Cultural Coalescence on the National Mall

Cultural Coalescence on the National Mall

Smithsonian Folklife Festival puts Virginia’s history in the spotlight.

As executive director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, Joe Youcha has witnessed several events tied to the 400th anniversary celebration of the Jamestown settlement: from costumed re-enactors to giant wooden ships sailing into Old Town’s waters.

He’s noticed something frustratingly similar about them. "For the 400th, everyone in the maritime field is celebrating John Smith and his voyage," he said. "But nobody’s doing anything for the Indians."

The 41st annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, scheduled to run on June 27-July 1 and July 4-8 at the National Mall between Seventh and 14th streets in D.C., is joining that celebration with a program called "The Roots of Virginia Culture." For program curator Betty Belanus, the challenge in staging this 10-day festival went beyond simply balancing the attention given to the Jamestown settlers and Native Americans in Virginia.

"It’s more complicated than that," she said. "The original concept of the program was to put an emphasis on roots cultures. The 400th anniversary celebration has been centered on Native American and English cultures, West African and African-American culture, because of the enslaved Africans that came from West Africa. It’s like a four-way balance."

In previous Folklife Festivals, the event has focused on three different programs: one about a region, one about a nation and one about a state. This year, the festival looks at the Mekong River in Southeast Asia and Northern Ireland, but Belanus said Virginia’s events aren’t simply a celebration of the commonwealth itself.

"It’s not a state program like we’ve done in the past," she said. "This is bigger than a state program — it’s part of the 400th anniversary commemoration of Jamestown. This has been a state-wide effort."

Festival hours for this free event are from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, with concerts, special events and dance parties extending into most evenings. Merchandise produced by Festival artisans will be available for purchase at the Festival Marketplace, located in front of the Freer Gallery of Art. Food representing the three programs will be sold at concession stands.

More than 120 artists, cooks, farmers and craftspeople will facilitate programs and performances about Virginia culture during the Folklife Festival. They include American Indians from Virginia’s eight state-recognized tribes; at least 40 people from Kent County, England, representing the ancestral home of the Jamestown settlers; and 12 people from Senegal, representing the state’s African-American heritage. Belanus, an education specialist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, said that the goal is to have visitors experience and compare different foods, agricultural methods and arts from different regions and cultural backgrounds.

"A lot of people have gotten the concept that it’s a program about Jamestown, and that they’re going to see a lot of people in costume doing historic re-enactment, which we really don’t do at the festival. This year we might have some people in costume, talking about how they do the research on how to do this history; a lot of people are portraying their ancestors," said Belanus.

"It’s been like four festival programs rolled into one," she said. "Yet it’s a semi-local program, because Virginia’s right in our backyard."

BELANUS, WHO LIVES in Arlington, said putting together the Culture of Virginia celebration has opened her eyes to parts of the state that had been unknown to her.

"Working on the Virginia part of it got me to parts that I had never gotten a chance to visit," she said. "It was interesting and rewarding, although exhausting."

Her journeys have helped craft a series of events that bring together dozens of disparate aspects of life in Virginia in an educational and personal way. The Folklife Festival — which could draw more than 1 million visitors, according to Belanus — will feature a diverse collection of Virginians like Tom Burford of Amherst County, who grew up on an orchard and is an expert on apple cultivation; Henry Goodrich of Suffolk County, whose family created the first peanut digger which could only process one row at a time; and the Majestic Dance Troupe, a hip-hop and step-dancing group from Hampton.

When it came to Northern Virginia, Belanus wanted to have an added focus on the immigrant groups that have contributed to the culture in local neighborhoods. People like Husnu Aydogdu, an Arlington resident who builds and plays instruments as a Turkish folk music artist. "I use the instruments, I play Turkish folk music, American Jewish folk music, and Iran folk music," said Aydogdu, who will perform at noon and 4 p.m. on June 29 at the Folklife Festival. Visit for full schedules and times.

"I think that may baffle a few people, who’ll say, ‘Why is this person from Turkey here?’ But we hope to contextualize that by saying that the culture of Virginia is constantly being enriched by new cultures coming in, adding their own music and cuisine and traditions to the area," said Belanus.

"Music is very important, and here in Virginia we have some outstanding musicians. But everything else is important, too — the crafts, the food and the maritime. Just this whole idea of the business of recreating history."

FOR YOUCHA, the festival provided an opportunity to explore the Native American side of maritime traditions.

Two years ago, when the National Museum of the American Indian opened, several Native American boat builders arrived locally and Youcha’s Seaport Foundation helped host them. "The two groups that we really had the most to do with were the Inuit kayak builders and the Hawaiian log canoe builders. They really participated in our shops," he said.

That led to a partnership with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and an effort to build a working log canoe constructed by traditional means. A logger in the Shenandoah region donated a log, and more than 100 students helped work on the vessel in space provided by Mount Vernon Estate. The students decided on a design, and the log was cut and shaped using stone tools, fire and the occasional chainsaw. The canoe was finished about a month ago, and will be at Mount Vernon on June 23 and 24, and then at the Folklife Festival the following weekend.

The boat isn’t an exact recreation of a Native American boat — it’s a later canoe from the early 1900s whose design was a blend of Native American, Western European and African designs.

In other words, it’s a perfect representation of what the festival’s study of Virginian culture is about — examining a blending of different cultures over the past 400 years.

"The past is present," said Belanus. "In Virginia, people are so aware of the history of their region."