Portland newcomers celebrate New Year with traditional music, dance, and food

Learn more about the ‘Karen people’ who now call Portland their home …

Hundreds of Portland’s Karen people gather in the Ron Russell Middle School commons as a New Year Celebration gets underway.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

On the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, at the David Douglas School District’s Ron Russell Middle School in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood, is usually locked up while teachers and students are on vacation.

But, the lights were on, and music was in the air from this outer East Portland school building on December 27, as hundreds of Portland’s Karen people came together to celebrate the New Year.

Performers with Thulay Youth United, in traditional celebration dress, await their turn to perform traditional dance a dance known as “Don”.

To hear it said, the name of this friendly and proud ethnic group sounds like “Kuh-REN” – similar to a woman’s name – and it’s the Anglicization of the word of their native language.

The Karen people – their homeland “Karen State” being a strip of land in southern Burma – have been fighting a sixty-year civil war against the Burmese military regime for autonomy and cultural rights. Between 2005 and 2011 almost seventy thousand refugees from Thailand, most of them Karen, were resettled in other countries, including the United States – many of them in the greater Portland area.

On stage, reading greetings from their homeland and from other Karen People around the world, is Chig Chig.

To start off the program, Chig Chig read greetings to those gathered, sent from their homeland, and from other Karen people, now scattered around the globe. “We bring greetings and encouragement as they celebrate wherever they are, all over the world,” he said.

All who were asked pointed to a man named Moses as their media spokesperson.

“We are here celebrating Karen year 2754,” Moses told East Portland News. “We have a word for it in our language, but it does not translate into English. It just means ‘celebration of the new year’.”

Community leader Era Sern spends a moment with Moses during the Karen New Year Celebration.

Like many cultures, the Karen people hold several major celebrations during the year. “But especially for us this, is our highest celebration of the entire year,” Moses remarked.

Important to this celebration, he said, are both traditional and modern Karen music, “and especially today we have three different traditional dances. Another part of it is a banquet – lots of good customary food.”

As this group sings in their native language – backed up by guitars, and a solid rock beat – many in the audience sing along with the group.

Neighbors were invited to attend their celebration, Moses said. “Being a minority here, we want our neighbors to know about us and about our culture. Please get to know us because even in Portland, and throughout the United States, many kind people don’t even know what the Karen people are, that we are a group, that we are a people.

“We would like people to know, and to show them that we are a [unique] people from near Burma. Even when we were in Burma, we were not Burmese – we have always been the Karen people.”

In dance and song, these young people keep their celebration traditions alive.

Hundreds of Karen people gather to celebrate the New Year.

Moses introduced Era Sern, an elder in their community. “I work to help people and our community to understand how to do things, here in this country,” Sern said. “This might be like helping a person apply for benefits, or taking care of questions that come up in different offices we visit. I also work as an interpreter for people in our Karen community.”

The best part of the celebration for him, Sern said, “is to let the Karen youth get to better know their heritage and culture. Our hope is that they remember and take forward our culture with them, in their future.”

Celebrants are served a traditional Karen banquet – one of the most important features of this annual festival.

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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