by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
In the West, when a baby is born, we welcome them “into” the world. In China, the turn of phrase is a little more poetic: they say a baby comes “out of” the world. The idea is that, even before we were born, we were already part of this place, deeply interconnected with nature.
Scientists take an even broader view. They say the elements of our bodies are made of ancient stardust.
As a folklorist, I’ve always been interested in how individuals and cultures understand themselves and their origins. In comic books, characters often have an origin story – some definitive event that explains how they became who they are. But real people are much more complicated. No single story defines us. We come from multitudes, literally and figuratively.
When I think about who I am, personally…
I am my grandfather, who built a well in the scorching East African sun so workers passing by could drink fresh clean water.
I am my ancestors, who came from the rural villages of Northern India to defy an empire—and won.
I am my parents, who fled persecution in Africa. They arrived in a cold country with nothing but the shirts on their back and taught me about where we came from through their stories.
I’m a Sikh – a learner and a disciple. A core belief in Sikhism is that we must travel around the world to learn about five different religions or belief systems. We’re meant to immerse ourselves in those traditions and communities, and when we’ve finished with the fifth, the journey is considered complete. Becoming a Sikh requires learning about others, and what it means to be part of our collective human family.
In England, where I was born, I was called an Indian. In Scotland, I was English. Here in the U.S., I’m British, or sometimes European. But I’m also Appalachian now. All these identities reflect the truth in a different way. They reflect where I am, and often where I am not.
Places – our communities, and geography itself – evolve in a similar way, changing to encompass new truths and contradictions over time.
All of this was on my mind recently during a special convening led by Yo-Yo Ma, the musician, that took place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cellist brought together around 45 artists, musicians, scientists, scholars, Cherokee elders, and community leaders to dig deeper into our collective history by exploring the interplay of culture, music, storytelling, and nature. I was working as a thinking partner with Yo-Yo Ma and his team in partnership with our friends from The Office performing arts and film, the National Park Service, the Cherokee Museum, Tremont, Black in Appalachia, and other participants.
We began with dinner under a tent placed at a high elevation overlooking Purchase Knob, an incredible view. We all understand Appalachia as a place of beauty and a place of tradition. But if we dig deeper, it’s also a place of pain and hardship.
We think of the mountains as a fixture. But their name as we know it was conceived by the federal Appalachian Regional Commission. That was relatively recent history, and we know that indigenous people lived here long before that. The Cherokee people, for instance, have been connected to these mountains for over 12,000 years. We often think of the United States as a “young” nation. But it is also a place where people have lived and created meaning for a very long time.
At the convening, Tom Belt, a Cherokee elder, spoke about how people don’t own land. Rather, we belong to it. We belong to the mountains, and help make that environment what it is, and it shapes who we are in return. It’s interesting to consider that Great Smoky Mountains National Park—one of our country’s most beautiful national parks—is in many ways a human construct as much as it is a natural place. It is an idea, and an imposed identity. In the process of shaping the park into the iconic national treasure we understand it as today, many people were displaced and dishonored, and their identities were buried, if not entirely lost.
Many who were at this convening work on different projects that help us understand those mistreated people and their stories better. Our ranks included specialists on Black and Latinx history, Scotch-Irish ancestry, Native American heritage, and more—all there to explore the diverse culture that came from our mountains, in all their beauty and complexity.
I was there to lead our morning workshop, as well as a deep-dive meditation in which I was joined by Yo-Yo Ma and Jarrett Wildcatt, a traditional Cherokee flutist. As we talked about culture and identity, many of us discussed the pressures of assimilation to suppress what makes us different. In folklore studies, we talk about the need to “dig where you stand” – to unearth stories that might not be visible on the surface. There is always more to a place or a person than meets the eye. When we celebrate a region, there is often a romantic, nostalgic spirit in the air. But we also need to make room for the more difficult issues and legacies that people are grappling with. These experiences are just as important to understand and share. They are part of our collective history.
One of the questions we were there to discuss with Yo-Yo Ma was the interplay between culture and the environment. I think this relationship is especially strong in Appalachia, where music and stories have long been inspired by the natural world. How do we see ourselves as separate from, or integral to, our natural surroundings? This is an essential question that can get lost during the busy days of our ultra-modern lives.
My young stepdaughter is learning about Jane Goodall in school. The questions she asks us at home (for example, “What’s the difference between animals and humans?”) are naive yet profound. We often acknowledge the wisdom of our elders, but children are wise in their own way. They aren’t afraid to ask the most essential questions. Yo-Yo Ma encouraged us to each tap into our inner child, to recapture that sense of curiosity, imagination, and possibility that helps us imagine a better world.
The boundaries of a national park are artificially imposed, just like the lines of a state or a nation; the birds and other animals don’t recognize its borders. What can we learn from that way of being? The air, the land, our rivers, and our seas can teach us how to foster a more inclusive, calm, and peaceful world. Most of the attendees at the convening were from North Carolina and Tennessee, yet many of us weren’t previously aware of each other’s work. How can we transcend false boundaries and real barriers? What values do we have in common? What lessons can we learn from each other’s experiences? How can we better appreciate and preserve different kinds of beauty?
The arts offer subtle but satisfying answers to these difficult questions. They help us make sense of terrible world events in a more productive and fruitful way than scrolling the news or social media feeds on our phones.
I left Great Smoky National Park very early in the morning to drive to Richmond, Virginia, where I was giving a talk to the people who help preserve the Main Streets across the nation. I remember hearing about the tragic shooting in Buffalo, New York, as I was driving, and now as I write, there has been an unspeakable massacre of elementary school students and their teachers. In these moments it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness—a feeling that our world is irreparably broken.
My partner is a studio painter. Once, when I was stuck on a painting I was working on, she told me that we have to work through what’s broken to create meaning in art. I’m reminded of the poem “Keeping Things Whole,” by Mark Strand:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
Looking around today at our nation, and our world, we have the difficult task of continually moving through what’s broken. As we grapple with uncomfortable truths about climate change and human cruelty, we have to work very hard to keep things whole.
When someone asks you for your story, it can mean all sorts of things. You might talk about your family, where you went to school, or your job. You might mention cultural traditions, or the folk tales and wisdom of your people. You might remember grand historical tragedies, or intimate personal loss.
Our lives are composed of all these influences—places, people, and textures. Only in exploring them fully can we gather what we need to build a better world, one story at a time.
At the convening, a colleague quoted a poignant line from Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer:
Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.
I invite you to pay attention to the world we were born into—or out of—before our bodies and bones are returned to the stars.