Karen Refugees Preserve Cultural Identity Through Song | Video Feature

Dozens of kids and young adults fling off their shoes before entering the Near South Lincoln home. The front porch teems with flip flops and tennis shoes. The living room is full of young girls playing games, giggling, teenagers ogle over a wide-eyed baby and gossip in their native tongue. The people vary in age, but all share a cultural identity: they’re Karen refugees gathering to sing and dance.

In an environment so different from the lush jungles of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, music serves as the bridge for young Karen people to learn about and preserve their culture while attending public school alongside their American neighbors.

The Karen people are an ethnic group originally from Burma (officially called Myanmar today, a name the Karen people and most United States politicians don’t use) and, now, parts of Thailand. The group has long endured persecution from the Burmese government. The fight between the groups started in 1948 when the Karen people (and other ethnic groups in Burma) started to fight for independence after the country broke off from British rule.

Today, the conflict in Burma between the government and its ethnic groups is considered the longest running civil war. To escape torture and enslavement, more than 150,000 Karen people fled to Thailand where they settled in refugee camps. Because of the ongoing unrest, only a minority of all Karen people still live in Burma. They later journeyed out of the Thai camps to resettle in many corners of the world, such as Canada, Sweden, Australia and the United States, splitting up the ethnic group that formerly claimed a small geographic portion of Burma.

Roughly 5,500 were relocated in Nebraska where they are safe from the Burmese government. Here, they can gather, pray, eat, sing and dance with pride in their culture.

Music and dance are particularly important to Karen culture. The traditional folk music of the Karen people is about storytelling and celebrating their heritage, with influences from the tropical jungle that they used to inhabit in Burma. They perform with traditional instruments such as a Thana, a small seven-stringed harp, a Gweh (a reed instrument created from bamboo and buffalo horns) and many other instruments specific to the Karen people.

These instruments accompany the performance of the traditional Dohn dance, an aerobic routine led by the pounding beat of a large drum and melodic shouts of the dancers.

The songs aren’t love songs, says Thit Ku, the leader of the dance group in Lincoln; They are stories about Karen culture.

Paw Wah, who is now studying at Southeast Community College, drives his Karen siblings, cousins and neighbors to the dance practice every Sunday.

When Thit Ku arrives, the room full of playing children hushes and everyone makes their way to the basement where they get in line to dance. Practice begins.

Video by Ingrid Holmquist

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Ingrid Holmquist is a current Hear Nebraska contributor and former multimedia intern. Reach her via HN’s managing editor at andrews@hearnebraska.org.