Remote Cultures Come Face to Face in Washington D.C.

For two weeks every summer, the National Mall in Washington D.C. becomes a home-away-from-home for musicians, wood carvers, singers, dancers, cooks and more from all around the world. Born out of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and increased appreciation of lesser-known cultures, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has become one of the annual highlights of life in the U.S. capital.

This year, speakers of some of the world’s least commonly known languages have come to speak with visitors and each other to highlight the value of smaller, more localized, and more ancient cultures and traditions.

National Geographic Explorer K. David Harrison is a curator of this section of the festival, titled “One World, Many Voices.” In an earlier post he gave us his thoughts going in to the event. Now, after a week of festivities he points out some of the highlights so far:

“Benito Pushaine Apahana of the Wayuunaiki of Colombia compared bow and arrow designs with Ramda Degio, of the Koro of India. They were mutually fascinated by the differences and similarities in this ancient technology, and using mime, described to each other the animals they hunt, and then practiced shooting each other’s bows. It’s amazing that there are still people who hunt with handmade bow and arrows for subsistence, not sport, and that these two archery hunting experts from opposite sides of the world could meet to discuss it.

“Wayne Newell, Passamaquoddy elder, drummer, storyteller and lexicographer from Maine, visited with Max Chura, Kallawaya healer from Bolivia, and attended the Kallawaya fire blessing ceremony. As part of the ceremony, people kneel in a circle, and Max and the other healers make the rounds, holding a brazier of hot coals over each person’s head, wafting smoke around them, and chanting blessings. Passamaquoddy is reported by Ethnologue, to have just 7 fluent speakers, while Kallawaya is reported to have 9. That a speaker of Passamaquoddy could meet a speaker of Kallawaya, and exchange wisdom, chants, and blessings, is quite remarkable.

“Molly Neptune Parker, Passamaquoddy elder, cultural expert and master basket weaver, came over to inspect baskets woven by the Koro of India. She identified in their basketry some familiar patterns, and some that were new to her. The Koro, whose baskets are made solely to carry heavy loads, and get lots of wear and tear, were also amazed and the delicate and highly ornamented “fancy baskets” made by the Passamaquoddy.

“Ruben Reyes, Garifuna linguist from Los Angeles, and author of the Online Garifuna Dictionary, spoke about his dictionary was not encouraged by the community when he began the project, but has now become a cornerstone of the revitalization movement. Suspecting he might find a cognate language (Garifuna is an Arawakan language with elements of Spanish), he began quizzing the Colombian participants, and eliciting words from Arhuacan speaker Ati Janey Mestre Izquierdo. Ruben excitedly showed off a list of words he had collected that were cognate between the two languages. He was thrilled to have found echoes of Garifuna in a distant sister tongue, as Garifuna is a language that now exists only in diaspora and is no longer spoken in its place of origin.”

In the gallery above, see some of the members of these cultures at work and play at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. If you’re in the Washington D.C. area, come be a part of the celebration and exploration in person, July 3-7. 


NEXT: Explore a Map of the World’s Language Hotspots


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Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.