Did you Know…

Did you Know…

Building community knowledge around our work

My recent trip to the New Orleans Jazz Festival was an enriching journey into the heart of
folklife and traditional arts. This vibrant festival, renowned for its celebration of music,
culture, and community, provided an unparalleled opportunity to capture research and
experience firsthand the diverse array of folklife traditions.

Upon arrival, I was immediately immersed in the lively atmosphere, with the sounds of jazz,
blues, zydeco, and gospel music resonating through the air. Each performance, including
the performance I participated in with the Tennessee Mass Choir, whether on a grand stage
or a cozy corner of the festival grounds, was a testament to the rich cultural heritage of New
Orleans and the surrounding regions. I engaged with musicians, dancers, and craftsmen,
documenting their stories and techniques, which are integral to preserving these traditions.
The festival also featured a dedicated Folklife Village, where artisans showcased
traditional crafts such as quilting, basket weaving, and pottery. I had the privilege of
observing these masters at work, gaining insights into their meticulous processes and the
historical significance behind each craft. These interactions underscored the importance
of preserving and promoting such art forms, which are vital components of our cultural

This trip aligns seamlessly with the mission and vision of the National Folklife Network,
especially for our cohort based in Memphis, Tennessee. Our mission is to document,
preserve, and promote the folklife and traditional arts that shape our community’s and
region’s identity. By attending the New Orleans Jazz Festival, I not only broadened my
understanding of Southern folklife but also gathered invaluable resources and inspiration
to bring back to Memphis to enhance our efforts.

Our vision is to create a thriving network of folklife practitioners and enthusiasts who can
share their knowledge and passion with future generations. The connections made and the
knowledge gained from this festival will be instrumental in organizing workshops,
exhibitions, and educational programs in Memphis, fostering a deeper appreciation and
engagement with our local traditions.

In summary, the New Orleans Jazz Festival was more than a trip; it was a vital step in our
ongoing commitment to folklife research and preservation. The experiences and insights
gained will significantly enhance our efforts to support and celebrate the traditional arts
within our community, aligning perfectly with the goals of the National Folklife Network.

Southwest Folklife Alliance Folklorist and Communications Director Kimi Eisele was interviewed for a Grist Article, “As climate change fractures communities, folklorists help stitch them back together.” The excerpt below made me (Alisha) think of the varied knowledge that exists within the National Folklife Network and how we are all part in saving something:

“…It’s true that those who study and preserve folklore don’t concern themselves with high art — that is, the sort of thing supported by networks of patronage and philanthropy and gallery exhibitions. Their mission is to record the culture of ordinary people: us. Our jokes, our songs, our spiritual practices, our celebrations, our recipes. Such things are the glue that holds society together, and as the climate changes our ways of life, Owens and her peers say, it’s important to pay attention to how culture adjusts.

“Doing that goes beyond the practical question of how people will carry their heritage into a world reshaped by climate change. It requires looking to tradition-bearers – the people within a community who are preserving its customs, songs, and stories and passing them on – for clues to how best to navigate this tumultuous time without losing generations of knowledge. In that way, folklorists across the country increasingly strive to help communities adapt to a new reality, understand how tradition shifts in times of crisis, and even inform climate policy. Folklore doesn’t seem like it would teach us how to adapt to a warming world, but even as it looks over our collective shoulder at the past, it can prepare us for a future that is in many ways already here…” Read the full article.

When I’m hosting friends for dinner, I click on a favorite playlist from Our Stories Our Art Magazine. There are only two, so far, but they both get me dancing in my kitchen. As I enact my own traditions, stirring boiling pots of beans and lowering the flame on my rice, I am moving to the music of Memphis, Tennessee or to Go-Go from the nation’s capital.

We have so much to learn from one another, and this magazine is a space where cultural lessons can be explored and shared. Essays teach me about harvesting local plants, about breathing with nature, about cooking to carry on traditions. Others focus on cultural solutions to local or personal issues – salve for anxiety, for feeling unmoored, or even for the feeling of isolation brought on by periods of quarantine due to COVID19. Reading these made me think about my own cultural knowledge, how my ways of being and knowing can also be ways of healing.

Essays contributed by authors from Memphis, Tennessee are, of course, grounded in music, and they reveal the importance of community gatherings in the lives of the authors. The natural environment is centered in most of the essays from Alaska as are themes of identity and inheritance. Across all regions authors are tending the stories they choose to carry forward from their past. They are examining what has been inherited and tell us about what is important to them about these traditions, arts, and heritage practices.

The literary project offers me a window, I open it to understand one person’s view of traditional artistic expression in their home place. Collected, this writing is a testament to the way that local writers bear witness to and participate in their community’s cultural knowledge. I hope you take some time to read (and dance to) these gems.

Two Spotify Playlists from OurStoriesOurArt authors:

Maleke Glee from Washington, D.C. shared this playlist by SuperFlyTy that reflects the subgenres of Go-Go, specific to each generational evolution. Listen carefully to catch the rich sampling of popular music and original songs that reflect the lived experiences of Black Washingtonians. Go-Go has been described by Kip Lornell and Charles Stephson Jr. as “a complex expression of cultural values masquerading in the guise of party music in our nation’s capital.” in their book The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.
Maleke Glee from Washington, D.C. shared this playlist by SuperFlyTy that reflects the subgenres of Go-Go, specific to each generational evolution. Listen carefully to catch the rich sampling of popular music and original songs that reflect the lived experiences of Black Washingtonians. Go-Go has been described by Kip Lornell and Charles Stephson Jr. as “a complex expression of cultural values masquerading in the guise of party music in our nation’s capital.” in their book The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.
One of the new NFN Community Voices, Tracey Brown, shared this playlist:
“From the streets of midtown and Overton Square to Beale Street to the historical Lorraine Motel,[iv] Memphis is my city, my culture. I am at home here. I am in the birthplace of music that the love language I shared with my father is rooted within. It has all come full circle. The connection I feel to my family history in the deepest way is rooted in the music that has been cultivated over the course of multiple generations in this city. This is my home, my heritage, and my legacy— this is Memphis!”

Alisha’s field reflections about her trip to Montana, shared in this newsletter two weeks ago, got me thinking about how the concept of regions evolved in the United States and how its use might remain a worthwhile tool –or might need pushback through our shared learning—here at the NFN. A quick review of some of the social science literature on the subject shed light on where we might consider starting such an inquiry. From colonial times, through the Civil War divide between North and South, through the mythology and violence of expansionism (westward and outward beyond the contiguous 48 states), notions of regional distinctions have always been part of U.S. political and social discourse. Regions like the Southwest and the Northwest, had their early share of attention through the rise of anthropology in the late 19th century and early 20th century. 

But it was not until the late 1930s that social science and common ideas about regionalism solidify. Federal government initiatives that emerged out of the New Deal mandate to employ people and help the country emerge from the Great Depression sent writers, artists, photographers, and researchers to document the everyday lives of Americans. Such documentation captured “the ways of the folk” showed as tightly related to the cultures that formed around climate, natural resources, and foodways.

The first extensive academic program to affirm regional culture developed at the University of North Carolina, with the Southeast becoming one of the first “regions” to be clearly demarcated based on Atlantic maritime occupations and food.  This trend spread, and we can see how the Northwest goes from being primarily perceived as distinct through the indigenous communities designated by anthropologists to the overarching cultures associated to lumberjacks. While there is no doubt a great deal of romanticism, mythology, and even stereotypes associated to these “regional characters” something else was also at work in the emergence of American regionalism: a push back from progressive thinkers and early BIPOC scholars against national American “uniformity.”

With the quick rise and spread starting in the 1920s of radio, telegraph, automobiles, motion pictures, and the advertising industry (classic signs of modernization and capitalism’s success) some feared that local cultures and the “flavors of localities” would disappear. Early folklorists of this era saw themselves as defenders of local cultures against the mighty force of “bland” American homogenous cultural norms. Whether these folkloristic inspired efforts that in the end replicated to some extent the same flat narratives they meant to counter remains a topic for discussion. But we know that their efforts began to gain acceptance among the federal bureaucrats who saw benefits in creating regional administrative bodies to implement federal policies. The idea of an American culture made up of one cloth —Anglo Saxon and Puritan—which was vigorously promoted by some nativists in Congress and public life was robustly  questioned through these early efforts. For another take on the controversies about folklorists “discovering” American vernacular music, see this post by the Grammy-winner African American folk musician Dom Flemons.

Enjoy this short video about Tucson Meet Yourself, a 3-day folklife festival in downtown Tucson. Founded in 1974, the festival celebrates living traditions in Tucson and Southern Arizona. This is the story of its values and contributions to Tucson over the past 50 years.

Artwork: Good for the Bees
Voiceover: Marc Pinate
Music: Dan Levenson
Script: Maribel Alvarez & Kimi Eisele

From September 13-17, Emmy Her Many Horses and I visited some people and places to better understand our Rocky Mountain West region. This desert kid was blown away by the greenery, national parks, water everywhere, and the kindness of many people we encountered along the way. I want to thank the following people who helped shine light on the issues and needs in their communities and helped me better understand this vast region: Corky Clairmont, Linda King, Sean Chandler, Jessyca Valdez and her husband Manuel, Chico and Julie Her Many Horses, Hunter Old Elk, Luella Brien, and Della Bighair-Stump. A very, very special thank you to Emmy who has been telling us how vital it is to understand the unique needs and beauty of rural and rez realities.

Emmy drove me more than 1,000 miles in three days, in addition to driving from and back to her home near Pine Ridge.

Kalispell, MT; Glacier National Park; Helena, MT; Yellowstone and Old Faithful; Grand Tetons; Jackson Hole, WY; Wind River, Lander, WY and Riverton, WY; Cody, WY and back home.

RMW Community Connector, Sean Chandler, met us in Helena and came down to Jackson Hole with us. While there’s no way to summarize all that we learned here, some highlights include:

  • Artists and knowledge keepers often have to drive hours to obtain materials, show their work, or participate in events.
  • Care-taking is an added barrier that prohibits many traditional artists from participating in art activities and culture.
  • This region is pricey in areas that cater to tourists, which is commonplace in the areas we went.
  • Grant language and application processes drive people away from applying.
  • It’s a good idea for the NFN to better understand the impacts of colonization and neocolonization on tribes and communities in the area today.
  • Outsiders are moving in and driving up the cost of housing.

Emmy and I will bring all we learned to the NFN Team, and we are excited to working with more communities in the RMW. Expect some new Community Voices, soon.

If you have had dealings with us folks associated with the Southwest Folklife Alliance in the last few weeks, you know that our minds, bodies, and souls are 100% focused on FESTIVAL time. This October 13-15, SFA will oversee the production of the 50th edition of “Tucson Meet Yourself” –a folklife festival that began in 1974 and is widely regarded as one of the most inclusive, expansive, and grassroots connected events of this kind in the nation. We expect 150,000 people to attend over three days and artists and community small ethnic groups will walk away with over $1M in their pockets collectively – for some cultural clubs, what they make at the event represents more than 80% of their annual revenues. The event has a storied past –having served as a site of public critical presence and engagement at a time when Tucson’s civic center was under the duress of violent gentrification.

But events of cultural production, at any scale, as you all know, are learning incubators. We learn, and learn, and learn again……….that’s the business we are in. In this essay published in 2021 in a book from Indiana University Press entitled “What Folklorists Do,” our NFN Director Dr. Maribel Alvarez, who also doubles as Co-Director or TMY, reflects on the sometimes painful curve of her own learning as her role evolved from “academic consultant” to “producer.” In her own words:

“I came to see the festival’s production as a whole cloth of educational challenges —and while staff and volunteers looked at me kindly as their teacher and leader, the fact was that I was their student in more ways than they knew….. Through this personal and institutional metamorphosis, one question loomed large: had my academic training as folklorist-ethnographer given me any transferable skills or instilled any aptitudes to accomplish the expanded role of festival producer? Yes, but not in any textbook sort of way.”

We share Maribel’s reflection as a way of reminding all of us that no matter at what point of our “professional development” journey we find ourselves in, in the end all “development” is HUMAN development -and that the most important skills we can aspire to sharpen and hone are those of humility, respect, and generosity.

Washington fue mágico. El poder compartir con mis compañeros de Memphis ideas y sueños de lo que queremos ver en Memphis a través del viaje fue genial. Creo que fue excelente que fuera en otra ciudad lejos del trabajo general de cada uno. Caminamos muchísimo pero vivimos experiencias increibles.   Tambien tuvimos la oportunidad de compartir con varios compañeros del Cohort de Washington. El poder compartir con ellos nos permitió compartir muchas risas, ideas, preocupaciones y consejos que podriamos usar en nuestras ciudades. Creo que sería importante poder tener más contactos con los demas cohort.   Asistir a el festival fue maravilloso. Poder ver tantas personas compartiendo su cultura, historias, tradiciones y creencias en una sola comunidad fue maravilloso. Allí nadie vende nada solo era estar allí y compartir algo de si mismo y su comunidad. Lo más hermoso es ver los asistentes del festival escuchando atentos. Creo que fue una oportunidad de reafirmar que hay cosas maravillosas en el mundo. Muchas veces enfocamos en todo lo malo en nuestras ciudades y en las noticias. Pero si escucháramos más a la persona de al lado, si abrimos nuestra mente y corazón para aprender las tradiciones, culturas e historias de los demas tendriamos un mundo mejor. Muchas veces como humanos olvidados que no tenemos que estar de acuerdo con alguien solo respetarlo.
Washington was magical. Being able to share ideas and dreams of what we want to see in Memphis through the trip with my fellow Memphis network was great. I think it was great that it was in another city away from everyone’s general work. We walked a lot but we lived incredible experiences.
We also had the opportunity to share with several colleagues from the Washington Cohort. Being able to share with them allowed us to share many laughs, ideas, worries and advice that we could use in our cities. I think it would be important to be able to have more contacts with the other cohorts.
Attending the festival was wonderful. Being able to see so many people sharing their culture, stories, traditions and beliefs in one community was wonderful. Nobody sells anything there, it was just being there and sharing something about yourself and your community. The most beautiful thing is to see the festival attendees listening attentively. I think it was an opportunity to reaffirm that there are wonderful things in the world. Many times we focus on everything bad in our cities and in the news. But if we listened more to the person next to us, if we open our minds and hearts to learn the traditions, cultures and stories of others, we would have a better world. As humans we forget that we don’t have to agree with someone, just respect them.

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

Total $20,000

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.