their livelihood but affects their ritual practices. Radio Ucamara will share their strategies for reinvigorating language and culture at the Festival as well as produce radio programs interviewing other Festival participants.

After visiting the Kuntur Designs workshop, Alexia, mate burilado artist Blanca Canto, and Rafael walk over to the family’s garden overlooking the Mantaro Valley in the Andes in Cochas Grande, Huancayo. Photo by Olivia Cadaval
After visiting the Kuntur Designs workshop, Alexia, mate burilado artist Blanca Canto, and Rafael walk over to the family’s garden overlooking the Mantaro Valley in the Andes in Cochas Grande, Huancayo. Photo by Olivia Cadaval

Lastly, we traveled to the central valleys in the southern Andes, a region renowned for its crafts—many providing rich visual historical narratives of the period of violence, known as la época del terrorismo, experienced in the 1980s and ’90s. In Cochas Grande, near the town of Huancayo, we visited mate burilado artists who engrave their personal stories on gourds. We traveled several hours to Ayacucho through rich valleys growing potatoes, lima beans, quinoa, corn, barley, and more. We met with an agronomist and explored the possibility of inviting farmers who grow these crops for their livelihood but are also part of a project growing organic quinoa for export.

In Ayacucho, it is common for craft traditions to run through families. It is home to a range of fine artisans who we are considering for the Festival and whose work includes tapestry weavings, tinsmith art, mask making for civic and religious celebrations, ceramics, and retablo boxes illustrating domestic, religious, historical, and personal stories.

At the Festival, visitors can listen to the stories of people who come from these different places; enjoy their music, dance, arts, crafts, and occupational skills; and appreciate how they combine creativity with traditional knowledge to address social and environmental challenges they encounter in today’s world.

Read about the team’s August 2014 trip to Peru on Talk Story.

Olivia Cadaval has curated numerous Folklife Festival programs, including Las Américas: Un Mundo Musical (2009), México (2010), Colombia: The Nature of Culture(2011), and Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River (2012). She is currently co-curator of the 2015 program on Peru.

Hula: Preserving Native Hawaiian Language and Culture

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

UNUKUPUKUPU is the name of the rigorous hula curricula of Dr. Taupōuri Tangarō at Hawai‘i Community College, University of Hawai‘i System.

Dr. Tangarō describes the crucial role the Native Hawaiian language has played throughout the history of hula.

UNUKUPUKUPU is a descendant of the centuries old ‘Aiha‘a (Sacred Dance) traditions of Hālau O Kekuhi, Hilo, Hawai‘i.

Dr. Tangarō was a participant in the 2012 Campus and Community Festival program. This video was produced as part of the Hawai‘i participation in the upcoming 2013 Folklife Festival program One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage. Stay tuned for more previews of this program.

Brus Rubio: Combining Cultures and Communicating through Art

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Amazonian painter Brus Rubio creates abstract scenes of Huitoto-Bora myths, local stories, and songs in addition to singing and playing the manguaré, a pair of drums made from tree trunks.

Production and Editing: Claudia Romano
Filmography: Pruitt Allen

To Which Culture Do Adoptees Relate?

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Rebecca Andina was born in Korea in the 1970s and adopted at seven months by an American family. Here she discusses with her adoptive mother and the difficulties of growing up Asian in a predominantly white community.

Intangible Cultural Heritage: An International Dialogue, Part 2

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Against the backdrop of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival last June, the Center hosted Intangible Cultural Heritage: An International Dialogue, a gathering which brought together scholars and professionals working on issues of cultural heritage policy to discuss international approaches, challenges, and opportunities for collaboration. Participants working in intangible cultural heritage, or ICH, came from China, Kenya, Senegal, all over the United States, and from across the Smithsonian. Panel: Transnational Theory and Practice in Action Anthony Seeger, moderator 1:00 Danny Yung, flower plaque artist, Hong Kong 6:49 Kathryn Coney-Ali, Lamu Cultural Museum and World Monuments Fund, Kenya 25:07 Vera Nakonechny, Ukrainian embroidery artist, Philadelphia 38:40 Elizabeth Peterson, American Folklife Center 49:36 Discussion 1:02:02 Read more: http://www.folklife.si.edu/talkstory/2014/intangible-cultural-heritage-an-international-dialogue/ [Catalog No. CFV10716; Copyright 2015 Smithsonian Institution]
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