For more than forty years, the North Carolina Folklife Institute has worked alongside other nonprofits to promote awareness of the state's shifting cultural practices, covering a broad array of food, music, arts, and vocations. Recently, it worked with the North Carolina Arts Council to present the 2016 and 2017 National Folk Festivals. The former focused on cultural expressions brought to the state by "new" North Carolinians, while the latter will showcase the next generation of torchbearers, who are reinterpreting tradition.
"We aren't interested in preservation—because that tends to stop the creation—as much as raising the awareness that artwork and expressions people create are valuable demonstrations of who they are and their place in the world," explains NC Folk's interim director, Evan Hatch. "There's art that everyday folks do that's worth every bit as much as the symphony and the ballet."
The creation continues this Thursday, when the organization throws a party at Motorco featuring Blue Cactus, Josh Moore Band, John Dee Holeman, and the Five Points Rounders to raise money for a pro-Lumbee initiative in Robeson County. The INDY recently spoke with Hatch about the ongoing importance and vibrancy of regional folk traditions, even in a global digital era.
INDY WEEK: What does the North Carolina Folklife Institute consider to be within the scope of its work?
EVAN HATCH: We cast a wide net. We serve the people of North Carolina, so we want to amplify their voices and what they find important. We want to let people know there are small groups across the state with strong identities doing amazing things, whether that's a farming community, a group of musicians, or the Latino lowrider group in Burlington called Lowyalty.
The scope is wide-ranging; there are the folks in Jugtown that make pots because their ancestors were taught the techniques of throwing pots a long time ago when they had a really good source of clay. It could be fiddle tunes and ballads being passed down over the years from generation to generation or it could be the maritime traditions in Harkers Island. But there are also modern trends reflected through hip-hop, spoken-word poetry, or break-dancing. Those dance moves aren't necessarily taught by sitting down and going through a class, but by learning from other people's moves and trying to tweak it to show your own.
As a folklorist, have you seen a change in the speed and ease with which different cultures and ideas spread due to technology?
I think that digital technology makes it easy for people to experience art forms from around the world and to be exposed to other forms of self-expression, but I believe that a community built to serve their purposes is the most viable form of cultural expression. In that way, it sheds light on the identity of people, what people find important, and how people choose to represent themselves. That can come in the form of song, spoken word, or any number of things that express the identity of the folks practicing it, but those are things people keep coming back to over and over.
If you look at the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina, there are a lot of young people doing work in sheetrock, which just happens to be a tradition that's carried on in that community. They may also have an interest in music on the side and those things can tie together so they're a part of multiple communities at the same time. Hoss Cartwright is a hip-hop artist from down there who raps about the "Sheetrock Hall of Fame"—the guys who go out there and just do it every day.
I think one of the sticking points now is the definition of community. The idea of community is so broad now that you can have your online community as well.
Are the funds from this event earmarked for a specific project?
We're raising money for an initiative in Robeson County to host classes where leaders of the Lumbee tribe can talk to young community members and students at UNC Pembroke about what it means to be a community leader in Native American culture. We're also partnering with the North Carolina Folklore Society to bring down an exhibit of photography by Rob Amberg of the funeral and protests surrounding the assassination of Julian T. Pierce, who was a great advocate for Lumbee rights from the 1960s until he was assassinated in 1988.
There's been a noticeable rise in young folks seeking out what it means to be a Native American in North Carolina, and from what we've seen through previous work in Robeson County, that young group has the potential to interview elders and learn what it has meant in past generations to be a leader. We'll use that photography exhibit as an entry point to talk about what it means to be a community hero as it refers to Lumbee identity and teach the basics of documentation through photography and oral histories. The end goal is to develop a community scrapbook that sheds light on Lumbee identity and help those young people continue to lead in their community.
The community is interpreting itself by showing what's important to them—we're not telling them what to do, we're just providing an infrastructure and folks that can help teach them the ways of documenting this information. The project in Robeson County is the start of this model we're developing for community inclusion and promotion of community identity.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Standing on tradition."