Speaker shares personal accounts of cultural preservation

The All-College Hour Speaker on Wednesday Nov. 18 was photojournalist  College Communications Manager of Editorial Services Kris Dreessen. Her multimedia presentation “World of Wander: Living with People with Disappearing and Under-Documented Languages, and Sharing Stories That Highlight the Power of Everyday People” primarily focused on her time working with indigenous populations in Kenya, Senegal and Australia. Dreessen was featured partly in recognition of International Education Week. In addition to critical acclaim for her photos and work with indigenous people, Dreesen has received multiple recognitions from state and regional organizations for her work as editor of Geneseo’s alumni magazine Geneseo Scene. In 2014, however, Dreessen remarked that she “caught wanderlust” and decided to travel with linguists to other countries.

Dreessen began her journey in Kenya with Pomona College professor and linguist Michael Diercks. With the Bukusu people, they were allowed to witness a circumcision ritual; a ritual that is crucial to the Bukusu path to manhood. Dreessen noted that “there were so many people that it shook the ground.”

Dreesen explained that the ritual is typically not shown to Westerners—especially not to Western women—but the Bukusu tribe made an exception. “They are proud of this tradition and they want it preserved,” Dreesen said.

In her presentation, Dreeseen emphasized how preservation was as large part of her motivation to work in these people’s areas. “My role was to create an intimate snapshot of the people and the communities with whom the linguists work,” she said. “What’s important to them? What’s left by the wayside? Who is telling the traditions and stories?”

Besides preserving cultural rituals, Dreessen added that she also worked to preserve and document dying indigenous languages. Specifically, she spoke of one Australian Aboriginal man she worked with, Brian Champion. Champion is the last living speaker of Kaalamaya, a native language.

Dreessen detailed her experiences working with Champion on his language and on Aboriginal recognition. Champion told her about the importance of language preservation. He said, “With language, you have yourself, you have something and you have your identity. I want people to know that we’re still here.”

She also described the last day she spent with Champion. “He told me that he had Alzheimer’s and that in a few months all the language would be gone,” she said. “He said, ‘When we lose language, we lose culture, we lose knowledge and we lose how things are done.’”

Besides stressing the importance of language preservation, Dreessen also spoke about her belief in the power of individuals to do good. “If you want to have change in the world, go be it,” she said. “You can have small resources and still make a big difference.”

Dreesen showed pictures of people in the areas she went to that she believed showcased this ability to do good; from a couple in Kenya who adopted and supported a teenager to a group of teenagers who put together a dance floor to raise the spirits of their earthquake-ravaged city. “Your ability to change the world is closer than you think … change ricochets and radiates out,” she said.

“[Dreesen is] the coolest person I’ve ever encountered,” sophomore Gabby Pereira said. “The presentation was really cool and I’m obsessed with languages.”

Sophomore Madelyn Rupp likewise described the event as a “cool presentation on disappearing languages and cultures.”

Dreessen sought to impart how beneficial world travel was in her life. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, it was awesome and even in the [bad] times, it was a bit awesome” she said.

She concluded with a PowerPoint slide that said, “Today, we make the world smaller.”

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