Building community knowledge around our work
The National Folklife Network Alaska (NFNA) has been meeting with various artists and culture bearers throughout Alaska. NFNA members include Emily Edenshaw (Yup’ik and Inupiaq), Alma Parker (Filipina), Nikki Graham (Yup’ik/Blackfoot Indian), Ben Jacuk (Dena’ina/Sugpiaq), Indra Arriaga (Mexican), and Kelsey Wallace (Yup’ik). To date, NFNA members have met twice, and we hosted a virtual conversation with fellow Alaskans to discuss the term “folklife” and its complexities. Additionally, NFNA Connector Emily Edenshaw met with Alaska State Council on the Arts President and CEO, who was also present during our community convening. Included below is a word art illustration highlighting key words shared.
While the discussions have been fruitful, one major point everyone agreed on was somewhat problematic was the term “Folklife” as being the way their work was being presented, along with the colonial undertones of the term. Along with these voiced concerns, it came to our attention when the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) hosted the Antique Roadshow, that there was a separation of Folk and Indigenous Art, with the former focusing more on “Americana” rather than being used as a blanket term. Therefore, NFNA understood our direction to help fund the later designation and minoritize artforms within our region.
Key takeaways from the meeting include: 1. Support a festival that is already happening to advance the conversation around folklife in Alaska. 2. Support healing work that is already taking place. 3. Use funds to make a lasting impact.
Building off the meetings thus far and key takeaways, our proposed budget is:
Aak’w Rock Indigenous Music Festival: $5,000; Artist Stipends (Four BIPOC artists x $1k each): $4,000; Haida, Dena’ina Potlatch Healing Totem Raising: $5,000; Folklife Gathering, planning, network building: $6,000
In 1977, the notable folklorist Alan Dundes published an essay entitled “Who are the Folk” that took inventory of how the term “folk” had emerged and evolved since the late 1770s. Some of the ideas developed in that essay helped re-frame how the word was deployed in studies of culture, including how some BIPOC communities embraced a term that many had previously rejected. Up until the Civil Right struggles, roughly the mid 1960s, “folk” had been primarily a pejorative term that essentially meant “less than” other people or cultural norms (as in a “folk song” versus music for the educated, or “folk speech” as in contrast to “proper English,” or “folk medicine” in opposition to science, and so forth). Dundes’ research clarified that at its point of origin, and for almost one hundred years, “folk” was defined in terms of class status and geography –that is, Europeans elite denominated as “folk” peasants and people living in rural areas and this was largely restricted to European-derived cultures. Through the advocacy of Marxist labor organizers and some, mainly American, anthropologists, the “folk” grew to encompass the urban poor or any group considered “marginalized.” Starting in the 1930s, we can see in the United States the idea of “folk” associated to protests, labor, calls for democratic inclusion, and critiques of elites.
The Civil Rights movement expanded this impetus and by the 1960s we see the rise of, on the one hand, efforts by Black, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican American scholars to record and document “folk traditions” as elements of pride for these communities, and on the other hand, the “folk music” revival (Bod Dylan and such) by college [mainly White] students. Despite the thrust to associate “folk” with social justice movements, none of these historical turns successfully eliminated the colonial traces of this word – as “folk” remained a category mediated by “experts” who prioritized the need to “help those people,” in many instances. But by the 1970s we see a major change.
Scholars like Dundes began to think of “folk” as any group of people who share an expressive ingenuity to affirm a sense of common identity and meaning. A “folk community” can be “as large as a nation or as small as a family,” Dundes wrote. This gave permission to students of folklore to become interested in documenting the “folk” ways of occupational groups (i.e. baseball players, waitresses, hairstylists, coal miners, firefighters, cowboys, teachers, seamstresses, lumberjacks, etc.) and leisure groups (surfers, skateboarders, gamers, etc.). The “expressive” part of being part of a folk group became associated with each group’s own lingo, stories or legends, decorations, rituals, and in-group jokes. It was recognized that people share overlapping identities and can “code-switch” to join in the “folk culture” of the various groups they belong to, thus “folk” no longer was thought to define a monolithic identity for someone. A Native American potter can also be part of the folk culture of women, or bingo players, or bakers. In other words, people are complex and folk-cultures are like passports we use to feel competent in multiple identities and situations.
Insider jokes (about outsiders) is one of the genres of folk-group identities that has gained attention by scholars, mainly because “not getting the joke” is one of the surest signs that one does not belong to the community telling the joke. Among one of the most praised, early studies is Keith Basso’s Portraits of ‘the Whiteman’ -linguistic play and cultural symbols among the Western Apache. Others in a similar vein include Americo Paredes’ Uncle Remus with Chile (on Mexican American humor), and multiple investigations about humor in African American communities. Ultimately, in common American English, we use expressions like “who are my people,” or “my folks” to mark a sense of belonging —which, ironically, reclaims the power of “otherness” that the original discriminatory use of the word intended.
Folklore Studies emerged out of the colonial mindset of 19th century Romantic ideas about “saving” or rescuing ways of life “other” to the urban elites of new industrial societies. These “salvage” efforts, as well-meaning as they might have been, relied on assumptions that infantilized non-white “Other” communities or white (but ethnic) rural and poor communities. The folklorist, usually a white upper-class educated male, often set out to “help” those who could not do for themselves. Despite these trappings of power and condescension, many activists and tradition bearers in Native, African American, Asian, and Latino/a communities took matters in their own hands and, as BIPOC people often do, became savvy at using the channels of the dominant culture to advance other ideas and strategies. Many “folklorists of color” thought to use the toolkit of folklore to accomplish their own goals of documenting oral traditions and uplifting the value of ordinary practices of communities that more formal “scientific” approaches to racial difference preferred to ignore or erase.
One notable Native American folklorist was Ella Cara Deloria (Dakota). Like Zora Neale Hurston, Deloria was a student of the founder of folklore and anthropology studies in the United States, Franz Boas, at Columbia University. Her academic career as an Indigenous scholar, however, was filled with challenges and indignities she faced throughout her life. Nonetheless, she went on to become one of the most versatile and prolific folklorists of her generation, opening doors of scholarship for Lakota language and Dakota oral traditions that continue to influence students and communities to the present day. Her best known work is the novel Waterlily. Ella Deloria’s internal struggle on how to “translate” Dakota knowledge to the genre of a novel, her fights with her prominent academic mentors, her fierce efforts to re-write the script of how Native literature was perceived, evaluated, and shared in mainstream circles, made for a life committed to both productive contributions to folklore studies AND resistance. To get a feel for how complex these endeavors were for Ms. Deloria, take a quick read of the introduction to Waterlily by Professor Susan Gardner. The fact that a work as profound as Ms. Deloria’s novel could be so deeply embedded in the wrestling of words, meanings, interpretations, silences, and hesitations within folkloric boundaries, affirms the work we still must do today and it is a good reminder of the invitation and platform this fledgling National Folklife Network offers us.