Preserving the gifts of indigenous peoples

With the growth of modern economies, job-seekers worldwide are migrating to cities, leaving behind rural communities and, often, the languages, customs and rituals of their ancestors. This is particularly true for indigenous minorities living in rapidly developing countries.

Anthropologists and ethnologists aren’t the only ones worried about this. And they aren’t the only ones who believe that something precious is lost when indigenous peoples lose their language and customs.

In 2001, the United States established the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to protect and preserve not only historic buildings, artifacts and archaeological sites, but also the languages, rituals and customs of indigenous peoples around the globe.

Three projects, completed in recent years with AFCP assistance, illustrate how the U.S. helps indigenous communities keep their cherished traditions alive.

China: Saving intangible Qiang heritage

The Qiang people are one of China’s oldest ethnic minorities. They appeared in written records 2,300 years ago and have traditionally worshipped many gods, including gods of heaven, sun, fire, mountains, rivers and trees. Qiang culture revolves around rituals led by a shibi, or shaman.

But when the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck, more than 30,000 Qiang perished. Today, one-third of the remaining Qiang live in cities and no longer speak their native language. The remaining two-thirds live in villages whose traditions are threatened in a rapidly modernizing China.

Qiang men and boys perform a ritual in the remote Chinese mountain village of A’er. (State Dept.)

A’er, a remote mountain village, is home to 500 Qiang. The village was severely damaged by the 2008 earthquake; the local temple and stupa (a monumental pile of earth marking a sacred spot) that are central to village ceremonies were partially destroyed. The Qiang residents were determined to restore these structures, but they lacked the funds to buy tools and materials.

That’s when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing stepped in, providing $32,000 in AFCP funds to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center in 2009 for the restoration.

The Qiang lack a written language, but the project enabled them to document their language and heritage through audio recordings, film and (a Mandarin) text. This safeguarded a living culture that had only been passed down through oral tradition.

Laos: Exploring the splendor and sacrifice of Taoism

Among the most important ethnic minorities in predominantly Buddist Laos are the Yao, composed of two groups — the Iu Mien and Kim Di Mun (or Kim Mun) peoples — who practice a form of Taoism.

Their traditional way of life has changed in the last decade as a result of resettlement, and new livelihoods have replaced their former agrarian occupations.

These upheavals have caused hardship for some families, forcing them to sell cultural artifacts. With the loss of these objects comes the discontinuation of rituals that require their use, and the inability to pass on these objects and associated knowledge and rituals to the next generation.

Moreover, most Yao familiar with indigenous cultural traditions are elderly. When the older generation passes away, experts fear, the cultural traditions and rituals may be lost. But with the AFCP’s help, there’s hope that Yao culture will survive.

In Laos, four Yao Mien ordinands are welcomed into the priesthood in a Taoist ceremony. (State Dept.)

A $30,000 AFCP grant through the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane launched a two-year project to document a Kim Di Mun ordination ceremony for Taoist priests and a Iu Mien New Year’s celebration.

An anthropologist consulted with Yao Taoist priests and elders. Observations, interviews and photographs are archived at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) at Luang Prabang, Laos. The Kim Di Mun ordination ceremony and the Iu Mien New Year’s celebration were recorded in high-definition digital audio and video.

The project culminated in Splendor and Sacrifice: Taoism in Northern Laos, a TAEC exhibition that explored Iu Mien and Kim Di Mun beliefs through ceremonial costumes and ritual objects, and video presentations of traditional ceremonies. Lu Mien women demonstrated embroidery techniques at the exhibition opening, and Kim Di Mun men demonstrated calligraphy.

Splendor and Sacrifice ran from 2009 through 2011, attracting more than 13,000 visitors. Most importantly, the Taoist rituals and traditions of the Yao were documented for future generations.

Bolivia: Chapels bring communities together

Four thousand meters above sea level, dozens of small chapels dot the Bolivian Altiplano, or high mountain plateau. For residents of Curahuara de Carangas, the chapels have served as spiritual and community centers for more than 300 years.

People from the Bolivian village of Kellcata gather in front of their chapel, which was built by their ancestors during the Spanish Colonial era. (State Dept.)

Built in the 17th and 18th centuries by indigenous Aymara craftsmen, the Curahuara de Carangas chapels blend Aymara history, beliefs and building techniques with Spanish colonial style. For more than 200 years, the Aymara have used the chapels as houses of worship, community centers and landmarks.

Although the chapels are Roman Catholic, their interiors are decorated with images from the cosmology and history of the Aymara, who have lived in the Andes for more than 2,000 years. The art of one chapel is so beautiful that it’s known as “the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano.”

Bolivia’s Curahuara de Carangas Church, built in 1608, is known as “the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano” for its vibrant interior artwork. (Eli Maillard via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Centuries of cold and damp have brought many of the chapels near the point of collapse.

The Aymara saved 11 of the chapels — including their “Sistine Chapel” — with help from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, which gave $82,800 to the Santiago de Curahuara de Carangas Parish through the AFCP.  As work began, local residents held a ceremony asking Pachamama (Mother Earth) for permission to undertake the project, and more Aymara ceremonies were held as restoration progressed.

The villagers’ priest, Father Gabriel Antequera, believes the restoration project has brought together the isolated Aymara communities that stretch across the vast Altiplano. “They realized the important historic and cultural value of their chapels as well,” Antequera says. “Now they have pride in their communities and in their churches.”

The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation supports the preservation of cultural sites, cultural objects and forms of traditional cultural expression in more than 100 developing countries around the world.