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Ringing in their New Year: Karen hold ceremony at HHS

Posted: Monday, Jan 14th, 2013

A guest speaker explains the history of Karen New Year’s Day. In the next photo, youth group dancers perform traditional Karen dances, holding a small American flag, celebrating the unity of Karen and American cultures and values. And next, the youth group performs a culture performance at the Karen New Year’s Day celebration. PHOTOS BY KARA GUTORMSON/PLAINSMAN

HURON — Turnout was high for the fourth annual Karen New Year Celebration on Saturday at the high school. The Karen people of Huron rang in their new year by giving speeches, singing songs and performing dances, both in traditional and contemporary styles.

The first celebration of the Karen New Year was in 1938. That was when the Karen people were officially granted permission from the British administration to commemorate their migration from Mongolia to Burma with a national holiday.

The Karen New Year is marked not by a day, but by a period. The beginning of this period varies each year according to ‘Pyathoe,’ when thanks is given for the year’s harvest of rice. The Karen New Year is exceptional in Karen culture in that it is celebrated by all the Karen ethnicities and religions.

“It’s a way to welcome in the new season,” explained Mark “Smokey” Heuston, a guest speaker from Dakota Provisions a major employer of the Karen community. “This is also a way to teach their children about their culture,” he said. “Especially for the families who’ve had children born in refugee camps, this is their way of showcasing their history.”

Heuston spoke at the event and he pointed out the positive impact the Karen people have had on the community of Huron.

“We now have members of the Karen workforce in 17 different businesses in Huron,” he said. “Very few people realize the actual effect that you have had on the total economy of Huron. We are one of the only cities in the state, in the nation, for that matter, that has shown consistently large increases in sales tax dollars five years in a row.

“I did some figuring, and at Dakota Provisions alone, you’ve earned $51 million since you came to Huron. And since most of you shop locally, that amounts to millions that you have spent here.”

He went on to talk about housing numbers.

“The Karen currently own between $13- to $15-million worth of houses, and in 2013 alone you should be paying about $300,000 in property taxes,” said Heuston.

He also noted that as much as $5 million has been spent on cars purchased in Huron.

“The economic impact the Karen people have had on Huron is mind boggling.”

Currently in the Huron School District, one out of every 4.5 students is enrolled in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class, Heuston said. “Several years ago, due to our enrollment decreasing, we were in danger of being dropped out of the Class AA school size,” he said. “But now that is not the case.”

In past years, said Heuston, very few Karen students were involved in extracurricular activities. “This year, we have Karen youth in music, drama, wrestling, cheerleader tryouts and soccer,” he said. “One youth even made the all-state soccer first team, and several others made the second team.”

One thing he constantly hears from people in the Huron community is that the Karen need to learn English. “I checked at the Cornerstones Career Learning Center, and this is what I found. Since 2008, 691 Karen have signed up for English classes. And Cornerstone currently averages over 100 adults a day in their English classes,” he said. “And right now, Cornerstone Career Learning Center has 17 adults enrolled in their citizenship class.”

Heuston concluded by telling the attendees to keep up the good work. “Do you have some things to learn about living in America? Yes, you do. But it’s no different than what would happen if a Huron citizen moved to Burma or Thailand.”

Huron Police Chief Gary will was another guest speaker at the celebration. Will mentioned some of the upcoming projects the City of Huron will focus on in 2013, the biggest being the Central Park project. “That’s going to be finished this year and we look forward to having the new swimming facilities,” he said. Will also said the police department will be adding a bicycle patrol in 2013. “We will have two officers riding bike around town,” he said. “This should make it easier for people to contact those officers.”

Heuston and Will both said they were honored to speak at the event. “I think the citizens of Huron that attended really enjoyed their dances and uniforms,” said Heuston, adding that he hopes more will attend in the future.

“The organizers went all out this year. They raised over $7,000 to put this on, and each family donated money.”

For the complete article see the 01-13-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-13-2013 paper.

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