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Ancient Traditions, Modern Celebration

In the continued events of the “One World, Many Voices” section of the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., representatives of some of the least-known languages and cultures in the world are sharing their arts, perspectives, and inspiration with the public and with each other. With half of the world’s 7,000+ languages in danger of extinction in this century, such exchanges are more valuable than ever.

Kallawaya Fire Ceremony

On the Fourth of July, Max Chura Mamani, Walter Alvarez Quispe and other leaders among the Kallawaya people of Bolivia performed a traditional fire ceremony dedicated to the United States in honor of Independence Day. They and others had spent hours creating small nests of llama wool, filling them with flower petals, sugar candies, and bits of metal foil, and carefully arranging them on what they call a “white table.” From there, the crowd that had gathered in a circle around a wood fire would pick up the nests (with white petals for the men, red for the women) and place them into the fire. Don Walter then gave a blessing which was translated for the crowd, asking for good things for the United States, and offering gratitude for all it has received already.

As smoke billowed up, Don Max took two small American flags and waved them in the smoke as he walked around the fire. Then he took a condor feather in each hand, and brushed them up and down on the chests of participants, pushing away all badness and wafting in all sorts of goodness. Realizing the size of the crowd that had gathered (several dozen people) he then simply waved them above everyone at once, saying he was doing it “Por todo! Todo!” (for all!).

Earlier in the week, at National Geographic Headquarters, I was able to speak to the Kallawaya who have come for the festival. Walter, who is not only a traditional healer, but also holds a modern degree in biomedicine, explained that the Kallawaya medical traditions go back to before the time of the Inca empire and have always been dedicated to recognizing the interconnectedness of food and medicine.

Throughout vast regions of South America, they would travel, performing healing ceremonies, distributing medicines, and also serving as simple traders. And just like the people and their language, their importance and impact survives. In Panama, they are treated with great admiration and appreciation since it was Kallawaya from hundreds of miles away who introduced quinine for treatment of malaria during the devastating widespread infection during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Think of that the next time you have some tonic water!

NEXT: More From “One World, Many Voices” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival