Sunday marked a quarter-century for the Institute for Peace Studies in Billings holding its annual “Festival of Cultures” at the campus of Rocky Mountain College, with the institute’s director calling it “by far one of the largest years” for turnout at the day-long celebration.
Quincy Walter estimated that the event drew close to 2,000 attendees who spent the day traveling through five continents’ worth of food, music, art and dancing while they learned about the cultural diversity represented within the Magic City.
“It’s to get our community to understand there are a lot of different cultures here, and we want to celebrate our differences and our similarities,” said Walter, who this January became the new director for the institute.
Vendors were set up along lawn in front of the college’s student center, offering an array crafts and activities for children and adults. The local lodge of the Sons of Norway showed off its 24-foot replica of a Viking ship, while across the way, Yanrong Lamontagne assisted attendees in the creation of Chinese knots, a good-luck charm that another volunteer described as similar in construction to the Celtic “infinity” knot.
Under the “Europe” tent, Clementine Lindley explained how the present-day tradition of colored Easter eggs traces back to the Ukrainian art of Pysanka, and encouraged younger attendees to color their own designs on egg-shaped pieces of paper.
“We want to focus on exposing youth who come here, year after year, to different countries,” Lindley said. “Some of the kids that do this actually have hopes and dreams to visit these countries.”
Maria Isabel Bonilla was born in Cali, a Colombian city of more than 2 million people, and moved to Billings seven years ago to attend Rocky Mountain College. Displaying her paintings in a tent across from the dance stage, she said she hoped visitors to her booth would come away with a more nuanced understanding of her home country — one that doesn’t revolve around a sense of a South American country wracked by violence from drug cartels.
“It gets so much negative exposure, and it’s a beautiful country,” Bonilla said. “There’s a lot of incomplete stereotypes regarding Colombia that are just untrue.”
Her hometown in particular is closely associated with salsa dancing and soccer, she said, adding that her acrylic paintings reflect the “psychedelic” flavor of visual art in the region.
“It’s glittery, it’s metallic and has a lot of extravagant textures,” she said.
Many of those who spent a few hours wandering the stalls and munching on the worldly culinary offerings at the festival were return visitors, following their children as they crisscrossed the lawn to get their paper “passports” stamped at each country- or region-specific vendor.
Jackie Thielen, a Billings resident, said despite the gusty winds that began blowing in by the afternoon, the weather was better than previous years beset with relentless heat or late-spring storms. She stopped by the festival on Sunday with her husband, her mother and her nearly 1-year-old daughter.
“Just seeing it every year, the different activities that they have, it’s very family-oriented,” Thielen said. “It’s just something nice to do.”
Walton said she was proud to have been able to expand the event’s offerings to include native cultures from North America, with the Northern Cheyenne Color Guard performing during the opening ceremonies, along with dancing and drumming groups that also included Crow Nation performers.
She’s already been speaking with some tribal members about adding a “teepee rising” ceremony to the entertainment schedule at next year’s festival, along with a Native American booth.
“We have high hopes and aspirations for next year,” she said.