Nomad Material Culture Documentation Project brings together generations of Tibetans

The Nomad Material Culture Documentation Project was originally proposed to the Smithsonian by Tibetan communities in China. The project provides resources and technical assistance to Tibetan partners to record personal interviews and group discussions to capture language and dialects spoken by Tibetan nomads in Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. The interviews document the fabrication of objects of nomad material culture that are quickly disappearing from daily use, as well as stories associated with these items.

Expected outcomes from the documentation project include increased pride and respect for Tibetan cultural heritage, leading to increased use and transmission of Tibetan language; as well as multimedia materials that can be incorporated easily into educational curricula for all grade levels. The project’s impact would grow over time, beginning with the initial project ethnographers and community participants. Later, many thousands of individuals would benefit from interactions with the multimedia materials produced through the interviews and documentation process, whether through print publications, podcasts, or file sharing.

As Tibetan communities transition from nomadic tradition to the fast pace of modern Chinese city life, material culture passed down for hundreds of years can disappear in the span of only one generation. The Nomad Material Culture Documentation Project, conceived of and driven by Tibetan communities, provides resources and guidance—where needed—for Tibetan filmmakers and anthropologists to document material culture where it is still practiced. This summer, Smithsonian partnered with five Tibetan documentation teams to collect nearly 400 hours of video footage, capturing the creation, use, and folklore of items like horse saddles, yak wool yarn and textiles, and farming implements like scythes and plow heads.

By engaging young people in the documentation process, our Tibetan partners have accomplished an important goal—increasing pride and respect for Tibetan cultural heritage.

In the words of one of our Tibetan partners, “One thing we were really happy about this project is that we were able to include the young children of each family we worked with to participate in this project through observing and helping the set-up of a black yak-hair tent and listening to their parents and grandparents talk about life experiences and traditional material culture. It was a great learning experience not only to us, but also to the young children. For instance, several young children were fascinated with the black yak-hair tent when it was pitched, and they played in it and asked their parents and grandparents questions about it. In [another village], a 20-year old young man joined in the interview we conducted with his grandfather and said, `I didn’t know that my grandfather is so knowledgeable until today.’ To sum up, in this project we managed to document Tibetan nomad material culture. We recorded people talking about a wide range of topics, covering traditional social organizations, social rules and roles, herding culture, religion, grassland fencing and its impact on people’s lives, and daily rituals. This project is meaningful both in linguistic and cultural terms, and it was also a timely project because many changes have taken place in Tibetan nomadic areas and they have affected people’s ways of life tremendously. Fortunately, we were able to capture some important aspects of the old nomad material culture that is disappearing fast.

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