At street parades, hotels and cultural events on St. Croix, you might encounter colorfully masked and costumed stilt dancers reaching some twelve to fourteen feet in height, known as Moko Jumbies. These entertainers perform synchronized, skilled and complex acrobatics, often balancing and jumping on just one stilt. While the secular aspect of this tradition is very much alive and enjoyed by many, it is important that we do not lose sight of its larger significance, and its intricate ties with our roots, rebellion and resilience.
The culture of the Virgin Islands is constructed on a very solid African foundation, with a variety of European influences. This fusion has produced a unique Caribbean hybrid that clearly demonstrates cultural inclusion. In many West African traditions, connection with the ancestors is a deeply embedded belief that the enslaved brought with them to the New World. One role of the Moko Jumbie is to guard and protect culture, thus preserving these spiritual connections with our ancestors. Today, the best way we can preserve our culture, is by living it.
The purpose of the exhibition “Moko Jumbies: Guardians & Protectors,” is to both educate and entertain the public with regards to the history and development of Moko Jumbie stilt dancing in the United States Virgin Islands – through lectures, performances and several genres of artwork.
What or who are Moko Jumbies?
The words “moko” and “jumbie” can be interpreted in several ways depending on who you speak to. “Moko” can be characterized as one who mocks or battles with unpleasant spirits. The word “jumbie,” often refers to a spirit, also known as a duppy or a ghost. Moko Jumbies are believed or experienced as real for many, even to this present day.
In African traditions, the tall entity on stilts represented the powers of God and is a spiritual guardian of the village. A Moko Jumbie is the only one able to reach and to drive away evil spirits, by mocking them with supernatural, magical powers. Another interpretation involves the Moko Jumbie as a medium, able to communicate with the ancestors, and relay messages to the living. One sociological role they played in villages was to frighten young children into adulthood. These stilt dancers wore costumes that completely covered their bodies from head to foot, so villagers were not aware of the identity of the person assuming the Moko Jumbie role.
This exhibition invites visitors to ask and answer the following questions:
- Who are my ancestors and how do I honor them daily?
- How do I, and the community as a whole, call on these ancestors to protect us from senseless crimes and various infractions?
- What is my responsibility to my ancestors and to my community?
Each of us has the potential of becoming a Moko Jumbie and we can ask ourselves:
- How are we preparing?
- Are we on point?
- Can we balance?
- Do we know how to fall and get back up?
- Can we prance and dance on stilts, while demonstrating ease, grace and agility?
This multi-media exhibit is a reminder that spirit is not outside of us. Rather, it is an internal realization and acceptance of our divine nature and lineage, with its first roots in Africa that are now firmly planted here in the soils of St. Croix. Reflecting inward, we see thus, that Moko Jumbie is the ancestor, the mediator, and the entity who guides us through dreams and other signs – for the sole purpose of protecting, guarding and directing us through our next phase of life.
Thank you to Opal Palmer Adisa and Willard John, curators of the “Moko Jumbie: Guardians & Protectors” exhibition, for preparing this eloquent post. Thank you also to David Goldstein, Chief of Interpretation at the National Park Service, for envisioning use of the Steeple Building as a platform to share local art and culture. The exhibit is now showing through Saturday, May 18th at The Steeple Building National Historic Site in Christiansted. The exhibit will also be open for May 16th’s Art Thursday from 5-8 pm.