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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Christine Zinni (The College at Brockport, Explore & More Children's Museum)

Friday, September 7, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Evangeline Mee

Christine Zinni, PhD. is on the Local Planning Committee for the 2018 AFS Annual Meeting in Buffalo. She is a member of the Mediterranean Section of AFS and has organized a Folk Arts in Education and Museum Section-sponsored forum on Thursday entitled, "Common Ground: Community Based Learning and Environmental Stewardship in Museums, Arts Centers and Places of Learning."  Zinni is also a Local Coordinator for Local Learning's professional development series, "Culture, Community, and the Classroom" that will include a final workshop open to all on Saturday morning at AFS. 

Photo Left: Mandala West––West Side Bazaar, Buffalo, NY, 2018. Christine Zinni and Ma Theint (Bamar), owner of Moon Lady Arts and Crafts, alongside mural near entrance to the Bazaar. Photo courtesy of Christine Zinni.


Christine Zinni ––

My work as an educator, documentary filmmaker, and public folklorist evolved from life experienced in the gardens, on the streets, and within the homes and community centers of Italian and Polish neighborhoods in western New York. The stories of my immigrant ancestors along with those of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) elders sparked an appreciation for oral narratives, traditions, a sense of place, and affinity for the natural world and lore related to it. Stories and sensory experiences: the aroma of sauce made from fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic or white corn soup; the touch of damp earth while foraging for wild fennel and mushrooms; the feel of lace crochet and beadwork moccasins; and sound of accordion music or the Grandfather drum are some of the felt experiences behind my cultural activism and—most recently, my service as a member of the local planning committee for the 2018 AFS Annual Meeting in Buffalo, New York.

An expanding mandala of friendships, shared experiences, and interactions with members of Native American, immigrant, and refugee communities shapes my advocacy work and has stiffened my resolve to counter stereotypes about oral cultures through teaching, documentation, and presentation of educational programs. These issues are especially pertinent regarding the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the indigenous people of the region, as colonization and immigration entailed an erasure of their history and suppression of their cultural and spiritual traditions. In this sense, I came to theory from practice and to work on projects with the determination to see local voices, especially those of women, represented in programs, exhibits, and films as well as academic discourses.

Photo Right: Mandala West––2018, mandala crafted by, and courtesy of folklorist, Luisa Del Giudice.

Grounded in lived experiences and community-based research, I completed an interdisciplinary course of doctoral studies in American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo with local Haudenosaunee scholars John Mohawk, Oren Lyons, and Agnes Williams; anthropologist and linguist, Dennis Tedlock; oral historian, Michael Frisch; ethnomusicologist, Charlie Keil; folklorist, Bruce Jackson; and feminist historian, Ruth Meyerowitz. Work with regional folklorist, Karen Park Canning and discussions at annual New York State Roundtables with a dedicated group of colleagues affiliated with the New York Folklore Society, furthered my interest in working in the field while furnishing professional mentorship, models, and feedback on local projects and programs. Originated by Robert Baron, director of the Folk Arts Program of The New York State Council on the Arts (N.Y.S.C.A) in partnership with the New York Folklore Society, the Roundtable has provided fertile ground for the sharing of ideas and continued support of folk artists.

In terms of culturally specific knowledge related to Italian American traditions, the creative work and critical scholarship of folklorists variously affiliated with the Calandra Institute of Queens College, Association for Cultural Equity, and the Mediterranean Section of the American Folklore Society: Anna Lomax Wood, Luisa Del Guidice, Joseph Sciorra, and Joan Saverino deepened my understanding of Italian ethnicity, migration, orality, music, and dance. Thanks to their inspiration and support, my research on Italian American folklife––oral histories, music, material culture, and spiritual traditions–– has been published in several edited volumes by university presses. Most recently this has included an essay on Italian immigrant women’s domestic needlework and spirituality contained in a volume entitled Embroidered Storiesedited by Joseph Sciorra and Edvige Giunta, as well as auto-ethnographic essay about Native American influences on my work in the book, On Second Thought, edited by Luisa Del Giudice.

Photo Left: Mandala North––AFS conference in Minneapolis, MN, 2017. Annual dinner with members of the Mediterranean Section of the American Folklore Society from left to right: Sabina Magliocco, Luisa Del Giudice, Christine F. Zinni,  Jurig Fikfak, Joseph Sciorra, Tina Bucuvalas, Joan Saverino, Incoronata (Nadia) Inserra. Photo courtesy of Christine Zinni.

The center of the mandala that forms the basis of my everyday practices is the hometown where I grew up in western New York. It is the place where I do much of my writing, plan courses for my college classes, document community life, and arrange for field research and documentation that goes into public programs. From my hometown, the mandala radiates outwards forming a circumference of roughly fifty miles in four directions across a varied topography of lakes, hills, and valleys in western New York. I travel to these places through the splendor—and sometimes the challenge—of the four seasons to teach, film, and engage in fieldwork.

To the north in Orleans County near the shores of Lake Ontario, I have conducted research into the migration stories of Italian American stonecutters that worked on the vernacular Medina Sandstone architecture in towns along the western portion of the Erie Canal. This research has formed the basis of a traveling multimedia exhibit and documentary video and will constitute a chapter in the book I am writing that was awarded recognition through The Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World Series. 

A few miles further to the northeast, I teach Indigenous Studies, Food and Culture, Folklore, and Museum Studies classes through the Anthropology Department at the State University of New York at Brockport. For the last five years, I have also led Food, Culture and Museum Studies in the Mediterranean Study Abroad programs in Italy, Greece, and Turkey in collaboration with the Athens Centre for college credit. In this way, the mandala widens several thousand miles every summer as we are able to introduce young students (a number of whom are also descendants of Italian immigrants) to myths, foodways, and traditions in some of the Mediterranean countries where I have lived and worked.

Closer to home, I collaborate closely with indigenous scholars Agnes Williams (Seneca) and Samantha Jacobs (Seneca) who regularly travel from up the Cattaraugus reservation to give guest lectures and talks to students in my classes during the academic year. I also draw on connections with Italian and Polish groups, Mexican folk artists, and farmers in our rich agricultural region to connect young people to local communities and volunteer opportunities. 

First and foremost, however, I try to create awareness of indigenous foodways by taking students on fieldtrips to the Three Sisters Garden and replica of a longhouse at the Seneca Art and Culture Center at Ganondagan State History site which lies in the eastern part of the mandala. Working together with Jeanette Miller, Ronnie Reitter, and Tonya Loran at Ganondagan, we are able to provide service learning opportunities for students who volunteer at special celebrations like Ganondagan’s Music and Dance Festival, Living History Day, and to the southeast, Treaty Day in Canandaigua. 

Photo Right: Mandala Southeast––Canandaigua, New York, 2017, with SUNY/Brockport students on Haudenosuanee Treaty Day fieldtrip, wampum belts in background. Photo courtesy of Christine Zinni.

On the left side or western part of the mandala, I travel to Explore & More Children’s Museum, located in East Aurora, in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains just south of Buffalo. Over a period of ten years, I have worked collaboratively with a number of educators and staff at the museum––Claudia Newton, Jeanette de Jong, and Amelia Blake––to develop programs that are part of the museum's Good Neighbor Initiative. In my capacity as a folklore consultant, I have been engaged in outreach, fieldwork, documentation, the planning of events, and writing of program booklets with folk artists, musicians, dancers, and members of Haudenosaunee (Seneca and Tuscarora), Polish, Burmese, and Yemeni communities in Erie and Niagara counties in and around Buffalo. Through these programs, we are able to create common ground and share knowledge about worldviews, beliefs, values, and expressive and material culture practices: efforts which, in turn, have expanded my own learning and appreciation for these diverse cultures.

At times, I travel to the Cattaraugus Reservation in the region’s southern tier near the Allegheny mountains and the border of Pennsylvania to plan activities for the museum’s annual Haudenosaunee Day of Sharing with folk artists. I discuss ancient pottery techniques and pit firing from the noted ceramic artist Peter Jones (Onondaga) and beadworking from Samantha Jacobs (Seneca)—activities that will go into this year’s program at the museum. 

During other times of the year, I travel to Buffalo’s First Ward on Buffalo’s East Side to attend special feast day celebrations organized by Father Czeslaw Kyrsa in his parish church, Saint Casimir’s. Due in great part to the efforts of community scholars like Father Kyrsa, Sophie Knab, and Andrew Golebiowski, the parish has become a vibrant center for carrying on the customs so dear to Buffalo’s Polish communities. In the community hall, I catch up with friends like artist Barbara Frankiewicz who shares her knowledge about wyckinaki (traditional paper cuts) techniques in workshops and speak with Rev. Kyrsa about pisanki (Easter egg writing) and swieconka (celebration of foodways at Easter). We work together to arrange activities and booklets for the museum’s celebration of Dyngus Day and practices which I recall from childhood experiences with the Polish side of my own family.

Photo Left: Mandala Southwest––Explore & More Children’s Museum, 2016. Gamileh Jamil giving workshop at the Celebration of Folk Art of Yemen Day at the Museum sponsored by NYSCA. Photo Courtesy of Christine Zinni.

Planning for the Celebration of Yemen’s Folk Art Program at the museum involves meetings in Lackawanna—the “steel belt” area of south of Buffalo where decades ago some of the first Yemeni immigrants, along with earlier waves of Polish and Italian immigrants, first found employment. I meet with Gamileh Jamil, former director of A.C.C.E.S.S (Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services), her colleague, Entasar Sharif, a teacher at Global Concepts School, and Amelia Blake from the museum. We are excited about the programs that take place at the museum each year as Gamileh seems to feel they constitute some of the best ways to build bridges outside of their own community and allow others to learn about their traditions.


Photo Right: Mandala West––Front Park, Buffalo’s West Side, 2017. Karen weaver and language teacher, Thaw Yee dancing with her students at annual Karen Wrist Tying Friendship CeremonyPhoto courtesy of Christine Zinni.

Along with reaching out to members of the Yemeni American community in the southern part of the city of Buffalo, my work on developing the museum’s Good Neighbor Initiative has also involved expanding folk art programs among refugee or newcomer groups on Buffalo’s Westside.  My knowledge of the worldviews and backgrounds of diverse ethnic groups in Myanmar that have resettled in Buffalo has expanded greatly thanks to friends like Ma Theint (Bamar), a former teacher in Mandalay, and Nai Bowen, a Mon dancer who performs at local community gatherings and festivals and teaches young refugee children.

We meet and plan for the museum's Celebration of Myanmar’s Ethnic Folk Traditions program in Buffalo's bustling Westside Bazaar where Ma Theint is a vendor, known among the community for her Moon Lady Crafts. Meeting at the Bazaar is a great pleasure as it has become an empowering place for refugees creating new businesses. Ma Theint has also put me in contact with folk artists, weavers, and musicians from the Karen community like Thaw Yee, a weaver and dancer who is actively involved with organizing the annual Karen New Year and Wrist-Tying (Friendship) Festivals. After dinner at her home in Buffalo’s Black Rock district, Thaw Yee, her daughters, and women friends demonstrate weaving techniques on a backstrap loom, an art they will share with younger audiences at our next program.

To complete the circumference of the mandala and bring things full circle, most recently my work has involved organizing panel sessions for New York Folklore Society’s 2017 Cultural Migrations: Displacement and Renewal Symposium held at the Castellani Gallery in Niagara Falls, located to the northwest of Buffalo and the mandala of which I write. There, Gamileh Jamil, Ma Theint, Thaw Yee, Nai Bowen, and members of the diverse Haudenosaunee communities—Brian Printup, Allan Jamieson Sr. and Jr., Michael Martin, and Chandra Maracle—had the opportunity to discuss issues related to displacement, immigration, and resettlement; share music and dances; attend professional workshops; interact with one another and audience members; and meet folklorists like Ellen McHale, Tom Van Buren, and Robert Baron from other parts of the state.

Photo Left: Mandala Northwest––Prospect, Point, Niagara Falls, NY, 2017. Allan Jamieson Sr. (Cayuga) explaining significance of Hiawatha Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)  to NYS folklorists during Cultural Migrations Symposium sponsored by NY Folklore Society at Castellani Gallery. Photo courtesy of Christine Zinni.


As may be surmised from my description of these experiences within and among local communities in western New York, my work as an educator, public folklorist, and documentary filmmaker takes me through diverse landscapes and community settings. Always varied and moving, it has opened my eyes to the viewpoints and values of a wide array of traditional cultures and practices beyond my own cultural background. It has also deepened my resolve to work on issues of social justice, inclusion, equality, and diversity in our Society and our field.

Over the years, I have tried to broaden my understanding of these issues by reaching over a thousand university students through courses in indigenous studies, food and culture, museum studies, fieldtrips, and study abroad experiences.  Moreover, collaborative work on public programs with regional folklorists, folk artists, community members, and museum staff at Explore & More Children’s Museum have reached thousands of peoples from other age groups as well. It is a particularly exciting time for education in the arts in Buffalo, as Explore & More Museum is set to open a new 40,000 square foot museum at Buffalo's Canalside in 2019, which will house a common space for dialogue, learning, and expanding the museum’s Good Neighbor Initiative all the more.

It seems to me that the great strength and, concomitantly, the challenge of working in/with the field of traditional arts is just that: teamwork, close collaboration, close listening, and participatory action(s). For us here in western New York, successful folk arts programs hold the promise of forging bonds, opening minds, inspiring empathy, and broadening understanding and respect for people from different cultural and spiritual traditions in the region: Indigenous, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim.

Photo Right: Mandala, North west––MaTheint (Bamar) and Mon dancer, Nai Bowin also known as Mon Chit Ko at New York Folklore Society's Cultural Migrations Symposium, Castellani Art Gallery, Niagara Falls, NY. Photo courtesy of Christine Zinni

Moreover, from my work and friendship with Native peoples, I have come to realize what activists Winona La Duke (Anishanabe), Agnes Williams (Seneca), and women from the Indigenous Women’s Network have pointed out are “intricate connections between cultural and biological diversity” and a pressing need to cultivate gratitude for the earth and foster respect for Nature's rights. In this regard, with its basis in a physical landscape rich in waterways and a cultural landscape enriched by artistic traditions that evolved from the great diversity of indigenous, immigrant, and refugee communities in our midst, the region is in a key position to play a leadership role on the national stage. My involvement with AFS and Haudneosaunee artists and educators over the years has lead me to organize a museum and Folk Arts and Education sponsored forum called “Common Ground” for the AFS Annual Meeting in Buffalo, where the issue of museum and traditional ecological knowledge in museums art centers and places of learning will be taken up by Ganondagan’s director, Haudenosaunee artists, and museum educators at Explore & More and the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Moreover, the current issue of Voices, the New York Journal of Folklore features the first in a three-part series.

In terms of projects, I would like to work on a book based on this topic and see a grant which would support a project mapping some of the history and traditional practices of communities within the eight counties and circumference of the mandala where I have worked—a grant and time that would allow me to work with others to create a mosaic of stories from the digital archives and field research I have conducted over the course of twenty years that could reach an even larger public sector and public sphere. Before this, however, I plan to finish the book I have been writing for The Folklore in a Multicultural World Series about the vibrant material cultural and spiritual traditions in several of those communities.

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