University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Studying traditions is her way of life
     Driven by an intense fascination with humankind, Rachelle
"Riki" H. Saltzman spends her days-and many nights-listening to
people's stories, photographing their rituals and recording their
performances. As a folklorist, Saltzman, Delaware '77, studies
the traditional cultures of Americans.
     Meat packers. Doctors. Firemen. Musicians. Quilters. Cooks.
These are all people whose stories and skills have fascinated
     Hired in February 1995 as director of the folklife program
for the Iowa Arts Council, Saltzman has spent the past 16 months
surveying Iowa's residents. The result of her hard work, an
informative and entertaining extravaganza that highlights
traditions throughout the predominantly agricultural state,
appeared at the Smithsonian Institution's 1996 Festival of
American Folklife.
     "Festivals take people's skills and knowledge and put them
on a stage. They make the every day into something special,"
Saltzman says.
     The festival featured signage on and performances of
everything from dance, music and girls' basketball to John Deere
workers assembling a tractor. A myriad of demonstrations involved
more than 100 Iowa residents, representing professions as diverse
as medicine and tool and die making.
     Presented on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the last week in
June and the first week in July, the festival also featured
folklore of the South and of workers from the 150-year-old
Smithsonian Institution. The Iowa extravaganza was then re-staged
and expanded at the Sesquicentennial Festival of Iowa Folklife,
held in late August in Des Moines.
     "At festivals, you showcase everyday folks so other people
see that what they do is important and really valuable," says
Saltzman, who majored in history at Delaware.
     Folklorists study the informal, taken-for-granted knowledge
and skills people learn from their families, occupational and
ethnic groups during the course of their everyday lives, Saltzman
     "Looking at people's traditions gives us an understanding of
how we function as a society. If you look at people just in terms
of statistics and big sweeping trends, then you don't hear their
stories and get to understand them. In this day and age, when we
don't understand each other and worry about differences, this
kind of work is really critical," says Saltzman, who also holds a
master's degree in history and a doctorate in anthropology and
folklore from the University of Texas at Austin.
     Designed to encourage communication between individuals,
folklife festivals steer away from huge stages or vast
auditoriums. Instead, they encourage people to talk one-on-one.
     "We want to look at diversity, not difference," says
Saltzman, who lives in Des Moines. "If we all realize that each
of us has something to offer and that there is diversity in
offerings, then we might not get so wound up about drawing battle
     Responsible for determining what should be highlighted in
the festival, Saltzman spent months talking to hundreds of Iowa
residents. Together with Smithsonian curator Catherine Hiebert
Kerst, she developed a network of more than 60 field researchers
who interviewed and photographed about 600 people throughout the
state. The field researchers- academics and "community scholars,"
people with a deep knowledge of their community-helped Saltzman
and Kerst uncover a wealth of information about traditions
throughout the state.
     "The Smithsonian said we had twice the number of field
workers and twice the number of supplies of any other program it
had ever presented," she says.
     Saltzman first identified her love of traditional culture
while working on a research project for a folklore, history and
media course at Delaware in which she interviewed and
photographed watermen on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
     "That was when I really learned that history and cultural
traditions are not just found in a library. They are what people
are out there doing and living," she says.
      The extensive research done for the folklife festival also
will be used to develop an Iowa Folklife Resource Guide and a
Folklife-In-Education Kit. The resource guide will provide
teachers, arts councils and chambers of commerce with an
extensive list of Iowa museums, festivals, events and folk
artists. The education kit will include lesson plans, activities
and videotapes.
     "By bringing this information into the classroom, you really
make traditional culture come alive," Saltzman says.
     Now, Saltzman is waiting to hear about the future of her
job. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts,
her two-year position is scheduled to end next spring, but the
Iowa Arts Council hopes to make the position a permanent one.
                               -Marylee Sauder, Delaware '83