Nov. 26, 2012 (3)

I am a self-described Traveller-Gypsy. My family’s surname (on my birthfather’s side) is Boswell, a well-known English Gypsy name. But, more than that, I instinctively followed a Traveller-Gypsy path every step of the way since I was 27 years old, well before I ever heard of Judith Okely.

The Traveller-Gypsies is a book by Judith Okely that was published in 1983 (Cambridge University Press, England). Okely studied the English Gypsies. I discovered her book sometime in the 1990s.

I have highlighted special areas of interest to me in this review of The Traveller-Gypsies from Amazon:

Synopsis

In this book Judith Okely challenges popular accounts of Gypsies which suggest that they were once isolated communities, enjoying an autonomous culture and economy now largely eroded by the processes of industrialisation and western capitalism. Dr Okely draws on her own extensive fieldwork and on contemporary documents. The Traveller-Gypsies is the first monograph to be published on Gypsies in Britain using the perspective of social anthropology. It examines the historical origins of the Gypsies, their economy, travelling patterns, self-ascription, kinship and political groupings, and their marriage choices, upbringing and gender divisions. A detailed analysis of pollution beliefs reveals an underlying system which expresses and reinforces the separation of Gypsies from non-Gypsies. Explanations for beliefs are sought in their contemporary meaning as opposed to their alleged Indian origin. None of these aspects are analysed independently of the wider society, its policies, beliefs, and practices. This book will be invaluable for teaching purposes, both as a study of a Gypsy community per se, and for its discussion of the problems involved in carrying out fieldwork within the anthropologist’s own society. It will also interest the general reader and the academic specialist; social anthropologists, sociologists, historians, geographers, planners and all those concerned with minority groups.

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What Okely suggests is that many groups of Gypsies, English Gypsies, for example, have sprung out of the native, English population, specifically from disenchanted members of the proletariat who dropped out of society, preferring a life of travel. They are not “exotic” people, like the Romany Gypsies.

For many years, I’ve been meeting people in the US who fit this description of Traveller-Gypsies. I fit into this group myself.

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The Irish Travellers also sprang out of the ethnic population in Ireland. See below (from Wikipedia):

Irish Travellers (Irish: an lucht siúil) or Pavee are a traditionally nomadic people of ethnic Irish origin, who maintain a set of traditions[1][2] and a distinct ethnic identity. Although predominantly English speaking, some also use Shelta and other similar cants. They live mostly in Ireland as well as having large numbers in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

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Michael Stewart cites Okely’s research in his book, The Time of the Gypsies, a study of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe (1997, Westview Press, Boulder, Co.). Stewart’s research was done over 18 months in 1984-85.

(Later, I’ll get the book out of the library (again) and quote Stewart on Okely’s conclusions about Gypsy ethnicity in countries like England.)

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What defines a Gypsy? I believe it is travelling, not ethnicity. The wandering tribes from India which used to be on the road all the time have largely settled down; today, a new group of people are travelling and are the new Gypsies.

Here’s a quote on travelling (from h-net.org/reviews of the Stewart book):

“Although most Gypsies in Eastern Europe don’t travel (less than one per cent) and almost all these Gypsies work for wages, they manage to distinguish themselves as a group within wider society.”

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from a website called Euroheritage.net:

The Gypsies in history and today, treated as Europe’s “public enemy”
by James Mayfield (Chairman, European Heritage Library)

This article is about the Gypsies, also called the Roma, Romani, and Sinti, who populate Eastern Europe. They are easily the most unique minority in Europe, and one of its oldest immigrant/nomadic identities. Popularly reviled by most Europeans, they are perceived as a tremendous source of social plight, theft, prostitution, drug trafficking, disease and petty crime. Growing human rights concerns are greatly conflicting with inextricable inter-ethnic conflict that has endured for centuries.

Negative perceptions and hatred for the Roma are virtually universal among Europeans.

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I lived in Ojai, California for ten years, and I visited there often during the past twenty or more years. Last summer (2012) I joined an online group called “Ojai Job Board.” A local mover-and-shaker in that group shunned me once she realized I had no home; she considered me someone who  was not to be trusted as a housesitter even though she knew some friends of mine who recommended me. This woman perceived me as someone not worthy of her friendship simply because I am a traveller. Prejudice against travellers by sedentary people is very common, world-wide, and it definitely does not apply only to ethnic Gypsies (eg., Rom or Sinti). It is based upon xenophobia, a fear of the stranger or anyone who is “different” and whose very presence among them challenges the norms, beliefs, and values of the settled group.

 

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