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Jan 31, 2013

An evolving understanding of sustainability


I have been involved in a number of discussions regarding the debatable association of a term such as “sustainable” to something that may in many ways be fluid, such as culture.  By the very nature of the study and work we are engaged in through the MACS program and our own endeavors, we must be open to considering what sustainability means in a variety of circumstances and to different communities.  One of the areas in which I have been challenged to think of new ways to understand sustainability has been in the (re)use of trash, and in particular, plastics.  Of course, I am very familiar with recycling and reuse.  But I have a longstanding hatred of plastic – or perhaps more accurately, the overproduction and careless disposal of it – having regularly seen it swim by me in the sea and swirl around in the streets of nearly every place I’ve lived or visited.

Recently, I have been inspired to think about plastic in new ways.  I am not happy to have so much of it around, nor do I think we need to continue to produce and use it in such mass amounts.  But I am increasingly interested in innovative ways of answering the question: What do we do with the plastic that is already here?  I have seen some creative ways people are putting plastic to use, and wanted to share a couple with you:

Landfill Harmonic: The people of Cateura, a town built on a landfill in Paraguay, are making musical instruments out of materials found in the trash.  Not only are they finding ways to reuse discarded materials, they are breathing new life into their community through music.

Garbage Homes: In Bolivia, where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line, one woman is using two of the only abundant and readily available resources – dirt and plastic bottles – to tackle one of her city’s biggest challenges: housing.  Ingrid Diez is building houses from recycled materials for people in need.

For some time (and with good reason), I have seen plastic as an enemy of the environment, and thus, of sustainability.  But discovering new ways to reuse the plastic that is already around to build homes, make music, and lift spirits certainly has me considering yet another piece of the sustainability puzzle.

Have a great story about how you or someone you know creatively reuses plastics or recycles other materials?  Please share your strategies and stories in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.

Jan 27, 2013

The Nile Project: music, celebration, education, and collaboration for preservation


The Nile Project is taking a collaborative, holistic approach in addressing the cultural and environmental challenges of the region.  The project team and their partners recently brought musicians from the Nile basin together to celebrate the river and its natural and cultural resources.  Two performances this month – the first for the project – provided an opportunity for cultural exchange, informal education, and discussions about sustainability.

To learn more about the Nile Project, upcoming events and programs, and how you can help them to continue their work, please visit

Dec 31, 2012

Putin signs new law that could accelerate loss of indigneous languages in Russia


At the end of a year in which the alarming loss of languages around the world has been gaining more attention and groups and projects like The Endangered Language Alliance, Our Mother Tongues, Living Tongues and National Geographic’s Enduring Voices, the film We Still Live Here, and the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative have been working to combat this global issue, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a law that may put Russia’s indigenous language in greater danger of extinction.  While the law does not directly ban education in indigenous languages, it also does not grant them the same protection that it gives the Russian language.  The law guarantees education in Russian, stating that classes in non-Russian languages cannot be carried out if it is found that this is “to the detriment” of teaching Russian. This law will take effect in September, 2013, in time for the new school year.

Languages are more than words; they contain the unique knowledge and cultural heritage of a people.   Thus, the protection and perpetuation of languages is crucial to the survival and transmission of culture and knowledge.  This new law appears to be a step backward at a time when it is critical to move forward in supporting – not discouraging – the teaching of indigenous languages.


Dec 13, 2012

“What Tribe Are You?”: Culture and Marketing


As many of you know, I am very interested in – and sometimes frustrated and frightened by – the intersection of culture, tourism, and sustainability.  This morning, I was tempted by a subject line in my inbox that invited me to enter to win a trip to Papua New Guinea… and then a bit shocked to open the email and find in bold letters “WHAT TRIBE ARE YOU?”  I went to the website to see more and to find out who was behind this type of marketing.

The contest, hosted by Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotions Authority, encourages entrants to “discover your tribe” by answering questions regarding your preferences of things like “Would you rather make art or be art?” and “Would you prefer a facial tattoo or a facial piercing?”  While the site does seem to attempt to share some cultural information about the different tribes in Papua New Guinea, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way.  I also had to wonder:

  • Were any true tribal people of Papua New Guinea consulted or involved in creating this marketing initiative and contest?
  • Who are the beneficiaries of it?  Will tribes benefit from this marketing?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the “What Tribe Are You?” contest and your ideas for alternative approaches.  Please share them below in the comments.  If you are unable to post in the comments section, you can email your thoughts to me at, and I will post them for you.  Perhaps we can compile our questions, comments, and suggestions to pass along to the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotions Authority.  

Nov 30, 2012

Celebrating efforts to revitalize endangered languages


Here are two inspiring initiatives working to support and celebrate efforts to revitalize endangered languages:

The Endangered Language Alliance, based in New York City, recently hosted an event to share the work they are doing with indigenous Mexican languages.  Check out this recent NPR interview and learn more about the Nahuatl classes they are offering.

Our Mother Tongues, a project created by filmmaker Anne Makepeace and Cultural Survival’s Program Manager for Endangered Languages, Jennifer Weston, is a great resource for learning about and celebrating endangered Native American language revitalization programs.  The website also gives visitors a chance to actually hear Native speakers and send eCards with Native language audio greetings.

Nov 28, 2012

When environmental protection conflicts with cultural sustainabilty


While investigating cultural sustainability initiatives, I have found that many include elements of environmental preservation.  But what happens when environmental protection projects and policies interfere with cultural sustainability efforts?  Does or should one be prioritized over the other?  If so, how is the choice made?  Is it possible to find a balance?  And perhaps, most importantly, what are the consequences of these decisions?

Here is an article that raises some interesting questions about this issue: “Does Biological Preservation Prevail Over Cultural Sustainability?  The Struggle of the Maya Center Community in a Modernizing World”

Oct 31, 2012

Interested in sustainable cultural tourism? …Or not convinced such a thing is possible?


…Then you may be interested in this upcoming free Sustainable Cultural Tourism webinar, hosted by Dr. Susan Guyette.  Dr. Guyette is the Cultural Tourism Advisor for Sustainable Travel International and author of a new book, Sustainable Cultural Tourism.  She has also written other community planning books, including Planning for Balanced Development: A Guide for Native American and Rural Communities.

You can learn more about sustainable cultural tourism and Dr. Guyette’s suggestions on value-based planning and development methods for cultural tourism by joining the seminar, Thursday, November 15th at 12:00pm EST.


Oct 29, 2012

MACSers represent at the American Folklore Society annual meeting in New Orleans!



The American Folklore Society held its annual meeting last week in New Orleans.  And for the first time in AFS history, a panel of MACS students – led by MACS co-director, Amy Skillman – hosted a forum to discuss “Cultural Sustainability: Creating Leaders for Social Justice.” The forum was sponsored by the Politics, Folklore and Social Justice Section and was well attended by an enthusiastic and thoughtful group of folklorists.  Attendees had the opportunity to learn about the MACS program and students’ applications of Cultural Sustainability theories and strategies through presentations by Michele Anderson, Michelle Banks, and Max Lannon.  The panel also took the time to engage the forum attendees in discussions about Cultural Sustainability – as a field, strategy, and action – through a condensed version of an affinity mapping exercise, facilitated by yours truly (Sunny Fitzgerald).

Before giving our thoughts on Cultural Sustainability, we invited theirs.  As part of the activity, attendees were asked to complete the sentence “Cultural Sustainability is…”  Here are some of the answers they came up with:

  • the ability of cultures to survive or change in their own terms despite outside pressures
  • an applied research and practice process for providing tools and strategies for individuals and communities to address their needs in the present and towards the future
  • ability to practice a culture involves choice + freedom + decision-making at a decentralized level
  • a way to honor, conserve, and engage with traditional culture
  • an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms? (A question!)
  • hopefully not problematic  (Not a given!)
  • a garden without weeds
  • adequate environmental resources
  • healthy vision + identity + power
  • the continuation of practices, rituals, performance, etc of importance to communities in a nurturing/fostering environment and society
  • continuity
  • survival + revival
  • community efforts ? supported by outside resources, to maintain the wherewithal to keep a form of expressive living
  • processes + mechanisms
  • grow
  • nurture + foster
  • maintenance + growth
  • culture + expressive systems
  • the reuse of old and defunct resources which still have value but which cannot survive alone.
  • creating the circumstances whereby traditions (new and old) that are needed and wanted can survive and thrive
  • community
  • process + mechanisms to maintain, and grow cultural and expressive activities/systems in community context
  • needs and wants
  • community context
  • environment
  • an intersection of commitments that catalyzes action on behalf of mutual embeddedness
  • local action informed by global concern focusing on meaning and practice
  • hybrid research and action collectives
  • living cultures
  • living well on a living planet
  • a new emphasis
  • helping cultures to continue to live in traditional ways
  • a program at many/some universities
  • a mindset
  • tradition
  • craft
  • process
  • knowledge
  • holistic connections
  • connecting disparate systems
  • access to resources
  • listening
  • tools to enable change and broad-based stewardship
  • imagining change

We have also plugged these responses into a word cloud (see photo above) that illustrates key terms that emerged from the activity and discussion.

Many thanks to the forum attendees for their participation and interest in our program and the broader field, concepts, and strategies of Cultural Sustainability.  We look forward to continuing the conversation and collaborating across fields more in the future.

We are also looking forward to being joined by more MACSers at next year’s AFS meeting.  The theme for the meeting has been announced; it will be “Cultural Sustainability”!


To learn more about affinity mapping and the second MACS cohort’s experience with this activity in the Intro to Cultural Sustainability course with Dr. Rory Turner (in collaboration with Dr. Ross Peterson-Veatch), please visit this link

Sep 30, 2012

Indigenous language courses receiving warm welcome at Queen’s University


It is not difficult to find discouraging news regarding the state of indigenous and endangered languages, so I was happy to find this bit of good news in an article from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

The University – located on Kanienkehaka territory and in close proximity to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory – has begun offering courses in Mohawk and Inuktitut.  The courses have received so much interest from students that both have already reached full enrollment capacity, with additional students waiting to get into the next available classes.
To read more about Queen’s and their new Indigenous language course, check out the article here.


Sep 17, 2012

Future of University of Utah’s indigenous language efforts uncertain


The University of Utah recently announced it would be closing the doors on its Center for American Indian Languages (CAIL), in an effort to “restructure” and narrow it’s focus to the languages of Utah’s tribes.  While the center’s mission has an intentionally broader reach – supporting initiatives for languages across the Americas – one of its most successful projects, the Shoshoni Project, is, in fact, focused on a native language of Utah.  According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, the university says it plans to continue to support this project and move other efforts to the American West Center, yet never consulted CAIL’s principal faculty member on these changes.


To read more about the closing of CAIL, check out the Salt Lake Tribune’s article


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Goucher's MA in Cultural Sustainability provides students with the training to identify, protect, enhance and work effectively with communities around what makes them unique: their traditions, ways of life, cherished spaces, and vital relationships to each other and the world. Read More

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