By Patrick Muller
In February, I traveled to a small Moravian village near the Slovakian border to attend an age-old rite of spring, now loosely encased in religious garments, celebrating a silver anniversary of that rite viewed from a modern, and slightly commercial, consciousness.
That I was in Strani, participating in the famous sword dance, and not a few kilometers over in Vlcnov, celebrating the even more-heralded “Ride of the Kings,” is a fact of cultural dyslexia — the details too embarrassing to admit here. But I was in the right place to get what I was after — one of the brightly red and handmade wooden swords used in the Strani dance.
On a Saturday, amid a nearly weeklong festival, multiple Czech and Slovak folk troupes brought their talents to parade through the streets. The star spectacle, of course, was the contingent of Strani dancers and musicians and their simply but elegantly choreographed sword dance.
When I arrived, Mayor Ondra Benisek had a sword and a day’s worth of partying waiting for me. I met the swordmakers and a swordmaker’s brother, who’s been instrumental in bringing, through social media, Strani to the world.
I wanted to collect the sword because it represents a creative push by Strani to reinvent itself for the 21st century by honoring a tradition that extends backward into other centuries. As Bohemian and Moravian immigrants came in waves to Eastern Iowa generations ago, I like to collect Czech artifacts and nurture Czech interactions, especially ones that are not just Prague-centric, to keep Czech-Iowa connections vibrant, robust and relevant.
The artifacts I donate in Eastern Iowa. I have brought prints of Liberec-area artist Marek Hofman and donated them to a national repository of Slavic culture in Cedar Rapids. I have brought the ceramics of Marie Docekalova to a historian/community advocate in southern Iowa as a microscopic but enduring contribution to a biennial fundraising event that helps to restore and maintain a small-town opera houses.
Artifacts, as homebodies, are integral agents in sustaining community. Artifacts, as travelers, are diplomats, teachers and intermediaries — for their culture — to the world. They are sentient, organic, and living entities for all intents and purposes. (For all their beauty, their truth emerges from their human interaction and meaning.)
They are meant to be enthusiastic guests, acclimating as immigrants. They are not meant to be inanimate trophies, buffered by display case glass and surveillance cameras, only to be gawked at.
The Strani sword would like to be much more than a stick stuck on a wall, collecting dust. The Strani sword desires to find an institutional home where the staff recognizes it as a sentient, interactive being — an ambassador of cultural renewal, community dreams and contemporary Iowa-Czech dialogue.
The Strani sword wants to visit school assemblies and corporate boardrooms, participate in local rites of passage, and parade from one revitalized Cedar Rapids neighborhood — across a funky, flower-bedazzled bridge — to another revitalized neighborhood, accompanied by neighbors playing catchy music and wearing colorful costumes.
The Strani sword is happy to live all year in a private home, just as it would in Moravia, but it would jump in a second at the chance to live in a cultural repository that understands the profound difference between classifying the artifact as a human treasure with cultural personhood (as all artifacts are) and classifying the artifact as only a decorated splinter of dead tree, “pilfered” from some thinly connected, distant and strange place.
Patrick Muller, of Hills, a native Iowan and a recipient of two Iowa Arts Council grants, has lived in the Czech Republic and has served on the Iowa Cultural Coalition board. Currently, he serves on the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission and is a member, since 2003, of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org