Douglass Library exhibit tells story of 400-year journey of Kalmyks
March 8, 2017
Six years, two books, and a Smithsonian display later, “From Pastoral Nomadism to Global Urbanism,” the latest exhibit at Douglass Library, is open to the public. But that’s just a scintilla of the time and effort spent by the exhibit’s feature—a nomadic group of Mongols whose storied journey spans about 400 years and three continents.
The Kalmyks, a part of the Oirat Mongols who fled Western Mongolia to Russia in the mid-17th century to the United States after World War II, are the subject of the exhibit, embodying the spirit of “global urbanism,” said exhibit facilitator and Rutgers American studies professor, Angus Kress Gillespie.
Gillespie, who is also the director of the New Jersey Folk Festival, a large outdoor annual craft, food, and music fair that helped to launch Rutgers Day, said it was the 2011 festival that sparked his interest in raising awareness about the Kalmyks in New Jersey.
“The New Jersey Department of State recognized 113 ethnic groups in New Jersey,” Gillespie said. “What many people don’t realize is that the receiving station for immigrants was Ellis Island, so New Jersey was a port of entry for immigrants—that’s why New Jersey is one of the most ethnically diverse states.”
Each year, the New Jersey Folk Festival highlights the culture and traditions of one of those 113 ethnic groups. The festival board of directors chose in 2011 to feature the Kalmyks and celebrate their multipronged expedition from Western Mongolia to a republic within the Russian federation called Kalmykia—and finally to Europe and the United States.
“We’re always on the lookout for ethnic groups that have an interesting culture and are willing to be featured at the festival—their dancers, singers, storytellers,” he said.
Gillespie said that accomplished American studies students are the driving force behind the coordination and facilitation of the New Jersey Folk Festival—Gillespie and the festival board review, interview, and select 14 promising students to plan, market, and run each year’s festival. For their participation in the course, students receive three credits, real-world job experience, and a rich knowledge of the festival’s chosen cultural group as a result of faculty mentored research.
“Stemming from the field work on the Kalmyks for the 2011 festival, two books were published addressing various aspects of Kalmyk culture by folklorist, Nikolai Burlakoff,” Gillespie said. “After the publication of those two books, a scholar in Kalmykia asked the folk festival to preserve the work for future study by Kalmyk scholars.”
Gillespie and Burlakoff approached now retired Rutgers special collections archivist Ronald Becker to pitch the idea of archiving Kalmyk material from the emigration to the present day at the university libraries—and the Kalmyk Diaspora Archiving Project (KDAP) was born.
“This archive … is the story of how the Kalmyks have all moved to Kalmykia, then to the United States—how they’ve become urbanized from a pastoral nomadic group,” Gillespie said.
The transformation was complex. The Kalmyks established a settlement in Russia in the 1600s and commingled with neighbors until the end of World War II, when the Stalinist regime forced the Kalmyks to Siberia—where many perished under harsh conditions.
Until then, Burlakoff described the Kalmyks’ deep culture of “clannishness,” where different sub-ethnic groups of Kalmyks tended to look at each other as outsiders.
“There were even tensions within clans of Kalmyks, and there wasn’t necessarily positive feelings toward other clans,” Burlakoff said. The mass deportations to Siberia, of which the Kalmyks were a part, left deep scars on the Kalmyk community—but from that shared tragedy arose a unified community.
“It helped to eliminate the clannishness that separated them,” Burlakoff said. “And they were quite lucky, in terms of numbers, to help establish this unity.”
About 500 families of Kalmyks settled in refugee camps in Germany, and made a decision, as a group, that they would be resettled together “or not at all,” Burlakoff said. Eventually, they sought refuge in the United States, but were at first refused due to the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924.
“In some ways, what is happening today is a replay of the past,” Burlakoff said, describing the efforts of nonprofit organizations and legal teams that eventually led to their entry into the United States.
It wasn’t until 1951 that many of the Kalmyks emigrated to the United States—in particular, to Howell, New Jersey. Burlakoff said that they gravitated to the area after a real estate agent suggested it.
“In the 1950s, Monmouth County was filled with chicken farms. Some of the Kalmyks worked on these farms, while others worked at factories in Patterson,” he said.
There is even a relationship to Rutgers–some of the Kalmyks, he said, worked at neighboring consumer goods powerhouse, Johnson & Johnson, headquartered in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and their children and grandchildren studied at the university.
The KDAP aimed to capture this recent history; but the idea for a public exhibit actually came much later, Gillespie says, with a little help from fate.
“The Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA Centers) released a notification inviting proposals that address the theme of global urbanism,” Gillespie said. “I’m sitting on my computer, I see the proposal, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow. That’s the story of the Kalmyks, how many of them abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and moved to cities to pursue more sedentary lives.’”
The GAIA Centers and the New Jersey Council of Humanities awarded Gillespie with funding to present the KDAP in the form of an exhibit. Burlakoff curated the exhibit, with the aid of Sonia Marie Waskin, who designed the graphic banners for the exhibit—a core element that will allow the exhibit to travel.
“Waskin dedicated herself fully to ensure the quality of this exhibit even though she had many other important commitments to attend to,” Burlakoff said. “We very much appreciate her obligation to this project–she played a huge role in bringing this to life.”
Other parts of the exhibit featured media from Kalmyk Legacy, a free online documentary series highlighting the complexities of Kalmyk life, history and culture through the medium of storytelling.
Dechen Kelden and Tenzin Wangchuk Tasur, the two-person multimedia team behind Kalmyk Legacy, are deeply involved in the preservation of their Kalmyk and Tibetan cultures. Though Kelden is half-Tibetan, she was born and raised in a Kalmyk New Jersey community, her mother's family being amongst the first group of Kalmyks to immigrate to the United States in 1951.
“There are many similarities between Kalmyks and Tibetans, including our nomadic lifestyle, clothing, food, art and shared religion of Tibetan Buddhism,” Kelden said. “The historic and continued relationship between the Kalmyks and Tibetans dates back to Genghis Khan's grandson Koten, the first Mongol patron of Tibetan Buddhism."
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she traveled to Kalmykia where she conducted interviews with survivors of Stalin's deportation in the 1940s.
"I wanted young Kalmyks in America, including people like myself, to learn about our history so we could establish a historical context to better understand our families and ourselves," said Kelden.
Gillespie said that nearly 80 Kalmyks attended the exhibit’s opening reception in January 2017, and were able to view archival materials and videos about Kalmykian change-makers, courtesy of Kalmyk Legacy; plans are underway to mobilize the exhibit and feature it in public spaces throughout New Jersey.
“The exhibit is not a million dollar exhibit,” Gillespie said. “It’s a modest project with a rather large impact—a lot of bang for the buck.”