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Black Necked Crane Project Tibet in Exile:
Report 1

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Kids Visions of Restoration
Speaker Series
Finding Final Vision

John Mcleod, January 21, 2000

A two and a half month environmental theater project based upon Tibet's largest bird, the Black Necked Crane. The project is based at the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) in Upper Dharamsala in northern India. Dharamsala is the home of His Holiness, the Tibetan Government in Exile and thousands of Tibetan refugees. The project works with 150-200 students ages 8-18, who will be the primary troupe members for the production. The process includes direct and indirect involvement of hundreds of others in the school and community.

Tibet is continuing to experience severe environmental destruction due to the intensive extractive operations by the Chinese, the population transfer which continues to tax the environment, the changes in agricultural production, the introduction of toxic substances which include nuclear waste and pesticide use and industrial pollution.

The children exiles will one day re-inherit the environment which had previously been protected by the strong Buddhist view of life. An informed and dedicated population regarding environmental restoration and preservation will be essential for the future of Tibet.

The cost of this project will be $2,000-$2500. These cost will cover the materials, the stipends of student leaders and the two teacher leaders, tools, printing costs, computer time, and the zillion of small cost items which occur daily. There are so many touching moments of this work which we have just completed three weeks of. It has become a wonderful blending of All Species Project approach and Our Children's Earth's 'And Something Happened' ala Giant Story. I think an overview of the project is necessary to contextualize future writings and so I offer the following as an attempt to capture an overview. I hope the more personal observations can come in the future, as the heart is with the relations which we have the pleasure to be developing.

Friday we asked to meet with Jetson Pema, sister to His Holiness and president of all the Tibetan Children Villages. Having just arrived home from many travels, her schedule was packed with people needing to talk with her. In the midst of this, she gave us an hour of her time to talk of the educational needs of their community. We entered her office overlooking the basketball court filled with stilters and supportive onlookers. We are seated and tea is brought in and served us. She is beautiful, calm, very intelligent, and bears a wonderful resemblance to His Holiness. She spends the first ten minutes extolling the virtues of the sawdust stove in the room which uses sawdust as the main fuel providing 8 hour burns with little smoke and great burning efficiency. Invented by a man in Kulu, this efficient stove needs further examination. Her deep environmental concern and knowledge was apparent. She brought him to Dharmsala where he made stoves for one year for all who wanted them. We offered to partner with her in franchising the stoves in the states and she laughingly accepts.

They have not been able to get teachers away from focusing on the textbooks as their primary teaching methodology and so they have resolved to write the textbooks and use them to lead the teachers. "So if the text books say to take your class out on a hike to a natural area, they will do it because the textbook says so."

I won't do her words justice at this point but it was a provoking and appreciated conversation. We left her with Chris Wells' recent article, a promise to bring her resources on Thomas Armstrong and Howard Gardners' work on multiple intelligences, and the intention to come and film her explaining her stove.

The Location
It is Thursday afternoon at the Tibetan Children's Village in northern India's Tibetan-exile community of Dharamsala. It is winter break and the 800 or so children who remain here are the latest arrivals from Tibet. We are at 7100 feet and on the side of and towered by magnificent snow covered peaks. Eagles, hawks, vultures, crows are always visible in the air or swooping to the ground just yards from where you stand. Occasional groups of black-leathered faced Langer monkeys pass by, leaping between trees and onto rooftops. It is a remarkable place- homes of 35-40 exiled children with two adult foster parents per home. All have made it to this haven through dangerous journeys on foot through extremely trying circumstances- all risked for the opportunity to retain or learn their own cultural and religious heritage now denied to them in Tibet.

It is a veritable children’s village with little obvious adult intervention or supervision and the finest children to children and children to adult relationships we have ever seen. How is it that children who have been separated from their parents, families and communities, who come from a culture which has experienced severe repression and genocide, who have personally risked their lives to walk across Himalayan winter routes, and who find themselves in a foreign country appear to be so sane, so healthy, so sweet?

The Studio
We have been given a three-story building to base our studio in. Students arrive early and rush in as the doors open. The top floor is dedicated to the study of the black necked crane. Twenty students are drawing, writing, viewing maps, studying crane pictures. No one says they cannot draw. They focus incredibly well on their work. Two walls are completely covered with cranes which children have been drawing. The ceiling has cranes strung in several directions. What cranes eat, where they live, who eats them. Another wall has the environmental threats depicted since the invasion of the Chinese. Population transfer, pesticide use, channelization of wetlands, deforestation of breeding areas, change in agricultural practices, hunting, and industrial waste are drawn and written about. Another wall has troupe member's drawings and biographies. When I lived in Tibet I… I left because… When I return to Tibet I will… There have been many poignant stories. The majority of the futures depicted are service oriented. "My aim is to be a doctor . I think the work is noble and I will help the poor and needy patients." Dhondup Tsomo, age 11. Or 12 year old Kalsang Dolma who wants to become a teacher and "make the school a temple of learning."

On the second floor of the studio, another group of twenty students are sequencing their visions of how to restore Tibetan freedom and ecological balance. They have just watched a story-figure telling of the production by the student leaders who are now helping them to get their thoughts onto paper. Reading the walls in this room allows you to enter into the minds of these children whose lives have been forced to consider major issues of human destinies. Their thoughts of how they can return to Tibet, how the cranes and other species can be restored to their valued places in the landscape are depicted through drawings and writings on the walls. It has been fascinating to glimpse the hopes and hopelessness, the violent urges, the perception of the strength of nonviolent action, the wishes and dreams of these children for one day being reunited with their families and their country.

Also on the wall is the storyboard of the production which will take place on March 11th, the day following the commemoration of the national uprising in 1959 which led to the flight from Lhasa of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The production will encompass the central playing fields and surrounding landscape of the Tibetan Children's Village, home to 2300 Tibetan refugee children.

The storyboard shows how the 150-200 student troupe will depict traditional Tibetan culture. A massive outline of Tibet will be drawn on the field where the primary production takes place. Fifteen monks from His Holiness' Namgyal Monastery will represent monastic religious life, while 35-40 students and elder former nomads with live sheep and goats will stream from the mountain sides onto the field to erect a nomadic tent, followed by traditional music and dance.

Many of the 35 who have signed up to become nomads in the production have had such a life in their personal background. "We will never be successful in reclaiming Tibet without a nomad population," emphasized Jetson Pema. These 35 nomads will have opportunities over the next weeks to visit Norbulinkas nomadic doll museum and hear more of the lives from nomadic elders, to gather stories of cranes and children's relationships, to learn some of the traditional nomadic dances and music, and to create their costumes for the show.

The Performance as of 1/23/2000
Flute music accompanies the flight of forty stilted black neck cranes onto the field. Choreographed dance takes place until three small cranes leave the main flock and join three young nomads to play together while a traditional white crane song, based upon the 6th Dalai Lama's poem, is sung.

Night chants and calm presides.

Enter Destruction, in the guise of a mammoth skull on the side of a large goods carrier truck with twenty foot outstretched arms and bone hands. Smoke, cacophony of harsh sounds, and the accompanying destroyers- continuing skeleton motif- through large puppeted and four legged stilted. We have begun the discussion of what kind of ritual will be necessary for those students who will represent the Chinese invaders who so brutally engaged in cultural genocide. It is estimate 1.2 million Tibetans have died from the invasion and continued occupation of Tibet. Of the estimated 6,000 monasteries- some holding thousands of monks and untold wealth of religious items and texts, less than 100 survived. These children have inherited the agony of these times and the work of 'acting' a destroyer has real significance in their lives.

Namgyal monastery had a tradition of bone dancers in Tibet which represent the evil of the world- thus the use of skeleton for depicting the invasion. We explore with the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts their participation in the bone dance.

The cranes, the wild creatures, the nomads, and monks are beaten, tied up, killed, and eventually carried away by the good carriers which has left behind the massive death figure.

Protests are carried out against this situation by nuns, students, and elders. As each protest is squashed, red paint will mark spots on the 'map' where major uprisings have occurred.- Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse,etc.

The final scene is clear- a restoration of Tibetan freedom and ecological restoration. His Holiness has articulated how Tibet can become a zone of peace with sustainable systems and close and sensitive relationship with the environment. Built upon traditional relationships between humans and all 'sentient beings', the integrity of the questions which have arisen regarding the restoration of the environment is impressive. It's a remarkable vision and for myself, the best potential on the planet- Where else might such a beautiful system have the chance of gaining a foothold and becoming a model for the world? Under this concept, the Tibetan issue becomes a major global issue for future survival.

Children’s Visions of Restoration
How Tibetans are able to do this remains the question. This essential question has become the essence of the process- All students participating in the production are drawing and writing their personal vision of how Tibet restores its freedom and ecological balance. They are also going into the community and gathering others. Their stories are wide ranging- from 12 year old Tashi Gyatso, “My aim is to become a dangerous group leader. If I become a dangerous group leader I will kill the high rank mans of the Chinese Government. I will kill Chang Zhe-Ming by throw out of the plane and I will give Tibet a new sun rise above the rocky mountains" to "I think His Holiness the Dalai Lama goes to Tibet to speak peace with the Chinese, but they do not want to talk peace. Then we have a hunger strike at the United Nations. We ask for help from powerful nations like the USA, England, Germany, France. So many country leaders write that Tibet was a free country. Tibetans with no weapons but television coverage and letters of support from all the nations return to Tibet with His Holiness. The date is March 10, 2002".

When the TCV schools start up again in March, we are proposing that the whole school will also submit their views of how specifically it can happen. A goal is 2000 visions in an attempt to influence the youth that there are thousands of ways it could happen, instead of no way.

Speaker Series
We have also developed a Thursday afternoon Speakers Series which just started with the President and Joint Secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress speaking to 500 students at TCV on their view of what must happen in order for regaining Tibetan freedom and balance. Upcoming speakers include:
The Acharya Yeshi Phuntsock, the president of the National Democratic Party of Tibet, Tsering Yangkey of the Environment and Development Desk ( an avid crane specialist), Yeshi Togden, the president of Gu Chu Sum, the ex-political prisoners movement, Chokey ot the Human Rights Center, Topden Tsering, the editor of the Bulletin (the governments main magazine), and Lhasong Tsering, whose militant position is well known in this community. We are still awaiting word of getting the Secretary of International Relations and a Geshe to speak from strictly Buddhist perspective.

All of this is done to engage students and the community in exploring the critical issues related to regaining control of Tibet and beginning the critical work of restoration of a landscape which continues to be raped and extracted from.

Coming to the Final Vision
In three weeks time, the core student leaders and staff will choose from hundreds of visions, one which we will depict in the production. We are so fortunate to have these older students and the two TCV teachers working with us four days a week.

Meanwhile, on the basketball court, are 25 stilters playing basketball, loosening up, and familiarizing themselves with the stilts. The selection is coming soon for the best stilters. Currently there are 57 wanting to be one of the 40 black necked cranes in the production. We await 8 year old Gelick who was here stilting on his crippled feet from his recent trek over the Himalayas to McLeod Ganj. He has been hospitalized to try to repair some of the damage. We have saved a leading role if he returns in time.

It is an exciting time and we are so fortunate to be here doing this work. The mixture of cultural preservation, religion based upon non-harm, the political implications, the environmental restoration issues, the working with such a remarkable young exiled community, and the beauty of this setting is profound. The process is working for all of us involved. More time would always be appreciated, but given the eight weeks which we have, it will be enough.

Ngawang Chime wrote, "When Tibet gets its freedom, I will go to the Tibet and free the cranes from the zoo. I will develop the black neck crane production in Tibet".

Funding Support can be sent to:

Our Children's Earth,
c/o Stella Reed
302 Lomita Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico USA 87501

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